The St. Louis Cardinals will once again attempt to eliminate the Los Angeles Dodgers from the 2013 NLCS in Friday night's Game 6 from Busch Stadium.
While we know the Game 6 basics—Michael Wacha and Clayton Kershaw on the mound, Mike Matheny and Don Mattingly in the dugout—which specific keys will be most critical for each team?
There has seldom been a dull moment in this matchup of division winners. Each of the series' five games has been decided by three runs or fewer, and we've witnessed heroics from players of various experience levels.
ESPN Stats & Info notes that the Dodgers have never won a game in St. Louis in an NLCS. Meanwhile, the Red Birds choked away 3-1 NLCS leads in both 1996 and 2012, the only two previous times that they've been in that situation.
Yay, small sample sizes!
Using slightly more significant data, we'll identify the factors that will ultimately determine the outcome.
*All stats provided by Baseball-Reference.com unless otherwise specified.
Ramirez grimacing in pain.
Although Andre Ethier and Hanley Ramirez have been penciled into the Game 6 lineup, Los Angeles Dodgers manager Don Mattingly is going to be tempted to remove them in the later innings.
It's clear that neither veteran slugger is at full strength. Ankle and rib injuries to Ethier and Hanley, respectively, have compromised their baserunning and defensive ability.
Still, Mattingly cannot seriously believe that L.A.'s reserves at those positions give his team any better odds of avoiding elimination. Outfielder Skip Schumaker and utility man Nick Punto have both been very unimpressive in October.
The primary reason that the Dodgers lost by a single run in both Games 1 and 2 is because they failed to capitalize with runners in scoring position, going 1-for-16 in such situations.
The Dodgers must have Ethier and Ramirez available in high-leverage spots to buck that trend.
It's been two weeks since Yadier Molina last recorded an extra-base hit or run batted in.
It may seem like an eternity ago, but the St. Louis Cardinals were once an offensive juggernaut during the regular season.
Before Michael Wacha was even a blip on the national radar or Adam Wainwright proved he had regained form prior to Tommy John surgery, this St. Louis club relied on its bats. More specifically, the Red Birds took advantage of their lineup depth and uncanny ability to deliver with runners in scoring position.
As MLB.com emphasizes, their offensive impotence in the 2013 postseason has been very uncharacteristic:
|BA (NL Rank)||OPS (NL Rank)||R/G (NL Rank)|
|Regular Season: First Half||.276 (1st of 15)||.753 (1st of 15)||4.97 (1st of 15)|
|Regular Season: Second Half||.259 (5th of 15)||.706 (7th of 15)||4.65 (1st of 15)|
|Postseason||.193 (4th of 5)||.581 (4th of 5)||3.30 (4th of 5)|
Even accounting for the superior quality of playoff pitching staffs (scoring drops "about nine percent" in the playoffs, according to High Heat Stats), this kind of Cardinals' regression is alarming.
Matt Carpenter, Carlos Beltran and Matt Holliday have been decent contributors for St. Louis in the NLCS, but they cannot be expected to carry the Cards in Game 6. Holliday had some funky reverse platoon splits this summer (only .799 OPS, 1 HR vs. LHB), while the other two were also significantly less productive against southpaws.
Clayton Kershaw will dominate at Busch Stadium for the second time in this series unless Yadier Molina, Matt Adams and others pick up the slack.
Don Mattingly is going to have a very simply strategy for handling his L.A. pitching staff in Game 6: Give Clayton Kershaw the ball and get out of the way.
Kershaw has been one of the most dominant players of the 2013 postseason, and there should be little doubt about him having another competitive outing in Game 6.
Of course, that's assuming Mother Nature cooperates.
Using his insider knowledge (but mostly a remote control), Bill Shaikin of the Los Angeles Times tweets that a St. Louis meteorologist has predicted that there might be rain for Friday night's matchup. Whether the precipitation leads to a stoppage of play will hinge on its severity.
