Nothing quickens the heart like failure after long success. This spring, Tommy Lasorda showed up without his stomach, Whitey Herzog without his hair. Tommy's flat tummy and Whitey's flat top were signs that the managers of the National League's two most decorated franchises were back to serious business. No more pasta or preening.

When it says Dodgers or Cardinals across the chest of your uniform, you're not supposed to lose. At least not for long. The Dodgers, of Brooklyn and Los Angeles, have played in more World Series (17) and the Cardinals of St. Louis have won more Series (nine) than any rival NL teams. Uphold the honor of The Boys of Summer and The Gashouse Gang or be shamed.

Now, rebuilt and revived after finishing fourth and third in their respective divisions in 1984, the Dodgers and Cardinals are in the playoffs, facing each other in the postseason for the first time. Two clubs that started the season scared to death about their futures now frighten everybody else.

Game 1 of the NL championship series starts at 8:35 EDT tonight in Dodger Stadium. A better pitching matchup could not be ordered. The Cardinals' John Tudor, 21-8 overall but on an incredible 20-1 streak, matches his 1.93 ERA and 10 shutouts against the Dodgers' most feared money pitcher, Fernando Valenzuela (17-10, 2.45).

Since Sept. 1, Tudor has had four shutouts, not counting 10 shutout innings in a game he left with no decision against the Mets last week, and a 5-1 pennant-clinching victory. Tudor, however, has only three days rest and might be asked to start three times in the new best-of-seven-game playoff format.

Who's the only man to beat Tudor since May? That's right, Valenzuela, 3-0. The great Mexican left-hander may prove to be this playoff's single most charismatic performer. His career postseason and All-Star Game ERA is less than 1.90 (4-1) and his ERA in four starts against Tudor and New York's Dwight Gooden this year is 1.43.

Add the poor twilight batting conditions to Valenzuela's clutch mystique and it's no wonder the Cardinals are shuffling their lineup.

Cesar Cedeno, who batted .434 with six home runs and 19 RBI since being acquired from Cincinnati on Aug. 29, will start Game 1 in right field ahead of Andy Van Slyke. Herzog also says he's considering starting Tito Landrum in left field instead of rookie leadoff sensation Vince Coleman, who became the fourth man in history to steal more than 100 bases. That's how badly Valenzuela bamboozles Coleman at bat with his screwball and at first base with his pickoff move.

"Don't know yet," said Herzog of Coleman. "Got to weigh that one."

Despite the fact the Cardinals finished No. 1 in batting average and runs scored in the NL and the Dodgers weren't far behind, despite the fact only one team since 1912 has stolen more bases than the Cardinals' 310, despite the fact St. Louis might have the fastest defense in the history of baseball, hardly anybody seems to want to talk about anything in this series except the pitching matchups.

Game 2, also in the California twilight, pits a hot, young Dodger, Orel Hershiser (19-3), against a cold, old Cardinal, Joaquin Andujar (21-12). So what if Tudor has won 11 in a row? So has Hershiser, a right-hander who is one of only three starters in baseball to allow fewer base runners than innings pitched. The other two are Tudor and Gooden, if that hints at his class.

The flashy and boastful Andujar, unpopular with opposing teams and the media, has lost six of his last eight decisions, continuing a career-long pattern of fading finishes. Significantly, Andujar was 3-0 in the 1982 postseason, allowing just four runs in 21 innings. Just as Valenzuela was the linchpin of the Dodgers' world title in '81, so the Dominican Andujar had that role in the Cardinals' '82 world title. Last week, the deliberately enigmatic Andujar had a newspaper column pasted above his own locker. The headline read: "Andujar's Image Problems Of His Own Making."

Game 3, back in St. Louis on Saturday afternoon, looks like a push. Danny Cox (18-9, 2.88) is too solid to impugn, whereas Bob Welch (14-4, 2.31) is remembered as the rookie who faced down and fanned Reggie Jackson to end a Series game in 1978. But Welch's entire postseason record is not so hot -- two October starts, two early-exit losses.

Thereafter, matchups are problematic. If the Dodgers led and felt secure, they could use Jerry Reuss (14-10), another left-hander who might inhibit the Cardinals' running game. The Cardinals would hate the thought of using old Bob Forsch (9-6, 3.90) if they trailed by a game.

