Now's the time for Cardinals


Why the Cardinals could win: They have the best team in the National League. They lead the league in runs scored; their middle of the order is one of the best that the postseason has seen in recent years. They have four, 15-game winners for the first time since 1944. They lead the NL in bullpen ERA. They have a terrific defense. They have a Hall of Fame manager, Tony La Russa. They haven't been to the World Series since 1987. It's time.

Why the Dodgers could win: The Dodgers rarely beat themselves. They've made the fewest errors in the major leagues, eight fewer than the Phillies. They have the best record in the major leagues in one-run games, 32-16, partly because they have a great closer. And given that in the last week, they've won four games in which they trailed in the eighth inning or later -- including that astounding 7-3 win Saturday that clinched the NL West title -- it's time to acknowledge that maybe something special is happening in LA.

Late Innings: The Cardinals' bullpen has a 3.01 ERA, lowest in the major leagues. It has pitched the fewest innings in the league, which suggests that it might be relatively fresh for the postseason. Jason Isringhausen saved 47 games. The set-up men, including Steve Kline, Ray King, Kiki Calero, Julian Tavarez and Cal Eldred, have brought the game to Isringhausen. The Dodgers have the second-best bullpen ERA (3.06) in the major leagues. Eric Gagne is marvelous. The set-up group indeed misses the traded Guillermo Mota, but his replacement, rookie Yhency Brazoban, has been very good. He throws hard, he throws strikes, his delivery is slightly deceptive and he doesn't seem to be bothered by pressure.

Style Points: The Cardinals are a relentless offensive club that attacks in so many ways: they can bludgeon teams with power -- second in the league in homers -- and they're second in the league in stolen bases. They have no dominant starting pitcher, but their fourth and fifth starters were better than anyone else's. And they play the game the right way. The Dodgers are playing very un-Dodger like baseball, that is, they don't have their usual terrific starting pitching. They win with bullpen, bench, amazing defense (especially in the middle infield with Cesar Izturis and Alex Cora) and an offense led by MVP candidate Adrian Beltre. Plus, winning 67 percent of your one-run games is a good sign.

Head-on: The Cardinals won four of the six games played against the Dodgers during the regular season, including a three-game sweep in St. Louis in early September. Cardinals pitcher Matt Morris threw his best game of the season against the Dodgers, a two-hit shutout with 11 strikeouts in the first game of the series on Sept. 3.

X-Factor: Cardinals right fielder Larry Walker has played in four postseason games in his career, none since 1995 with the Rockies. He is 37 years old. This is his chance to get a ring, and, having been lost in Montreal and Colorado, to show the nation how great he can be. Jeff Weaver has been one of the Dodgers' two best starters this year; he will start Game 2. After his disastrous 2003 season with the Yankees, which included giving up a game-winning home run in the World Series, there will be questions about him in the postseason again. However, he clearly has been a different, more confident pitcher away from the glare of New York.

Pivot Men: For the Cardinals, it's Woody Williams. St. Louis' only possible weakness is not having a dominant starting pitcher. Williams will start Game 1, and, if necessary, Game 5. He is a tough, gritty, veteran who has postseason experience. He has pitched very well the last month until his final start Sept. 27 at Houston when he allowed eight runs in three innings. For the Dodgers, it's Milton Bradley. He is a very good player who did a very stupid thing, losing control of his emotions (again) and getting himself suspended for the final week. Now he's back. Where is his head? Any rust? What will the fan reaction be? Those are key questions for a guy who is a big help to this team, but only if he is thinking clearly.

Nagging Injuries: The Cardinals will be without Chris Carpenter, a 15-game winner, for the first round of the playoffs. Scott Rolen is back after missing nearly two weeks with a calf injury. Steve Kline is also back after missing a few weeks with a groin injury. Both Rolen and Kline seem to be OK. Gagne missed a couple of days with bursitis and tendinitis in his right shoulder. He says he's OK now, but he has to be 100 percent if the Dodgers are going to advance. Brad Penny was supposed to be a key piece, but he's unlikely to contribute in the playoffs.

Writer's Block: It would be foolish to discount the Dodgers, especially with the way they've played during the last week. But the Cardinals won nine more games than anyone in the NL for a reason: they are either solid or spectacular in every phase of the game, and appear to be rested having clinched so early. And they begin and end at home. CARDINALS in five.

Tim Kurkjian is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine and a regular contributor to Baseball Tonight.