Cardinals' familiar challenge: Beat MLB's hottest pitcher

CHICAGO -- Wow. Here it comes, that pivotal National League Division Series duel America has been waiting for.

In one corner, you have the St. Louis Cardinals, those noted October giant-slayers. In the other, you have the hottest pitcher in the solar system, a man who has lost once in the past three months. What a game. What a matchup. What a ...

Oh, wait. That was the storyline LAST year this time -- when we couldn't wait to see what happened when the Cardinals took on a gentleman named Clayton Kershaw. And this year, whaddayaknow, here we go again.

Can't wait for Monday in the late-afternoon shadows of Wrigley Field: the Cardinals versus Jake Arrieta and the Chicago Cubs. Other than the ivy, it sure does feel familiar.

"I swear, it feels like it's déjà vu," said Cardinals leadoff man Matt Carpenter on Sunday, on the eve of this dramatic Game 3 showdown. "Just facing a different guy."

Different guy. Different year. But it really is crazy how much these storylines resemble each other.

Arrieta is on one of the most insane, unhittable rolls we've witnessed in this sport in decades. But a year ago, remember, so was Kershaw. We compared him to Sandy Koufax, handed him both an MVP award and a Cy Young, and wondered where his season fit among the greatest of all time. Ring a bell?

Now, Arrieta's team has gone 18-1 in his past 19 starts. And that feels as if it ought to be impossible. Except ... anyone want to guess the last time a team had a record that good over that many starts by any of its pitchers? Yessir. It was just last year, when the Dodgers were rampaging into October with a record of 20-1 in Kershaw's previous 21 starts.

Well, you know what happened. Kershaw allowed a mind-blowing EIGHT runs to the Cardinals in Game 1, then came back four days later and let a seventh-inning lead evaporate in another crushing loss in Game 4. And that was that. For his year. And his team's.

It was more, however, than just a statement on how little October can resemble everything that preceded it. It was a reminder that, even for the greatest pitchers on earth, postseason baseball is a whole different animal. And Jake Arrieta, spectacular and unbeatable as he has been, would never dispute that.

"I think that your weaknesses and your mistakes are exposed at a level maybe slightly above where they would be in the regular season," he said Sunday, when we asked him if the October experiences of Kershaw and David Price were a reminder that anything can happen this time of year. "Everybody's attention to detail, everybody's focus, is at such a high level that when those little mistakes are made, the opposing lineups are able to capitalize on it."

In the regular season, Arrieta theorized, there's a higher likelihood that a pitcher -- and especially an ace -- can get away with a mistake or two. But not in games that mean as much as these games mean.

"It's a little bit different in October," he said. "It seems like [the hitters'] mentality is in that sweet spot where ... they're not really fazed by anything. Sometimes it happens with momentum changes in the game, the atmosphere, the crowd noise. But everybody is pretty locked in at this point in the season. And that's why the good teams still remain."

But there are "the good teams." And then there are the Cardinals. Beating aces in October is what they do. If you're not familiar with their work, let's recap it for you: In 2011, it was Roy Halladay and Cliff Lee. In 2012, it was a white-hot Kris Medlen, and then Jordan Zimmermann, Madison Bumgarner and Matt Cain. In 2013, it was Gerrit Cole and Kershaw. In 2014, it was Kershaw yet again. And "we even had Madison [Bumgarner] down in the NLCS last year," Adam Wainwright reminded us Sunday -- before Travis Ishikawa rewrote that script.

So the Cardinals have been there. They've done this. And they've lived to high-five against every one of those hallowed aces. Which means that nothing about facing the Cubs' unbeatable man will feel either new or intimidating for this group.

"That's the way this goes in the postseason," Carpenter said. "You're not going to face a No. 5 starter. You're going to get the best guy. And most of the time, you're going to get him twice. Fortunately, we're only going to have to face [Arrieta] once. But we're going to have to find a way to beat him."

Oh yeah. That reminds us of one more thing. The Cardinals are one of the six teams that did beat Arrieta this year. Of course, that happened way back on May 7, before Arrieta got his Bob Gibson mojo working. So when Arrieta was asked about that loss Sunday, he said, tersely: "I don't remember anything about it." And Carpenter swept those memories under his rug even more abruptly.

"This is a bigger stage," he said. "All that regular-season stuff doesn't matter anymore."

What will matter, he said, is how successful he and his cohorts can be at grinding at-bats, running up Arrieta's pitch count and taking advantage of their opportunities to score -- assuming he's human enough to let them have a few.

History tells us they've done those things before. Many times. Against the best of the best. So let's just say the Cardinals are well aware of the vibe that surrounds this game all over Chicago -- that the Cubs can't lose. Because Jake Arrieta is on the mound.

"You know what? If anything, I'm on the opposite side of that," Carpenter said. "If you go this long, history says you're due for something not good to happen. That's just the way it works. You can't hit 1.000 as a hitter. You can't throw a perfect game every time you go out there to pitch. So if anything, he's due for the opposite."

Then again, we've been saying that for weeks now. And it's been almost four weeks since Arrieta even allowed a run. So it sets up maybe the most fascinating showdown of this entire postseason.

It's the ultimate ace versus the ultimate ace-beaters. On center stage at electrified Wrigley Field. And there's way too much October history in the air to forget that anything -- truly -- can happen.