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Jeff Pearlman's Breakdown
Cardinals    Braves 
A pinch-hitting Mark McGwire makes this a much, much closer match. Besides Jim Edmonds, the Cardinals don't have the two-three-four-five power of Andruw Jones, Chipper Jones, Andres Galarraga and Javy Lopez, but leadoff hitter Fernando Vina is a sneaky run generator, and J.D. Drew has -- quietly -- emerged as an all-around mini-star.   OFFENSE

The Edge:

Unlike last year, when Gerald Williams and Keith Lockhart were an uninspiring leadoff duo, the Braves now count on 19-year-old Rafael Furcal, a run-and-gun shortstop with 40 stolen bases and serious wheels. 

There is no better up-the-middle defense than the one that resides in St. Louis. Vina turns the double play faster than any second baseman since Frank White, shortstop Edgar Renteria is buttermilk smooth and -- with a year in the spotlight -- Edmonds has replaced Ken Griffey Jr. as the game's top center fielder.   DEFENSE

The Edge:

Atlanta is solid, St. Louis is spectacular.  

Darryl Kile and Garrett Stephenson have been banana splits in the Cards' malt shop, but their playoff abilities are yet-to-be determined.   STARTING PITCHING

The Edge:

The Braves are still the Braves, even if Andy Ashby and Kevin Millwood, starters for games three and four, respectively, are hardly John Smoltz and Denny Neagle (circa 1997). Greg Maddux would be the Cy Young favorite if not for Tom Glavine, the Game 2 starter. These guys ooze big-game experience.  

The biggest surprise in St. Louis has been the emergence of righty longman Mike James, who didn't even make the club out of spring training. James has pitched 51 games for the Cardinals, and often serves as the bridge between starters and closer Dave Veres. Speaking of Veres, can anyone name a less-recognized closer? Veres' 39 saves and 2.85 ERA have meant as much to Tony La Russa as Edmonds' 41 homers and Kile's 20 wins.   BULLPEN

The Edge:

As always seems to be the case, Atlanta's wart is its pen. Closer John Rocker is back to throwing his slider with velocity and confidence, but can the Braves put the ball in his hand? That depends on the solid Mike Remlinger and a bunch (John Burkett, Kerry Lightenberg, Scott Kamienicki) of big question marks.  

This is one area where St. Louis is loaded. Third baseman Placido Polanco would start for most teams, as would second baseman Craig Paquette, a fantastic power source (15 homers) off the bench. And is there a more unheralded veteran than Shawon Dunston, the wild-swinging sage with the non-stop smile?   BENCH

The Edge:

The Braves, too, are blessed with several reliable vets, but how much better would Bobby Cox feel if B.J. Surhoff were available to play regularly? Thanks to a pulled right quad, he's a highly paid pinch hitter. 

Tony La Russa, once a hotshot future star, is now something of a has-been. Some players find him overbearing, and his gut-feel approach is oft second-guessed. Had the Cards faltered this season, he would've been out of a job. To La Russa's credit, that didn't happen.  MANAGER

The Edge:

Tis the season to rip Bobby Cox as an over-his-head has-been with no chops. Tis also the season for stupidity. Players love Cox, because he leaves them alone (save for his no-music-in-the-clubhouse doctrine) and lets talent do what talent does. And, except for the World Series blues, who can argue with Cox's results? 

Carlos Hernandez. The Cards suffered a huge blow when catcher Mike Matheny gashed open a finger on a knife. That ended his season, leaving St. Louis pitchers in the hands of Carlos Hernandez. A starter on the '98 NL-champion Padres, Hernandez is a solid backstop. But can he stop the run as well as Matheny, who gunned down 50 percent of opposing baserunners this season?  'X' FACTOR

The Edge:

When the Braves traded for Reggie Sanders and Quilvio Veres last winter, they imagined a high-flying duo starting things off and scaring opposing batteries. So what happens? Veres misses most of the season, and Sanders hits .200. After being temporarily replaced by Bobby Bonilla, Sanders is back. He hit .400 in September and ended the season with a 10-game hitting streak. If he and Brian Jordan boost the bottom of Atlanta's order, the Braves cruise.  
Pearlman's Prediction: Braves in 3

Sports Illustrated staff writer Jeff Pearlman will be contributing regularly to throughout the playoffs

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