The Los Angeles Dodgers enter the postseason with their second consecutive National League West title and arguably the best one-two starting pitching punch in baseball with Clayton Kershaw and Zack Greinke. Kershaw will win his third Cy Young in four seasons after putting together one of the best overall seasons by a starting pitcher in a decade. In his second season as a Dodger, Zack Greinke put together another solid season, winning 16 games with a 2.74 ERA. When it comes to the top two starters, who’ll start four of the potential games in the NL divisional round series, the Dodgers are in good shape. It’s who comes after Kershaw and Greinke that has Dodgers fans concerned. Due to injuries in the starting rotation and an up and down year by the bullpen, the Dodgers enter the postseason with major concerns in the back half of their starting rotation and among the bullpen set up men.
There’s no question that the Dodgers are in good hands with Kershaw, Greinke, and closer Kenley Jansen. The big question is whether or not the rest of the staff will hold up. Here’s a look at back half of the Dodgers rotation and the bullpen as they enter the opening round of the playoffs versus the St. Louis Cardinals.
Here are three big questions the Dodgers will have to answer as they enter the postseason:
Who is the number three starter? For the majority of the season, there was no question who the Dodgers third starter was. Hyun-Jin Ryu put together a solid regular season and the second year left-hander from Korea gave the Dodgers as good a top half of the rotation as any team in baseball. Since Ryu went down with late season arm soreness the Dodgers rotation depth is now a big question. The Dodgers are cautiously optimistic that Ryu will be back for the postseason. What they don’t know is how healthy he’ll be and what he can give them. If Ryu can’t go veteran Dan Haren is thrust into the third spot. Haren started the season strong, had a brutal stretch in the middle, and has now pitched better of late. In Adam Wainwright and Lance Lynn, the Cardinals have an outstanding top of the rotation duo, two starters who can match Kershaw and Greinke pitch for pitch. The Cardinals series will be a tight one. In order to prevail and prevent last season’s outcome the Dodgers need a strong performance from Ryu, if available, and Haren.
Who is the set-up man? Last season the Dodgers found a strong set-up man in former San Francisco Giants closer Brian Wilson. The Beard resurrected his career after an arm injury and put together a solid regular season. The year Wilson has struggled, with pitch location and velocity. As a result, the Dodgers have been scrambling all season to find a consistent set-up man. They have a solid left-hander to match up with opposing lefty batters in JP Howell, but Howell can be relied on to be the consistent 8th inning setup man. Brandon League, Pedro Baez, Chris Perez and even Paco Rodriguez have had opportunities in the setup spot. League, who failed as a closer a year ago has had a solid season. Perez, who the Dodgers acquired to supplement Wilson, has pitched better since coming off the DL on September 1. The Dodgers still have the option of Wilson, who can be an effective setup man provided he’s hitting his spots. Whoever claims the setup spot, the Dodgers will need a strong performance to win tight postseason games.
Can Kershaw out-duel Wainwright? After a strong performance in the opening series versus the Atlanta Braves a year ago, Kershaw was out-dueled by Adam Wainwright in last year’s Cardinals series. In ten innings pitched versus the Cardinals, Kershaw gave up seven earned runs in ten innings pitched. A big story this postseason is whether or not Kershaw can cement his legacy and carry his dominant performance into the postseason. Many have compared Kershaw to Dodgers legend Sandy Koufax, especially with his incredible season. The Dodgers need Kershaw to pitch like Koufax to bring home their first World Series title since 1988.
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Is Greinke the early favorite for the National League Cy Young Award?Greinke is not the only player off to a fast start. Jose Fernandez, Adam Wainwright, Tim Hudson, Johnny Cueto and Dan Haren are all off to impressive starts. None of the aforementioned list has accomplished what Greinke has over his last 18 starts. Including the postseason Greinke has won 18 of his last 21 decisions. In his last 21 starts the right-hander has pitched at least five innings and given up two runs or less. This streak is the longest in nearly a century, since 1917. It’s indicative of the incredibly consistency that Greinke has displayed during his time as a Los Angeles Dodger. In two seasons as a Dodger Greinke has a combined record of 20-4. Baseball writers often refer to top starting pitchers as “stoppers”, not in the sense of that they are closers, but pitchers who can be relied on to provide a quality start, often in the midst of a team’s losing streak or coming off of a loss. Greinke has been a true stopper this season. Of his five wins, four have come following a Dodgers loss. His ability to consistently turn around potential losing streaks has increased his value and should be a real factor in the early ranking of Cy Young contenders. The Dodgers should get Kershaw back soon, after a second minor league rehabilitation start. When Kershaw returns Los Angeles will once again have the lefty/righty combination that harkens back to the days of Sandy Koufax and Don Drysdale. When Kershaw returns he’ll join a starting rotation that’s been firing on all cylinders of late. Dan Haren, who’s signing many questioned, has been tremendous and seems to have reclaimed the form that made him a top starter over the past decade. Hyun-Jin Ryu continues to evolve into an elite left-hander, while Josh Beckett is showing signs of the form that made him a perennial Cy Young Award candidate in the American League.
