Dodgers in a hole after failing to capitalize on their aces
ST. LOUIS -- Thirty minutes before the first pitch of Saturday afternoon's Game 2 of the NLCS, things were looking as unpromising for the Dodgers as is possible when Clayton Kershaw is scheduled to be on the mound.
They had known for a long time that they would be without Matt Kemp, the man who is supposed to be their best hitter. Kemp played in just 73 games during an injury-ravaged regular season and was ruled out for the playoffs with a bad ankle, and then had shoulder surgery. They had also known for a few hours that they would be without centerfielder Andre Ethier. Ethier played in Game 1 but was clearly still afflicted by his own ankle injury, as was demonstrated by his effort to corral what would turn into Carlos Beltran's two-RBI double. Ethier came closer to catching the ball with his mouth, like a border collie, than with his glove ("Dre's a little sore," manager Don Mattingly explained). At 2:35 p.m., though, the announcement came: Hanley Ramirez, unable to swing a bat after having been hit in the ribs with a Joe Kelly fastball during Game 1, would not be playing, either. The bottom five spots of the Dodgers' lineup, which had been constructed to be deep and powerful, would be occupied by Juan Uribe, Skip Schumaker, A.J. Ellis, Nick Punto and Kershaw.
With the rookie sensation Michael Wacha pitching for the Cardinals -- the 6-foot-6 flamethrower had allowed one hit in each of his previous two starts -- you might have predicted that the game would be won by whichever team managed to push across a single run. So it was, by the score of 1-0, with the Cardinals proving that run's manufacturer. They took a 2-0 lead in the series that represented a nightmare scenario for the Dodgers, who have used both of their co-aces, Zack Greinke and Kershaw, without a win to show for it, and now must face the Cardinals' own ace, Adam Wainwright, in Monday's Game 3. "I don't think it gets better than that," Beltran said of the starters whom his Cardinals have so far faced. For the Dodgers, the result could not have been worse.
Kershaw did his best to try to single-handedly save his depleted, and now demoralized, club. The Cardinals' run, which came in the bottom of the fifth inning, ended up an unearned one. It came after a passed ball by Ellis, which allowed David Freese -- who had led off the inning with a double -- to advance to third and then score on a sacrifice fly by Jon Jay, helped by an attempted throw to the plate by leftfielder Carl Crawford that was as off-line as Beltran's throw the night before had been on target. Kershaw led off the next inning with a single, and advanced to third --- he was one of two Dodgers to make it that far around the basepaths --- on an errant throw by second baseman Matt Carpenter after he had fielded a Crawford grounder. Then Wacha asserted himself. He got Mark Ellis to pop out, and after intentionally walking Adrian Gonzalez, he struck out Yasiel Puig --- who is now 0-for-10 in the series, with six whiffs --- and then struck out Uribe. Yadier Molina, Wacha's catcher, pumped his fist twice, and Wacha coolly sprinted off the mound, remembering to skip over the first base line.
"He was at, what, Texas A&M last year?" Wainwright would say, marveling at the 22-year-old's performance. "What in the world?"
Wacha was removed from the game with two outs in the top of the seventh, having allowed five hits and one walk while striking out eight, and Kershaw came out at the same time, for pinch hitter Michael Young. Kershaw had yielded just two hits and one walk, and had only thrown 72 pitches. Mattingly explained that he wanted to try to seize any chance to score a run he could, even if, in this case, he only had a runner, Punto, on first with two outs. "It wasn't any fun taking him out, honestly, the way he was pitching, but I think it was our last chance," he said. But it also seemed as if Mattingly knew that it just wasn't going to happen for the Dodgers on Saturday, and that he figured he might as well save his ace for another day --- perhaps as soon as Wednesday, when Game 5 will be played.
Punto ended up reaching third during Young's at-bat, on a pair of wild pitches by reliever Kevin Siegrist, but then Young flew out, and the Cardinals' bullpen gave the Dodgers no more chances. By the time Ethier hobbled out to pinch hit with two outs in the top of the ninth, it was too late. Trevor Rosenthal, St. Louis' closer, threw three fastballs -- the second at 101 miles an hour -- and Ethier weakly swung through all three.
If the Dodgers had damaged the pitching advantage they had held by losing Greinke's Game 1 start, they destroyed it by losing Kershaw's in Game 2. It happened due in part to their own injuries and perhaps related ineffectiveness with runners in scoring position (they are now 1-for-16 in the series in such situations), but also in large measure because of the precocious, high-velocity performances of the youngest members of the Cardinals' staff -- among them Kelly, Wacha, Siegrist, setup man Carlos Martinez and Rosenthal, the last of whom has already thrown three shutout innings against them.
"I'm definitely the soft tosser of this team," Wainwright said after the game, only half-joking. Wainwright's fastball this year maxed out at just under 95 miles per hour, more than three ticks slower than that of anyone from that cadre of 25-and-unders. On Monday, the Dodgers might have Ramirez back in the lineup (x-rays on his ribs showed no fracture), and Ethier too, and they will be facing a starter with whose heat they might actually be able to contend. Of course, Wainwright just threw a complete game against the Pirates in Game 5 of the NLDS, and in a postseason career that spans 48.2 innings he has never lost a decision, and has an ERA of 2.03. A comeback will not be easy.