By Keith Antigiovanni
This weekend matches the NL team of the 1990's (Atlanta Braves) and the NL team of the 2000's (St Louis Cardinals) in a huge series that will most likely either decide the Wild Card or create a Wild Card race.
St Louis won the first game 4-3 over the Braves in extra innings to pull within 6.5 games of Atlanta in the Wild Card race but both have been consistent winners the past 15-20 years and traditionally play well down the stretch despite the teams being too far out in their respective division races. Thanks to the Wild Card they still have a chance.
This series evokes memories to baseball fans of the exciting 1996 National League Championship Series when the Atlanta Braves won 4-3 and returned to the World Series for the fourth time in the 1990's.
St Louis stormed to a 3-1 series lead in the 1996 NLCS under Tony LaRussa who was in his first year as their manager while the defending champion Atlanta Braves were trying to get back to the World Series to defend their title and were appearing in their fifth NLCS in the past six years.
When Atlanta was faced with elimination in game five Bobby Cox's team did not panic as the Braves won 14-0 behind pitcher John Smoltz to help get the series back to Atlanta's Fulton-County Stadium.
In game six Atlanta turned to another great pitcher, Greg Maddux. Maddux helped Atlanta to a 3-1 win and then Tom Glavine pitched Atlanta to the pennant in a convincing 15-0 win.
After 1996 both clubs would continue to win as Atlanta won 9 consecutive NL East titles (1997-2005), advanced to the 4 of the next 5 NLCS (1997, 1998, 1999, 2001) and made it back to the World Series in 1999.
St Louis continued to build a strong club after the 1996 NLCS and became the dominant NL team of the 2000's with 7 division titles (2000, 2001, 2002, 2004, 2005, 2006, 2009), appeared in 5 NLCS (2000, 2002, 2004, 2005, 2006), won 2 NL titles (2004, 2006) and the World Series title in 2006.
Atlanta also remained an NL power in the 2000's by posting the 2nd-best record next to St Louis.
Both clubs are winning again in the 2010's as Atlanta made the playoffs in 2010 as the Wild Card for the first time since 2005 and St Louis posted a winning record that year.
Now in 2011, both teams are competing for what is most likely the final playoff berth in the NL. Atlanta has a chance to shut the door this weekend and St Louis has a chance to keep the door open for the next two weeks.