The Dodgers were supposed to be here. The Cardinals? Well, it seems they're always here, doesn't it?
When Los Angeles visits St. Louis for Game 1 of the National League Championship Series on Friday at Busch Stadium (airing on TBS), two storied franchises and two powerhouse 25-man rosters will be on display.
Storied franchises, indeed. The origins of both teams date to the 1880s, and they are tied for the third-most World Series appearances -- 18, behind the Yankees (40) and the Giants (19). So the winner will pull even with the Giants for second place on that list.
Despite the history, this will be only the second time the Dodgers and Cardinals will meet in a best-of-seven playoff series, something that has been possible since 1969, when the NL (along with the American League) was reconstructed into two divisions. In their first best-of-seven meeting, the Cardinals, then an NL East team, won the 1985 NLCS in six games. This will be the teams' fourth overall postseason series against each other, following Division Series matchups in 2004 (won by St. Louis) and 2009 (won by Los Angeles).
From the beginning of the 2013 season, projecting these two clubs in the final seven-game hurdle for the pennant wasn't difficult. But a 162-game grind and the Division Series round is always tough, and both teams enter this fray as battle-tested survivors who have proven their worth over the long haul.
Yes, the Dodgers have a huge payroll, but they also have surprise contributors who became integral over the course of the six months of the season. They'll lean on some of those, including firebrand rookie outfielder Yasiel Puig, to try to take the home-field advantage away from the Cards early by winning Game 1.
And they'll be looking to starter Zack Greinke to play a huge role in that success. Greinke fared well in his lone postseason start this year, going six innings and giving up two runs on four hits in Game 2 of the NLDS in Atlanta. Unfortunately for Greinke, he was pulled in the seventh inning for a pinch-hitter after throwing only 83 pitches because of the game situation.
Unfortunately for the Dodgers, while veteran Michael Young, the pinch-hitter, got a hit, it didn't lead to a run and the Dodgers and Greinke went on to take the loss -- their only one of the series.
"It's late in the game, a guy in scoring position and one of the best hitters of his generation," said Greinke, who happened to be the best hitting pitcher in the NL this year. "It might be our last chance to get a run. Definitely can't knock the decision in my opinion. The goal is to win, not make the pitcher happy."
Greinke can make the Dodgers happy if he duplicates that outing or pitches to his 15-4 record and a 2.63 ERA from the regular season.
Meanwhile, the Cardinals are rolling, and they're back at home for another go at the pennant, which eluded them in a crushing seven-game NLCS loss to the eventual World Series champion San Francisco Giants last time around.
In the champagne-soaked aftermath of their Game 5 NLDS triumph over a tough Pittsburgh team, there weren't many specifics regarding Game 1. Those were to come after a celebration.
But Cards third baseman David Freese, a past postseason hero who dialed up some dramatics with a key early two-run homer in Wednesday night's 6-1 clincher over the Pirates, was pretty sure about a few things.
"It's going to be a blast," Freese said. "It's going to be fun. St. Louis and L.A. going at it. Obviously, they're a great team. ... It's going to be huge. It's going to be a lot of fun."
Dodgers: Wilson a factor again
Former Giants closer Brian Wilson has not only come back to baseball after a second Tommy John elbow surgery with the same absurd beard, he's got life on his fastball and is starting to dominate hitters in a setup role. Wilson appeared in three of the four games against Atlanta and pitched three scoreless innings, striking out four.
"You feel like he's going to get lefties and righties out," manager Don Mattingly said. "He's showing his velocity keeps creeping. We've found out that this guy doesn't throw the ball over the middle of the plate very often. He's got weapons for righties and lefties. He throws the ball where he wants. He's been tremendous for us."
• Another weapon of Puig's, other than the thunderous bat, lightning speed and powerful arm, is his maturity. In addition to hitting .471 in the NLDS, Puig's on-field smarts impressed.
"I was really proud of him this last series," Mattingly said. "A lot of good decisions from Yasiel this last series. He made a couple of hard turns at first where he didn't go, and it was the right play. I saw him hit the cutoff man a lot. We saw patience at the plate for the most part through the series. Just really proud of him."
• More Wilson: He owns a 0.00 ERA (zero earned runs in 14 2/3 innings pitched) in 13 career postseason games. He struck out 16 in 11 2/3 innings during San Francisco's 2010 World Series run and was successful in six of seven save opportunities in the 2010 postseason, including the strikeout of Nelson Cruz to pick up the save in the Giants' 3-1 win in the clinching Game 5 of the World Series at Texas.
• Outfielder Andre Ethier, who didn't start any of the NLDS games against the Braves, showed encouraging signs at Thursday's workout, and he could start Game 1. Mattingly said that would be a game-time decision, but he liked what he saw from the left-handed-hitter the day before the series opener.
"For me, it looks like a possibility [he could start]," said Mattingly. "He's not going to be 100 percent, but close to it. He's got to be able to make the plays in the outfield. And the baserunning is the big question."
Cardinals: Kelly to take ball
The Cards will send right-hander Joe Kelly to the hill opposite Greinke. Kelly, who started Game 3 of the NLDS against the Bucs on Sunday and gave up three runs -- two earned -- in 5 1/3 innings in a no-decision, will be going on four days' rest.
Manager Mike Matheny opted for Kelly over Lance Lynn, who would have been on six days' rest but likely didn't inspire much confidence after giving up five runs on seven hits in 4 1/3 innings at home in St. Louis' Game 2 loss to the Pirates.
"Yeah, Joe's earned this," Matheny said in announcing his decision on Thursday. "He started off this season, and I've said it many times, he showed us so much and earned our respect coming out of Spring Training in a fight for that fifth spot."
• Freese is rounding into his typical postseason form at the right time. He entered Wednesday's night's NLDS clincher 2-for-13 in the series, but with his home run, Freese now ranks third in franchise history in postseason home runs (seven), RBIs (29) and multihit games (10).
"He's a big-time player in big-time moments," Cards ace Adam Wainwright said. "That's what we expect of him, and that's what he continues to deliver."
• Expect to see Pete Kozma at shortstop in Game 1 of the NLCS ... and beyond. Kozma started Game 5 of the NLDS, made terrific plays in the field and contributed an RBI hit as well.
"I don't think people give him the credit he deserves for the kind of player that he is," Matheny said. "We love having him out there. ... You can see the plays he's making, especially when he goes in the hole -- he makes that play about as good as anybody in the league and continues to impress us with how he handles big situations like this."
• Dodgers shortstop Hanley Ramirez has gone 8-for-16 (.500) with four doubles, a triple, a homer and six RBIs through his first four career postseason games. Ramirez played in 1,095 regular-season games in nine big league seasons before playing in his first postseason game.
• How's this for a First-Year Player Draft? In 2009, the Cardinals selected two of their starters (Miller, first round, and Kelly, third round), their starting second baseman (Matt Carpenter, 13th round), their closer (Trevor Rosenthal, 21st round) and their best bench hitter (Matt Adams, 23rd round).