The Los Angeles Dodgers had plenty of opportunities to capture Game 1 of the National League Championship Series on Friday night, but the St. Louis Cardinals got timely plays from Carlos Beltran, including a walk-off RBI single to win it in the 13th inning.
The NLCS is best of seven for a reason, though, and the Dodgers are far from out of it. Los Angeles faced early-season adversity only to storm back and win the NL West by a wide margin, so there is no question that the Dodgers have what it takes to put an excruciating Game 1 loss behind them.
In order to do that, however, a handful of key players must step up in Game 2. Here are three in particular who manager Don Mattingly needs big-time production from on Saturday.
As the best pitcher in baseball, Clayton Kershaw needs to be an ace in order for the Dodgers to have success in the postseason. Kershaw was up to the task against the Atlanta Braves in the NLDS as he posted two quality starts, surrendered just one run in 13 innings and struck out 18 batters. After losing Game 1 to the Cardinals, Mattingly has decided to go back to Kershaw a bit earlier than expected as he will start Game 2 on Saturday, according to the Dodgers' official Twitter account.
Kershaw last pitched on Monday, so he will be working on four days of rest. That probably feels like an eternity compared to the time between his previous two outings as Kershaw was given just three days of rest before pitching in Game 4 against the Braves. The Cardinals and Pittsburgh Pirates going five games gave Kershaw a bit of a reprieve, so the big lefty should be ready to roll.
The Cardinals have a deep and talented lineup thanks to the likes of Beltran, Yadier Molina, Matt Carpenter, Matt Holliday and others, but Kershaw is the great equalizer. He will almost certainly win the NL Cy Young Award, and he gives the Dodgers a chance to win every time out. Los Angeles dipped heavily into its bullpen on Friday since the game went 13 innings, so a big effort is needed from Kershaw. If he works at least seven or eight innings and allows two or fewer runs, Mattingly will be ecstatic.
After largely giving way to Skip Schumaker in the NLDS, Andre Ethier was given the start in center field in Game 1 of the NLCS. Ethier did come through with his first catch of the playoffs, but a misplayed ball in the field allowed the Cardinals to tie the game at 2-2. That may not have happened had Schumaker been in, and Arash Markazi of ESPNLosAngeles.com suggested after the game that Mattingly might have made a tactical error in that regard.
While Schumaker is an admirable, hard-nosed player, Ethier is clearly more talented. Center field may not be his ideal position, but he has a good bat that should be in the lineup against righties especially. The Dodgers already have a solid lineup, but Ethier adds even more depth alongside guys like Carl Crawford, Yasiel Puig, Adrian Gonzalez and Hanley Ramirez. Ethier hit over .300 in both July and August before injuries slowed him down in September, so he could be an X-factor for L.A. in this series.
Ethier is hitting .125 in just eight playoff at-bats thus far, so he is certainly a player Dodgers fans would like to see come through on Saturday. Of the Dodgers' seven other regulars, all of them are hitting .294 or better, so center field has been the weak link. Ethier has a chance to make it a strength if he can get to Michael Wacha in Game 2.
Dodgers first baseman Adrian Gonzalez has had an excellent postseason to this point as he is hitting .350 with one home run and four RBI, but he was conspicuous by his absence late in Game 1 against the Cards. Mattingly lifted A-Gon for a pinch runner in the eighth inning. That move didn't pay off, and Gonzalez was sorely missed in extra innings. Bill Plaschke of the Los Angeles Times suggests that Donnie Baseball's ill-advised substitution may have even cost the Dodgers the game.
It obviously isn't Gonzalez's fault that he was taken out of the game, but there is some pressure on his part to atone for Mattingly's mistake. If Gonzalez has a big game and leads the Dodgers to victory in Game 2, most pundits will forget about Mattingly's miscue. A win in general would put that on the back burner, but a loss coupled with Gonzalez turning in a poor performance would put the Dodgers and Mattingly in a tough spot.
Gonzalez may not be as electric as Puig, Crawford or Ramirez, but he is as steady as they come. He is a smart, patient hitter who is especially adept at hitting with runners in scoring position. Provided L.A. is able to get some ducks on the pond when Gonzalez is at the dish, the Dodgers should be in for a fruitful Game 2.
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