(Game 1 is Friday at 8:37 p.m. ET in St. Louis.)
The Los Angeles Dodgers did America a favor this week by dispatching the Atlanta Braves in four games. At some point this season, the Braves reached the conclusion that they were the Knights Templar of baseball's sacred Unwritten Rules. This led to a brawl when Miami pitcher Jose Fernandez made the unforgivable mistake of enjoying his first career home run, and another when Milwaukee's Carlos Gomez took a leisurely stroll around the bases after a home run against Paul Maholm, who'd plunked Gomez earlier in the season.
But absolute power to enforce the Unwritten Rules corrupts absolutely, which is how it came to pass that before Game 1 of the NLDS, Chipper Jones threw out the first pitch to the mascot, because no Brave would catch Jones's toss after the future Hall of Famer had the audacity to predict on the radio that the Braves would lose the NLDS in four games. In their zeal for baseball purity, the Braves overlooked one of the Unwritten Rules of common sense: You don't snub a franchise legend1 over petty bullshit. And now few people, least of all their franchise legend, are shedding tears over the Braves losing the NLDS. In four games. The only shame is that the Dodgers didn't clinch in Atlanta, which would have allowed them to dig a hole in the ground in center field, fill it with water, and jump in.
The Dodgers are a 1 percenter's wet dream of a franchise, a team that bought its way to a talented roster with the highest payroll in the history of American professional sports. But one of the notable aspects of American society is that when asked to choose between plutocrats on one side and dour moralizers on the other, Americans will choose the plutocrats every time. Most of us aspire to be rich; very few of us aspire to be douche bags.
While the Dodgers did the country a solid, the St. Louis Cardinals crashed the party and ruined the best story line going. America loves a Cinderella, but Cinderella has gone home to Pittsburgh. The Pirates ended the longest streak of consecutive losing seasons in American sports history with a 94-win campaign and a victory in the wild-card game, and had a one-game lead on the Cardinals plus a raucous home crowd for Game 4.
But the Cardinals simply reached into their bottomless well of young talent and put Michael Wacha on the mound. Wacha, just the second pitcher since 2000 to start a postseason game the year after he was drafted, responded by taking a no-hitter into the eighth inning. The Cardinals held the Pirates to one run in each of the last two games of the series, advancing to their eighth NLCS since 2000. No other team in baseball — not even the Yankees or the Red Sox — has reached the LCS round as often in the 21st century.
Maybe other teams would have provided better drama, but the Dodgers and Cardinals are the two best teams in the National League, which means this should be a great series. Before you continue reading, please keep in mind that Yogi Berra once said "It's tough to make predictions, especially about the future," and we're not writing this from November.
RHP Zack Greinke (2.63 ERA, 3.45 xFIP, .234/.291/.355 against)
LHP Clayton Kershaw (1.83 ERA, 2.88 xFIP, .195/.244/.277 against)
LHP Hyun-Jin Ryu (3.00 ERA, 3.46 xFIP, .252/.299/.361 against)
RHP Ricky Nolasco (3.70 ERA, 3.58 xFIP, .255/.305/.388 against)
RHP Shelby Miller (3.06 ERA, 3.73 xFIP, .234/.299/.371 against)
RHP Michael Wacha (2.78 ERA, 3.36 xFIP, .219/.274/.329 against)
RHP Adam Wainwright (2.94 ERA, 2.80 xFIP, .248/.280/.356 against)
RHP Joe Kelly (2.69 ERA, 4.19 xFIP, .259/.326/.367 against)
RHP Lance Lynn (3.97 ERA, 3.66 xFIP, .252/.327/.375 against)
The Dodgers elected to use Kershaw on three days' rest to finish off the Braves on Monday, which will keep him off the mound until Game 2. So instead of turning to the man who led all pitchers in WAR in 2013 and led the NL in WAR in 2012, the Dodgers are forced to turn to Greinke, who led all pitchers in WAR in 2009. It's trite, but it's true: The Dodgers have the best one-two punch in baseball, and they have one of the best one-two punches of any playoff team since the legendary duo of Randy Johnson and Curt Schilling led the 2001 Diamondbacks to a world championship. That doesn't guarantee anything, but it certainly helps in a short series like the NLDS, when Kershaw and Greinke combined to allow just three earned runs in 19 innings.
