It’s hard to feel shortchanged by this year’s NLCS, because the Los Angeles Dodgers and St. Louis Cardinals have arguably the two deepest, most talented rosters in the league. These two franchises have been competing against each other since the 19th century, and the previous time the Dodgers made the playoffs, in the 2009 NL Division Series, it was they who ended the Cardinals’ season in a series that will long be remembered for Matt Holliday‘s flubbed catch.
This promises to be a lengthy, hard-fought series for the right to advance to the World Series. Here’s a look at the key matchups and under-the-radar players.
Cardinals’ X factor: Michael Wacha
In Wacha’s final start of the regular season, he came within one out of a no-hitter against the Nationals. In Game 4 of the NLDS against the Pirates, he took another no-hitter into the eighth inning. He’s also all of 22 years old with 10 starts under his belt, so there’s more than a little potential for volatility here in both directions.
For the Cardinals, one of the downsides of needing Game 5 to eliminate the Pirates is that ace Adam Wainwright won’t be available until Game 3, so St. Louis needs its other starters to step up against the rested Dodgers rotation. Wacha is undeniably talented — 74 strikeouts in 72 innings, including his NLDS start — but still inexperienced, so how he responds to the growing spotlight in what might be two head-to-head starts against Clayton Kershaw could tell the story of the series.
Dodgers’ X factor: Don Mattingly
The fourth and final game of the NLDS victory over Atlanta will be remembered for two eighth-inning managerial decisions that loomed large. After Atlanta’s Fredi Gonzalez went with David Carpenter to hold a 3-2 lead rather than give the ball to the dominant Craig Kimbrel, Juan Uribe slammed a two-run homer that proved to be the winning margin … but only after Mattingly had called twice for Uribe to give Carpenter an out with a sacrifice bunt, even though Yasiel Puig was already in scoring position and Uribe had proven throughout the season that bunting isn’t a skill he has.
That came on the heels of a Game 2 head-scratcher that had Mattingly calling for a bases-loading intentional walk so that the struggling Paco Rodriguez could face Jason Heyward rather than Reed Johnson — a decision that ended as poorly as one would have expected.
Mattingly showed a deft touch with his starters by lifting the ineffective Hyun-Jin Ryu after three innings in Game 3 and successfully starting Kershaw on short rest in Game 4, but every decision gets magnified in the playoffs, and his choices thus far have often been questionable at best.
Cardinals’ key reliever: Randy Choate
With St. Louis expected to use exclusively right-handed starters in the NLCS, it will fall on manager Mike Matheny to effectively use his bullpen to neutralize lefty Dodgers bats such as Carl Crawford, Andre Ethier, and Adrian Gonzalez. Kevin Siegrist will help with that, but he’s so effective against hitters from both sides that he’s more of a full-inning type than a situational one, meaning that ageless ex-Dodger Choate will be the true lefty specialist here. (Choate appeared in 19 more games than Siegrist, yet threw 4 1/3 fewer innings.)
Choate, 38, hasn’t allowed a homer to a left-handed hitter in more than two years, a streak he’ll need to keep alive in big spots in the late innings.
Dodgers’ key reliever: Paco Rodriguez
For most of the year, the young lefty with the funky delivery was one of Mattingly’s main bullpen weapons, striking out 63 in 54 1/3 innings with a sold 3.08 FIP as he became Kenley Jansen‘s primary setup man. Through the end of August, he’d allowed opponents to hit just .140/.214/.185 against him.
But as September arrived, Rodriguez struggled terribly (.308/.438/.731), then allowed six of the eight Braves he faced in the NLDS to reach, including a Heyward home run. Chris Capuano is more of a long reliever at this point, so if Rodriguez can’t be trusted, Mattingly is left with only J.P. Howell as a lefty reliever, potentially creating some matchup problems.
Key matchup: Hyun-Jin Ryu against the Cardinals’ offense
With Kershaw and Zack Greinke leading the way (more on them below), the Cardinals absolutely have to get to the lesser Dodgers starters in order to keep pace. Unfortunately for them, they’ll likely see the lefty Ryu in Game 3, and only one team in the NL had a harder time hitting lefty pitching than St. Louis did.
Ryu had a wonderful debut season in the United States, but struggled badly in Game 3 of the NLDS, lasting just three innings. Interestingly, he has a reverse split — he was more effective against righties (.280 wOBA) than lefties (.322 wOBA), making this likely Game 3 showdown a key one for the series. If the series goes to a full seven games, the Cardinals could see a lefty starter four times.
Cardinals’ key bench player: Kolten Wong
With Allen Craig still nursing a foot injury, Matt Adams has moved into the lineup and left the Cardinals’ bench almost entirely devoid of offensive utility. That could be a real problem as the games get tight, because Adron Chambers, Shane Robinson, Wong, and whoever isn’t starting at shortstop between Daniel Descalso and Pete Kozma, are less-than-dangerous threats. (Craig is now claiming he could play in the NLCS, but even if he does, it’s unclear how effective he would be.)
Wong, who is coming off a very good .303/.369/.466 season in Triple-A, is really the best of this bunch and should get the high-leverage pinch-hitting opportunities. He very well might be the starting second baseman next season, and Matt Carpenter‘s defensive versatility allows him to play five positions. Late-game double-switches that take advantage of moving Carpenter as needed could allow Wong to play a surprising role.
Dodgers’ key bench player: Michael Young
Young’s best days are long behind him, as is the value he once provided with his glove, but he’s clearly become Mattingly’s top pinch-hitting option. Mattingly rarely used his bench in the NLDS — Young and Ethier were the only pinch hitters used — and Ethier now hopes to be healthy enough to move back into the lineup.
That makes Young the man who is likely to get the bulk of important pinch-hitting appearances late in games. Now appearing in his fourth consecutive postseason, it’s going to fall to Young — not Nick Punto or Tim Federowicz or Skip Schumaker — to make the most of those chances.
Key stat: 76.5 percent
That’s the percentage of starts this season in which Kershaw (28 of 35) and Greinke (21 of 29) allowed two runs or fewer. They are lined up to start four games in this series, and that gives the Dodgers an edge in the pitching department — especially since Wainwright won’t be available before Game 3.
That percentage actually might be a little misleading, because it includes Greinke’s road back from the broken collarbone he suffered in April; the previous time he allowed more than two earned runs was July 27, more than two months ago. Since then, the duo has allowed two runs or fewer in an incredible 23 of 24 starts, making for a huge uphill battle for the Cardinals’ offense.
Modest proposal: Give Shelby Miller a home start
This is unlikely to happen, because Joe Kelly or Lance Lynn is likely to start Game 1, but it should. Matheny chose Lynn to start the second game of the NLDS, and Lynn couldn’t deliver, allowing five runs in less than five innings as the Cardinals fell 7-1. That, along with Wacha’s ascendance, left Miller without a start in the series — an odd fate for a pitcher who finished the year right between Cy Young Award candidates Felix Hernandez and Chris Sale in the overall ERA rankings.
Miller did have a somewhat tougher go of it in the second half, compared to his first, but he rebounded in September (.238/.317/.324 line against him), and he’s got massive home/road splits (.253 wOBA against in St. Louis as opposed to .345 on the road) that basically make him Wainwright (who had a .252 wOBA) at home. He should be a candidate to start at least one game in St. Louis.
Prediction: Dodgers in 6
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