ST. LOUIS -- When Tony La Russa looks across to the other dugout as he prepares his Cardinals for the National League Championship Series, he likes what he sees.Oh, liking them probably won't come into play much once that first pitch of Game 1 is thrown Wednesday night, but the Astros are a team La Russa can appreciate for the way they go about their business. You know, sort of like the Cardinals -- with great pitching and solid execution in all facets of the game. "I think there are a lot of similarities in how we play the game," the Cardinals' manager said Tuesday as both teams worked out at Busch Stadium on the eve of the NLCS. The similarities extend to the manager. La Russa likes what he sees in Phil Garner, too. "They play like he played," La Russa said of the former infielder known as "Scrap Iron" in his playing days. When these two teams match up, they won't be looking into a mirror. But the Cardinals do see a reflection of themselves in the Astros. That simply wasn't the case in the Division Series against the Padres. The NL West champions barely won more games than they lost in the regular season and couldn't match up across the board with the Cardinals. It showed in a three-game sweep that led St. Louis to the NLCS for the fourth time in six years. Top-flight starting pitching and precise execution were not the hallmarks of the Padres' performance in that series, and the results provided the proof. The Astros, on the other hand, deliver the goods in those departments and others to give this series a much more balanced look, even if the Cardinals won the season series, 11-5. "I think both teams know we've got some work to do," Cardinals right fielder Larry Walker said. "Last year, we went seven games and had to grind it out each game. I don't see why this year would be any different." Ah yes, last year's NLCS was the same matchup, but it actually was totally different because the rosters were that much different. The Astros don't have Carlos Beltran or Jeff Kent, but they do have ace lefty Andy Pettitte. The Cardinals don't have Scott Rolen, but they do have aces Chris Carpenter and Mark Mulder. The Astros pose a threat from the very start with Pettitte, Roy Oswalt and Roger Clemens coming at the Cardinals the first three games. But La Russa likes what he sees from his own side, given that scenario. "We look at it two ways," La Russa said. "One, we're going to match up each of those guys with an outstanding pitcher of our own, so it's not like Houston is going to have a lot of fun hitting against our pitchers. And what we've done over and over again for a while now is the eight guys that have played, whoever they are, they are going to take their at-bats." The flip side: That's what the Astros are likely going to be doing against the Cardinals, starting with Game 1 starter Carpenter. "They are a lot like our club," Carpenter said. "They take quality at-bats, they are patient, they have an idea about what they are doing and the pitcher that they are facing. They've got speed, they have got some guys that can hit the ball out of the park. They've got quality guys from top to bottom and definitely, like I say, you've got to be on your game and make quality pitches to get these guys out."
So much balances out with these two clubs that it's easy to see why players from both sides anticipate another series like last year's, when the home team won every game and the Cardinals took it in seven.And that's how it should be at this level -- two good teams at their best. Nobody knows this level like La Russa. No one in this game has more experience at this level than La Russa. This marks his 10th League Championship Series, his fifth with the Cardinals, to match the number he had as the skipper of the Oakland A's. So when he looks across the field at the other squad, he knows what he sees. He sees a tough opponent for his Cardinals -- anybody could see that. But when La Russa sees a team that plays crisp baseball like his, executes fundamentals like his, pitches like his, that's saying something. And it's a pretty solid endorsement for another classic series like last year's.
John Schlegel is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.