In three games last week at Busch Stadium, the Cardinals lost the first two to the Padres and only won the third because Cla Meredith threw a fastball intended to run in on Albert Pujols out over the plate and Pujols hit it into Illinois. The Cards are a mess right now, while the Padres are playing well and are about as healthy as a team can be at this time of year.
When the Cardinals are up
• A smart pitcher can carve this lineup apart. Other than Pujols, there's no tough out in the lineup, and getting Pujols to the plate with no one on is imperative but also feasible.
• Scott Rolen and Jim Edmonds should be dangerous hitters, but neither is at full strength right now. Rolen has been in a funk for weeks, and his timing appears to be off; his problems had even started to creep into his fielding last week. Edmonds is still recovering from a concussion, and it's not clear how fully recovered he is, and he has also been ineffective against lefties this year.
• The rest of the Cardinals' lineup is likely to struggle against the Padres' pitching. They're not selective, while the Padres' starters move the ball around and command the strike zone. The Cardinals didn't see Jake Peavy last week, so they don't even have the benefit of two looks in a short period of time to help them beat him in Game 1.
• The Cardinals don't have good team speed, but they'll try to take the odd base or two against Mike Piazza when he's behind the plate.
When the Padres are up
• The Padres are a much better offensive team against right-handed starters, and the Cards don't have a lefty they can throw at San Diego. Look for a big series from Adrian Gonzalez, Brian Giles and Dave Roberts.
• The Padres' hitters are patient as well, and they're catching St. Louis at a time when all of the Cardinals' starters are having trouble throwing quality strikes. Expect the Padres to work the starter out of each game, then tee off on the Cards' relievers.
• One of the more interesting individual matchups of the series will come when Roberts, one of the best base stealers in the game, reaches first base. Yadier Molina, the Cardinals' catcher, may hit like a pitcher but he throws fastballs down to second base and nailed more than half of would-be thieves this year.
Keys for the Cardinals
• The team that the Cardinals are rolling out there right now couldn't win a playoff series against the Pirates, much less the third-best team in the NL. The biggest problem has been the St. Louis starters, and to win, they're going to have to hope that the extra rest helps give Chris Carpenter back some of the command he's been missing over his last few starts, and that either Jeff Suppan or Jeff Weaver pitches the game of his life this week.
• If Rolen can get his groove back, not only would it give the Cardinals a second useful bat to go with Pujols, it might give Pujols a few more pitches to hit. The same can be said of Edmonds.
• Tony La Russa has to get back to managing the way he always has. He's got a roster full of platoon guys and specialists, which suits his managerial style, but during the Cardinals' slide, he started to miss opportunities to gain the platoon advantage and would try to ride his starters too long.
• If Adam Wainwright gets a save opportunity, he has to convert it. Not only do the Cardinals need the win, but they need Wainwright to be the one stable part in their chaotic bullpen now. If Wainwright blows a save, La Russa is likely to look for an alternative -- and not find one.
Keys for the Padres
• Make 'em chase. The Cardinals have a number of hitters who don't control the strike zone, including Preston Wilson, Juan Encarnacion, Chris Duncan and Molina. Those guys want to get themselves out; Padres pitchers need to just stay out of the way.
• Make 'em throw strikes. Again, the Cardinals' starters have struggled, and their bullpen is a mess right now, with only one guy La Russa seems to trust. The Padres' top hitters usually do a good job of controlling the strike zone, and they can tear the Cardinals' staff apart quickly if they stick to that plan.
• Use 'em right. Get Meredith in the game to face the toughest righties; let Scott Linebrink handle the eighth inning; deploy Alan Embree only in case of left-handed emergency. Their bullpen is good when it's used properly.
Perhaps I'm reading too much into the Cardinals' late-season collapse; perhaps Rolen and Edmonds will show up for the NLDS and hit the way they hit in the first half of the season; perhaps Carpenter just needed a few days off; perhaps Braden Looper and Ron Flores and Brad Thompson will provide the missing bridge between the starters and Wainwright. Perhaps, but I doubt it. Padres in four.
Keith Law, formerly the special assistant to the general manager for the Toronto Blue Jays, is the senior baseball analyst for Scouts Inc.