Take that finger off the panic button, Dodger fans. The division race is over.
They claimed the NL West title for the second consecutive year, the first time the club has won back-to-back division titles since ’77-’78, and have now been to the playoffs three times in the past four seasons and four times in the last six seasons—the only National League team to accomplish both feats.
It has been over 40 years since L.A. has been such a consistent playoff presence, when, in ’63, ’64, and ’66, the team went to the postseason three times in four years.
Both teams stumbled to close the season, with the Dodgers going a mediocre 37-33 record in the second half of the season, and losing five of their last seven while the Cardinals went only 13-13 over September and October.
The Cardinals did win the season series, 5-2, including two out of three at Dodger Stadium.
But with the postseason comes new life; those records mean nothing in the division series, and it all comes down to matchups.
An outsider might look at this series and dismiss the Dodgers because of their lackluster post-All-Star break performance, as opposed to the Cardinals, who turned into a dominant force with the addition of Matt Holliday to the lineup.
It might be even easier to overlook the fact that the Cardinals actually finished with the worst record of all four NL playoff teams, one game behind Wild Card winner Colorado.
With the Dodgers holding the best record in the Senior Circuit, they of course get home field advantage, which gives them the possibility of a Game Five at Chavez Ravine. The club started the season 13-0 there (finishing 50-31 at home), and they drew the second-most fans in the history of the stadium this season.
I’m going to break this series down and show you where the advantage really lies—in the hands of the Boys in Blue.
Coaching Staff: Advantage Dodgers
LAD: Joe Torre, Don Mattingly, Rick Honeycutt, Bob Schaefer, Larry Bowa, Mariano Duncan, Ken Howell, Manny Mota, Jeff Pentland, Mike Borzello, Ron Flippo
STL: Tony LaRussa, Hal McRae, Dave Duncan, Dave McCay, Jose Oquendo, Joe Pettini, Marty Mason, Jeff Murphy
The direction and culture of the Dodgers’ franchise changed for the better when Manager Joe Torre took over before last season.
With two consecutive trips to the postseason as Dodgers’ skipper, Torre has now taken his teams to the postseason for a record 14th consecutive season.
The LA coaching staff as a whole boasts 12 World Championship rings, standing out in a group of postseason managers littered with histories of October success, and Torre is the man who has kept this young team in a positive state of mind during a trying second half.
On the other side, Tony LaRussa is no slouch.
The man is a baseball genius, and he took St. Louis to the pinnacle just three seasons ago, in addition to a World Series ring with the Oakland Athletics 20 years ago.
Not to mention he has Dave Duncan, perhaps the best pitching coach in the game, and Dave McCay. Both have been at LaRussa’s side for the entirety of his tenure with the Cardinals.
Yet, even with the stellar record and history of the Cardinals’ coaching staff, Torre and his posse get the nod.
Offense: Advantage Dodgers
C: Russell Martin/ Yadier Molina
1B: James Loney/ Albert Pujols
2B: Ronnie Belliard/ Skip Schumaker
3B: Casey Blake/ Mark DeRosa
SS: Rafael Furcal/ Brendan Ryan
LF: Manny Ramirez/ Matt Holliday
CF: Matt Kemp/ Colby Rasmus OR Rick Ankiel
RF: Andre Ethier/ Ryan Ludwick
The Glaring advantage for the Cardinals is the beefy middle of the lineup that boasts Pujols and Holliday, who drove in 51 runs in 58 games in the cleanup spot behind the soon-to-be NL MVP.
Although the Dodgers are seen as more of a station-to-station, small ball kind of team, they hold a team slugging percentage (.412) only three points lower than the Cardinals (.415).
But, as a whole, the Dodgers can do a heck of a lot more damage top-to-bottom than the Cardinals.
LA’s lineup has fired on all cylinders on a more-consistent basis than St. Louis, while the Cardinals have two exceptional pieces, the Dodgers have a stronger eight-man group.
If Manny wakes up and gets a few clutch hits, this lineup is unstoppable; even if he doesn’t heat up, he still provides a shell for Ethier to get good pitches to drive.
Another interesting development: Torre will give the Game One start to Belliard over the All-Star Hudson.
Player to watch: Casey Blake—After missing eight straight games with a hamstring injury before the final weekend of the regular season, Blake showed agility on the field and on the bases in the division-clincher on Saturday night, making a diving stab at third base and legging out a double that started a five-run rally.
Expect a huge series from the veteran.
Bench: Advantage Dodgers
LAD: Ronnie Belliard, Jim Thome, Mark Loretta, Brad Ausmus, Juan Pierre
STL: Ankiel/Rasmus, Julio Lugo, Troy Glaus, Joe Thurston
The late-season additions of Thome and, more specifically, Belliard, are the factors that give the Dodgers a decided advantage on the bench.
Lugo hit .277 with nine doubles in 51 games since being acquired by the Cards, but Belliard for the Dodgers is certainly a more dangerous chip off the bench.
Pierre is a serious threat in the late-innings to come in, get on base, and a steal base, making him a dynamic player that can quickly generate a run for LA.
Glaus got the nod over Khalil Greene, as LaRussa decided to take 12 pitchers to the postseason instead of 11, shortening his bench.
