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Cards aim to dethrone champs
PHOENIX -- The Arizona Diamondbacks won the World Series last year by beating the New York Yankees, the nation's sentimental favorite.
In the NL divisional series that begins tonight, Arizona will face a St. Louis Cardinals team that overcame the deaths of pitcher Darryl Kile and revered broadcaster Jack Buck to win the Central Division.
"People look at us and say 'Oh, a team of destiny,"' Cardinals pitcher Matt Morris said. "'But it's not always a fairy tale ending."
Arizona manager Bob Brenly said his team sympathizes with the Cardinals, but can't let that affect anything once the games begin.
"Being a manager for the last two years, I cannot tell you the admiration I have for Tony La Russa and his staff and the entire Cardinals organization for what they have endured this year,"' Brenly said. "What the Cardinals have had to go through is something we would never wish on anybody. ... We sympathize with all of the families involved.
"In the context of playing the game on the field, we don't feel sorry for them and we don't expect them to feel sorry for us."
Morris (17-9) finds himself in a familiar position as starter in Game 1 of the divisional series against the Diamondbacks, who will counter with Randy Johnson (24-5). Morris had two outstanding outings in Games 1 and 5 of last year's division series against Arizona, but lost to Curt Schilling both times.
"This is my first time facing Randy, actually squaring off," Morris said. "I get to see what his fastball looks like up close."
Johnson's loss to the Cardinals in Game 2 last year was his lone defeat of the postseason. He went 5-0 after that, including a record three victories in the World Series. Since that October loss, Johnson is 29-5.
He won his third consecutive Cy Young Award last year, then had a better season in 2002, becoming the first NL player since Dwight Gooden in 1985 to win pitching's "triple crown" of wins (24), strikeouts (334) and ERA (2.32). His reputation as a postseason flop seems ancient history.
La Russa plans to have three left-handed batters in the lineup against Johnson, perhaps the best left-hander the game has known.
"With the guys we have now, our left-handers hang in there real good against left-handers," La Russa said. "The way Randy is, he's just as tough against a right-hander. He's just different."
Johnson has great respect for the Cardinals lineup, which already was powerful before the trade that brought Scott Rolen from Philadelphia.
"The St. Louis Cardinals lineup you are going to see probably is the best offensive lineup in all of the postseason, in my estimation," Johnson said. "You don't have two or three hitters that you need to be careful with, you have four or five that really command your attention."
Arizona plans to go with a three-man rotation. Johnson would come back on a full five days' rest if there is a Game 4 on Sunday, and Schilling would go on four days' rest in Game 5 on Monday. In the four starts of Arizona's aces, St. Louis must win twice.
"'We're here to win, so we're going to find a way to break through," La Russa said. "We will have eight tough outs in that lineup."
Asked what he would do if he faced the Cardinals' lineup, Morris said, "I might drop the ball and walk off."
Morris has had a trying year, emotionally and physically. He was a good friend of Kile.
"I think about him every day," Morris said.
Just as he was recovering emotionally from that devastating loss, Morris injured a hamstring.
"He took a savage hit when Darryl died. It was tough on him to put it all back together and I think he has shown a lot of great qualities to do it," La Russa said. "Now all of a sudden, he hurts his hamstring, but he's physically fit for tomorrow. He is a stallion. We'll be proud of him tomorrow."
Morris said his 15-day stint turned out to be a good thing.
"It kind of threw me out of whack, just being on time, rhythm and stuff, but I was able to throw a good three games and get back," he said. "I believe it was a blessing in disguise. I feel fresh, so I'm excited."
While the Cardinals rely on the big bats of Rolen, Albert Pujols, Jim Edmonds, Edgar Renteria and Tino Martinez, among others, Arizona has lost its best run-producer, Luis Gonzalez, and its best clutch player, Craig Counsell, to season-ending injuries.
The Diamondbacks will have to rely on the veteran trio of Matt Williams, Steve Finley and Mark Grace -- along with second baseman Junior Spivey and slap-hitting shortstop Tony Womack -- to fill the void. All had big games in the season-ending four-game sweep of Colorado that earned Arizona the home field advantage against St. Louis.
Last week, the Cardinals swept three from the Diamondbacks in St. Louis, which means very little, both sides agreed.
"This is the second year. Everything changes now," Schilling said, "your intensity, your focus, everything. Hopefully Randy will get us off on the right foot, and I'll keep it rolling on Thursday."