CATCHER EDGE: PADRES
The Padres have used a three-headed catcher all season, with future Hall of Famer Mike Piazza as the centerpiece. He's usually subbed out defensively late in games by switch-hitters Josh Bard or Rob Bowen, who also have given Piazza days off. The rotation has kept Piazza fresh, but expect his bat in the starting lineup every day in the postseason.

Yadier Molina has settled in as the heir apparent to Mike Matheny. Molina, the younger brother of Bengie and Jose, clearly has continued Matheny's defensive legacy, but he's already proven to be a better offensive player. He's backed up by Gary Bennett, the former Padre who is the answer to this trivia question: who took the last at-bat at Qualcomm Stadium? Bennett struck out.

 FIRST BASE EDGE: CARDINALS
Adrian Gonzalez has been a positive addition to the Padres picture this season after coming over in an offseason trade with Texas that also netted right-hander Chris Young in exchange for starter Adam Eaton. Gonzalez gives them a plethora of left-handed bats in the lineup's first five spots, which makes the Padres particularly dangerous against right-handed pitching.

No contest here as Padres manager Bruce Bochy discovered again in St. Louis. Pitch to Albert Pujols in a key situation and you will get burned. He's probably the best player in the NL right now and is a seasoned playoff performer. Ask Brad Lidge. The guy who has been removed at times this year as Astros closer is still waiting for the Pujols shot that won last year's Game 5 of the NLCS to come down.

 SECOND BASE EDGE: EVEN
Josh Barfield is now the only regular starter who was developed in the Padres farm system. This is the end of his rookie season and he has excelled defensively while exhibiting some pop from the right side of the plate. Barfield seems most comfortable batting eighth. Todd Walker, a left-handed hitter, has been used against right-handers.

It has been a Russian roulette of players at this position since the Cards were swept by Boston in the 2004 World Series. This year, it's Ronnie Belliard, who came over in a midseason deal with the Indians. He's played less than 60 games for the Cards and batted about .240, although he did have a two-homer game against the Padres last week.

 THIRD BASE EDGE: CARDINALS
The hot corner has been the Padres' most problematic position all season. Vinny Castilla was tried early and released. Walker was acquired from the Cubs, mostly for his bat, and was error-prone, although he's still in the mix. Left-handed-hitting Russell Branyan was brought in from Tampa Bay and has added some power. Mark Bellhorn is a possibility, and veteran Manny Alexander is a late-inning sub.

Scott Rolen is one of the premier third basemen in the game and has rebounded well from last year's shoulder surgery. Because of it, he missed the 2005 postseason and was replaced by Abraham Nunez. The drop-off was one of the big reasons why the Cardinals could not repeat as NL champions, although he was a .161 playoff hitter when the Cards went to the World Series in 2004.

 SHORTSTOP EDGE: CARDINALS

San Diego's Khalil Greene has been missing in action for more than a month with a finger injury and is not being counted on any longer this season. Geoff Blum, the switch-hitter who homered to win a World Series game for the White Sox last October, has been getting most of the playing time. Alexander once moved Cal Ripken Jr. out of short. No problem moving Blum.

It's been an injury-plagued season for little David Eckstein, who recently returned from a pulled side muscle only to go down with a sore hamstring. He's fragile and may not make it deep into the postseason. He was replaced by Aaron Miles, who performed well enough. Jose Vizcaino was signed off the scrap heap after the Giants released him.

 LEFT FIELD EDGE: PADRES
Lefty-swinging Dave Roberts has been San Diego's offensive catalyst. He leads off, sets the table and has stolen close to 50 bases this season. Yet there are days against left-handed pitching when Bochy is secure using the right-handed hitting Ben Johnson, who has had more than a few big hits and has made some great defensive plays.

Like Eckstein, Scott Spiezio is a refugee from the Angels club that came back from the dead to defeat the Giants in the 2002 World Series. He still has that red-dyed soul patch and is one of the nicest guys in the game. He shares playing time with Chris Duncan, the son of Cardinals pitching coach Dave Duncan. John Rodriguez and Preston Wilson are also in the left-field/right-field mix.