They’ve all pitched well but the ace so far this season for the Dodgers has been Zack Greinke. If he keeps up his form the Dodgers may have another Cy Young Award winner to add to the long list of great Dodger starting pitchers.
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Here are three things to watch in the NLCS:
Elite Starting Pitching: The Los Angeles Dodgers boast arguably the top 1-2 pitching combination in all of baseball in Clayton Kershaw and Zack Greinke. The Dodgers twenty-five year-old lefthander Kershaw is the odds on favorite to earn his second Cy Young Award in four seasons. Greinke, who the Dodgers acquired via free agency this offseason, has long been one of the dominant right-handers in the game and won 15 games this season against only four defeats with an outstanding 2.63 ERA. In the Dodgers 3-1 series victory over the Braves in the NLDS Kershaw had two outstanding starts, striking out 18 batters in just thirteen innings pitched with just one earned run given up. Due to the Dodgers decision to start Kershaw in game four of the Braves series the Dodgers will start Greinke in game one, followed by Kershaw on Saturday.
The Cardinals have their own trio of outstanding starters in veteran ace Adam Wainwright and rookie Michael Wacha. Wainwright closed out the Pittsburgh series with a dominating start in game five. He’s joined in the rotation by Wacha who pitched seven perfect innings in Pittsburgh in game four before giving up a solo home run in the seventh inning. Wacha exited the game with just one hit allowed and one earned run in an incredibly boisterous road environment. The twenty-one year- old was a late call-up who nearly pitched a perfect game during the regular season. The remainder of the Cardinals postseason roster is to be determined, with a choice between Joe Kelly, Lance Lynn and Shelby Miller.
The Season Series: The Dodgers took five of seven from the Cardinals this season including taking three of four in St. Louis in early August. In the August series the Dodgers received outstanding starting performances from Ricky Nolasco, Hyun-Jin Ryu and Zack Greinke. Ironically the lone Cardinals victory was the one game started by Clayton Kershaw. Kershaw gave up just two earned runs but the Dodgers were unable to provide their starter much run support, ending the Dodgers club record fifteen game road winning streak. In the first game of the series Greinke out-dueled Wainwright in a tight battle.
For the Dodgers to prevail they’ll need Nolasco and Ryu to recapture the form they showed during the late summer Dodgers hot streak. After being acquired by the Dodgers from the Marlins Nolasco was outstanding, but struggled at the end of the season, perhaps due to throwing so many innings this season. Ryu, the Korean rookie, had a strong regular season but struggled in game three of the Braves series. The playoff schedule may allow the Dodgers to go with a three-man rotation, but it’s likely they’ll have to start Nolasco in game four back in Los Angeles. They’ll need the right-hander to recapture the form he showed right after his acquisition.
The Cardinals Lineup: The Cardinals don’t have the superstar they once had in Albert Pujols, but do have one of the deepest and most efficient batting lineups in baseball. The Cardinals are third in baseball in runs scored and on base percentage and fourth in batting average. The Cardinals had five players drive in at least seventy-five runs this season, with four regulars batting over .300. Second Baseman Matt Carpenter led the NL in hits, batting .318. Superstar catcher Yadier Molina hit .319 with 80 runs batted in. Molina is on track for his seventh gold glove. Allen Craig led the National League in batting average with runners in scoring position, hitting .315 with 97 runs batted in. Both Matt Holliday and Carlos Beltran hit near .300 with between 22 and 24 home runs and 80 runs batted in. The Cardinals lineup will be a big challenge to the Dodgers pitching staff. One bright spot for the Dodgers is the Cardinals inconsistent offensive showing in the NLDS. After leading the Cardinals all season in batting Carpenter hit just .067 in the NLDS with David Freese, Matt Holliday and John Jay also struggling at the plate.
The biggest key to victory for the Dodgers is getting off to a strong start in St. Louis, just like in Atlanta. If Greinke and Kershaw can be their dominant self the Dodgers have a strong opportunity to reclaim home field advantage upon their return to Los Angeles. The Cardinals are a battle tested club with significant postseason experience. The spotlight won’t be too big for them and the Dodgers will face a hostile environment this weekend in St. Louis. With Wainwright starting game five the Dodgers have the luxury of avoiding the Cardinals ace in St. Louis. Wainwright will likely start game three in Los Angeles. The Cardinals game one and two starters are still to be announced but likely will be either Joe Kelly, Shelby Miller or Lance Lynn in game one and Michael Wacha in game two. Lynn struggled in game two versus the Pirates and Kelly and Miller both have very little postseason experience. The veteran Dodgers club may have an advantage versus the very young Cardinals rotation as the pressure gets ramped up even more in the NLCS.
Prediction: The Dodgers ride Kershaw and Greinke into the World Series, out-dueling the young Cardinals rotation. Dodgers win 4-2.