ST. LOUIS -- The Cardinals established themselves as the NL's front-runner in 2004-05, lapping the field and reaching triple digits in wins in each campaign. The balance of power shifted east this year as the Mets asserted themselves as the dominating force.

Still, the two teams open the League Championship Series with one goal: reach the Fall Classic and win a ring. The Mets, led by MVP candidates Carlos Beltran, David Wright and Jose Reyes, will form a formidable opponent for the Redbirds -- an inconsistent regular-season squad, but a team that played at a high level in the Division Series.

"Everybody said that once you get in the playoffs, you never know what's going to happen," Jason Isringhausen said. "When guys like Jeff Weaver pitch the way he pitched now, and [Jeff] Suppan, he's been consistent for us, and then we have (ace Chris Carpenter). You never know what's going to happen next round either. We know they have some good bats, so we'll have to pitch well."

The Mets, like the Padres in the Division Series, are heavy favorites over the Cardinals. Still, the Redbirds' goal remains the same, whether the team won 100-plus games or got into the playoffs on the final day of the regular season.

"If you don't get to the World Series, you are not going to have a great year," Albert Pujols said.

The Redbirds will rely on a roster that is far different than the one that faced the Mets late in the summer. Mainly helped by a three-game sweep in late August at Shea, New York took the season series 4-2.

Three main players for the Redbirds in that series have insignificant roles in the postseason: Mark Mulder, Isringhausen and Jason Marquis.

Mulder made his return from shoulder problems and was crushed in three innings. Isringhausen blew a save in the second game. Marquis was mediocre in the series' final contest.

Now, in October, Mulder is finished for the season because of surgery. Isringhausen (hip surgery) is also done, and Marquis has been placed in the bullpen. He was the only pitcher on the Cardinals roster who didn't see innings in the Division Series.

Now, the Cardinals feature a new look. They will come with a young bullpen that was lights-out in the Division Series, a rotation that is coming together and some different faces in the lineup.

Offensively, the Cardinals could see a change at third. Scott Rolen's balky shoulder has flared up to such a point that he finally told team management after Game 3 of the NLDS. Scott Spiezio, another forgotten man in the August series at Shea, has emerged as a suitable replacement.

The Mets also didn't see Jim Edmonds or David Eckstein in the Shea series, two players that were nursing injuries. Both are back for the playoffs.

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One constant is Albert Pujols. The linchpin of the Redbirds' offense, Pujols drove in seven runs in one contest during the three-game series against the Mets. His offense helped win two games against the Padres and could be the deciding factor in the series.

Rookies Adam Wainwright (the new closer), left-hander Tyler Johnson and right-hander Josh Kinney have led a bullpen that didn't permit a run in the Division Series.

"We have had stretches this year where we have been very good," said Braden Looper, the Mets' closer in 2004-05. "We had a rough stretch there at the end, it's just a matter of time where we have gotten it straightened out. The lefties have done a great job in the postseason. Tyler has been great and Adam obviously [has been great.] Hopefully it will carry over to next week."

Wainwright, who became the closer in late September, has been terrific, saving five games in his last five chances, including all three Division Series games.

Johnson, the No. 2 left-hander on the staff when the two teams last met, was the setup man down the stretch. The left-hander has used his fastball more effectively recently, setting up a slider that the Padres' Todd Walker referred to as the nastiest he had ever seen from a left-hander.

The Redbirds will likely start Weaver in Game 1. When the Mets saw him in August, the right-hander was still recovering from a brutal first half and rarely worked more than six innings or allowed fewer than three runs in a start.

Over the past six weeks, he has been the Redbirds' most consistent starter, tossing five shutout innings in Game 2 of the NLDS.