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Cards expect another classic NLCS

Cardinals expect another classic NLCS

ST. LOUIS -- David Eckstein wasn't in St. Louis last October and none of his Cardinals teammates have mentioned much to him about the classic battle in the National League Championship Series with the Houston Astros.

No one had to. The highlights Eckstein watched said enough.

"The way Jimmy [Edmonds] hit the home run in Game 6, and making the catch he made in Game 7 -- it just seemed like every one of those games was so intense," Eckstein said. "Home-field advantage was a real key, so you definitely have to be ready to play."

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Now, Eckstein is eager to dive into the rematch. He is one of several key players who either were not a Cardinal last fall or were not playing in the series because of injuries. While some of the names have changed on both sides, the rivalry is growing into a classic battle.

"Everyone plays real hard [when the teams meet], no cheap shots, just real competitive baseball," Cardinals manager Tony La Russa said.

The Astros won Game 4 of the NL Division Series against Atlanta in dramatic fashion. The teams played 18 innings before Chris Burke hit a walk-off solo home run for a 7-6 win.

Houston was forced to use two of its regular starting pitchers, Brandon Backe and Roger Clemens among eight total pitchers. Despite having to use so many pitchers, the Cardinals expect the Astros to be rested and at full strength for Wednesday.

"It worked out perfect for them," La Russa said. "They get two days off. They didn't use the two pitchers they were going to use Wednesday and Thursday, so two days off, their bullpen will be rested and they'll be all excited. They're going to be ready to go."

What will give the rematch an extra edge are the pitching matchups. Last season's series was dominated by hitting, when the two teams combined to score over nine runs a game.

"You are going to have two outstanding starters every game," La Russa said.

The addition of Andy Pettitte for the Astros and Chris Carpenter and Mark Mulder (all three of whom did not play in the series last year) for the Cardinals will keep the series entertaining.

"It's a special burden on the offense to do something this series," La Russa said.

Game 1 will feature Pettitte vs. Carpenter -- both sat out the 2004 playoffs with injuries. Carpenter has been the driving force for the Cardinals this season, finishing 21-5 with a 2.83 ERA. Between June 14 and Sept. 18, Carpenter did not lose a start in a total of 18 games.

Pettitte was part of the Astros' three-headed pitching attack that also featured seven-time Cy Young Award winner Roger Clemens and All-Star Roy Oswalt. Clemens (1.87 ERA) and Pettitte (2.39) finished 1-2 in the NL in ERA. Oswalt finished seventh (2.94) while Carpenter finished fifth.

"The addition of Andy is big for them," Carpenter said. "They've always had a great bullpen. They have a team that knows how to play the game, they take quality at-bats and play the game the right way. It's fun competing against a team like that, knowing that they're a lot like us. They go out and do the little things to win. They're going to pitch, bunt, play defense and do everything it takes to win."

The Cardinals won 11 of 16 games against the Astros this season, but each time it had the intensity of a game played in October.

Some of the highlights from the season series include a 10-inning complete-game, 1-0 victory by Mark Mulder over Roger Clemens on April 23. There was also a walk-off home run by Albert Pujols in the 13th inning on July 15, a game the Cardinals won, 4-3, and a walk-off RBI single by Houston's Eric Bruntlett in the 13th inning on Sept. 2 to give the Astros a 6-5 win.

"They pitch so well," Cardinals reliever Julian Tavarez said. "Morgan Ensberg and Craig Biggio have been a big key to the team. They are where they are because they have been doing the right thing."

The Astros began the 2005 season far from contending for a pennant. Part of that was adjusting to the loss of Jeff Kent and Carlos Beltran as well as not having Lance Berkman during April because of an injury. The Astros relied heavily on pitching, and in the second half, Ensberg and rookie center fielder Willy Taveras have stepped up their roles.

"Early on without Lance Berkman, that really stretched their lineup, and then after Berkman got back in the lineup and Morgan got hot ... I think they are very much like last year," La Russa said. "You can look at Beltran one way and Taveras [who replaced Beltran in the outfield] another, but the team plays together and they play well together."

Stephen A. Norris is a contributor to MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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