The last time Clayton Kershaw took the Busch Stadium mound, he and the Dodgers were dealt a season-ending blow by the Cardinals in the National League Championship Series.
Kershaw allowed seven runs and 10 hits in four innings in Game 6 last October, but he's coming into Sunday night's showdown with eight straight wins and fresh off a 41-inning scoreless innings streak that was snapped in a complete-game, one-run outing against the Padres.
The All-Star ace will take the mound in prime time, and it could be a preview of another October showdown. The Dodgers, jockeying for first place with NL West rival San Francisco, have their eyes on returning to the NLCS.
"We feel like we're capable," Dodgers manager Don Mattingly said. "Obviously, I don't take anything for granted. Anything can happen. An injury to a couple of key guys puts you in a bad spot. At this point, it's setting up to be fun. I know when I was retired, I didn't really start watching until this time of year when all of the pennant races were going because you liked to see how teams reacted down the stretch."
Should the Dodgers earn a playoff berth, they could very well return to St. Louis. The Cardinals, who have taken the first two games of the series, are in the midst of a playoff push of their own in the NL Central, battling the Brewers, Pirates and Reds.
"Well, we know they've got a good club," Mattingly said. "That division is a tough division. Cincinnati and Pittsburgh and Milwaukee. Everybody can't make it, but obviously they're capable. They kind of have that pedigree about them, they seem to be there every year at the end of the year and play well when they need to. I'm assuming they'll be right there."
The Cardinals will hand the ball to right-hander Carlos Martinez, who is making his seventh start of the season after moving from an eighth-inning setup role. He's 2-4 on the year with a 4.43 ERA in 63 innings.
In the process of building up his pitch count, Martinez lasted 4 1/3 innings against the Dodgers in Los Angeles, allowing just one run in a 3-1 Cardinals win June 27. But he struggled in an NL Central battle against the Brewers in Milwaukee in his last start before the All-Star break, allowing four runs on seven hits in four innings.
"We've seen him take some good steps forward," Cards manager Mike Matheny said. "I believe in Milwaukee we saw him take a step back. I think he got his emotions ahead of himself a little bit, and the consistency wasn't there. I thought every start up until that point, he had taken great strides in pitching instead of just throwing. I think all the excitement of what was going on, chasing down the Brewers, I think that might have gotten the best of him in that particular situation."
Could emotion get the best of Martinez against the Dodgers -- in what could be a playoff preview?
"Every one of these games you could start putting together a plot line," Matheny said. "Hopefully, these guys are beyond that, and if not, they're going to have to learn the hard way. The more you start putting all those other variables into it and get away from, 'I have to go out there and make a pitch right now…' they're going to take lumps until they figure that out. His stuff, if he can keep all these outside distractions and influences at bay, he's going to do fine."
Cardinals: Wong's shoulder improved
• The All-Star break worked wonders for Cards second baseman Kolten Wong, who returned without any discomfort in his left shoulder.
He spent 15 days on the disabled list before the break with a left shoulder contusion.
"My shoulder is feeling really good now," he said. "I just basically did nothing the entire break. I tried to get my body to 100 percent. It's never going to be 100 percent, but my shoulder is back to normal."
Wong opened the second half with a two-hit game in which he scored two of the Cardinals' three runs. He tacked on another two hits in Saturday's 4-2 victory and has hit safely in nine of 10 games since returning from the DL. His five home runs are the most by a Cardinals second baseman in July since 1977, when Mike Tyson also had five.
Dodgers: Mattingly seeking offense
• The Dodgers have gone 3-4 in their last seven games -- scoring a combined 11 runs.
Mattingly has noticed the lack of punch in his lineup.
"We haven't had a lot of offense in general, to be honest with you," he said. "The runs aren't flowing very well right now, but hopefully they will. I look at our numbers, start looking at walks and on-base [percentage], and we're like third."
The Dodgers have relied on a strong rotation, and Mattingly said he thinks, in general, the game has become more pitching-dominated over the years.
"You're going, 'Maybe this is offense now, maybe this is where baseball is at right now. Maybe we have hit our stride,'" he said. "It's working a little bit. I think this last little section of games, we're better than that, and I think we'll put up more runs than that. But offenses in general don't really score nowadays."
• St. Louis catcher Tony Cruz is expected to start behind the plate Sunday after getting Saturday off. George Kottaras made his first start for the Cardinals and collected his first hit with the club.
• Dodgers right-hander Josh Beckett is expected to come off the disabled list and start Tuesday. He's looking to pitch through left hip impingement, which could impact him for the rest of the season. Beckett revealed Saturday that the actual diagnosis is a torn labrum with two cysts.
Michael Lananna is an associate reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.