ST. LOUIS -- Almost two months into the season, Woody Williams was so disgusted with his performance that retirement seemed to make sense.
Flash forward, and find him as the deserving starter for the St. Louis Cardinals in Game 1 of the National League Division Series today against Odalis Perez and the Los Angeles Dodgers.
Williams (11-8) got the nod over 15-game winner Matt Morris, having shaken off his early woes and become the team's most consistent starter.
The Cardinals also will lean on Williams in Game 5 Monday, if necessary.
"It's been a strange season, no doubt," Williams said. "It's been a long road but it's been well worth it."
Williams won 18 games last year but then was limited throughout spring training by shoulder tendinitis, pitching only five innings. He played catchup for a while and on May 22 was saddled with a 1-5 record and 5.26 ERA.
"Honestly, I was down to like two starts before I went home," Williams said. "I wasn't going to kid myself and I wasn't going to make them pay me for me not doing my job.
"It wasn't a good time. But you know what? It makes you appreciate the good times and not take things for granted."
Manager Tony La Russa wasn't aware how close Williams, 37, came to quitting. But he wasn't all that surprised, either.
"When you're a serious and proud competitor and you don't feel like you're taking your part of the responsibility, you have that kind of response," La Russa said. "That's why these guys are so special.
"When they're not doing it, man, they don't just say, `What's the big deal?' "
Williams has the fewest victories in the rotation, mostly because of 12 no-decisions and three straight blown saves by the bullpen in September. But he's 45-22 since coming to the Cardinals in August 2001 in what was supposed to be a low-impact trade with the Padres that sent Ray Lankford to San Diego. Before arriving, he was a career 58-62 pitcher.
This year, the Cardinals are 15-4 in his last 19 starts and he has a 3.70 ERA in that span. To him, those are the relevant numbers.
"I said in spring training that if all of these guys could get the wins and I would be the one guy to not have the success, I would gladly take that role," Williams said. "I believe in myself, I believe in my teammates, and I know my job in the first game is to do the best I can and keep them in the game."
Perez had a similar year for the Dodgers, going 7-6 with a 3.25 ERA and a franchise-record 18 no-decisions. Like Williams, he didn't let his frustrations be known.
"I pitched a lot of good games, a lot of one- and two-run games and I don't have the decision," Perez said. "It's tough because it's my free agent year. But most of the teams will know who I am, and know I can go out there and I can pitch."
Perez will be challenged by a lineup that led the NL in runs. Albert Pujols is 6 for 10 against him with two homers, two doubles, and seven RBIs, and Scott Rolen is 6 for 11 with two homers, a double, and five RBIs.
"It's one of the toughest lineups in baseball," Perez said. "Those guys, they put up big numbers."
The Dodgers clinched the West Saturday, two weeks later than the Cardinals. While St. Louis is making its fourth postseason appearance in five years, this is Los Angeles's first trip to the playoffs since 1996.
The Dodgers' 93-win total is their best since 1991, when they also won 93.
Manager Jim Tracy doesn't know if it's an advantage that the Dodgers had to drive toward the finish line while the Cardinals were on cruise control.
"The realization is it's a 162-game marathon to get to this point," Tracy said. "However many games we had to play in my opinion all becomes immaterial."
Dodgers outfielder Milton Bradley, suspended for the final five games of the regular season after a bottle-throwing tantrum during a victory over Colorado, will be back in the lineup.
"He deserves to start," Tracy said. "He made a mistake and he paid for it. He served his sentence and we're going to move forward."
The Cardinals are going with a four-man rotation of Williams, Jason Marquis (15-7), Morris (15-10), and Jeff Suppan (16-9), while the Dodgers will try to get it done with three pitchers.
After Perez comes Jeff Weaver (13-13) and Jose Lima (13-5), with Perez the probable for Game 4 and Weaver on three days' rest if necessary in Game 5.
Kaz Ishii (13-8, 4.71) was bumped from the mix.
"They're the three guys that have been the most consistent for us," Tracy said.