1. WAS THE ASTROS' PITCHING BURNED OUT BY THE BRAVES SERIES?
There is only one way to beat the Cardinals: Shut down their seemingly unstoppable offense. If Jose Lima can do it, it's obviously possible. But the Astros' pitching is in such disarray after their free-for-all with Atlanta, they're in danger of being down 2 games to 0 before they can even get Roger Clemens and Roy Oswalt back on the mound in Games 3 and 4. Clemens went 2-0, 2.36 in four starts against St. Louis this season. Oswalt was 2-0, 2.25 in three starts. But since the Astros used each on three days' rest just to make it through the first round, Brandon Backe and Pete Munro will have to start the first two games. And the only way the Astros can get four starts out of Clemens and Oswalt is to bring them back again on short rest, in Games 6 and 7. "I always thought the one team with a chance to be competitive against the Cardinals is Houston, because of those two dominating starting pitchers," said one NL scout. "But their staff got so stretched out, they'll be at a distinct disadvantage now."
2. CAN THE CARDINALS' STARTERS STOP THE ASTROS' OFFENSE?
As much as people nitpick about the Cardinals' alleged lack of October-type pitching, they did allow the fewest runs in the big leagues this year. And their rotation had the same ERA (4.08) as those "built-for-October" Marlins. Nevertheless, the Cardinals again will have to get by without Chris Carpenter, who two-hit Houston for eight innings in May. And their other four starters all had a rough time against the most balanced and dangerous Astros lineup ever to line up in October.
Game 1 starter Woody Williams had his worst start of the year (3 IP, 10 H, 8 R) against Houston two weeks ago. Jason Marquis gave up seven runs to the Astros on Sept. 16. Jeff Suppan allowed 13 runs (8 ER) in 10 2/3 innings vs. Houston over two September starts. And while Matt Morris pitched best against the Astros (2-1, 3.08), there are questions about his shoulder. "I think the key to these games is the 3-4-5 hitters for Houston (Jeff Bagwell, Lance Berkman, Jeff Kent)," said one scout. "They all need to hit." Well, all three had sensational numbers against the Cardinals (a combined .346, 9 HR, 49 RBI in 202 AB). And St. Louis has no left-hander in the rotation to deal with an Astros team that went only 19-17 against left-handed starters, 73-53 against right-handers.
3. WILL PHIL GARNER KEEP OVERMANAGING?
It's one thing to manage these postseason games with a sense of urgency. It's another to manage them like your mustache is on fire. But in his first visit to the postseason as a manager, Garner didn't just keep his foot on the accelerator. He ran through stop signs, red lights, brick walls and anything else in his path. Garner's aggressive style was a big reason the Astros made it this far. And he was clearly trying to send a message to his team that this was no time to let up. But against a club as relentless and dangerous as the Cardinals, Garner can't afford another managerial performance like his push-all-the-wrong-buttons mishmash in Game 4 of the NLDS.
"It was almost like watching a guy driving a car who gets lost," said one scout. "And then, once he gets lost, with every turn he makes, he gets lost even more."
4. WHO WILL WIN THE BATTLE OF THE BULLPENS?
Postseason series invariably turn on the rise or fall of somebody's bullpen. And if the bullpens determine the fate of this series, you have to like the Cardinals. Garner managed the Braves series as if his closer, Brad Lidge, was the only reliever he completely trusted. And that doesn't figure to change, considering how Lidge overpowered the Cardinals this year (9 2/3 IP, 1 hit, 0 runs, 16 whiffs). "I'd take Lidge over (Jason) Isringhausen, without any hesitation," said one AL executive. "But once you get past the closers, it's a different story."
The frazzled Houston bullpen racked up 11 innings in three days, in Games 3, 4 and 5 of the Atlanta series. And, with Munro and Backe scheduled to start the first two games, it can expect more of the same in this series. The Cardinals' bullpen, on the other hand, had just one game against the Dodgers in which it had to get more than nine outs -- and put on a clinic when it did work, giving up only one run in 11 2/3 innings. Tony La Russa loves to mix and match in the late innings. And he has all his pieces in place. "Every guy in that bullpen except (Steve) Kline is throwing great," said one scout. "And the key to this series could be (Julian) Tavarez. I've never seen him throw better."
5. WHO'S THE TEAM OF DESTINY?
The Cardinals were the winningest team in baseball (105-57). But the Astros had the second-best finish after Aug. 15 (36-10) of any National League team in history -- trailing only the 1951 Miracle Giants. The Cardinals chewed up the Dodgers in the NLDS. But the Astros roared into the playoffs by winning seven in a row to finish the regular season, then hit more home runs (11) in the NLDS than any National League team had ever hit in a postseason series that didn't go seven games. So which one is the official Team on a Mission? Good question.
The Cardinals were the eighth team in the division-play era to win 105 games or more. But three of the previous seven (2001 Mariners, 1969 Orioles, 1998 Braves) failed to win the World Series. Nevertheless, the Cardinals made it clear they'll be a handful in October by mauling the Dodgers, following a play-out-the-schedule 13-13 finish to the regular season. "I wondered if they'd have trouble turning it back on," said one NL scout. "But that was no problem whatsoever." It's great to be hot down the stretch. But the Cardinals' "hot streak" lasted almost five months. They were the best team in the league, start to finish. "And Tony has really gotten them to buy into the team concept," said a scout who has been following them. So if that doesn't mark them as a team of destiny, it sure marks them as a team nobody wants to mess with.
The Astros, meanwhile, have that This Year's Marlins kind of look. But it takes more than That Look to win it all. Of the previous four teams in the division-play era to win 36 of their last 46 games (2001 and '02 A's, 1983 White Sox and 1977 Royals), none even made it to the World Series. Nor did any of the previous seven teams to clinch a playoff berth in their final game of the year, as Houston did. On the other hand, the last three teams that did win the Series ('03 Marlins, '02 Angels, '01 Diamondbacks) were all riding a serious roll. So one NL executive says the lesson those three postseasons taught him is: "The hot team usually responds better than the best team." If that's the case, the Astros have more big waves to ride. But if ever there were a series that loomed as the ultimate test of that hot-team-versus-best-team theory, these two teams are about to play it.
Jayson Stark is a senior writer for ESPN.com.