(Reuters) - Familiar foes who have had some testy moments this season will take their rivalry to a new level starting on Sunday when the Milwaukee Brewers and visiting St. Louis Cardinals open the National League Championship Series.
The Brewers (96-66) cruised to the Central Division title, while the Cardinals (90-72) clawed their way back from some key injuries to overtake the Atlanta Braves on the last day of the season and claim the National League wild card berth.
Home field advantage is held by Milwaukee, who had Major League Baseball’s best home record this season (57-24) and used it to their advantage in the divisional series by winning their three home games in dispatching the Arizona Diamondbacks.
The Cardinals, however, might not be impressed. They won six of the last seven games between the clubs and swept the Brewers at Miller Park in late August on the way to tying their season-series 9-9.
Milwaukee is led by MVP candidate sluggers Ryan Braun and Prince Fielder, while St. Louis led the league in runs scored with a lineup boasting three-time NL most valuable player Albert Pujols, Matt Holliday and a resurgent Lance Berkman.
This summer, tempers rose in one series between the Central Division clubs when Pujols was hit by a pitch on his hand and Braun was plunked one-half inning later.
Cardinals manager Tony La Russa also accused Milwaukee of stealing signs and wondered about irregularities he observed in the brightness of lights on the Miller Park scoreboard.
St. Louis is accustomed to success.
The Cardinals have won 10 World Series, most recently in 2006, for the most by any National League club and second only to the New York Yankees and their 27 titles.
Milwaukee is starved for more glory after winning on Friday its first postseason series since 1982. Then the Brewers reached the World Series - as the American League representative that lost to the Cardinals in seven games.
Brewers outfielder Nyjer Morgan, who drove in the series-clinching run in the 10th inning on Friday, brings added personality to the series.
Morgan often slips into one of a variety of alter-egos, most notable “Tony Plush,” though some team mates said after beating Arizona that should be changed to “Tony Clutch”.
The Brewers revised their starting rotation with the addition this season of Zack Greinke and Shaun Marcum to complement Yovani Gallardo, and have an outstanding closer in John Axford.
Greinke, who was 11-0 at home this season, was expected to be the opening game starter.
St. Louis has overcome the injury loss of starter Adam Wainwright, getting good seasons from Kyle Lohse and Jaime Garcia backing up ace Chris Carpenter. Jason Motte has taken over from Fernando Salas as closer.
”It’s going to be a battle,“ Carpenter told reporters about facing the Brewers after he outdueled Roy Halladay in a series-winning 1-0 victory over the Philadelphia Phillies, who had led the majors with 102 wins. ”Those guys can play.
“We’ve got some talented players on both sides that are showcase stars, guys that people want to watch play, and it’s going to be a lot of fun. I can’t wait for it.”
Writing by Larry Fine in New York, Editing by Gene Cherry