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Cards' thoughts turn to NLCS

Cards' thoughts turn to NLCS

SAN DIEGO -- With the champagne flowing and flying around the Cardinals' clubhouse Saturday night, a few thoughts of the National League Championship Series began floating around somewhere.

But it was mostly about the champagne.

The first game of the NLCS won't come until almost four days from the end of Saturday's 7-4 sweep-clinching victory in the NL Division Series over the Padres, so there's plenty of time for the Cardinals to prepare for the NLCS.

At the time, the Cardinals didn't know whether it would be the Atlanta Braves or their 2004 NLCS foes, the Houston Astros, that they'd welcome to Busch Stadium on Wednesday, when St. Louis begins its fourth NLCS appearance in six years.

It turned out to be the Astros, after an 18-inning thriller Sunday, but as of Saturday night the Cardinals were blissfully unaware of who their opponent would be.

"I'm just happy we're playing one of those two teams," leadoff man David Eckstein said amid the champagne celebration. "That stuff, you don't really think about. You want to go out there and play the game. I feel very fortunate to be part of it."

The Cardinals are part of it after a dominating performance against a Padres team that finished 82-80 in the regular season and proved overmatched by the different modes of attack St. Louis possesses.

The Astros, who won the NL Wild Card on the season's final day with an 89-73 mark, appear better suited to handle what the Cardinals bring to the table.

Overall, the Cardinals were 11-5 against the Astros in the regular season, including a 6-2 mark at home and 5-3 at Minute Maid Park. The Cardinals finished 100-62 to give them an 11-game margin over Houston for a fifth NL Central title in the last six years.

The Cardinals and Astros met for a seven-game thriller a year ago, with St. Louis clinching its first World Series appearance in 19 years as the home team won every game, including the Cardinals' 5-2 clincher at Busch Stadium.

Among other things, what the four-day lull provides is a chance for the Cardinals to set up their pitching just how they like it.

That means Chris Carpenter will be ready for Game 1 on Wednesday, but Cards manager Tony La Russa wasn't saying much beyond that Saturday night.

A big part of the reason for that is that lefty Mark Mulder's status is still a little up in the air, depending on how he continues to heal from the bruised upper left arm he suffered when drilled by a Joe Randa line drive in Game 2 of the NLDS.

"Chris gets [Game] 1, and I think there's a real question where Mulder fits in," La Russa said. "It'll be a little different, depending on whether it's Atlanta or Houston. There's a couple matchups there we like better one way than the other."

Mulder was dominant against the Astros this year in three starts, including a 10-inning shutout in April and two eight-inning jobs, but had one three-inning bomb, combining for a 1-1 mark and 2.48 ERA vs. Houston this year.

But, of course, a lot depends on how he heals up from the bruised arm.

The extra days can also give the elder statesmen of the outfield -- left fielder Reggie Sanders, center fielder Jim Edmonds and right fielder Larry Walker -- ample time to freshen up for the NLCS, and the bullpen will be fully loaded by then as well.

As the Cardinals literally soaked in the first of what they hope are three champagne celebrations this October, the old cliché went from one day at a time to one goal at a time.

Next goal: the NLCS.

"Our goal is to get to the next round and win, and then be able to move on from there," Carpenter said.

John Schlegel is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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