It's common practice across baseball for teams to substitute their current pitchers if an in-game delay lasts longer than an hour. A pitcher becomes more susceptible to injury when he throws with 100 percent effort, then spends too much idling and attempts to dial it up again.
Mattingly would obey that precedent with Kershaw because Mattingly has already been welcomed back for next season, and his superstar left-hander will be integral to L.A.'s long-term chances of contending.
Unfortunately, a significant interruption on Friday night would put the Dodgers at an obvious disadvantage.
Think of each team's potential long-relief men. While the St. Louis Cardinals could go with Lance Lynn or Shelby Miller, Mattingly's emergency innings-eaters include Ricky Nolasco and Edinson Volquez.
Both sides would be nervous about losing their starter prematurely, but the Dodgers bullpen seemingly has more train-wreck potential.
As Bleacher Report's Adam Wells noted, Michael Wacha posted very dramatic reverse platoon splits this season, and in a good way.
That's because Wacha possesses an excellent changeup and never hesitates to use it. According to Brooks Baseball, 28 percent of all pitches from the rookie right-hander in Game 2 of this NLCS were changeups, as he blanked the Los Angeles Dodgers through 6.2 innings.
The two most consistent offensive players for the Dodgers during these playoffs, Carl Crawford and Adrian Gonzalez, both swing from the left side.
It doesn't matter if they know what's coming, Wacha can silence their bats with a heavy diet of his best pitch. Left-handed opponents whiff more than 20 percent of the time when attempting to connect with Wacha's changeup.
In an interview with MLB.com, Don Mattingly may have taken it a step too far by calling his Los Angeles Dodgers "America's team."
Yet there's some logic behind those comments.
L.A. is undoubtedly winning the latest episode of the "unwritten rules" debate. The St. Louis Cardinals have come across as oversensitive in their criticisms of the Dodgers' celebratory gestures, at least in the eyes of younger viewers.
Moreover, as Mattingly alluded to, a lot of fans without a horse left in the National League pennant race are rooting for a Game 7 because they want to see as much postseason baseball as possible.
With all that said, the Dodgers ought to tone down their expressions of enthusiasm while in hostile territory.
Cardinals fans root for their local laundry with practically unrivaled passion. That has contributed to the team's 22-5 record at home over the past two months.
Even the most innocuous forms of showboating from the Dodgers will irritate the St. Louis crowd and come back to bite them. If you give the fans any incentives to jeer, they dial it up to a degree that impedes verbal communication and unsettles players' nerves.
St. Louis Cardinals closer Trevor Rosenthal has simplified his formula in October.
Even for someone with triple-digit fastball velocity, it's been surprising to see his four-seamer account for 87 percent of his total playoff pitches (h/t Brooks Baseball). Recent success justifies his adjustment with Rosenthal boasting a line of 6.0 IP, 3 H, 0 R, 8 K.
With Rosenthal coming off two days rest, there shouldn't be any hesitancy from skipper Mike Matheny to use him for more than his usual inning. Not only has the 23-year-old excelled during this postseason run, but he also matches up particularly well with the Los Angeles Dodgers.
Throughout the summer, power pitchers gave the Dodgers more trouble than ordinary pitchers. The disparity was particularly evident for batters like Carl Crawford (.507 OPS vs. power pitchers, .736 OPS overall) and Yasiel Puig (.783 OPS vs. power pitchers, .925 OPS overall).
In striking out the side to finish off Game 2 of the NLCS, Rosenthal totaled six swings-and-misses—the most for him in any appearance since May 22.
No disrespect to the rest of the St. Louis bullpen, but ideally, Rosenthal will be the only reliever used in this potential clincher.
Ely is a national MLB Featured Columnist for Bleacher Report and a sportscaster for 90.5 WVUM in Miami. He’s hoping to deepen relationships with his fantastic online audience (that means you) via Twitter.