ST. LOUIS -- Don't try to tell the players that this year's National League Championship Series is a rematch between two teams that aren't as talented as they were a year ago.

"These are the two best teams in the National League, without a doubt," Astros closer Brad Lidge said.

Unlike last year, however, this time the series won't have Carlos Beltran, Jeff Kent, Edgar Renteria and Scott Rolen. Offense of that caliber is not easily replaced.

What this year's version of the NLCS will have is better pitching on both sides, starting with a Game 1 matchup of Houston left-hander Andy Pettitte against St. Louis right-hander Chris Carpenter.

"You're talking about two Cy Young-caliber pitchers," Houston's Lance Berkman said. "That's about as good as it gets from a fan standpoint, not so good if you're hitting against either one of them."

Carpenter missed the playoffs last year because of a biceps strain in his right arm. Pettitte was sidelined because of elbow problems.

"Their pitching is much improved over last year," Astros manager Phil Garner said. "Their offense is still very good. They have guys that can get on base, they have guys that can hit the ball out of the ballpark and hit for high average along with their power all the way up and down the lineup. So they are not an easy club to have to face and they are not an easy club to defend.

"We are a different club and we are probably not as offensively as potent as we were last year. We certainly don't have the possibility to break a game open with the long balls like we did last year. We're a little bit younger in our offense, but somehow we found a way. Our pitching is more solid than it was last year from top to bottom. Our bullpen has been good on the balance of the year and having Andy Pettitte healthy has helped our rotation quite a bit. We are probably a little stronger in the pitching department and probably a little weaker in the offense department."

Cardinals manager Tony La Russa noted the Astros have been able to come up with replacements for Beltran and Kent.

"[They've got third baseman Morgan] Ensberg now, as big a bopper as there in our league," La Russa said. "Jason Lane comes along, given them a lot of big production. They are a lot like they were last year."

Pettitte essentially takes the rotation spot held by Pete Munro in last year's NLCS. Relievers Chad Harville (13.50 ERA in the NLCS) and Dan Miceli (0-2 with a 27.00 ERA in the NLCS) are also gone.

Last year, the Astros were also without starting shortstop Adam Everett for all but one at-bat in the NLCS because of a wrist problem.

The Cardinals have had to replace all but Albert Pujols from last year's playoff infield. Renteria and second baseman Tony Womack left via free agency and Rolen is injured. Shortstop David Eckstein and second baseman Mark Grudzielanek have combined to form one of the better middle infield tandems in the league. Abraham Nunez has done a solid job in Rolen's stead.

"Having Rolen out of the lineup depletes their offense as a whole," Ensberg said. "As far as our team goes, we've obviously lost a tremendous amount of power and run production but I think that we have improved what was already a good pitching staff last year into what I believe is the best in the league and a great pitching staff that we have.

"Our bullpen is great. We have guys that fit roles and each guy knows what he has to do. I think Brad Lidge is the best closer in the game. Chad Qualls has come in, Dan Wheeler has had a giant season."

In addition to Carpenter, the Cardinals also have another key player who wasn't here for last season's NLCS: left-hander Mark Mulder, who is the scheduled starter in Game 2.

But the biggest difference starts with the Game 1 starters.

"It was frustrating last year not to be a part of it, but you know, I'm excited about it and looking forward to tomorrow night and competing against a quality club," Carpenter said. "These guys have been playing well and they have got a good team and we've got to go and play our best baseball."

The bottom line is that despite all the changes, both teams still have plenty of weapons to go with even stronger pitching this time. Last year's NLCS went seven games with the Cardinals winning to advance to the World Series.

This one should be just as hard-fought.

"I would have to say they are the team to beat in the National League," Pettitte said. "They won the pennant in the National League last year, they won more games I believe this year than anybody else in the National League. It will be a tough battle for us to win this series."

First pitch at Busch Stadium is scheduled for 7:09 p.m. CT.