 CENTER FIELD EDGE: PADRES

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Righty-swinging Mike Cameron is the Padres' incumbent and has played almost every day out there. He has proven to be a huge addition defensively since he was dealt to San Diego by the Mets last winter for Xavier Nady, who is no longer with New York. Cameron has also had his moments at the plate and is a potent force down lower in the lineup.

It's hard to downplay Jim Edmonds, but he's had a rocky last month after smacking his head on the center-field fence and suffering through post-concussion syndrome. Yet he came back much sooner than expected and the gamer he is will certainly be a force. Wilson is in the mix here if Edmonds can't go. So is Juan Encarnacion.

 RIGHT FIELD EDGE: EVEN
Hard to believe that lefty-hitting Brian Giles is a San Diego fixture, considering that he's only been with the team for a little more than three seasons. But that's the nature of this club's constant roster transition. He's probably not as potent as he once was, but he's a National League leader in walks and always makes an opposing pitcher squirm with each at-bat.

It's Encarnacion's first season with the Cardinals, and he's made the most of it. He has been one of the Cardinals' most durable players, playing in more than 150 games. Remember, he was a member of the 2003 Marlins team that was resurrected by Jack McKeon midseason and went on to defeat the Yankees in the World Series. Encarnacion has made fans forget Reggie Sanders in St. Louis.

 BULLPEN EDGE: PADRES
There's no question that San Diego's relief corps is one of the best in the Major Leagues. It's predominately right-handed, led by Trevor Hoffman, who became the all-time saves leader just last month. He's set up by Scott Linebrink and Cla Meredith, an early-season acquisition from Boston who had a spectacular season. Veteran Alan Embree gives them a situational guy from the left side, a commodity they haven't had in recent seasons.

With closer Jason Isringhausen out for the season after hip surgery, it's been a real mess and was one of the big reasons why the Cardinals lost seven games in a row near the end to make the NL Central race interesting. Manager Tony La Russa has been forced to go with Adam Wainwright and Braden Looper as his closers, with nominal success. Randy Flores is this year's Ray King in the situational left-hander's role.

 BENCH EDGE: EVEN
Bochy sprinkles in his guys liberally. As noted, Bowen and Bard see time behind Piazza and are key pinch-hitters. Alexander can be used at third or short and gets a rare start. Walker is also a presence, whether in the starting lineup or off the bench as a left-handed bat. Ditto Branyan. Bellhorn has some value as a switch-hitter. Johnson should be the odd outfielder throughout the postseason.

La Russa flip-flops pitchers and positions and substitutes with the best of them. He always a has a pack of role players to go to. So Taguchi, Rodriguez, Miles, Wilson and Bennett are the big ones this season, depending on how many of his regulars are healthy. With Edmonds and Eckstein being hurt, La Russa's had to plug starting holes with bench players.

 MANAGER EDGE: CARDINALS
Bochy is a seasoned professional with 12 seasons on the San Diego bench. He's a players' manager, probably to a fault, often covering for their mistakes and foibles. This is a much better group than the one that won only 82 games and was swept last year in the first round by the Cardinals. As usual, Bochy's gotten the most out of it.

La Russa is the resident genius with 22 seasons worth of big-league managerial experience. Can you believe it? But his lone winner was the 1989 A's, who salvaged the World Series after an earthquake and swept the Giants. Come to think of it, his teams are 5-12 in World Series games. But this year has been one of his better jobs keeping these Cardinals competitive despite all the injuries.

 INTANGIBLES EDGE: CARDINALS

Lots of moxie and playoff experience in the San Diego clubhouse. Walker, Roberts, Embree and Bellhorn won the Series with Boston in '04. David Wells has years of experience with the Yankees and Blue Jays. Piazza played playoff baseball with the Mets and Dodgers. Hoffman, Linebrink, Giles and Jake Peavy have done it with the Padres. Blum won last year with the White Sox. Woody Williams has gone to the postseason with both the Cardinals and Padres. All that can't be overestimated when the chips are on the table.

The Cardinals may not be the same team as two years ago, when they went to the World Series, but they still boast the best position player (Pujols) and best starting pitcher (Chris Carpenter) in the NL. If Carpenter wins twice in a best-of-five series and Pujols performs some of his high-pressure heroics, the Cardinals may still be tough to beat. If they don't...