The best team in the National League faces the team that barely slid under the playoff garage door before it slammed shut. The Cardinals' pitching looked a lot better against the Padres last week than it did for most of September, but the Mets' offense was one of the best in the NL this year.
When the Mets are up
• When Chris Carpenter's not the starter for St. Louis, look for lots of Mets circling the bases. None of the Cardinals' other three starting pitching candidates, all of whom are right-handed, has a solid weapon to get left-handed batters out. St. Louis can't use Carpenter for three starts because they started him on regular rest on Sunday in the clinching game against San Diego, meaning that Jeff Weaver (who allowed a .669 slugging percentage to lefties this year) and Anthony Reyes will both have to get starts. Even Carpenter has some weakness against lefties, but not to the degree of his rotation-mates. The Mets' lineup can have three of its first four hitters and six of its eight hitters hitting from the left side, which gives them a huge advantage.
• If it comes down to matchup baseball in later innings, the Cardinals will have at least two lefties in the pen to use as specialists, while the Mets did not carry a right-handed-hitting outfielder on their NLDS bench.
When the Cardinals are up
• This is suddenly an impatient lineup, with Albert Pujols standing like an island of hitting competence among a number of hackers and slap-hitters. The Mets' only real strike-throwers among their starters are John Maine and Tom Glavine, so the unstoppable force of Steve Trachsel and Oliver Perez will meet the immovable object of Preston Wilson and Juan Encarnacion.
• Expect some run-manufacturing from Tony La Russa, especially if Scott Rolen is relegated to spot duty due to his sore shoulder. Look for more attempted steals, sacrifices, and hit-and-runs as part of an effort to jump-start the depleted offense.
• Pujols may not get much to hit if his only protection is Jim Edmonds. Right or wrong, teams are increasingly pitching around Pujols, and Edmonds' performances since returning have made it appear that he's not fully recovered from his concussion. Willie Randolph might decide it's better to put Pujols on first and face Edmonds than risk letting Pujols go yard.
Keys for the Mets
• Getting four good innings from their starters every night. The Dodgers' offense was better than the Cardinals' offense this year, and if the Mets could beat them with four or five good innings from each starter (or even not-so-good, in Trachsel's case) and a Johnny Wholestaff approach from the bullpen, they can also beat the Cardinals that way.
• Keeping the bullpen rolling. The Mets got great performances from Aaron Heilman, Billy Wagner, and Pedro Feliciano, and mostly good work from Guillermo Mota. Those four guys will be called on repeatedly in this series, so they'll need to pitch well and be able to pitch often.
• Executing on offense. The Mets have a strong offense, and the platoon advantage favors them heavily when the Cardinals' starters are on the mound. They need to score early before the Cardinals' resurgent late-game bullpen gets involved.
Keys for the Cardinals
• Deploying the lefties. The Cardinals carried two lefties in their NLDS pen; they should consider adding lefty Chris Narveson for the NLCS, although if the lefty-heavy Padres lineup didn't convince them to carry Narveson, the similarly lefty-heavy Mets lineup probably won't. The Mets are slightly less scary against lefties, with Carlos Delgado and Shawn Green most vulnerable. La Russa loves matchup baseball; he needs to have the weapons.
• Contributions from unexpected sources. Someone besides Pujols has to show up at the plate; the Mets are too good for Pujols to beat them by himself. It could be Edmonds or Rolen, but it could easily be Scott Spiezio or Ronnie Belliard, too. Someone has to have the unexpected good series, the way Sean Casey did for Detroit against the Yanks.
• Avoiding the blowout. Obviously avoiding a blowout is a goal for any team, but there's a heightened risk of a blowout for the Cardinals in this series because of their weak starting pitching, the Mets' good lineup, and the already-discussed platoon disadvantage for St. Louis' arms. The Cardinals must keep games started by Suppan-Weaver-Reyes close, because any or all of the three are at risk of an implosion against the Mets' offense.
This matchup really favors the Mets, as the Cardinals don't have the left-handed starter to serve as Kryptonite for New York's Superman one-through-five hitters. The Cards' offense is mostly limited to Pujols, with Edmonds clearly not 100 percent and Rolen also not healthy. Carpenter can beat any team on any night, but he can only start twice in this series, and beyond him, the Cardinals are at a disadvantage in any pitching matchup. Mets in five.
Keith Law, formerly the special assistant to the general manager for the Toronto Blue Jays, is the senior baseball analyst for Scouts Inc.