The two off days in this playoff favor the Cardinals, but, curiously, Herzog dislikes such a format. "I'd like the new (seven-game) playoffs better with less off days. (The longer wait) could take a lot of glitter off the World Series," Herzog said last week. "You win a division because of your fourth and fifth starters, and you never use them in the playoffs and Series. And they're who got you there."

Seven months ago, nobody would have given you a cigarette butt for either team's chances of getting here. The Dodgers were coming off their second losing record since 1968 (79-83) and had just lost ERA champion Alejandro Pena to surgery. Fourth place again? The Cardinals, after losing free-agent superstar Bruce Sutter, were picked to drop from third place to last by all three of the major national sports publications (Sports Illustrated, Sport and The Sporting News).

In Los Angeles, Lasorda did his reconstruction the Dodger Blue Way -- by having faith in farm system products and by hugging. Dominican shortstop Mariano Duncan stabilized the shaky infield. Pedro Guerrero, moved back to the outfield where he is comfortable, led the league in slugging. Mike Marshall (95 RBI) and Greg Brock (21 homers) finally replaced Steve Garvey and Ron Cey as power hitters. From the outside world, old hands Enos Cabell and Bill Madlock came along to fill roles. And everybody pitched.

In St. Louis, the Cardinals did it Whitey's Way -- with fabulous trades and bold personnel decisions. Getting Tudor from Pittsburgh for apparently washed-up George Hendrick and snatching cleanup presence Jack Clark (87 RBI) from San Francisco for four warm bodies were the two deals of the year. Plucking Cedeno looks smart. So does the decision to get rid of Lonnie Smith so that Coleman could play every day.

Replacing David Green and Smith with Coleman and Clark greatly increased the Cardinals' baseball intelligence. This team, following the lead of Ozzie Smith and Tommy Herr, may be the game's savviest group of inside-baseball students.

In sum, the Cardinals have hitting, defense, speed, smart managing and starting pitching. They lack any power (25th of 26 teams in homers with 87) and have no star reliever, just a bunch of gutty one-season stopgaps. Although the Dodgers have considerably more total postseason experience, the core of the Cardinals' cast has been there before -- Smith, Herr, McGee, Porter, Andujar.

The Dodgers have truly exceptional pitching of all types -- left, right, starting and relieving. Los Angeles also has good power, decent defense, serviceable speed and a fine 77-46 record since starting the season 18-21. The Dodgers have the slight home-field advantage and are far more rested than the Cardinals, who didn't disengage themselves from the Mets until the final Saturday.

Could a tired St. Louis team fly to Los Angeles, watch ace Tudor get beat by Valenzuela, then sag if Andujar can't stop the slide? Or, if the Cardinals win just one game on the Coast, will they get a second wind and run the Dodgers blue?

The Dodgers beat nobody of quality in the NL West and never were truly tested. The Cardinals looked a 98-win Mets contingent in the eye and stayed cool.

Although the Cardinals' 101 victories and their 14-1 streak in September are impressive, the team has had several career years from players who may never duplicate 1985: batting champ McGee (.353), Herr (110 RBI) and Tudor, not to mention relievers such as Jeff Lahti and Ken Dayley. Except for Hershiser, the Dodgers didn't depend on a single truly abnormal year for their 95 wins.

Often in a postseason match between two extremely good and extremely equal teams, one or two dominant personalities will emerge as leaders. Think of Pete Rose, Reggie Jackson, Willie Stargell, Steve Garvey and George Brett. Victory seems to follow them around, as much because of their bearing and indefinable stature in the game as their statistics.

The Cardinals don't appear to have any such on-field figure; they must win as a total team as they did in 1982. In Valenzuela or Guerrero, the Dodgers might have such a horse -- something they'll probably need since they don't seem quite as strong a total team.

If one team has a motivational edge, it could be the Cardinals, who feel their brand of strategic baseball, built on old-fashioned dead-ball style skills, goes unappreciated. "We never get full credit," said Ozzie Smith last month after a key victory. "Not even when we won it all in '82. That's just the way it is. Attention goes to the sluggers and the teams on the coasts.

"It doesn't bother us anymore," said Smith. "We just win."