But Glaus missed most of the season recovering from back surgery, only notching 20 at-bats, and wasn't activated until Sept. 1. He suffered spasms when he returned, and who knows how his health will go in the postseason.
Starting Pitching: Advantage Cardinals
Game One (Wed.): Randy Wolf/ Chris Carpenter
Game Two (Thurs.): Clayton Kershaw/ Adam Wainwright
Game Three (Sat.): Chad Billingsley/ Joel Piniero
Game Four (Sun.): Vicente Padilla/ John Smoltz OR Kyle Lohse
*(5:45 PM) Joe Torre announced today that Padilla will start Game Three and Billingsley will go in Game four*
Game Five (Tues.): Wolf/ Carpenter
I bet it surprises some people that the Dodgers actually have a lower ERA for their starters (3.58) than the Cardinals (3.66), but the Red Birds clearly have upper hand in a short series.
Additionally, the Dodgers will go with Wolf and Kershaw, both southpaws, and the Cardinals have hit only .233 against lefties in ’09.
And, yes, that’s Chad Billingsley slotted into Game Three.
If the Dodgers had drawn the Phillies, then Bills would be relegated to the bullpen, but his arsenal matches up well against the Redbirds, and he will have a chance to earn his role in the NLCS with a solid outing here.
Overall, Billingsley dominates the Cards, with the exception of a sixth-inning meltdown on July 28 where he allowed six runs—an inning that included four walks.
Another chip that falls in favor of Los Angeles is that Carpenter will not come back for Game Four. With an arm that has seen its share of problems, pitching on three-days rest doesn’t seem like a viable option for the possible Cy Young winner.
That means either Smoltz or Lohse will throw, allowing the Dodgers an open door in what could be a decisive Game Four at Busch Stadium.
Overall, the nod must go to the Cardinals because of their ridiculous one-two punch of Carpenter and Wainwright.
Just don’t expect the starting pitching to dictate the entire outcome of the games, as the Dodgers play very well in late innings, and if they can prevent getting knocked out of the game early, they can do severe damage once the Big Guns are taken out of the game.
Player to watch: Clayton Kershaw—In Game Two, Clayton Kershaw will take the hill in front of 56,000 fans at Chavez Ravine. This is the main reason it was so big for the team to clinch home field advantage, because Kershaw is significantly more dominant at home than on the road (1.83 ERA at home/ 3.81 ERA on the road).
In a series filled with veterans, look for the 21-year old lefty to make a huge impact.
Relief Pitching: Advantage Dodgers
LAD: Hong Chi-Kuo, Guillermo Mota, Ronald Belisario, Ramon Troncoso, George Sherrill, Jonathan Broxton
STL: Smoltz/ Lohse, Jason Motte, Blake Hawksworth, Mitchell Boggs, Kyle McClellan, Trever Miller, Dennys Reyes, Ryan Franklin
The Dodgers lead the Majors with a 3.14 bullpen ERA and the big knock on the relief crew is their overworked arms, but they certainly have a lot of reliable guys to shoulder the load and make a late-inning lead stick.
Belisario, Kuo, and Troncoso are all solid options. Not to mention Sherrill, who has been absolutely untouchable since joining the Dodgers.
Sherrill also gives them an excellent balance of lefties and righties, but he can pitch an entire inning regardless of what side of the plate the batter is hitting.
Jonathan Broxton had a notable implosion nine days ago in Pittsburgh, but Ryan Franklin has been the closer with more questions to answer late in the season. Franklin had a 1.04 ERA when September began, but he posted a 7.56 ERA during the month, and blew three saves in the final month of the season.
LaRussa hasn’t officially announced the 12 pitchers he has chosen for the postseason, but it looks as if Hawksworth and Boggs will slide onto the roster with strong late-season performances.
Player(s) to watch:
Jonathan Broxton—Sluggers Pujols and Holliday really struggle against the big closer for the Dodgers. Pujols is 1-for-10 in his career, and Holliday is 2-for-14. If the game is on the line in the ninth inning, expect Broxton to be lights out versus the meat of the order.
Broxton leads Major League relievers with 119 K and a .165 opponents average against.
Ronald Belisario—Since returning from the DL on Aug. 8, he has made 25 appearances and allowed only four earned runs.
Key to the Series: The Dodgers have to keep games close for the late-innings
It’s going to be incredibly difficult for the Dodgers to topple the one-two punch of Carpenter and Wainwright, but if they can get a solid outing from Wolf and Kershaw that keeps the team in the game, they can attack the Cards bullpen.
The Dodgers have 28 one-run wins and St. Louis has a difficult time overcoming late-inning deficits, going just 9-55 when trailing after seven innings. If LA can elevate the pitch counts of Carpenter and Wainwright early, and chase them in the seventh inning rather than the eighth, then the advantage falls into the hands of the Dodgers.
Bold Prediction: For the first time since June 25-26, the Cardinals will lose back-to-back games in which Carpenter and Wainwright start.
That’s right—the series will head to St. Louis with the Dodgers in front 2-0.
Series Prediction: Dodgers win series, 3-1
The mounting questions about the LA starting rotation are quickly answered, with dominant Game One and Game Two performances from Wolf and Kershaw.
The best bullpen in baseball stifles the Cards in late-inning situations, and Torre leads the Blue Crew to the NLCS.