The Los Angeles Dodgers and St. Louis Cardinals square off tonight in Game 1 of the NLCS in what is going to be a traditional baseball lover’s fantasy. Why? These two teams both have star pitchers, deep rotations, and effective bullpens. You will most definitely hear the words “pitcher’s duel” throughout this series, and it’s quite possible Bob Costas could orgasm during Game 2’s telecast when Clayton Kershaw is paired up with Michael Wacha. But let’s move on to more pleasant thoughts like the series itself. Below are some contributing factors to not only Costas’ o-face but also where you the fan will find enjoyment. Let’s dig in.
As mentioned above, pitching should be and will be the main ingredient for this series. First, you have All-World manchild Kershaw and two other Cy Young Award winners (Zack Greinke and Adam Wainwright) throwing in different games. Going tonight is Greinke versus one of the Cardinals’ young staff members in Joe Kelly. Game 2 features Kershaw and wunderkind Wacha. Game 3 is Wainwright and Hyun-Jin Ryu. Every one of those pitchers has an ERA of 3.00 or below, bottoming out with Kershaw’s ridiculous 1.83 ERA. Also, 5 of those 6 pitchers have 10+ wins. The only one who doesn’t is Wacha, who in his last two starts has given up only 2 hits in 16 IP.
Depending on how the Dodgers and Cardinals use the rest of their starters – if at all – we could see surprising pitching performances by guys like Lance Lynn and Shelby Miller of the Cardinals, and Ricky Nolasco of the Dodgers. None of those guys are slouches themselves. In fact, no pitcher has an ERA above 3.97 out of that group. Suffice to say, starting pitching will be the skeleton key of this series and if there are any moments where the starters fail to do their job, the bullpens can take over.
Outside of The Machine’s roommate, Brian Wilson, these bullpens are headlined by mostly unknowns or rookies who uncannily leave very little room for concern from either dugout. The Cardinals are without their primary closer in Edward Mujica, who over the course of the season closed 37 games while riding a 2.78 ERA and 1.01 WHIP. Yet, that doesn’t worry them much due to the emergence of Trevor Rosenthal, who was 5th among all relievers for K/9IP at 12.90. Fourth on that list was Kensley Jansen of the Dodgers, who had a 1.88 ERA and 28 saves himself. Both teams have left-handed specialists, strikeout specialists, and plenty of depth. Once again, like their starting pitcher counterparts, there are no real holes in the Swiss cheese here. They are solid, long reliever to closer. So if you’re trying to introduce anyone to baseball over the next 7-10 days using the NLCS as your primary example, I’d think twice about that.
I will take the Dodgers middle three batters of Hanley Ramirez, Adrian Gonzalez, and Yasiel Puig over Matt Holliday, Matt Adams, and Yadier Molina any day of the week. However, top to bottom, the Cardinals have the better lineup. Kicked off by Matt Carpenter (so many Matts!) and Carlos Beltran at the top, with playoff-tested David Freese batting 6th, it will take great pitching to get through those All-Stars minus a few hits. It’s not as if those names emit any kind of fear into the minds of most fans. But, what these guys do is get on base, don’t get thrown out, and knock their fellow Cardinals in when on base. It’s textbook baseball at it’s finest. Wait, maybe I’m Costasing right now.
Outside of the aforementioned Dodgers trio, Carl Crawford is the only hitter that evokes any kind of relevancy, but even he is a light-hitting batter who once had blazing speed. He’s still fast enough, though, and if he can get on base, he will cause many headaches for Cardinals pitching. The back end of their lineup consists of a couple contact hitters (Mark Ellis, Michael Young and Skip Schumaker), an underrated A.J. Ellis, and NLDS fan favorite, Juan Uribe. As you can see, every third inning for most Cardinals pitchers will be an easy inning given pitchers will be batting. The Dodgers will ultimately need some major output from their middle three to score some runs. Yet, I don’t think that will be much of an issue.
While the Cardinals are missing RBI-machine Allen Craig, who has been out since September 4th with a foot injury and was left off the NLCS roster, they have adjusted well enough to make that a non-issue. That injury certainly affects their depth off the bench, which inserted Matt Adams into full-time duty, and who seems more than ready for the job. This leaves the Cardinals without many clutch pinch hitters to bring in off the bench, but if these games are as close as we all think they will be, there will be some bunting and positional strategies involved, and the Cards’ bench is loaded with plenty of guys who can provide that service.
Another wild card in this series is Andre Ethier. He’s on the NLCS roster and may even play in Game 1 tonight. He’s a former 20 HR/85 RBI kind of guy that would be a great pickup for any team in the middle of a postseason run. The Dodgers have Scott Van Slyke coming off the bench with a little pop as well, but that’s it. The rest are middle infield types like Dee Gordon and Michael Young, who have roles to play, but are not game-changers. Of course, Matt Kemp would’ve been nice to have had but he couldn’t stay out of the trainer’s room this year. He will be missed, along with Craig, but I see that as a fair trade. Moving on.
Enough cannot be said about this guy. He’s the best pitcher in baseball. He makes even the best hitters look foolish at the plate. And he’s proven he can pitch on three day’s rest. Any team in the playoffs should fear a guy like this. His sub-2.00 ERA was the lowest by an NL pitcher since 1995. His command of the strike zone with multiple pitches is disturbing, and he can also throw mid-to-high 90s fastballs, which makes his breaking stuff even more detrimental. The Cardinals face an uphill battle any time he comes in to pitch, meaning they are more than likely going to have to be nearly perfect in all of the other games – much like Kershaw will be in the two starts he gets.
Adam Wainwright is really good. He’s not as good as Kershaw, but he can deal. And he’s a gamer. He will stick it out through all 9 innings if he has to, no matter the pitch count. But Wainwright isn’t pitching until Game 3 due to the length of their NLDS versus the Pirates, which means he may not pitch again until Game 7 – if there is a Game 7. That is a huge blow to this team if so. The Cardinals have a deep rotation and bullpen, and the games should be low-scoring, but that doesn’t mean you’d rather have that than your ace going Game 1 or Game 2. It’s not a momentum killer or anything of that sort. It just places more pressure on the other guys – pressure Wainwright loves to take on.
Don Mattingly is an okay coach. Given, he has a lot of personalities to deal with on that team, but that doesn’t mean you throw strategy out of the window to suffice your best players. Many have questioned his coaching tactics during this postseason run and some others have said he has been bailed out by his emerging talent like Kershaw and Puig. Whatever the case, Mattingly is not under contract after this season and it’s not entirely due to waiting for the postseason to finish to begin contract negotiations. His stragery has backfired a few times and could again. In close games, that could cost you.
This is a tough one. The Cardinals just win, but the Dodgers have Kershaw and Greinke going at least 4 games. The Cardinals have the playoff experience, while also yielding a much younger and less-experienced roster. The Dodgers have the gusto, while also lacking the overall skill and tactics the Cardinals display on a nightly basis. However, since pitching controls the postseason, and if the Dodgers don’t allow Wainwright to pitch Game 7 in front of a raucous home crowd, I see the Dodgers taking this series in 6 under Kershaw’s watch. To put your mind at ease, I did correctly select the first four divisional series matches. So, yes, call your bookie.