It wasn't the fault of their aces. Greinke and Kershaw were brilliant, combining to allow two earned runs on six hits in 14 innings.
They just needed to be flawless in order to pick up the slack for the Dodgers' floundering offense, and they weren't.
That made it hard to be optimistic about Hyun-Jin Ryu's chances heading into Game 3. If Greinke and Kershaw couldn't be flawless, how could anybody expect a guy who had only lasted three rocky innings in his first career postseason start to be flawless?
Oh, and against Adam Wainwright, no less?
Early on in Monday night's proceedings, the point hit home: Oh, right, this guy's pretty good.
There was hardly any drama when Ryu was on the mound in Game 3. He went seven innings, allowing only three hits and a walk with four strikeouts. He needed 108 pitches, 69 for strikes.
The Dodgers offense, meanwhile, was able to get two runs home in the fourth inning against Wainwright on an RBI double by Adrian Gonzalez and an RBI triple by Yasiel Puig—one augmented by a terrific bat flip. Hanley Ramirez provided an insurance run with a broken-bat RBI single in the eighth inning that scored a hustling Carl Crawford.
Kenley Jansen took it from there, retiring the Cardinals in order to give the Dodgers a 3-0 victory.
The Cardinals' lead in the series is now 2-1, but it almost doesn't feel like a lead at all. Not now that the Dodgers are home. Not after their offense showed signs of life against a dominant pitcher.
And certainly not now that their starting rotation looks like a formidable three-man act. The Cardinals might have to face Greinke, Kershaw and Ryu once more before the series is over, and now they know they have to fear the third guy just as much as the first two.
Part of the reason the Cardinals have to be wary of facing Ryu again is because of the elephant in the room: They have to be hesitant of facing any left-handed starter. It was easy to chalk up Kershaw's dominance in Game 2 to Kershaw doing Kershaw things, but left-handed starters far worse than him were able to get the better of the Cardinals during the regular season.
Per Baseball-Reference, the Cardinals only managed a .675 OPS against left-handed starters. Only four teams did worse: the Seattle Mariners, Kansas City Royals, Houston Astros and Miami Marlins. None of the four, of course, made the playoffs.
The trend has kept up in the postseason, which is no surprise since the Cardinals have one fewer righty in their lineup with Allen Craig sidelined by injury. The Cardinals have faced Francisco Liriano, Kershaw and Ryu so far. Combined, they've limited the Cardinals to eight hits and two earned runs in 19 innings.
Since Dodgers manager Don Mattingly, according to Arash Markazi of ESPN Los Angeles, has decided to stick with Ricky Nolasco as his Game 4 starter for now, there's a chance the Cardinals will avoid seeing Kershaw or Ryu again. All they have to do is beat Nolasco in Game 4 and Greinke in Game 5, and they're home free.
But if they have to face Kershaw again, the Cardinals will know that he can shut them down. And if they have to face Ryu again, here's hoping they don't make the mistake of underestimating him.
For in Game 3 of the NLCS, Ryu basically made it clear that the guy who showed up in Game 3 of the Division Series wasn't him.
Despite coming into his first postseason start with question marks surrounding the health of his left elbow, Ryu's velocity indicated he was just fine. Per Brooks Baseball, Ryu's heater averaged an even 91 miles per hour in the regular season. He was sitting at 91.8 miles per hour against the Braves.
But Ryu's fastball was really all he had, accounting for 40 of his 68 pitches. He was making it easy for Braves hitters to sit on hard stuff.
There was a reason for this. According to Ramona Shelburne of ESPN Los Angeles, Ryu said he was nervous on the mound and that he had a hard time focusing. Mattingly mentioned Ryu's location was off.
And it was. Notably, Ryu's fastball location left a lot to be desired. Courtesy of TexasLeaguers.com, this is what it looked like:
Ryu was doing a decent enough job of finding the zone with his hard stuff, but he was leaving it up. To give you an idea of how many of these heaters actually got past Braves hitters, here's a look at the fastballs that found the mitt:
So those high heaters? Yeah, they were finding wood. In fact, Ryu got only one swing-and-miss on a fastball in his three innings of work.
Against the Cardinals, however, things were different.
For starters, Brooks Baseball says Ryu added even more velocity, sitting at an average of 92.8 miles per hour and touching 95 on occasion. The strike zone plot the site has—one won't be available on TexasLeaguers.com until Tuesday—makes it look like Ryu was still pitching mainly up in the zone with his heater.
UPDATE: Tuesday, Oct. 15 at 12:30 p.m. ET
TexasLeaguers.com has Ryu's fastballs locations posted, and they were indeed primarily up in the zone.
More or less how the Brooks Baseball plot made it look. But now for the original part in which I explain why Ryu was able to make pitching up in the zone work this time around...
Extra velocity is one of the reasons Ryu was able to get away with it. Velocity isn't everything, but more velocity does give a pitcher a larger margin for error. In Game 3 Ryu got a couple whiffs on his heater and was able to get Cardinals batters to hit it primarily on the ground (55.6 GB/BIP).
The other reason Ryu was able to pitch up with his heater was because he was mixing his pitches better. Only 48 of Ryu's 108 pitches were four-seamers, meaning there was a better than 50 percent chance he was going to throw something off-speed. To that end, his changeup, slider and curveball all got some play, as he threw each of them at least 13 times.
And on those, he gave up just one hit.
Presumably because he was more relaxed out on the mound, Ryu looked much more like the guy he was in the regular season. He was a legitimate four-pitch pitcher who could change speeds with the best of 'em, operating anywhere between the low 90s with his four-seamer and the low-70s with his curveball.
Ryu didn't get nearly the credit he deserved for how effective his finesse act was this season. This was mostly because Kershaw and Greinke were so darn good. Kershaw finished with his sub-2.00 ERA and Greinke finished with a 2.63 ERA. Over their last 16 starts, they each posted 1.57 ERAs.
But while he wasn't quite as excellent, Ryu was right there with his two comrades in terms of reliability. He had a hot finish of his own.
In 30 starts, Ryu lasted at least six innings 24 times. He failed to reach the sixth only four times. And in his final 11 starts, he posted a sparkling 2.57 ERA.
It looked in Game 3 of the Division Series that the Ryu who was so good for the Dodgers in the regular season was no more. Regardless of whether it was due to his health or his nerves, Ryu looked bad enough to force one to ponder whether Kershaw and Greinke were going to have to do it all themselves, a la Randy Johnson and Curt Schilling in 2001.
So much for that. With Ryu looking like himself again, the Dodgers have three starters who can dominate the Cardinals rather than just two.
Maybe that's why Mattingly is comfortable risking a 3-1 series deficit by throwing Nolasco at the Cardinals in Game 4. Even if he falters, Mattingly knows he'll be able to throw Greinke, Kershaw and Ryu in Games 5, 6 and 7.
If it comes to that, Mattingly must have an idea about where the Cardinals will be.
Right where the Dodgers want them.
Note: Stats courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com unless otherwise noted.
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