Reasons the Astros will win:

1. Andy Pettitte will be on the mound this time. Last year, the Astros took the Cardinals to seven games before St. Louis clinched its trip to the World Series, but Pettitte wasn't there. In Pettitte, Roger Clemens and Roy Oswalt, the Astros have three of the best starters in baseball going for them. In fact, Pettitte may be the hottest starter in the game right now.

2. Just as they did last year, the Astros are peaking at the right time. Last season, Houston went 36-10 down the stretch to reach the playoffs and then knocked Atlanta out in four games. This time, the Astros, despite a weaker offense than they had a year ago, overcame a 15-30 start to reach the postseason.

3. The middle three of the Houston order -- Lance Berkman, Morgan Ensberg and Jason Lane -- have picked up the pace down the stretch. Berkman, in particular, was brilliant in the second half, and his opposite-field grand slam was key to the Astros' Game 4 comeback that set up the 18-inning victory. This offense is much more effective when the three in the middle are producing as they have been these past few weeks.

Achilles' heel: The offense still could be it, even though it delivered 25 runs in four Division Series games. The Houston offense ranked 25th out of the 30 Major League teams in scoring (679 runs) and hitting (.257 batting average) during the regular season, and 24th in on-base percentage (.323). This is a lineup that has proven to be vulnerable to long scoring droughts. Should one occur in the NLCS, it could offset fine pitching performances from the Houston staff.

Key showdowns:

1. Houston offense vs. Chris Carpenter: Like Pettitte, the Cardinals right-handed ace wasn't around for last October's fun. But Carpenter put together a Cy Young-caliber season that included a 4-0 mark and a 1.85 ERA against the Astros this season, a mark actually spoiled by five earned runs in six innings on Sept. 28. Other than that, he dominated the Astros. If the Houston bats can get to Carpenter in Game 1, that could set a tone for the rest of the series.

2. Brad Lidge vs. the St. Louis offense: "Lights-Out" Lidge converted 40 of 47 save opportunities during the regular season, striking out 101 in just 67 2/3 innings. Take away an uncharacteristically poor (for Lidge) month of May, and the right-hander is 4-1 with a 1.16 ERA instead of 4-3 with a 2.13 ERA. He didn't allow a run to the Cardinals in seven appearances this season, covering 7 2/3 innings for four successful save opportunities. If Clemens, Pettitte and friends give a lead to Lidge, it's usually lights out for opponents.

Darkhorse: Jeff Bagwell. As strange as it sounds, Bagwell could come out of nowhere with a big knock in this series. Healthy enough only for pinch-hitting duty with a bad shoulder, he'll be on the bench but could deliver a game-winning blow at any time.

Reasons the Cardinals will win:

1. The Cardinals have a balanced attack that comes at you at a high level in all facets of the game. They have excellent starting pitching, a solid bullpen, a lineup that can beat you big or beat you small and as good a defense as you'll see. They have the superstar talent of Albert Pujols, and they have the gritty contributions of leadoff man David Eckstein, a perfect fit for this club and a much-needed addition. They have all the right ingredients and few weak links.

2. The 1-2 punch at the top of the rotation is a huge upgrade over last year's rotation that faced the Astros in the NLCS. With Carpenter at the top and lefty Mark Mulder, health permitting, a solid 1-A, the Cardinals' greatest difference between 2004 and 2005 is in its starting pitching.

3. They might hesitate to come right out and say it, but the Cardinals have to have a bitter taste in their mouths about getting swept out of the World Series a year ago. Their focus has been on getting back there and winning it this time from the moment they stepped on the field for Spring Training, and they showed in the Division Series that they're ready to play October baseball with precision and power.

Achilles' heel: The Cardinals bullpen needs to sharpen up a bit over its Division Series performance. The relief corps gave up eight of the 11 runs the Cardinals allowed during the Division Series while covering just 8 1/3 of the innings, and none of the relievers who pitched against the Padres left the series without a run allowed. They're not sounding the alarms, but it could be an area of concern if it continues.

Key showdowns:
1. Mark Mulder vs. that Joe Randa liner: The line drive that smoked Mulder in the upper left arm during Game 2 gave the lefty ace a pretty hefty bruise and kept that arm sore for a couple of days. He recovered to pitch well in that one, but his status will be a key factor heading into the NLCS. The Cardinals need him to be at his best, even if he's not feeling his best.

2. Albert Pujols vs. Andy Pettitte: It's a marquee matchup between ace lefty and one of the game's very best right-handed hitters, or hitters, period. But Pujols hasn't had much luck against Pettitte in the past, going only 2-for-12 with no extra-base hits and three strikeouts. The Cardinals have other weapons, but Pujols is obviously the biggest one -- if he can break out against Pettitte, that's a big boost for St. Louis.

Darkhorse: Abraham Nunez filled in for Scott Rolen so admirably during the regular season, it's no wonder he was able to step up with some hits in the Division Series. Obviously a much different player than the power-hitting, power-armed Rolen, Nunez has the moves at third and the savvy at the plate to make an impact. Rolen was huge in the NLCS last year, with three homers. Maybe that's not how Nunez does it, but don't ignore him.

Prediction: Cardinals in six games