And a Child Shall Lead Them? Dodgers Clinch NL West Behind Clayton Kershaw

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And a Child Shall Lead Them? Dodgers Clinch NL West Behind Clayton Kershaw

It finally happened. The Los Angeles Dodgers, after a futile week spent in Pittsburgh, Washington, and San Diego, finally clinched the NL West at home tonight with a 5-0 victory.

21-year-old Clayton Kershaw looked like a young (insert your own past great left-handed pitcher here) and dominated the Colorado Rockies with six shutout innings and 10 strikeouts.

As a Dodger fan, I am so relieved that there is no more magic number and the Dodgers can play tomorrow stress-free.

However, I am still worried about the first round matchup with the St. Louis Cardinals. They have arguably the best starting pitching duo in the big leagues in Chris Carpenter and Adam Wainwright. Not to mention the soon-to-be unanimous NL MVP Albert Pujols.

However, after seeing Kershaw's virtuoso performance tonight, a night which he was on a 90-pitch count (he went 104), I am more encouraged than I was yesterday.

The old baseball proverb "momentum is only as good as the next day's starting pitcher" really held true today. Now the division winning celebration is over. here are the matchups against the Cardinals:

 

Starting pitching

Cardinals will have 2005 Cy Young winner Chris Carpenter go in game one against Dodger lefty Randy Wolf.

Carpenter, after missing a month of a season, has been a Cy Young candidate once again, leading the NL in ERA and getting 17 wins. In two starts against the Dodgers, Carpenter went 2-0, giving up three runs in 15 innings.

Wolf has been the most consistent Dodgers starter this season and the Dodgers will need at least six strong innings from Wolf against the Cardinals in game one.

Wolf will be making his first appearance in the playoffs, so it remains to be seen how Wolf will react when he gets the ball to kick start the postseason.

The Cardinals will send another Cy Young candidate in Adam Wainwright in game two. Wainwright is fourth in the NL in ERA (2.63) and among the league leaders in all the major catagories, from wins (19), strikeouts (212) and innings (233).

Obviously, the Dodgers have their work cut out for them. Against the Dodgers this season, Wainwright has given up just two runs in 15 innings.

After tonight's game (and coupled with Hiroki Kuroda's injury), I believe Kershaw will go in game two. Kershaw has looked either amazing (like tonight) or just wild (too many games for me to count).

However, one thing can be said about young Kershaw: he is flat-out tough to hit. The league hit just .200 against Kershaw, tops in the league.

If Kershaw can harness his electric fastball and his knee-buckling curveball, the Cardinals will have a tough time against him.

Remember in his two starts against the Cards this season, the Cardinals' offense hit .214, struck out 12 times in 11.2 innings, with Kershaw giving up just two earned runs.

Where it gets interesting is the game three starters. I will bet that Joel Pineiro will get the nod for Tony La Russa's club and the Dodgers will go with Jon Garland. Why Garland? Garland has playoff experience, going 2-0 and 2.25 ERA with the 2005 Chicago White Sox.

If Chad Billingsley could be trusted to pitch at least adequately without having a meltdown, he should go but he has not shown any signs of being completely back to his early season form.

Billingsley should be used in case Kershaw loses his control early against the Cardinals. However, the edge in starting pitching definitely goes to the Cardinals.

Bullpen: This is the one part that the Dodgers have an edge against the Cardinals. With George Sherrill in the eighth inning and All-Star fireballer Jonathan Broxton closing out the game, the Dodgers can turn any game into a seven-inning contest.

I like the Dodgers' back end of the bullpen much better than the Cardinals' back end, led by Ryan Franklin and Kyle McClellan. Franklin is not exactly lights-out and has shown signs of weakness late in the season.

The Dodgers have other power arms, from rookie Ronald Belisario and workhorse Ramon Troncoso from the right side and Hong-Chih Kuo from the left.

The Cardinals will have Trever Miller and Dennys Reyes from the left side and Jason Motte and future Hall of Famer John Smoltz from the right side. Despite Smoltz being in play, I still like the Dodgers in this matchup of the bullpen.

 

Defense

The Dodgers have had very good defense throughout the season. Orlando Hudson is a favorite to win another Gold Glove at second base, Rafael Furcal still has good range and the cannon arm, Casey Blake is very underrated at third, and James Loney is one of the better first basemen in the league.

