ST. LOUIS — Two storied franchises, the St. Louis Cardinals and Los Angeles Dodgers, are set to meet in the National League Championship Series for the first time in 28 years.
The Cardinals, with 11 World Series titles, will play host to the Dodgers, with six, in Game 1 of the best-of-seven series at 7:37 p.m. Friday at Busch Stadium.
Joe Kelly (10-5, 2.69 ERA) will pitch for the Cardinals against the Dodgers' Zack Greinke (15-4, 2.63 ERA).
The Dodgers were 4-3 against the Cardinals during the regular season and won the NL West by 11 games. But if that makes underdogs of the Cardinals, that's news to second-year manager Mike Matheny.
"Are we? I didn't know that," Matheny said.
"It doesn't matter," he continued, discounting pundits' predictions. "We love being at home, and we feel like we've got a sea of red behind us. All in all, it comes down to execution. ... Regardless of odds, regardless of expectations, our guys have done that on a consistent basis, and I can see no reason why they won't continue."
The Cardinals took two of three from the Dodgers in April in Los Angeles. The Dodgers won three of four from the Cardinals in August at Busch Stadium, outscoring them 22-12. The Cardinals' lone victory came against Cy Young Award favorite Clayton Kershaw.
Cardinals catcher Yadier Molina was sidelined by a sprained right knee and did not play against Los Angeles in August.
"Obviously, they're a great team and it's going to be a war, for sure," said Cardinals third baseman David Freese, whose two-run homer in the second inning Wednesday helped carry St. Louis past Pittsburgh 6-1 in Game 5 of the NL Division Series.
Shortstop Pete Kozma concurred.
"It's just the next step," he said. "We've got to play hard against them like we did these (Pittsburgh) guys."
Greinke said the Cardinals have a formidable lineup.
"They're hard to strike out, for one," Greinke said. "So whenever you get in a situation where you need an out ... it's tough to get the strikeout. Also, they make adjustments. If you get them out one way, the next time it's kind of tough."
Los Angeles was 30-42 through June 21 and was 9 1/2 games behind NL West leader Arizona. Rumors circulated that manager Don Mattingly was on the verge of being fired.
But by July 26, Los Angeles had moved into first place to stay, thanks to a 21-5 turnaround. And by Sept. 3, the Dodgers had gone 51-15 to build a commanding 13 1/2-game lead.
Rookie right fielder Yasiel Puig (.319, 19 home runs, 42 RBIs in the regular season), who defected from Cuba in 2012, arrived on the scene June 3 and began to energize a disgruntled fan base with his enthusiastic, yet uneven, play.
Still, the Dodgers dropped 10 of their 17 games after Puig arrived. The real turning point for the season, according to insiders with the Dodgers, was the return of shortstop Hanley Ramirez.
Ramirez missed 52 games during two stints on the disabled list. He was out for the start of the season with a broken right thumb suffered in the World Baseball Classic in March. Ramirez returned April 29 and played four games before he strained his left hamstring.
Ramirez came back for good on June 4, and from June 19 until the end of the season, he batted .355 with 22 doubles, 19 home runs and 54 RBIs in 73 games. He closed the season with a .345 average, 25 doubles, 20 homers and 57 RBIs.
Ramirez was 8-for-16 (.500) with one homer and six RBIs in the NLDS against Atlanta. Puig was 8-for-17 (.471) with two RBIs, and third baseman Juan Uribe was 6-for-16 (.375) and hit the go-ahead two-run homer in Game 4 of the Dodgers' 4-3 win.
"(Puig) was able to energize that team by the way he played, the passion that he has for the game," Cardinals right fielder Carlos Beltran said. "The energy that he brings to the game, that can be something that's contagious.
"But at the same time, you've got to give credit to (Adrian) Gonzalez, also, who's been there all year long. And Kershaw. These are guys that have done it for years. They were able to turn their season around."
First baseman Adrian Gonzalez (.293-22-100) enjoyed another consistent season. Players like Uribe (.278-12-50), left fielder Carl Crawford (.283-6-31), center fielder Andre Ethier (.272-12-52), catcher A.J. Ellis (.238-10-52) and second baseman Mark Ellis (.270-6-48) helped offset the loss of center fielder Matt Kemp.
On the mound, Greinke, Kershaw (16-9, 1.83 ERA), Hyun-jin Ryu (14-8, 3.00 ERA) and closer Kenley Janson (28 saves) were strong.
"When you look at them at the beginning of the season, a lot of people thought they were not going to make it," Beltran said. "Look at where they are. They put it together. ... Hanley Ramirez got healthy and he's been able to help that team. So it's contributions from everyone."
Dodgers manager Don Mattingly said Ethier's full-time availability for the series wouldn't be determined until late Thursday or early Friday. Ethier is battling an ankle injury and could be replaced in center by former Cardinal Skip Schumaker.
"This is the playoffs, and you've got to be able to play 100 percent or pretty much full-speed," Mattingly said. "He's better than he was before. He's running better; he's moving better."
Contact reporter David Wilhelm at firstname.lastname@example.org or 239-2665.