Behind that top two, the Dodgers' rotation is a little shaky. Ryu came over from South Korea as advertised, ready to drop in to a major league rotation, and he led all rookies in innings and was third in pitching WAR. But in his NLDS start against the Braves, Ryu surrendered four earned runs and had to be pulled after three innings. Nolasco's overall solid numbers hide his finish, as he allowed 19 runs in 12 innings in his last three starts; the Dodgers were so skittish about letting Nolasco start Game 4 of the NLDS that they turned back to Kershaw on short rest even though they were leading the series.
It will be nearly impossible for the Dodgers to get through a seven-game series with only three starting pitchers, so someone else has to take the mound once. If they decide they want no part of Nolasco, they may turn to Edinson Volquez, who was released by the Padres in late August with an ERA above six, but made five starts for L.A. in September and posted a 4.18 ERA.
The Cardinals' rotation is even more muddled, as it's not yet clear who will be the Game 1 starter. Fortunately, they know they can turn to Wacha — who in his last two starts has allowed two hits in 16 innings — in Game 2, and Wainwright, their undisputed ace and the sole pitching link to their 2006 championship team, in Game 3.
[Update: The Cardinals have announced that Kelly will start Game 1, followed by Wacha in Game 2, and Wainwright in Game 3.]
Miller, who was second in pitching WAR among rookies behind Fernandez, didn't even start in the NLDS, and he might be gassed from throwing a career-high 173 innings. In his first 25 starts of the year, Miller struck out five or more batters 21 times; he didn't strike out five batters in any of his last six starts. Lynn was an innings-eating horse all season, but gave up five runs in 4⅓ innings in his playoff start against Pittsburgh. Kelly pitched well in his playoff start, but his stuff and peripheral statistics are both a tick behind the other two.
The Dodgers have the best starter in the series, because they have the best starter in baseball. But after Kershaw, it's pretty even. And Wainwright's not exactly a slouch.
1. RF Yasiel Puig (R) — .319/.391/.534
2. LF Carl Crawford (L) — .283/.329/.407
3. SS Hanley Ramirez (R) — .345/.402/.638
4. 1B Adrian Gonzalez (L) — .293/.342/.461
5. 3B Juan Uribe (R) — .278/.331/.438
6. CF Skip Schumaker (S) — .263/.332/.332
7. C A.J. Ellis (R) — .238/.318/.364
8. 2B Mark Ellis (R) — .270/.323/.351
1. 2B Matt Carpenter (L) — .318/.392/.481
2. RF Carlos Beltran (S) — .296/.339/.491
3. LF Matt Holliday (R) — .300/.389/.490
4. 1B Matt Adams (L) — .284/.335/.503
5. C Yadier Molina (R) — .319/.359/.477
6. 3B David Freese (R) — .262/.340/.381
7. CF Jon Jay (L) — .276/.351/.370
8. SS Pete Kozma (R) — .217/.275/.273
The Dodgers were 11th in the NL in runs scored before the All-Star break, but after that they ranked third, a testament to how much of an impact Puig and Ramirez made when they were added to the lineup in June. Puig has received so much attention for his brashness, his freak athleticism, and his aggressiveness on the bases and in the field that his maturity at the plate has largely been overlooked. Consider:
• June 3 to July 2: .443/.473/.745, 3 UIBB, 22 K in 112 PA
• July 3 to July 22: .220/.266/.254, 3 UIBB, 21 K in 64 PA
• July 23 onward: .286/.387/.507, 24 UIBB, 54 K in 256 PA
When Puig came up he swung at everything, because he could hit everything, and when pitchers adjusted by declining to throw him strikes anymore, he briefly struggled to adjust. But unlike, say, Jeff Francoeur, another phenom to whom Puig was unkindly compared when he first arrived, he adjusted by learning to take his walks. Even though his batting average has understandably returned to mortal levels, he has continued to be a very effective hitter, with the difference being that his results now appear sustainable. He's not a prototypical leadoff hitter, but he's a devastatingly effective one.
Like their rotation, the Dodgers' lineup peters out toward the end. Uribe's unexpected renaissance — he hit .199/.262/.289 in the first two years of his contract — extends the challenge for the opposing pitcher one more spot in the lineup. Uribe's home run Monday was his second game-winning eighth-inning homer in the deciding game of a playoff series in the last three years.