Russell Martin is excellent at blocking breaking balls and has a good arm to second.

In the outfield, Manny Ramirez is not a big a liability as one might think; he might not be fast, but he plays the ball off the wall very well and always hits the cutoff man.

Matt Kemp is a Gold Glove centerfielder with one of the best arms in the league, leading the NL in assists. Andre Ethier is dependable at right with a respectable arm.

For the Cardinals, Pujols is not just an all-world slugger; he is one of the three best fielding first basemen in the league.

Skip Schumaker and Brendan Ryan have been good up the middle and Mark DeRosa is good enough to play every position well save for pitcher and catcher.

The real strength of the Cardinals' defense is Yadier Molina behind the plate. He has one of the best arms to second and his technique on blocking the plate is one of the best in the league.

The outfield for the Cardinals is good, especially when anyone tries to run on Rick Ankiel.

However, I like the trio of Manny, Ethier, and Kemp over Colby Rasmus, Matt Holliday, Ryan Ludwick and Ankiel any day. The Dodgers have a slight edge in defense.

 

Lineup

The Cardinals have Pujols and Matt Holliday, two of the best in the league. However, to overlook the rest of the lineup would be fatal to anyone. Outside of Molina, Schumaker, and Ryan, everyone in the Cardinals' lineup is a legitimate home run threat.

The Cardinals have two left-handed power threats in Ankiel and rookie Rasmus. Other than that, the Cardinals' lineup is righty-heavy, which could be horrible for Randy Wolf. As a team, the Cardinals do not strike out a lot.

The Dodgers have a solid lineup, regardless of the slump that the team seems mired in for stretches of the season. The Dodgers have solid speed in Furcal, Hudson, Kemp, Loney, and Martin.

Ramirez, Kemp, Ethier, and Blake have good power, although Ethier has struggled against left-handed pitching all season.

Ramirez hit the ball hard tonight, a great sign for all Dodger fans. Also, any lineup that has Hudson hitting eighth like the Dodgers do must be respected. However, the Dodgers have not looked good against Carpenter and Wainwright this season.

 

Bench

The Dodgers have the best bench going into the playoffs. Juan Pierre is the fourth outfielder and pinch runner, Jim Thome is the power bat off the bench, Mark Loretta the first pinch hitter, Ronnie Belliard and Juan Castro the utility infielders, and Brad Ausmus the veteran backup catcher.

All of these players have playoff experience (with all but Loretta and Castro playing in at least one World Series) which I think can't hurt.

(I am not sure if Doug Mientkiewicz will be on the active playoff roster but we will see what Torre will do)

The Cardinals will go with Rick Ankiel as the fourth outfielder (if Rasmus starts that is), Joe Thurston and Julio Lugo as the utility infielders, Troy Glaus as the power bat off the bench, Khalil Greene as another right handed infield bat, and Jason LaRue as the backup catcher.

The Dodgers have a huge edge in the bench, especially since Pierre is in play and the amount of post-season experience that the Dodgers' bench has compared to the Cardinals' bench.

 

Intangibles and Managers

The Dodgers have the home field advantage, which could not hurt given the Dodgers' recent road trip back East.

Also, the crowd at Dodger Stadium had amazing energy for most of the season and especially tonight. While it should not work against a veteran Cardinals team, it could not hurt.

Tony La Russa and Joe Torre are two of the best managers in baseball and have been for many years. La Russa is perhaps one of the best tacticians the game has seen while Torre has been one of the best "people managers" the game has seen.

La Russa won't have much to worry about whenever he sends Carpenter and Wainwright to the mound and Pujols to the plate.

Torre has been to the playoffs every season since 1996. I have criticized Torre many times for pulling the starters too quickly for the bullpen, possibly running the bullpen into the ground.

We will see if I am right on this come Wednesday when Wolf inevitably gets pulled in the sixth or seventh inning.

The Cardinals are the one matchup that I hoped the Dodgers would not get but it happened. Everything points to a Cardinals victory in the first round but hey, that is why they play the games.

Please prove the nay-sayers wrong. Enjoy the division title but I want the Dodgers to keep opening the champagne bottles after tonight. As far as I am concerning, there is no next year. Next year is now.

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