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Dodgers vs. Cardinals: Keys for Each Team to Win NLDS Game 1

Nick Ostiller@@NickOstillerContributor IIOctober 3, 2014

Jun 29, 2014; Los Angeles, CA, USA; Los Angeles Dodgers starting pitcher Clayton Kershaw (22) throws in the 5th inning against the St. Louis Cardinals at Dodger Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Robert Hanashiro-USA TODAY Sports
USA TODAY Sports

If Los Angeles Dodgers starting pitcher Clayton Kershaw ever needed a way to rid the bad taste from his mouth left over from last year's meltdown in Game 6 of the NLCS, his other-worldly 2014 regular season surely helped.

But the best solution for the Dodgers' MVP candidate is a postseason rematch with the same St. Louis Cardinals that bounced him and his squad from the tournament last October, and that's what awaits Kershaw in Game 1 of the NLDS this afternoon at Dodger Stadium.

For Los Angeles, Game 1 will be a golden opportunity to get the playoffs started on the right foot and take a postseason series lead over St. Louis for the first time since 2009. The best-of-five format only heightens the pressure in the opening game.

The Cardinals will counter with their ace, Adam Wainwright, whose outstanding season was overshadowed by Kershaw's dominance. The veteran right-hander finished with the third-lowest ERA in the National League at 2.38, and his 1.72 road clip was even more impressive.

With two of the league's top-five pitchers on the mound coupled with the shadows that will be present for most of today's afternoon contest, it's safe to assume that runs might be difficult to come by in Game 1.

A classic rematch between two teams steeped in rich tradition, here's what each must do in order to grab early control of this series.

Keys for the Cardinals

Patience at the Plate

When facing a pitcher like Kershaw, conventional wisdom suggests that batters are not going to get many good pitches to hit. Coaches will instruct players not to watch that first-pitch fastball zip down the pipe, because it might be the best opportunity of the entire at-bat—and against a pitcher of Kershaw's caliber, sometimes the whole game.

It's why hitters around the league this year have decided to swing at Kershaw's first pitch more often than any other season in his career, according to FanGraphs' Mike Petriello.

First-Pitch Swings Against Clayton Kershaw 2010-2014
Year20102011201220132014
Percentage6.489 %8.042 %7.783 %8.313 %11.131 %
Baseball Savant

The Cardinals were one of the teams that experimented with a swing-early approach against Kershaw this season. Back on June 29 at Dodger Stadium, 19 of the 28 batters Kershaw faced swung at either the first or second pitch of the at-bat.

The result? Kershaw shut them out 6-0 to extend his scoreless streak to 28 innings, a run that would reach 41 frames.

A few weeks later in St. Louis, the Cardinals exercised a bit more patience. Kershaw coincidentally faced the same number of batters, but this time only 16 of them swung at either the first or second pitch. The Cardinals ended up scoring three runs off the Dodgers southpaw, and he did not factor in the decision.

St. Louis found more success against Kershaw when they saw more of his pitches. While the sample size is small, additional proof of this logic becomes apparent when reviewing Kershaw's disastrous Game 6 in last year's NLCS.

That night, only five batters swung at Kershaw's first pitch. Overall, the Cardinals swung at 47 percent of the 99 laborious pitches he delivered in less than five innings. Hitters last season swung at 53 percent of his offerings, according to Pedro Moura of the Los Angeles Register. So once again, St. Louis achieved better results when batters extended at-bats against Kershaw.

If there's one team that knows how to potentially decode the great Kershaw, it's the Cardinals. His 3.69 career ERA against St. Louis—including postseason—is the highest against any NL opponent.

Ride Wainwright

The Cardinals starting pitcher is no slouch either.

Wainwright possesses a plethora of postseason experience and would represent a huge advantage if St. Louis can figure out a way to scrape across a few runs against Kershaw.