The Cardinals led the NL in runs in the first half … and led the NL in runs in the second half, both times by substantial margins. In today's offensive context, rolling out a lineup that has seven batters with an OBP of .335 or higher is remarkable. Four of their seven qualifying regulars hit .300; no other NL team had more than two. The Cardinals can win with singles, doubles, and walks, but while they finished 13th in the NL in homers, they delivered at least one homer in all five NLDS games. This lineup just doesn't quit.
Batting second is Beltran, who hit just 4-for-18 in the NLDS, albeit with three walks, two homers, and a .611 slugging average. But keep in mind that, right now, his .944 OPS this October would easily be the lowest OPS he's had in any postseason. His career playoff line of .345/.453/.761 oscillates above and below Babe Ruth's line of .326/.467/.744 on any given day, but basically, Beltran has a case as the greatest playoff hitter of all time. And as an added bonus, there's no chance he'll face Wainwright's curveball in this series.
Puig and Ramirez may be the two best hitters in this series, but there's a reason St. Louis scored 77 more runs than every other team in the NL: depth. After setting a major league record with a .330 average with runners in scoring position during the season, the Cardinals were just 5-for-27 (.185) in those situations against Pittsburgh. It still didn't matter.
The Dodgers have two small but not insignificant advantages in their favor. Andre Ethier (.272/.360/.423) would upgrade the lineup if he's healthy enough to start over Schumaker, but even if he's not, he makes for a dandy pinch hitter against right-handed pitchers, and was used in that role in all four NLDS games. Ethier alone gives the Dodgers a better bench than the Cardinals, who have none. Seriously: The Cardinals' best bench option is probably Daniel Descalso, who hit .238/.290/.366 this season. Shane Robinson is their only bench player with an OBP above .300. Things are so dire that if the Cardinals badly need a single, one of their best options might be Kolten Wong, a top prospect who nonetheless has just nine career hits in the majors and a .153 average.
(Late word is that Allen Craig, who hit .315/.373/.457 for the Cardinals this year but is out with a Lisfranc injury in his left foot, wants to be activated for the NLCS. While it seems like a long shot at this point, even a hobbled Craig might be the best pinch hitter on their roster.)
The Dodgers, meanwhile, have Ethier, and they have Scott Van Slyke (.240/.342/.465), and they have Professional Hitter Michael Young (.314 since joining the Dodgers, and 2,375 career hits). And if they need a pinch runner they have Dee Gordon, who in barely a full season's worth of playing time has 66 career steals, particularly impressive given that he reaches base approximately never.
The Dodgers' other edge is in the no. 9 spot. Their pitchers led the league in all three triple-slash stats (.176/.233/.227), along with doubles and walks. Cardinals pitchers combined to hit .126/.157/.161.
Closer: RHP Kenley Jansen (1.88 ERA, 2.06 xFIP, .177/.236/.273 against)
RHP Brian Wilson (0.66 ERA, 2.82 xFIP, .178/.245/.222 against)
RHP Chris Withrow (2.60 ERA, 3.03 xFIP, .165/.246/.289 against)
LHP J.P. Howell (2.03 ERA, 3.48 xFIP, .193/.269/.261 against)
LHP Paco Rodriguez (2.32 ERA, 2.92 xFIP, .164/.249/.262 against)
Closer: RHP Trevor Rosenthal (2.63 ERA, 2.34 xFIP, .223/.289/.319 against)
RHP Carlos Martinez (5.08 ERA, 3.83 xFIP, .282/.350/.355 against)
RHP Seth Maness (2.32 ERA, 3.13 xFIP, .281/.322/.403 against)
LHP Kevin Siegrist (0.45 ERA, 3.00 xFIP, .128/.237/.195 against)
LHP Randy Choate (2.29 ERA, 3.30 xFIP, .208/.281/.256 against)
Jansen may be the most underrated closer in baseball, which should be nearly impossible for a pitcher in Los Angeles. In the NLDS he faced nine batters and struck out seven of them. He is just the third reliever in history — the others being Craig Kimbrel last year and Eric Gagne in 2002 — to strike out 110 batters in a season while walking fewer than 20.
Along with Uribe, Wilson gives the Dodgers two key members of the archrival, world champion 2010 San Francisco Giants. Wilson is still working his way back to being 100 percent after Tommy John surgery, having returned to the mound only in late August, but he's locked down the setup role, having allowed just one run since resuming play.2 Howell and Rodriguez give the Dodgers the requisite two left-handed specialists with which to attack the likes of Carpenter, Adams, and Jay.
