After a crucial Game 5 victory in the NLCS on Wednesday, the Los Angeles Dodgers have sent the series back to St. Louis to decide the National League champion this weekend. Despite taking momentum back to the Midwest, the Dodgers are down 3-2 in the best-of-seven set.
Heading into the series, the Dodgers-Cardinals battle looked like a toss-up. Prior to the postseason, the Bleacher Report MLB writing team made predictions for how the NLCS would shake out. Five of six predicted a Dodgers-Cardinals faceoff. Four of those five gave the edge to Los Angeles in the series that has since come to fruition.
Why, then, after a summer of dominance in Los Angeles and the backing of experts here at Bleacher Report, are the Dodgers down and facing the arduous task of having to win Games 6 and 7 in St. Louis?
While acknowledging the dominance of the young, hard-throwing Cardinals bullpen and lack of clutch hitting during Games 1 and 2 in St. Louis as major parts of the NLCS story, the biggest reason why the Dodgers are down right now was one of the major reasons they were up all summer: Hanley Ramirez.
Or, to be fair, Hanley Ramirez's fractured rib.
Over the first five games of this series, Ramirez has posted a .167/.375/.167 line against St. Louis. Both of his hits have been singles. Thus far, he's driven in just one run. Compare that to a regular season that featured Ramirez smashing 47 extra-base hits in just 86 games.
Due to a fractured rib sustained when taking a pitch to the midsection in Game 1, the best offensive shortstop in Major League Baseball is a shell of himself right now.
As Dylan Hernandez of The Los Angeles Times chronicled, Ramirez is visibly frustrated with his injury and inability to play up to the level needed by his team in order to win a World Series. Per Hernandez's piece: "His degree of frustration became evident in the third inning, when he flipped over a cooler and spilled several gallons of blue Gatorade onto the dugout floor after grounding into a double play."
Despite Ramirez's downfall, the Dodgers are alive and prepared to send the best pitcher alive, Clayton Kershaw, to the mound for Game 6 in St. Louis on Friday night. Yet, in order to pull off the 3-1 comeback and advance to the World Series, they'll need Ramirez to find a way into a big hit or two this weekend.
With Carl Crawford (4 HR in 39 postseason AB), Adrian Gonzalez and Yasiel Puig picking up the slack, the Dodgers can score enough to get this series to a Game 7 on Saturday, but those three alone won't be enough against Adam Wainwright. When a series-deciding game arrives, three impact bats are good, but a pitcher of Wainwright's caliber is too dominant and smart to get beat by just one third of a lineup.
Los Angeles needs Ramirez to continue to gut it out and find a way to make an impact.
Considering the close losses (3-2 in Game 1 and 1-0 in Game 2) in each of the first two games, this series could be over if the Hanley Ramirez from the regular season and divisional round (.500/.556/1.063) was still around. After winning two of three games in Los Angeles to keep this series alive, the Dodgers are still playing catch-up from a difficult trip to St. Louis last weekend.
In sports, blame is usually accompanied by negativity, but this case is unique. If Ramirez continues to suit up, take the field, play in pain and fail to hit, detractors should not place an NLCS defeat on his plate. Yet, responsibility will be thrown his way and questions will be raised about his future this winter in Los Angeles.
After only playing 86 games in the regular season due to injuries, losing Ramirez's impact bat in October would complete an up-and-down season for the star infielder. When he's healthy, few in the league have had more of an impact. But Ramirez's health can't be counted on now, and it possibly becomes a major question mark moving forward.
With Allen Craig out of the Cardinals' lineup due to injury, a Dodgers lineup featuring a healthy and productive Ramirez is the better and deeper group in this NLCS. Considering how dominant the top pitchers on each side (Kersahw, Greinke, Wacha, Wainwright) can be, the subtle difference in lineup length and making these arms work can be the difference between a trip to the World Series or bitter taste of defeat.
Ramirez, by playing through the pain and giving Dodgers manager Don Mattingly all he has left, shouldn't be ripped if the team fails to win both games in St. Louis this weekend.
But when assessing blame for the Dodgers deficit, his circumstances and plight stand out in a tightly contested battle.
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