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ON THE CUSP First of all, hats off to the Los Angeles Dodgers. I’ve seen a lot of playoff baseball over the last 25 years, but I saw something Sunday night I hadn’t seen before. After being eliminated in their Division Series with St. Louis, the Dodger players and coaches came back on the field and -- hockey style -- shook hands with the victors. The national pastime has had its share of ugly news lately. This was a classy display between the two most decorated franchises in National League history. Having put aside L.A., the Cardinals are advancing to their fourth National League Championship Series under skipper Tony LaRussa (their third in the last five seasons). Alas, St. Louis has yet to reach the World Series under LaRussa’s direction. Based on their four games with the Dodgers, here are a few elements to watch, starting Wednesday night when the Cards host the winner of Monday night’s Houston/Atlanta finale. The first game is . . . HUGE. Under LaRussa, the Cardinals have played eight postseason series. They’ve won all four series when they’ve won the opener, and lost all four series when they dropped the first game. When Woody Williams takes the mound Wednesday night, it will be the biggest game of the season -- thus far -- for the Cardinals. Get six from four (I’ll explain). The quickest way to kill a starting rotation is short rest. Cy Young winners become five-inning beasts of burden on three days’ rest (see Roger Clemens against Atlanta, Game 4). Without a certifiable ace, Tony LaRussa has been able to juggle four rather interchangeable parts in his starting rotation. And the result has been solid, albeit unspectacular, pitching. Williams put in six innings in Game 1 against the Dodgers. Matt Morris eased a lot of fears in Cardinal Nation by going seven innings in Game 3 (he happened to be out-pitched by Jose Lima, who had a career night). Then in Game 4, a well-rested Jeff Suppan pitched the game of his life, retiring 14 straight Dodgers before being lifted after seven innings. If the Cardinals can get six innings consistently from these three and the tag-team combo of Jason Marquis and Dan Haren, they’ll give their potent offense a reasonable chance of outscoring the bad guys. Get three from five. The Cardinal bullpen -- Kiko Calero, Steve Kline, Ray King, Julian Tavarez, and Jason Isringhausen -- is the best this franchise has seen since the mid-Eighties and Todd Worrell’s prime. Following the tried-and-true Yankee way of the last decade, St. Louis hopes to take a lead into the seventh inning, where LaRussa will begin the lefty-righty matchup carousel until he can bring Isringhausen in to close the door in the ninth. (The acquisition of King in the J.D. Drew trade with Atlanta is at least as important as bringing Marquis to St. Louis.) Find a hole, Scotty. Speaking of that offense, the Cardinals managed to beat Los Angeles without so much as a base hit or RBI from All-Star Scott Rolen (who finished second in the league with 124 runs batted in). As good as they are without Rolen producing, the Cardinals become championship-caliber with his bat delivering runs. As streaky as Jim Edmonds is, St. Louis can’t afford a prolonged slump from their clean-up man. Remember the D’Backs. Looking for an ingredient that separates the 2004 Cardinals from their predecessors that came up short in the NLCS? You might want to start with Tony Womack and Reggie Sanders. These two were key members of the 2001 Arizona team that beat the mighty Yankees in the World Series. They’re not Albert Pujols, they’re not Larry Walker, but they’re winners, and they’ve been to a place where Pujols and Walker desperately want to go. Watch them lead.

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