LOS ANGELES -- This is just the third time that the Dodgers and Cardinals have met in a Major League Baseball postseason, and some fans on both sides might recall that hearts were broken at Dodger Stadium in those two previous occasions.
The Dodgers took the first two games of the 1985 National League Championship Series behind Fernando Valenzuela and Orel Hershiser, but the Cardinals came back and won the next four to reach the World Series. It was an NLCS remembered for two ninth-inning homers off Tom Niedenfuer -- Ozzie Smith's walk-off in Game 5 at St. Louis ("Go crazy, folks, go crazy!") and then Jack Clark's three-run shot at Dodger Stadium.
Five years ago, the teams met in the NL Division Series, and the Cardinals took the first pair at Busch Stadium. The series moved to Los Angeles, and it was "Lima Time," as Jose Lima threw a shutout in a game that saw fans going wild over their first postseason involvement in eons. But that joy was short-lived, as Jeff Suppan clinched it at Dodger Stadium.
Now what can we expect? Dodgers fans are sky-high right now after seeing their team find a way to beat Chris Carpenter, one of the top two NL Cy Young Award candidates, in the 5-3 opener of the NLDS on Wednesday night at Dodger Stadium. At 6:07 p.m. ET today, the Dodgers face the other top Cy Young candidate in Adam Wainwright. Either Dodgers fans are going to be in absolute ecstasy over getting past the toughest 1-2 punch in this postseason, or Cardinals fans are going to be relieved to take one of two with the intent on repeating some history.
"Wainwright is a good pitcher. You never know, but more chances than not he's going to be really good out there," Andre Ethier said after going 2-for-3 with a run scored against Carpenter. "He will get guys off-balance, he's got a good curveball, good fastball, and he's able to mix it up and throw things for strikes. It's going to be a tough battle, but we'll figure it out."
Carpenter and Wainwright followed each other in the Cardinals' starting rotation 18 times this season, and only once did the team lose successively in any of their starts: June 25 to Mets and June 26 to Twins. Carpenter hopes that accounts for something now.
"I hope so. Absolutely," Carpenter said, after explaining a Game 1 outing in which he lived on the middle of the plate and off the plate, two places you don't want to be as a pitcher. "[Wainwright] had a quality year. It's been that way all year long. Hopefully he can come out [in Game 2] and pick it up. It didn't work out the way I wanted it to work out tonight, but Adam will be prepared, I know that. He's been prepared all year, and he'll be prepared this time."
At the age of 21 years, 203 days, Clayton Kershaw will become the 11th youngest pitcher to start a game in the playoffs when he takes the mound for Game 2.
Age (Years, Days)
You weren't really sure what to expect in the opener from two teams that had strong seasons but a case of the late blahs at the end. Neither Albert Pujols (0-for-3 plus two intentional walks) nor Manny Ramirez (1-for-4) was much of an offensive factor, something that figured to be key in this series. And you definitely weren't expecting a postseason record of 30 combined men left on base. The Dodgers set a record by themselves by stranding 16, breaking the record of 14 set by the Padres in Game 3 of the 2006 NLDS against the Cardinals.
When asked if that is a concern going into today's game, Dodgers manager Joe Torre said: "No, not this time of year. To me, I felt we applied a lot of pressure, but when you have the best teams in baseball out there, their pitchers know how to get out of jams, and I'm happy to say that ours did, too. So that really doesn't concern me. All it tells me is we're getting opportunities. And you certainly want to cash in on more, but you have to understand who you're playing, too."
The matchup of probable Game 2 starters is as stark in contrast as the shadow that will be creeping over the sunny infield for a late-afternoon start. It's baseball's present and its future. Wainwright led the NL with 19 wins. Clayton Kershaw is 21, the Dodgers' youngest postseason starter since Valenzuela in 1981, and is beginning to blossom, having just rescued the Dodgers with a timely outing in their clinch game.
Kershaw used the word "differently" over and over during his pregame interview session with media on Wednesday, as in he does not plan to treat this game any differently than his previous outings. The Dodgers are careful to help keep his approach that way.
"I'll probably be nervous, for sure," he said. "I'm nervous every time I pitch. I think it's how you handle the nerves, how you channel it, how you can use it to your advantage sometimes. Get the adrenaline going. Maybe throw harder or have better break on your breaking balls -- just depends on how you use it, I guess."
Wainwright is pitching a postseason game for the first time since he threw the final pitch of the 2006 season. Back then, he was a closer. Now he is here as one of the frontline aces. He came up big in that classic pennant clincher at Shea Stadium -- when he buzzed a strike three past Cardinals-killer Carlos Beltran with the bases loaded in the bottom of the ninth -- and then retired Brandon Inge for the final out of the '06 World Series at Busch.
He sees some of Kershaw in himself back then.
"As a reliever, as a greenhorn reliever, I didn't know what to expect or how to go about anything. I just followed everyone else. I was a young guy," Wainwright recalled. "That's what you do. You make sure you're on time and you follow some veteran somewhere doing something, whereas now I've been to the playoffs one time only but we went all the way, but I know what to expect. I know what the crowd and the opposing team's going to try to do, and I'm just going to go out there and try to make pitches."
Wainwright has faced pressure with aplomb in the past, but he will have plenty more of it now. Not many people would have expected the Cardinals to fall into an 0-2 hole after starting Carpenter and Wainwright back-to-back. But nothing is for sure in this game. One need only look back to the 2003 NLCS, when the Cubs left Florida knowing they had the security of Mark Prior and Kerry Wood back-to-back for the final two games at home. Prior imploded less than two innings away from the World Series, and then the Marlins beat Wood in Game 7 to advance.
Matt Kemp, who hit a two-run homer in the first inning to start the Dodgers' momentum against Carpenter, is enjoying the early lead, though there isn't a whole lot of time to think about it. The Dodgers also have beaten Tim Lincecum, the Giants' 2008 Cy Young Award winner, who is seen as an outside candidate for this year's award. Beating Carpenter just added to the confidence going into this one, Kemp said.
"It makes us feel we can beat any pitcher out there," Kemp said. "That's the mentality you're supposed to have as a team. We definitely did that tonight. We got another tough pitcher tomorrow, and hopefully we can do the same thing, have the same approach and just have great at-bats and do everything all-around as a good team."
The postseason history between these teams says to not take anything for granted. But at least one old postseason hand likes what he sees so far.
"We knew coming in that [Carpenter and Wainwright] have had wonderful years," said Jim Thome of the Dodgers. "You do your preparation, your homework. Ultimately you go out and you try to battle, and we did that. We did that against, let's face it, probably one of the top two or three pitchers in the game right now. He's had a wonderful year. To do that at home and lift us up like that was big. Hopefully it will keep the momentum going for us."
Mark Newman is enterprise editor of MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.