NEW YORK (AP) _ The New York Mets sailed through the season, while the St. Louis Cardinals squeaked into the playoffs.
All that matters now, however, are the next nine days.
After finishing 13 1/2 games apart this year, the Mets and Cardinals will play for a pennant when the best-of-seven NL championship series begins Wednesday night with Tom Glavine on the mound for New York against a rejuvenated Jeff Weaver.
``I think we can compete with anybody and we're just going to go out there and prove it,'' St. Louis slugger Albert Pujols said. ``It doesn't matter how bad or how good you look in the paper. You need to go out there and prove it when you cross that line 8 o'clock tomorrow.''
Both teams are all banged up. The Mets have been missing injured pitchers Pedro Martinez and Orlando Hernandez since the postseason began, and left fielder Cliff Floyd is hobbled by an ailing Achilles' tendon.
St. Louis should have All-Star third baseman Scott Rolen back in Game 1 after he received a cortisone shot for his surgically repaired left shoulder. But center fielder Jim Edmonds has been fighting the effects of a concussion, and the pitching staff lacks injured closer Jason Isringhausen and starter Mark Mulder.
Yet plenty of stars are still at full strength, including Pujols.
Much of the talk as the teams worked out Tuesday at Shea Stadium centered on whether New York's depleted pitching staff could contain the reigning MVP _ and whether the Mets would pitch to him at all.
``Yes, and carefully,'' Glavine said. ``So much of it depends on the situation of the game.
``He's really no different than anybody else _ you have to be aggressive,'' the 40-year-old lefty added. ``Sooner or later, we're going to have to pitch to him before the series is over. He's not going to walk every time he comes up there, I can assure you of that.''
But with Rolen and Edmonds hurting, St. Louis' lineup looks less than imposing aside from Pujols, who batted .331 with 49 homers and 137 RBIs this year. It would seem the smartest strategy for the Mets might be to force someone else to try and beat them.
``It's tough for one guy to win a seven-game series for a team,'' New York third baseman David Wright said. ``You have to keep him from the RBI situations.''
Pujols hit a key home run in the first round against San Diego, a series the Cardinals (83-78) won impressively in four games after going 3-9 to end the season and nearly squandering their big NL Central lead.
``If you want to walk him, walk him. The guys that hit behind him have made that strategy not pay off enough to where managers say, this is not good,'' St. Louis skipper Tony La Russa said. ``My favorite quote, when you deal with really dangerous hitters _ it's about competition, not cowards. You raise competitors, not cowards. I really like that.''
La Russa has his Cardinals in the NLCS for the third straight season and fifth time in seven years overall _ a run that began with a loss to the wild-card Mets in 2000. St. Louis is 1-3 in its last four NLCS appearances and is still looking for its first World Series championship since 1982.
The Mets went on to lose the Subway Series in 2000 to the crosstown Yankees, already eliminated from this year's postseason.
So after a three-game sweep of the Los Angeles Dodgers in the division series, the Mets (97-65) own the Big Apple in October for a change. And even without Martinez and Hernandez, the NL East champions are favored by some to win their first World Series title since 1986.
The reasons for that are New York's deep bullpen and a balanced, relentless lineup that starts with speedy Jose Reyes getting on base for sluggers Carlos Beltran, Carlos Delgado and Wright.
``It's tough to see some guys get hurt. But what are you going to do, roll over and quit? You might as well keep fighting. We've come so far,'' said Delgado, who batted .429 with a homer and several clutch hits against the Dodgers _ the first playoff series of his 14-year career.
``Unorthodox in baseball means absolutely nothing. Just win, and label it however you want.''
Then there's the Mets' home-field advantage at raucous Shea Stadium. And Glavine, a 290-game winner who tossed six shutout innings to beat Los Angeles in Game 2.
``Glavine kind of stabilizes this team,'' closer Billy Wagner said.
The Cardinals' staff features ace Chris Carpenter, the 2005 NL Cy Young Award winner. He went 2-0 with a 2.03 ERA in the first round and is slated to start Game 3 against New York _ then possibly Game 7, if necessary.
But on the mound for St. Louis in the opener will be Weaver, a bit of a reclamation project after he was cast off by the Angels in July. And he knows New York all too well following an unsuccessful stint with the Yankees from 2002-03, when he was often booed lustily in the Bronx.
``That definitely prepared me for anything that can come my way,'' Weaver said.
The Mets would appear to have a late-inning advantage over St. Louis' rebuilt bullpen, which includes three rookies _ among them stand-in closer Adam Wainwright. But Cardinals relievers pitched 13 1-3 scoreless innings in the first round, and Wainwright had a save and six strikeouts in three appearances.