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Cardinals waiting for familiar foe in NLDS

NL Central champs to host winner of Reds-Pirates Wild Card Game

ST. LOUIS -- There was no tighter division race in September than the one that transpired among the Cardinals, Pirates and Reds the National League Central. Now, those three teams will vie for a single spot in the NL Championship Series.

As division winners, the Cardinals have preferred positioning in the competition. They will watch as either the Reds or Pirates are eliminated in Tuesday's Wild Card Game, which will also determine which club travels to St. Louis for the start of the NL Division Series on Thursday. The Cardinals draw that Wild Card winner because they finished with the NL's best record.

"This division has been incredibly tough all year and those guys have been with us neck and neck the whole season," Matt Carpenter said. "I think it's fitting that we're in a matchup with one of them that first round."

The division was a dogfight until the end. The Cardinals never led or trailed by more than four games in the division, which wasn't settled until Friday.

Season success would suggest that the Cardinals would match up better against the Reds, whom they beat 11 times in 19 games. St. Louis outscored the Reds, 102-77, and won five of the six head-to-head series. The exception, though, was the most recent meeting. Playing in Cincinnati, the Reds won three times in a four-game series at the beginning of September.

The season series between the Pirates and Cardinals, on the other hand, was about as close as one could be. The Pirates won it, 10-9, though the Cardinals outscored Pittsburgh, 87-85.

In particular, the Cardinals struggled at PNC Park, where they went 3-7 and never won a series. The home record (6-3) was better, and the Cardinals did sweep Pittsburgh quite handily during their September meeting. It was during that series that the Cardinals leapt Pittsburgh for the division lead. They never lost it.

"You know we're just ready for whoever our opponent is," Matt Adams said. "They're two teams in the Central that we battled with all year. So we're going to be ready for them."

If there is a preferred opponent, the Cardinals were not letting on after Sunday's 4-0 win.

"We've kind of talked about it just here and there," Shane Robinson said. "Some guys say one team. Some guys say the other. Ultimately, I don't think it really matters. We've seen them both enough to know what we need to do to win."

Where the Cardinals can benefit -- regardless the opponent -- is in setting up their rotation. Pittsburgh's Francisco Liriano and Cincinnati's Johnny Cueto will start on Tuesday, which will limit either pitcher to just one start in the NLDS. This is particularly notable in the case of Liriano, who went 3-0 and allowed only 10 hits and two earned runs in 24 innings against the Cardinals this season.

The Pirates have said that they will start A.J. Burnett (3-1, 3.67 ERA in six starts against the Cardinals in 2013) should they advance to the NLDS. The Reds would turn to Mat Latos (3-1, 2.38 ERA in five starts) as long as Latos shakes the arm soreness that precluded him from starting the Wild Card Game.

St. Louis will start Adam Wainwright in Game 1, putting him on schedule to pitch Game 5 if the series goes that deep.

"They've got to use a guy up. It's going to be tougher for them," Cardinals manager Mike Matheny said. "Once again, we were in that situation, too, [last year] and we were able to move on [to the NLCS]. We know that once you get there, it's just baseball, and we've got to play the same kind we've been playing all year."

Jenifer Langosch is a reporter for Read her blog, By Gosh, It's Langosch, and follow her on Twitter @LangoschMLB
Read More: St. Louis Cardinals, Adam Wainwright, Matt Adams, Shane Robinson, Matt Carpenter