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Cards won't overlook Dodgers
10/04/2004 9:33 PM ET
ST. LOUIS -- The last time Tony La Russa managed a postseason series against the Dodgers, his club was an Oakland juggernaut that dominated the regular season with 104 victories. They met in the 1988 World Series, and all it took was one miraculous home run from hobbling pinch-hitter Kirk Gibson to give the heavy underdog Dodgers a Game 1 charge on their way to a shocking title.

Now La Russa is managing a Cardinals team that won 105 games in the 2004 regular season, and the 93-69 Dodgers are on the other side as a best-of-five National League Division Series begins at 1:10 p.m. ET on Tuesday at Busch Stadium.

Not that the Gibson reminder was needed, but La Russa knows full well that anything can happen in a postseason series. This one begins with a pitching matchup between right-hander Woody Williams of St. Louis and left-hander Odalis Perez -- and a constant theme of questions about the differences in how St. Louis dominated its way to an early NL Central clincher while the Dodgers come in hot after an emotionally supercharged final weekend clincher in the NL West.

"I just think we're capable of playing a total game," La Russa said before Monday's workout at Busch Stadium, when asked whether St. Louis is a "dominant" club. "But I think the Dodgers are a lot like us. These are two of the better defensive clubs in the playoffs. We've [both] got bullpen strengths."

The Cardinals' victory total in 2004 was the most by a La Russa-managed club since those same 1988 A's led by Bash Brothers Mark McGwire and Jose Canseco. This Cardinals club bashed with the best of them this season, and probably would have had three players each with at least 40 homers had Scott Rolen not recuperated from an injury in the last month. Then it added Larry Walker, making a stacked lineup even more formidable. The only question was whether the Cardinals could enter this postseason with a head of steam, and they clearly struggled to do that.

"It's a challenge, but it's a challenge every manager looks forward to," La Russa said when asked how difficult it was to keep the Cardinals sharp for this opener. "You want to clinch as early as you can because there are a couple guys that are sore. ... Some guys were tired and got a little rest. Whoever we're playing we try to compete with because we don't want to lose our edge. ... It wasn't quite the same, but I think we got through it and I think we're ready to go."

All parties at Busch on Monday echoed the sentiments that the slate is cleared, regardless of how a club gets into the dance.

"However many games we had to play in order to assure ourselves of the opportunity to be here now, in my opinion all becomes immaterial," Dodgers manager Jim Tracy said. "There's a new game to play [Tuesday]. There will be situations like you face all year long that confront you, and the execution part of the game comes into play. I think the club that obviously does its thing and executes better than the other is the one that is going to win."

While the Cardinals have a full complement of players for this series, save for ace Chris Carpenter (strained right biceps), Tracy said he will write Milton Bradley's name back into the lineup card as his starting left fielder. Bradley missed the final five games of the regular season because of a suspension resulting from his fan incident on Sept. 29.

   Woody Williams  /   P
Born: 08/19/66
Height: 6'0"
Weight: 200 lbs
Bats: R / Throws: R

A fan at Dodger Stadium threw a plastic beer bottle toward Bradley in the outfield, and Bradley heatedly marched over to the box-seat railing and threw the bottle into the ground near the fan. Tracy said it's all in the past.

"I probably wouldn't be here today if Milton Bradley had not come to our club and put forth the contributions that he has," Tracy said. "We as an organization and he as an individual recognize the fact that he made a mistake. He paid for it. We played shorthanded over the weekend in a situation where it could have possibly cost us to be playing a game in San Francisco [in a tiebreaker Monday]. He served his sentence, and we're going to move forward."

Tracy also expounded on his decision to use a three-man rotation in this series against a four-man Cardinals rotation. Jeff Weaver will start Game 2 against Jason Marquis on Thursday night at Busch, and Jose Lima is scheduled to start Game 3 against Matt Morris on Saturday in Los Angeles. If necessary, Perez would come back to pitch Game 4 against Jeff Suppan on Sunday in LA, and a fifth game would be a Weaver-Williams matchup.

"These guys have been the most consistent for us over the course of the entire season," Tracy said, "and fortunately for us, because of the comeback victory that we had on Saturday, it allowed us the opportunity to set our rotation to be able to use those three guys. ... If a fifth game has to be played, Weaver would be the one guy who would have to come back and pitch on short rest.

"They all know how to pitch. I think what's very interesting about it all is, when you look at our starters and the starters for the Cardinals, the similarities between all of them are that I don't feel like any of the starters on either club are overpowering guys. They're very knowledgeable. They know how to pitch."

As usual, Tracy just wants his starters to get the ball into the hands of his closer emeritus, Eric Gagne. Tracy said there is "absolutely no problem with Eric and/or his health" when asked by a reporter if there is a concern. Gagne received a cortisone shot in his right shoulder and according to Tracy is ready to go.

"He pitched an inning the other day, and he was 97, 98 mph. He felt great," Tracy said. "As a matter of fact, I felt like the other day he threw, the life to his fastball was better than it was during the course of the two-inning stint he had Sunday a week ago when we were playing the Giants in San Francisco. I think the other thing that really is of benefit to him and to us is the fact that he's had a five-day layoff and a chance to recharge his battery completely."

   Odalis Perez  /   P
Born: 06/11/77
Height: 6'0"
Weight: 220 lbs
Bats: L / Throws: L

These clubs know each other well enough from some very recent history. St. Louis swept a three-game series at Busch on Sept. 3-5, and then the Dodgers won two of three when they met the following weekend at Chavez Ravine.

"One of the advantages for both of us is we just played each other," La Russa said. "A lot of clubs play other clubs early. Here, they know us and we know them."

Having said that, La Russa added that it is hard to say exactly how much one could learn from either of those September series.

"They came in off a tough road trip, and we probably caught them a little vulnerable," La Russa said. "They got us at home, and we were a little vulnerable. It's all fresh now. ... Pitchers for both clubs are capable of shutting down both offenses."

La Russa said he is just glad to get the postseason going. It is a manager's dream to have a runaway division title -- but it comes with the task of trying to maintain that club's intensity when other teams are fighting for their postseason lives. And after back-to-back Wild Card world champions, a lot of people are going to be closely watching the Cardinals to see if they can flip that "dominant" switch back on.

After managing this many years, La Russa knows from experience that there always could be a Kirk Gibson lurking in the other dugout.

"The regular season is such a long grind," La Russa said after the two teams worked out Monday at Busch Stadium. "You're always thinking about now, worrying about later, and now it's all out in front of us. You don't have to save anything. Everybody starts the season -- I mean, winning a regular season I think is really hard to do, but the reason you win is because you want to play for the ring. Now you're playing for the ring. There's 22 clubs that we've eliminated, so it's real intense. It's what everybody on our ballclub and on the other seven clubs are trying to accomplish."

This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.