NLCS Preview: Los Angeles Dodgers at St Louis Cardinals

National League Championship Series: Los Angeles Dodgers at St. Louis Cardinals
 
Objectively, what a fantastic matchup in the NLCS. The Dodgers and the Cardinals are very clearly the two best teams in the National League, going damn near toe to toe in every single aspect of the game. No two pitchers in the playoffs have been as good as Adam Wainwright and Clayton Kershaw…except for maybe rookie Michael Wacha, who could be countered pitch for pitch with Zack Greinke. This is the battle of the heavyweights in every sense, as the two most important franchises in the National League slug it out in what should be (spoiler alert!) a seven game classic.
 
Subjectively, this is the most harrowing situation any Dodgers fan could hope for.
 
But before we deep dive into a fan’s tangled bramble of accursed sports insecurity, we can’t understand where we’re going until we understand where we’ve been.

The Dodgers prevailed in the NLDS on their two strengths: a titanic offense that can be equal amounts devastating and impotent, as well as a shutdown cabal of fearless hurlers who can pitch their way out of any situation. Before the series, in which the Dodgers defeated the Atlanta Braves in four tense games, I wrote:

If the Dodgers are going to win this series–or any series–it’s going to be because of their front seven, perhaps eight, hurlers. This group includes starting pitchers Clayton Kershaw, Zack Greinke and Hyun-Jin Ryu, along with relievers Kenley Jansen, Brian Wilson, Paco Rodriguez and J.P. Howell (and if he can get his act together, Ricky Nolasco). These are eight power arms that are there to miss bats and tangle up hitters. If there is one 2013 pitching staff perfectly equipped and perfectly ready to step right into the October spotlight, it’s this Dodgers team. Especially looking at how strikeout happy their opposition is in the Braves, who tied the Mets for the National League lead in Ks, this pitching staff should grind Atlanta into a seven day juice cleanse.

I wasn’t far off. LA won their last series on the strength of six arms, with Kershaw, Greinke, Jansen, Wilson and Howell providing predictable power and Chris Capuano surprisingly saving the squad from a 2-1 deficit with three innings of scoreless relief in Game 3. Ryu sputtered in his first postseason start, while Rodriguez completely collapsed with 4 hits, 2 walks, 2 earned runs and just two outs. The latter was a particularly disconcerting sign, as the rookie pitcher had been counted on all year as a left-handed stopper. His command seemed shot and every breaking pitch hung in the air like the stink surrounding Jerry Hairston, Jr. There’s no doubt that Rodriguez hit the wall 50-something innings into his first full professional season, which is a big reason why he’s been removed from the NLCS roster.

Ryu’s awful start last week could have just been one bad start from a player in his first postseason game, but then again, the Dodgers have no choice–they must turn to him for at least two starts if they hope to beat the Cardinals. St. Louis is somewhat more susceptible to left handers as a whole (.682 OPS versus, opposed to an amazing .755 OPS against righties), but their left-handed batters (like Matt Adams and Matt Carpenter) actually hit better against southpaws. Ryu will have to be much, much better and more careful against this super dangerous Cards offense than he was against Atlanta, hanging breaking balls like mid-air meatballs.

Kershaw, Greinke, Jansen, Wilson and Howell pitched extremely well for those four games, despite what the W-L record will say for the two starters. However, for as masterful as these five were, they’ll need for Ryu, Nolasco and one of the Belasario/Volquez/Marmol/Withrow contingent to step up and provide some knock out innings in relief. This Cardinals squad was the best offense in the National League this season, and they will (not might–will) score runs. Carlos Beltran, Matt Holliday, Adams and Yadier Molina all finished their five-game series win over the Pittsburgh Pirates with an OPS over .900, which doesn’t even include MVP candidate Carpenter who only went 1 for 19.

The Dodgers will need to match this red and white juggernaut with offensive production of their own, which bailed them out of a so-so start (well, at least relatively) from Kershaw in Game 1, Ryu’s bomb in Game 3 and in the late innings of the deciding Game 4. As great as the Cardinals were in their NLDS, four Dodgers were even more Herculean, with Yasiel Puig, Hanley Ramirez, Carl Crawford and the corpse-cum-conquering hero Juan Uribe with OPS north of 1.000. LA’s hitting seems to come in waves, as seen in two tidal waves in Games 1 and 3 and two paltry offerings in Games 2 and 4. In order to beat the Cardinals, they’ll need to get to the starters early, knocking them out before a shutdown bullpen comes in and makes run-scoring scarce.

If it sounds like I’m equal parts complimenting both teams, it’s because…I absolutely am. This is the worst possible match up for the Dodgers in that there are two teams that could have possibly matched up this well against them: the St. Louis Cardinals and the Cincinnati Reds. With Cincy bounced in the Wild Card game, the Cards are the only team that could have possibly withstood LA’s three-pronged attack–and of course these are the two squads left standing.

Pitching-wise, Kershaw is unquestionably the best dealer in the world, but Adam Wainwright (as exhibited by Wednesday’s complete game gem) isn’t far behind. Zack Greinke has been an All-League talent, but Michael Wacha, who the Dodgers haven’t seen yet, has been irrationally good in his 10 Major League starts. The remaining four starters, including Ryu, Nolasco, Lance Lynn and Joe Kelly, could be alternately good or terrible depending on the day. The starters, as it would seem, are a wash.

Offensively, it looks to be a dead heat, especially if Andre Ethier is ready to play every day as reported today at ESPNLA. The Cardinals have a grinding, relentless line-up, while the Dodgers look to have a more instantly explosive attack centered around Puig, Adrian Gonzalez and Ramirez. Both teams have been tamed over the past week, so they’re both not completely containable. But when Wainwright, Greinke or Kershaw aren’t on the mound, there should be some fireworks. This battle too, is a wash.

In terms of bullpens, the battle lines are incredibly close. The Dodgers throw out Jansen, Wilson and Howell, while the Cards counter with Jason Siegrist (he of 0.45 regular season ERA), Rookie of the Year candidate Shelby Miller, fireballers Seth Maness and Carlos Martinez and newly anointed closer Trevor Rosenthal. While LA will enjoy more experienced veteran arms at the back-end of their pen, St. Louis just seems to pick 98 MPH hurlers off of a stock somewhere in Peoria. The Central Division champs get the slight edge here simply because of depth, but perhaps that’s the key in what could be a long series.

However, moving on to the offensive reserve, the Dodgers have the advantage with a bench that includes Michael Young, Nick Punto, (now) Skip Schumaker, Scott Van Slyke and speedster Dee Gordon. With Allen Craig out and Matt Adams pressed into starting duty, the St. Louis bench has been noticeably thinned.

If this were almost any other team, this preview would be pretty easy to write. The Dodgers have very few holes opposing teams can exploit and are especially dangerous considering their offense is humming and Kershaw looks like he will not be beat. But I expect this series to go long, and in a war of attrition, it looks like the Cardinals can simply outlast them because of their deep ‘pen which includes starter Miller. The Dodgers can win this series. They could sweep this series, because that’s how potent they are in all parts of the game. But the Cardinals look slightly better and with home field advantage, “slightly” is all they need. This NLCS will be a war.

St. Louis Cardinals in 7 games.

 

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