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Cards to hook up with Astros
10/11/2004 11:27 PM ET
ST. LOUIS -- Cardinals, Astros, lots on the line, ho-hum. What else is new?

What's that? It's a playoff series? Oh. Now that's another matter.

Houston and St. Louis have been playing for high stakes for nine seasons now. The two teams have combined to win eight of the past nine National League Central championships, and they've finished one-two (or tied with the same record) four times in that span. But they've never played a series like this: the NL Championship Series, with the pennant on the line.

They know each other extremely well, having played 18 times just this season, including six meetings in September. The Astros were the only team against whom the Cardinals had a losing record in 2004, though it wasn't exactly a case of dominance: St. Louis went 8-10 against Houston.

While it's an intense rivalry, however, it's also civil. The Cards have plenty of distaste for, say, the Cubs. But against the Astros, it's a different matter.

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"The thing between us and Houston is we have respect for one another," Ray Lankford said in April. "But at the same time, it's war between the lines. That's just how it is."

The low point of the Cardinals' season came against the Astros, but so did the start of their dominant midseason stretch. Meanwhile, when the 'Stros caught fire in the second half, they did it at least partly at the Cardinals' expense.

A 4-3 Cardinals team met Houston at Busch Stadium in the second week of the season in a series considered a real test of just how good the revamped Redbirds were. They failed. The Cards were swept at home, outscored by a total count of 26-9. Yet a week later, they returned the favor at Minute Maid Park, taking three straight by a combined 19-10 score. Jason Marquis matched Roy Oswalt pitch for pitch in the finale of that series, in a game that ended up going 12 innings.

"As competitive as both teams played it, that's one of those games that, that's what the big leagues are all about," manager Tony La Russa said of the 2-1 thriller. "You can get beat, but so many great things happened on both sides as far as at-bats and pitching and guys hustling and everybody playing like it's September. It's really exciting to be a part of it."

That was just the first of several great games between the division rivals. The next came about six weeks later, in the opener of another three-game set in Houston. Chris Carpenter outdueled Roger Clemens in another extra-inning affair, with St. Louis winning on a balk by Octavio Dotel. The Cards took two out of three in that series, which marked the beginning of their midseason charge.

Houston Astros vs. St. Louis Cardinals
Game 1 at St. Louis         STL 10, HOU 7
Game 2 at St. Louis Thu. Oct. 14 8:00 p.m. FOX  
Game 3 at Houston Sat. Oct. 16 4:00 p.m. FOX  
Game 4 at Houston Sun. Oct. 17 4:00 p.m. FOX  
Game 5* at Houston Mon. Oct. 18 8:00 p.m. FOX  
Game 6* at St. Louis Wed. Oct. 20 4:00 p.m. FOX  
Game 7* at St. Louis Thu. Oct. 21 8:00 p.m. FOX  
 * If necessary

With another series win, a week later in St. Louis, the Cards were taking off and the Astros were starting to stumble. They didn't meet again until September, by which time the Cards had all but won the NL Central. However, the Astros had also found the right track again, climbing back into the Wild Card hunt after being written off.

With the games meaning much more to Houston than to St. Louis, the Astros took five out of the final six meetings, including a sweep at Minute Maid Park after the Cardinals had clinched the division.

"They've got it going," Larry Walker said at the time of the sweep. "We're battling through some tough times right now, just trying to get the same lineup out there. [We're] giving guys days off, and some guys are banged up a bit. So we're juggling it around. We'll get it right by the time of our first playoff game."

They certainly did, rolling past the Dodgers in four games. Houston comes in after beating the Braves in five games in the Division Series, and it remains to be seen how successful the Astros can be without setting up their rotation.

But no matter what, it's sure to be hard-fought, entertaining baseball. It always is when these teams get together.

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

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