ST. LOUIS — Pittsburgh or Cincinnati will be the St. Louis Cardinals' opponent in the best-of-five National League Division Series that begins Thursday at Busch Stadium.
The Cardinals locked up home-field advantage in the NLDS and the best-of-seven NL Championship Series on Sunday when they defeated the Chicago Cubs 4-0 to finish with the best record in the league --and all of baseball --at 97-65.
The Reds and Pirates will meet in a one-game playoff at 7:07 p.m. Tuesday at PNC Park in Pittsburgh.
"The significance of home-field advantage is just that. It's an advantage, so we're very proud of that," second-year Cardinals manager Mike Matheny said. "We're very proud of our record. It's something we don't take lightly."
Joe Kelly, the winning pitcher Sunday in relief of Jake Westbrook, called home-field advantage "huge." Who can argue? The Cardinals were 54-27 at Busch Stadium this season. Only the Atlanta Braves, who will face the Los Angeles Dodgers in the other NLDS, had a better home record (56-25).
"We have the best record in the NL and you get rewarded with having a playoff advantage," Kelly said. "It's going to be big, especially playing in front of our fans. We had over 3.3 million this year. We look forward to playing in front of them all the time, and it's going to be special in the playoffs."
The Cardinals, who won 17 of their final 22 games, were 9-10 against Pittsburgh and 11-8 against Cincinnati this season. They were 6-3 against both at Busch Stadium.
"It's going to be a tough series, whoever wins that game," Kelly said. "We know who they've got, they know who we've got. So it's just going to come down to who performs better."
Last year, the Cardinals finished second to Cincinnati in the NL Central and played Atlanta in the one-game playoff at Turner Field. They won 6-3, then defeated Washington in a dramatic five-game NLDS before losing to the eventual World Series champion San Francisco Giants in a seven-game NLCS.
The Cardinals, at least publicly, do not have a preference about who they meet in the NLDS.
"We've kind of talked about it here and there (among) the guys," outfielder Shane Robinson said. "Some guys say one team, some guys say the other. Ultimately, I don't think it really matters. We've seen them both enough to know what we need to do to win."
The Pirates posed more problems for the Cardinals in the regular season, although St. Louis swept them in a three-game series at Busch Stadium on Sept. 6-8.
"Winning this division was not an easy thing to accomplish," Cardinals third baseman David Freese said. "I can tell you right now, we're excited about not playing that wild-card game.
"(But) when you start trying to pick who you want to play, I think that's when you get in trouble."
Matheny said it makes no difference.
"It's going to be tough. We know that. It's going to be a good fight," he said. "They're just as amped up to play us as we are every time we play them. I know the fans will be into it. It's going to be a good series."
Matheny said the Cardinals could benefit by the three days off before the start of the NLDS.
"I don't really know how much of an advantage (home field) is except to give guys a little more rest," he said. "We've got a full off day (Monday), which is kind of rare. Then we get a couple of good workouts in. If guys have little stuff that's bothering them, it's more time to heal up."
The Cardinals, if they play Pittsburgh, will have to face left-hander Francisco Liriano (16-8, 3.02 ERA) just once. Liriano, who was 3-0 with a 0.75 ERA against St. Louis, will pitch Tuesday against Cincinnati's Johnny Cueto.
"The obvious (thing) is with our pitching," Matheny said, noting that the Cardinals' NLDS opponent has "got to use a guy up."
"It's going to be tougher for them," he said. "We were in that situation, too, and were able to move on. We know once you get there, it's just baseball. We've got to play the same way we've been playing all year."
With securing the best record in the NL and home-field advantage on the line Sunday, some questioned Matheny when he started the ineffective Westbrook, rested left fielder Matt Holliday and third baseman David Freese and pulled catcher Yadier Molina from the game before Westbrook threw his first pitch.
Carlos Beltran also left the game in the fifth inning.
"There was a whole lot today that could have gone wrong," Matheny said. "There's no question about it. (But) we stuck to our plan to get everybody ready and right. We felt good about the guys we threw in there."
Contact reporter David Wilhelm at email@example.com or 239-2665.