Rosenthal, a rookie, isn't in Jansen's class as a closer yet, but he's close. For the season, Rosenthal had just three more (unintentional) walks than Jansen, and just three fewer strikeouts. Behind the closer, the Cardinals' bullpen is a bit of a muddle. As with the rotation, the Cardinals' options aren't clear — but that's different from saying their options aren't good.
Point of fact: Their eighth-inning guy in the NLDS was Martinez, who has 28 career innings and a 5.08 ERA. That sounds bad, but Martinez has been a top-40 prospect each of the past two years and was brilliant again as a starter in the minors this year. His raw stuff may be even better than Rosenthal's, and the Cardinals are hoping that, like Wainwright seven years ago, Martinez's inexperience will be trumped by his unhittable stuff.
Behind those two, the Cardinals have a reliever for every season, whether it's a ground ball (Maness) or a left-handed hitter (expect to see Siegrist against the Crawford-Ramirez-Gonzalez trio once or twice).
The Dodgers probably have the edge here, but it's a very slim one, the kind of edge that can evaporate completely depending on the …
Don Mattingly was on the cutting board when the Dodgers fell to 30-42, and while their historic 42-8 stretch after that granted him a reprieve, he still doesn't have a contract for next year. The Dodgers' NLDS win may have saved his job, but it also exposed some of his tactical flaws.
To wit: Mattingly had a big hand in the Dodgers' one NLDS loss, in Game 2. In a 2-1 game in the bottom of the seventh, with two outs and runners on second and third and Jose Constanza at the plate for Atlanta, Mattingly removed Withrow for a left-handed reliever in Rodriguez. When Fredi Gonzalez countered by sending up right-handed hitter Reed Johnson, Mattingly had Rodriguez intentionally walk Johnson to pitch to Jason Heyward with the bases loaded.
Securing the platoon advantage is generally a good thing. But intentionally walking the bases loaded makes a walk as good as a run, which means the on-base percentage of the batter on deck has to be lower than the batting average of the batter at the plate. Reed Johnson is a career .311 hitter against left-handed pitchers. Heyward struggled against left-handers early in his career, but had a .347 OBP against lefties this year, and actually posted a higher OPS against them than against right-handers overall. More than that, Heyward is a burgeoning star in this league, and why Mattingly would purposely bring him to the plate with three ducks on the pond is beyond me. Heyward delivered a two-run single, making the Dodgers' two-run rally the next inning irrelevant. In the deciding Game 4, Mattingly ordered Uribe to bunt the tying runner from second to third in the eighth inning, a terrible percentage play. Mattingly was saved from the repercussions of the decision when Uribe twice failed to get the bunt down — and then launched the homer that effectively ended the series.
These are small things, and they didn't cost the Dodgers in the end. But managing ballgames is a series of small things that can add up to a big thing if the guy in charge screws up enough of them. Mattingly has to do better this round.
Mike Matheny didn't screw up a whole lot with his relievers in the NLDS, in large part because he didn't use them a whole bunch, letting Wainwright throw a complete game — with a 6-1 lead in the ninth — in the clincher. Expect Matheny to ride Wainwright and Wacha hard in their games, allowing him to turn the other games into all-hands-on-deck affairs. Matheny has toned it down with the bunts — his position players executed 17 sacrifice bunts this year, down from 33 times in his first season as manager — which is a smart adjustment to make when you have the league's best offense.
This is as close of a matchup as we could ask for. The Cardinals have a sizable edge in their lineup; the Dodgers have slim edges in the rotation and bullpen, and a large edge on the bench. On paper, the teams are pretty much even.
But the ancillary edges favor St. Louis. The Cardinals have more postseason experience, and the evidence suggests that teams with more experience are slightly — very slightly — more likely to win. The Cardinals have home-field advantage. They have the league's best lineup, and as the Red Sox showed when they thumped David Price, good pitching doesn't always beat good hitting.
But mostly, they have Wainwright set up to pitch Game 7 in front of the home crowd, while his counterpart will be Ryu barring any shenanigans on the Dodgers' part. I expect the Cardinals to steal one of the two games Kershaw starts, and to split the other four games to set up a winner-takes-all finish. Wainwright has started six playoff games in his career, and allowed one run or less in five of them. Expect another dazzling start from him. In this battle between the haves and the have-mores, between a team with an embarrassment of money and a team with an embarrassment of talent, the player-development machine will prevail.
Prediction: Cardinals in seven