Eric Stephen @ericstephen

Cardinals Game 1 starter Adam Wainwright was named September NL pitcher of the month, beating Kershaw, Zimmermann

The 20-game winner, suddenly an underdog for the first time in 2014, owns a 2.53 career postseason ERA in 67 innings pitched spanning seven years. While his lifetime numbers at Dodger Stadium aren't anything to write home about at 1-3 with a 4.30 ERA, he did hurl eight innings of one-run ball in a 1-0 loss there earlier this year.

Heading into the postseason, he has allowed just two earned runs over his last 33 innings and will not be fazed by the bright lights of Hollywood.

But Wainwright isn't concerned about the past, per The Associated Press' Beth Harris, via The Boston Globe: "I pay no mind to what happened in the regular season. Obviously, Clayton had an amazing regular season and now we go to the postseason and it’s anybody’s ballgame. This is one game for the rest of your lives every day, so we’ll take that mind-set and be ready."

If Wainwright can match or slightly out-duel Kershaw for seven to eight innings, it will be a huge win for the Cardinals as they hold the advantage when it comes to middle relief.

Keys for the Dodgers

Health

Most Dodger fans point to a single pitch as the one that derailed their team's chances in last year's NLCS: the 95-mph fastball that cracked Hanley Ramirez's rib during his first at-bat of the series.

The Los Angeles shortstop was fresh off a spectacular offensive season that had continued into the first round of the playoffs against Atlanta, but he was never the same after that beaning. His production plummeted as his attempt to play through the injury was one of futility. After batting .345 in the regular season and .500 in the NLDS, Ramirez managed a meager .133 average with no extra-base hits following the broken rib.

Although Ramirez battled through minor bumps and bruises this year, he is apparently healthy and will represent a formidable presence in the lineup even if his offensive numbers were not as gaudy as they were a year ago.

He also has the protection of Matt Kemp, who missed all of last season's playoffs because of an ankle injury. The 2011 MVP runner-up seemed to rediscover his stroke in the second half of 2014, leading all of baseball with 17 home runs after the All-Star break.

Bill Plunkett @billplunkettocr

On crutches a year ago at this time, #Dodgers Matt Kemp has been named NL Player of Month for Sept. .322, .700 slug pct, 9 HR 25 RBI in Sept

Last October against the Cardinals, light-hitting utility infielder Nick Punto was forced to start huge games after Ramirez's injury and a hobbled Andre Ethier was Los Angeles' best option in center field (Yasiel Puig was still strictly a right fielder). Both scenarios were less than ideal, but a healthy Ramirez and Kemp in the mix this time around should give Wainwright and catcher Yadier Molina a little extra to think about as they maneuver through the Dodgers lineup.

Late-Inning Relief

With Kershaw and Wainwright on the mound, the bullpens might not see much work in Game 1. But then again, there is the very real possibility that both hurlers put up zeroes for seven innings and the game becomes a battle of relievers.

Whether or not the Dodgers relief corps will be up for this potential challenge is a key question mark facing manager Don Mattingly.

During the regular season, the Los Angeles bullpen finished 22nd in baseball with a 3.80 ERA. Only Detroit was worse among playoff teams. But not even the Tigers suffered as many losses out of the bullpen as the Dodgers, who ended the year with 24.

With no reliable bridge to closer Kenley Jansen, the Dodgers are hoping that Kershaw can go at least eight innings. Brian Wilson's ineffectiveness in the regular season makes it difficult for Los Angeles to believe the bearded right-hander's claim that he is saving his velocity for October.

Left-hander J.P. Howell was the team's most consistent reliever throughout the regular season, but even he has shown recent vulnerability with an 11.81 ERA in September.

Another option is stretching Jansen for a possible four- or five-out save if necessary. Mattingly tried this three times during the regular season and each time his closer put up a zero. However, the last two occasions that Jansen pitched more than a single inning, he gave up a run in his next appearance.

If the Cardinals practice patience at the plate and force Kershaw to throw more pitches than normal, a mediocre Dodgers bullpen may be required to perform the tall order of getting big outs in Game 1. The temperature is expected to approach triple digits on the field, so we'll see if Los Angeles' relievers can stand the heat.

All statistics courtesy of Baseball-Reference and ESPN.com unless otherwise linked/noted.


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