NLCS preview: Sizing up Cards, Brewers

The St. Louis Cardinals and Milwaukee Brewers, who open the NL Championship Series at Miller Park on Sunday afternoon, have been down the postseason road before.

The last time, however, it was for the world championship.

This time it’s for the NL pennant and the right to advance to the World Series. The Brewers are looking to become the first team to appear in the World Series as a member of both leagues. The Brewers moved from the AL to the NL in 1998 to keep both leagues with an even-numbered membership when baseball added two expansion teams — Tampa Bay in the AL and Arizona in the NL.

The previous time these two teams met in the postseason, in 1982, the Cardinals prevailed in seven games against the AL-champion Brewers, even though Milwaukee’s Paul Molitor set a World Series record with five hits in Game 1 and Robin Yount became the first player to have two four-hit games in one series.

This time, the Brewers have a solid lineup, built around Ryan Braun and Prince Fielder, but the attention has been on a rotation with three aces — offseason additions Zack Greinke and Shaun Marcum, plus holdover Yovani Gallardo.

The Brewers won the NL Central. St. Louis overcame Atlanta to claim the NL wild card. This is the 11th time since the advent of the wild card in 1995 that two teams from the same division have met in an LCS, the sixth time in an NLCS and the third time involving St. Louis.

Houston, then the wild card, knocked off St. Louis for the 2005 NL pennant, a year after the Cardinals beat the wild-card Astros.

The 2005 Astros are one of four wild cards to beat a divisional rival to win the LCS battle. Colorado beat Arizona in the 2007 NLCS, Boston beat the New York Yankees in the 2004 ALCS en route to a curse-busting World Series title, and Florida upset Atlanta in the 1997 NLCS on its way to winning its first world championship.

Can the Cardinals repeat in the postseason showdown, or will the Brewers prevail this time?

NLCS schedule: Games 1 and 2 at Miller Park on Sunday and Monday; Games 3, 4 and, if necessary, 5 at Busch Stadium on Wednesday, Thursday and Friday; and, if necessary, Games 6 and 7 at Miller Park.

How the Brewers got here: Milwaukee won the NL Central, finishing six games ahead of St. Louis. The Brewers spent 100 days in first place, but it was a struggle early. After losing the series finale on May 8 and two of three from a weekend series with the Cardinals, the Brewers were a season-worst six games below .500 and a season-high 5-1/2 games out of first place. But it took Milwaukee merely one month to briefly reclaim the division lead on June 12, then the Brewers grabbed the Central lead for good on July 27 and ended the season winning 42 of their final 59 regular-season games. Brewers went 57-24 at home during the regular season, and 3-0 at Miller Park in their best-of-five success against Arizona in the NL Division Series.

How the Cardinals got here: St. Louis claimed the NL wild card, rallying from a 10-1/2–game deficit on the morning of Aug. 26 to clinch the postseason berth with an 8-0 win at Houston on the final day of the regular season. Key for the Cardinals was a July 27 deal with the Blue Jays that brought starter Edwin Jackson and reliever Octavio Dotel in a multi-player deal in which center fielder Colby Rasmus was the centerpiece player sent to Toronto. The Cards went the full five games to upset Philadelphia in the NLDS, capped by Chris Carpenter’s 1-0, Game 5 win at Citizens Bank Park on Friday night.

Arms race: The Brewers spent the offseason adding Greinke and Marcum to a rotation that features five starters who won in double figures, and used only six starters all season; Marco Estrada made seven starts. Closer John Axford finished the regular season with 46 saves in 48 opportunities, converting his final 41 chances, but he blew a one-run lead in ninth inning of Game 5 of the NLDS, although the Brewers rallied to win in the 10th. The team ranked seventh in the NL with a 3.63 ERA, sixth among rotations at 3.78 and fifth among bullpens at 3.52. Kyle Lohse led the Cardinals with 14 wins, but he’s a definite back-end starter and figures to get only one NLCS start — in Game 4. The Cardinals ranked just behind Milwaukee with a 3.74 ERA and were eighth among rotations at 3.81 and 11th in bullpen ERA at 3.73. Season-opening closer Ryan Franklin was released after 21 appearances and an 8.46 ERA. Jason Motte, a converted catcher, assumed the ninth-inning role.

At the plate: The Brewers lineup is built around the 3-4 punch of right-handed-hitting Ryan Braun (33 home runs, 111 RBI) and left-handed hitting Prince Fielder (38 home runs, 120 RBI). Casey McGehee (.223 avg in 546 ABs) was a major offensive disappointment for a Brewers team that led the NL with 185 home runs but finished fifth in runs scored with 721. The Brewers ranked third in the NL with a .268 average with runners in scoring position. The Cardinals have a lineup in which SS Rafael Furcal (.231) is the only regular who hit below .283. The Cardinals led the NL in runs scored (762), overall average (.274) and average with runners in scoring position (.290). They struck out fewer times (978) than any other NL team.

Earlier this year: The teams split 18 games, but the Cardinals won five of the last six, including a three-game sweep at Miller Park Aug. 30 to Sept. 1. Albert Pujols led the Cardinals with four homers and 12 RBI. Matt Holliday also had four home runs. Rafael Furcal had five homers against Milwaukee cumulatively between time with the Dodgers and the Cardinals, who acquired him at the trade deadine. RHP Kyle McClellan, left off the NLDS roster, split time between the bullpen and rotation with the Cardinals but was 2-0 with a 2.03 ERA and .204 average allowed against Milwaukee. Corey Hart had five home runs and 15 RBI against St. Louis, and Prince Fielder had three home runs and 11 RBI. Randy Wolf, the likely starter in Game 3, went 3-2 against Cardinals despite a 5.34 ERA.

FYI: Braun, with 33 home runs and 33 stolen bases, and Matt Kemp of Los Angeles, 39 home runs and 40 stolen bases, were the only 30-30 players in the NL . . . Braun and Fielder combined for more home runs (71) and RBI (231) than any other NL duo. Albert Pujols and Lance Berkman of St. Louis ranked second with 68 home runs and 193 RBI.

Prediction: Brewers in six games.