The St. Louis Cardinals find themselves in a familiar position, just one win away from the World Series after a 4-2 win over the Los Angeles Dodgers on Tuesday in Game 4 the National League Championship Series.
Hope is not lost for the Dodgers, even though the climb up the mountain will be steep. After Ricky Nolasco started Game 4, manager Don Mattingly has the pitching matchups he wanted with Zack Greinke starting Wednesday and Clayton Kershaw on Friday (if necessary).
Meanwhile, Cardinals manager Mike Matheny will counter with his Game 1 starter, Joe Kelly, on Wednesday. He may not be the best starter on the team, but was good enough to keep his team in that first game against Greinke before Carlos Beltran played the hero in extra innings.
Before we get to the fifth game, it is imperative to break down the strengths and weaknesses of the two pitchers taking the mound.
Joe Kelly vs. Dodgers
The St. Louis Cardinals have relied heavily on Kelly this postseason. He has had a very interesting season, splitting time between starting and relieving and having various degrees of success in both.
Kelly appeared in 37 games this season not including the playoffs, starting 15 of them. Here is how his numbers stack up in the two roles.
Despite having good velocity on his fastball (94.9 mph average in 2013), which he can crank up a little more in relief, Kelly might be more suited to starting, where he isn't likely to miss as many bats but can generate more sink on the fastball.
The right-hander had a 51.1 percent groundball rate in 2013, best on the St. Louis staff among pitchers with at least 120 innings. That number increased to 53.2 percent as a starter, compared to 46.1 percent out of the bullpen.
On top of that, Kelly did much better turning a lineup over three times than he did coming in late in games trying to get three outs.
That is likely a big reason why Matheny has stuck with Kelly as a starting pitcher ahead of rookie Shelby Miller, who did struggle a bit in the second half with a 3.28 ERA and pedestrian 2.04 strikeout-to-walk ratio as his innings piled up.
(By comparison, Miller had a 2.92 ERA in the first half and 3.86 strikeout-to-walk ratio.)
All of those numbers tell us a story about Kelly heading into the game, but now we need to know what he has done in his career against the Dodgers.
Kelly is still in the embryonic stages of his career, this being just his second year. He doesn't have a huge sample size against players in the current Dodgers lineup, but there is enough that we can try to gauge some results.
The first thing that jumps out at me is the strikeouts, or lack thereof. I talked about Kelly's inability to generate swings and misses earlier, but here you can see it illustrated in his performance against the Dodgers.
In 44 at-bats against the Dodgers primary lineup, there have been only six strikeouts—and four came from one player.
However, that doesn't have to be a bad thing in Wednesday's game. Dodger Stadium was one of the worst offensive parks, according to ESPN's Park Factors, in 2013. It ranked 28th in runs at 0.868, just ahead of Citi Field and Petco Park.
The park did play better for home runs, ranking 15th in baseball at 0.963. Yet going back to Kelly's style of pitching, where groundballs are a key to success, the Dodgers don't figure to elevate a lot of balls in this game.
One thing that could be problematic for Kelly, however, is extra-base hits. He has given up doubles to four players in the Dodgers' projected starting lineup (Carl Crawford, Andre Ethier, Adrian Gonzalez, Hanley Ramirez).
Those four, along with Yasiel Puig, are the ones Kelly has to keep grounded in order for the Cardinals to win this game.
Finally, a few numbers that also work in Kelly's favor leading up to Game 5 include the Dodgers' performance this season against right-handed pitching and groundball pitchers.
The Dodgers are not a team loaded with speed in the lineup. Puig is easily their fastest runner, but Crawford has lost a few steps as he has gotten older and Ramirez is running less than ever before and not likely to do any damage with his legs due to the rib injury. Gonzalez is as slow as anyone in baseball. Ethier can barely move right now.
The point being that Kelly's specialty as a groundball pitcher plays right into the weakness of the Dodgers. It worked well for the 25-year-old in Game 1 when he threw six innings of six-hit ball with two runs allowed and five strikeouts.
Zack Greinke vs. Cardinals
The Dodgers opted to stick with their normal rotation for the NLCS, giving Greinke the start in Game 5 on full rest.
Greinke doesn't have much history throwing on three days of rest, but has done it twice in his career with varying degrees of success. He has thrown nine innings with an ERA of 2.00, six hits, two walks allowed and six strikeouts.
I say varying degrees of success because Greinke pitched only nine innings combined in those two starts. Don Mattingly couldn't afford to "waste" one of his best weapons in a game before he absolutely had to, likely making the decision to start Nolasco in Game 4 easier.
By virtue of pitching in Kansas City for seven years, where the Royals and Cardinals engaged in two interleague series per season, Greinke has more appearances (12) and starts (10) against St. Louis than any other NL team in his career.
Greinke has had great success against the Cardinals throughout his MLB tenure, though we also need to see how his performance against the lineup he will see on Wednesday stacks up to the career marks.
Of note here is two St. Louis starters (Matt Adams and Pete Kozma) haven't faced Greinke in their careers. Greinke made one start against the Cardinals in 2013 on Aug. 5 but Adams was used as a pinch hitter late in the game against the Dodgers' bullpen. Kozma was relegated to pinch-runner duty in that game.
What's so surprising about that list is the way that some of the Cardinals have hit Greinke. We can talk about sample sizes until we are blue in the face, but when you have one of the best pitchers in baseball allowing three hitters in a lineup to hit above .300 with an on-base percentage above .360, something isn't right.
If the Cardinals are going to get to Greinke, their best chance to do so would be early. He hasn't been bad out of the gate, far from it. But he gets even better as the game moves along, as the chart below illustrates:
Those numbers do balloon up to .255/.340/.418 once he gets above 75 pitches, though that is not uncommon among starting pitchers. The important thing is that he can turn a lineup over three times in dominant fashion.
Even scarier for the Cardinals is Greinke's performance in the second half of the season and how it can stand alongside teammate Kershaw.
Kershaw is still better than Greinke in every category except innings pitched, but if I were to tell you the gap was that close, you would probably have laughed in my face or thought I was insane.
We know what Greinke is capable of doing when motivated and healthy. He won a Cy Young award in 2009 with Kansas City by toying with the rest of the American League. He had 242 strikeouts in 229.1 innings that season.
This season, while the strikeout numbers aren't as high as they were in that award-winning year, Greinke has been just as dominant.
The Dodgers spent a lot of money for Greinke to pitch in a game of this magnitude. His postseason demons from the past with Milwaukee appear to be behind him, as the 29-year-old has allowed just eight hits, four runs, one walk and 13 strikeouts in 14 innings in two starts this year. His 10 Ks in Game 1 of the NLCS was a playoff career high.
Greinke is going to make the Dodgers an overwhelming favorite in this game. It is on him to deliver the kind of performance they know he is capable of. Of course, even with that dominant Game 1 effort, the Dodgers still walked away with a loss because Kelly didn't break and the Cardinals' bullpen did great work over seven shutout innings.
The ball is clearly in Greinke's court. The Cardinals have the benefit of being able to go back home even if they don't win Wednesday, and will be able to throw Adam Wainwright in a potential winner-take-all game if it comes to that.
Los Angeles isn't in an ideal spot, one loss away from elimination. But things could not have lined up better for the Blue Crew in the pitching department. Greinke and Kershaw are the guys you want on the mound in this spot.
The two aces have held up their end of the bargain so far in this series. They need to do it again, otherwise LA’s offseason will start earlier than anticipated.
Note: All stats courtesy of Baseball Reference unless otherwise noted.
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