The National League Championship Series between the Los Angeles Dodgers and St. Louis Cardinals heads out to the West Coast on Monday night for Game 3, with the Cardinals holding a 2-0 lead over the hometown Dodgers.
St. Louis took care of business against Los Angeles' two best pitchers, Zack Greinke and Clayton Kershaw, and send its staff ace, Adam Wainwright, to the hill on Monday night to face off against Dodgers rookie Hyun-jin Ryu, who struggled in his first taste of postseason action against the Atlanta Braves in the NLDS.
A win by the Cardinals would all but put the series away, but the Dodgers can make things incredibly interesting by emerging victorious at home.
Let's take a look at the keys for both teams heading into this pivotal playoff matchup.
*Unless otherwise noted, all statistics courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com.
It's hard enough to put runs on the board against Adam Wainwright during the regular season, much less in the playoffs, when the ace of the St. Louis staff seems to elevate his game to another level altogether.
Over his last 23 innings of playoff baseball, stretching back to last year, Wainwright has allowed three earned runs (a 1.17 ERA) and 15 hits while walking one and striking out 20. Over that stretch, opponents are hitting .185 with a .479 OPS.
Those are Bob Gibson-esque numbers right there.
But if the opposition has a shot of putting runs on the board against Wainwright this season, it had better do it early—for the deeper that he pitches into games, the stronger he becomes:
That's not good news for a Los Angeles squad with an offense that typically takes a few innings to really get going:
|Inning 1-3||.263||.323||.710||133 (45)||198||202|
|Inning 4-6||.287||.346||.765||158 (43)||236||252|
|Inning 7-9||.232||.303||.667||130 (43)||164||174|
The advantage here belongs to Wainwright. And if the Dodgers have yet to put a run on the board by the time the middle innings come around, the team's chances of preventing St. Louis from jumping out to a 3-0 series lead are significantly reduced.
Although the Dodgers beat the Atlanta Braves in Game 3 of the National League Division Series, they did so in spite of Hyun-jin Ryu's performance, not because of it. The NL Rookie of the Year candidate needed 68 pitches to get through three innings, allowing four earned runs and six hits in the process.
When asked about his upcoming start against the Cardinals in Game 3 of the NLCS, Ryu didn't exude the sort of confidence that you want to see in your starting pitcher, as The OC Register's Pedro Moura tweeted.
"Hyun-Jin Ryu said pitching deep into playoff games isn’t important: 'Truthfully, if I was out there for 5 innings, I’d be more than happy.'”
Now, some people will take that as a vote of confidence from Ryu in the team's bullpen, but I don't.
To me, that sounds like a defeated pitcher, one who questions his ability to stop the opposition from putting runs on the board. St. Louis must take advantage of that shaken confidence and do just that: score early and often in a ballpark the Cardinals hit a collective .221/.311/.365 this season.
Giving Adam Wainwright an early lead to work with typically ends well for the Redbirds, regardless of where the team is playing.
Los Angeles heads into Game 3 with the availability of two of its biggest bats—shortstop Hanley Ramirez and center fielder Andre Ethier—very much in question.
Ramirez, who took a Joe Kelly fastball to the ribs in the first inning of Game 1, was forced to miss Game 2. And while he told reporters that he plans on playing on Monday night, manager Don Mattingly told reporters that he wasn't so sure, via Arash Markazi of ESPN:
If this thing (the CT scan) comes back and it's something that he just can't play, there are certain things that you're not going to be able to play with. So no matter how much Hanley wants to play, there are certain things you're not going to be able to play with. You've got to be able to swing the bat.
Ramirez has been Los Angeles' most productive batter during the playoffs, hitting .444 with a 1.528 OPS, six extra-base hits, six RBI and five runs scored over five games, production that is not easily replaced.
Ethier, who has been dogged by a hamstring injury for more than a month, was clearly still not himself in Game 1, unable to cover the ground he normally does in center field and finding himself on the bench in Game 2, replaced by Skip Schumacher in center field.
If one of the former All-Stars is unable to go in Game 3, Los Angeles' chances of emerging victorious take a major hit. If both are unable to play, well, the Dodgers can all but kiss their chances of knocking Adam Wainwright around goodbye.
During the regular season, no team in baseball hit with runners in scoring position like the Cardinals did, posting an out-of-this-world .330/.402/.463 slash line.
That ability disappeared against the Pittsburgh Pirates, with the Redbirds hitting only .185/.313/.296, a massive drop in production and a major reason why the Pirates took them to five games in the NLDS. Through two games of the NLCS against the Dodgers, the Cardinals are hitting .250/.222/.375 with four RBI—an improvement to be sure, but numbers that still leave much to be desired.
While that overall lack of production hasn't cost St. Louis a game against Los Angeles yet, the Cardinals are playing with fire, and sooner or later, they're going to get burned.
The team must buckle down and get back to what it did so well during the regular season if it is going to punch its ticket to the Fall Classic.
One of the top contenders for the National League Rookie of the Year Award, Cuban sensation Yasiel Puig has been invisible through the first two games of the NLCS, yet to reach base safely in 10 at-bats while striking out six times.
Few players in the series, in either dugout, have the ability to change the outcome of a game like Puig, who set the baseball world on fire this summer with one of the most prolific debut months in the history of the game.
With the series shifting to Dodger Stadium, Puig returns to the place where he's most comfortable, as evidenced by his regular-season splits:
|Split (G)||BA||OBP||OPS||XBH (HR)||RBI||BB/K|
|Home (51)||.360||.422||1.006||21 (9)||23||18/37|
|Away (53)||.284||.365||.855||21 (10)||19||18/60|
He's faced Adam Wainwright three times this season, smacking a double and striking out twice.
If Puig can get going, the Dodgers may be able to overcome the potential absences of Hanley Ramirez and/or Andre Ethier. If the youngster's struggles continue, the Cardinals will find themselves sitting in great position to take a commanding 3-0 series lead.