If you are looking for a marquee pitching matchup to satisfy your baseball craving, Los Angeles Dodgers ace Clayton Kershaw against St. Louis Cardinals star rookie Michael Wacha in Game 6 of the National League Championship Series is hard to beat.
The Dodgers were able to stave off elimination in Game 5 on Wednesday behind a dominant effort from Zack Greinke. He started off slowly, loading the bases with no one out in the first inning, but got out of the jam unscathed and got stronger as the game went on.
Now, even though they are heading to a hostile environment, the Dodgers would appear to be the favorites on Friday night because they are sending the best pitcher in baseball to the mound hoping to force a Game 7.
Wacha is no slouch, having stood toe-to-toe with Kershaw in Game 2 and shutting out the Dodgers over 6.2 innings. This postseason has been a coming-out party for the 22-year-old with just 64.2 regular-season innings under his belt.
So what do the numbers say about which pitcher will have the edge in this critical matchup? Let's take a look.
Just going off postseason starts, Kershaw and Wacha might be the two best pitchers in baseball right now. That is a bold statement to make with that group in Detroit doing great work, but how do you beat this?
|2013 Postseason Stats for Game 6 Starters|
The old adage is you need great pitching to win in October. Kershaw and Wacha rank first and second among NL starting pitchers in postseason ERA. The only players with a lower mark are two relievers from the Cincinnati Reds, who only played one game before going home.
What's more remarkable about this matchup is how similar Kershaw and Wacha have gone about their business. Kershaw has a strikeout-to-walk ratio of 4.6; Wacha's is 5.7. Both pitchers have allowed one earned run. Kershaw has thrown 63 percent of his pitches for strikes; Wacha has thrown 64 percent of his pitches for strikes.
Yet another similarity is how much stronger these two young hurlers have gotten deeper into the season.
|Avg. Fastball Velocity by Month|
(Note: Wacha did not pitch in MLB during April or July, which is why there are no results for those months.)
Usually we think pitchers start to wear down after the long grind of a 162-game season, but nothing beats the adrenaline rush of pitching in October.
Now that we know just how great Kershaw and Wacha have been in October, it is time to see how they have done against the opposing lineups they will see in Game 6.
|Kershaw vs. Cardinals Projected Lineup|
Given Kershaw's dominance over, well, everyone, these numbers tell a story that you would expect to see. The clear outlier is Pete Kozma having four hits (three doubles) in five career at-bats against the soon-to-be two-time Cy Young winner.
Something tells me Kozma's luck might not last in Game 6, but when you start trying to make declarative statements in baseball, the game shows you something unexpected.
The Cardinals may have pedestrian numbers against Kershaw, but that's not a coincidence. They don't like facing left-handed pitching in general. Despite leading the National League with 783 runs scored, 77 more than No. 2 Colorado, they had a heavy platoon split in 2013.
|St. Louis Cardinals 2013 Platoon Splits|
On the other side, Wacha's track record is so limited with just 19 career games and 11 starts (including two playoff starts) that he doesn't have any regular-season numbers against the Dodgers.
In order to provide some context for what he has done against the Dodgers lineup, this is what they did against the rookie in Game 2.
|Dodgers vs. Wacha in NLCS Game 2|
|Carl Crawford||1-3 (1B)||0|
|Mark Ellis||1-3 (1B)||0|
|Adrian Gonzalez||0-2 (IBB)||1|
|A.J. Ellis||1-3 (2B)||0|
However, this particular game doesn't paint an accurate picture because Hanley Ramirez and Andre Ethier did not start. Ramirez is still battling a rib injury, but has started the last three games and isn't going to sit out a must-win game for the Dodgers.
Ethier will probably start in this game, though the Dodgers would be better off limiting the lefties in their lineup. Adrian Gonzalez is going to play because he's one of their best hitters, but Wacha is a monster against left-handed hitters.
|Michael Wacha Splits vs. RHH and LHH|
That isn't to say that right-handers have carved Wacha up, but a .493 OPS against left-handed hitters is incredible.
Typically you would see a platoon split that goes the other way for a right-handed pitcher, with lefties hitting better, yet Wacha has such a great changeup that it neutralizes hitters on the other side of the plate.
It will be interesting to see what adjustments, if any, Yasiel Puig makes against Wacha. The Dodgers rookie has come alive in this series. After starting 0-for-10 with six strikeouts in the first two games, he's recorded five hits in the last three games with just two strikeouts in nine at-bats.
Puig's at-bat with the bases loaded in the sixth inning of Game 2 was a pivotal moment. He worked a full count after falling behind 0-2, then swung at a fastball that was just above the dirt for the second out to preserve St. Louis' 1-0 lead.
No matter how you try to slice it, Game 6 is going to be an incredible pitching matchup. We have already gotten a taste of what Kershaw and Wacha can do against each other, but the intensity of that previous game will pale in comparison to the atmosphere on display Friday night.
The Dodgers have to win to keep their World Series hopes alive. They have the advantage of using the best pitcher in baseball, which would appear to give them all the confidence in the world.
Yet Wacha has proven himself to be more than just another starting pitcher in a deep Cardinals rotation. His performance in this postseason has elevated his stock higher than anyone assumed it would be when the team drafted him 19th overall in the 2012 draft.
Wacha will have the comfort of a raucous St. Louis crowd behind him. The postseason stage has not been too big for the young right-hander.
I know what people are saying about the Cardinals being nervous holding a 3-1 lead in a series for the second consecutive year after losing to San Francisco in seven games last season.
They failed to close out the series in Los Angeles and didn't cash in on early opportunities to knock Zack Greinke out of Game 5.
Yet what doesn't get talked about is how the Cardinals sent Joe Kelly, arguably their third-best starter, to the mound against Greinke. If they had defeated Adam Wainwright on Wednesday with no chance of having to face him again, things might feel different.
But the Cardinals are well-positioned with Wacha on Friday and, if necessary, Wainwright on Saturday to return to the World Series for the second time in three years.
The Dodgers struggled offensively early in the series, and they now need a miraculous comeback to advance to the Fall Classic. They couldn't ask for better pitching in Game 5 with Greinke and now Game 6 with Kershaw.
No one would be surprised if the Dodgers force a Game 7 with that duo starting back-to-back games. Greinke held up his end of the bargain. Kershaw has been dominant in the postseason.
Runs will be at a premium in St. Louis on Friday night. It's why you can't help but love October baseball.
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