NLDS Game 1 preview: Aces high as Kershaw, Wainwright clash
Start Time: 6:30 p.m. ET
TV: FOX Sports 1
Look at that pitching matchup. Just look at it. With Felix Hernandez, Corey Kluber, and Johnny Cueto done for the year, this is the best pitching matchup this postseason has to offer. Best of all, it will repeat if this series gets to Game 5, a possibility that evokes memories of the duel between Cardinals ace Chris Carpenter and the then-reigning Best Pitcher In Baseball, Roy Halladay, in Game 5 of the 2011 Division Series.
Clayton Kershaw is hands down the Best Pitcher in Baseball today. The Dodgers' lefty is in the midst of a Koufax-ian run in which he has led the majors in ERA in four straight seasons, in ERA+ the last two and the National League in ERA+ the last three. This November, he will win his third Cy Young award in the last four years, and one could argue he deserved the award that fourth year as well (he finished second in the voting to R.A. Dickey). In 21 starts since the calendar flipped to June, he has posted a 1.38 ERA and 0.78 WHIP, averaging more than 7 2/3 innings per start; the Dodgers have gone 20-1 in those games.
On the season, Kershaw has struck out 10.8 men per nine innings with 7.7 strikeouts for every walk, and only once in 27 starts has he allowed more than three runs in a game, that being a fluky disaster start in Arizona way back on May 17. He has six complete games on the season, has completed eight or more innings 15 times, and seven or more innings 22 times. Oh, and on June 18, he made one of the most dominant nine-inning starts in major league history with his no-hitter of the Rockies.
How can the Cardinals hope to compete with that? By starting a pitcher who has finished in the top three in the Cy Young voting in three of the last four seasons in which he has pitched, and should do so again this year. Wainwright has 12 times this season held an opponent scoreless for seven-or-more innings (twice as many such starts as Kershaw has had this season), completed seven or more innings 24 times (in, admittedly, five more chances than Kershaw), and finished the season by allowing just two runs in 33 innings over his final four starts, good for an 0.55 ERA and nearly 8 1/3 innings per start. He completed two of those last four starts, one of them a shutout, but didn't throw more than 106 pitches in any of them. Kershaw, by comparison, had a 2.17 ERA over his last four starts, not counting two unearned runs he allowed in the first of those four.
Want more? How about the fact that Wainwright was better on the road than at home this season, going 11-6 with a 1.72 ERA in 18 starts outside of St. Louis. Kershaw at home? 10-2 with a 1.70 ERA in 14 starts.
Kershaw's edge over Wainwright gets even slimmer when you look at their postseason track records. Wainwright has posted a 2.95 ERA in nine postseason starts, including a 2.57 mark in five starts last October (four of them quality) on top of the 9 2/3 scoreless innings he threw in relief as the Cardinals' closer in their world championship season of 2006 (he was recuperating from Tommy John surgery when they won in 2011). Kershaw, meanwhile, has a 3.93 ERA in six postseason starts and allowed another three runs in a total of four relief innings back in 2008 and 2009.
Those numbers are a bit misleading, however, as Kershaw was a rookie in 2008 and didn't start his current stretch of dominance until 2011. Since then, he has appeared in only one postseason and allowed just one earned run, plus three more unearned, in 19 innings through his first three starts of last October. However, in his final start last year, he gave up seven runs in just four innings in St. Louis as the Cardinals cruised to victory in the National League Championship Series.
Both enter this game pitching on significant rest. Kershaw last started on Sept. 24, giving him eight days of rest. Wainwright was scheduled to pitch on Sunday, but once the Pirates lost, thus handing the NL Central to St. Louis, his turn was skipped, meaning he hasn't pitched since Sept. 22, a whopping ten days of rest. Neither pitcher has exhibited any consistent difficulty pitching with extended rest over the course of their career, but Wainwright's one non-quality start last postseason was the one he made on eight days rest, and he stumbled coming out of the All-Star break this year, as well, a stretch during which he had nine days off.
Who can hit these guys? Well, not many batters, obviously. The Dodger with the most sustained success against Wainwright is Andre Ethier, who was largely relegated to pinch-hitting duty down the stretch, making just three starts in September and seven in August. He has hit .256/.310/.564 with three home runs in 42 career plate appearances against Wainwright, the most exposure any Dodger has had to the Cardinals' ace. Yasiel Puig has had some small-sample success, going 3-for-10 with a double and a triple (the famous one in last year’s NLCS) but also five strikeouts. Included in that is an 0-for-4 performance with two strikeouts and a double play in Wainwright's one start against the Dodgers this year (Wainwright's line: 8 IP, 5 H, 1 R, 1 BB, 7 K, 100 pitches).
The Cardinals' top Kershaw killer is speedy centerfielder Peter Bourjos, who is 4-for-11 with a home run in 12 plate appearances against the greatest pitcher in the world. This season, Bourjos is 1-for-6 against Kershaw, but the one was that home run. The only other Cardinal to have homered off Kershaw is Matt Holliday, who leads St. Louis with 54 plate appearances against the Dodgers' lefty and has hit .233/.389/.326 in those opportunities, with six of his ten walks coming prior to 2011 and the home run coming in the 2009 Division Series. Kershaw faced the Cardinals twice during the regular season this year, striking out 13 in seven scoreless innings in their first meeting at Dodger Stadium at the end of June, then giving up three runs in seven frames in the rematch in St. Louis three weeks later. It's a measure of just how good Kershaw has been this season that the latter game, in which he walked one and struck out eight, ranked as his fifth-worst Game Score of the season.
The one drawback of a matchup like this is that if both pitchers are on their game, the game could be decided by the bullpens. That would be disappointing, as both team’s relief units are fairly middling and had their share of struggles down the stretch. Given that, it might be more fair to say that the game would then be decided by the lineups, a situation which would favor the Dodgers, who were one of just two NL teams to score more than 700 runs this season, while the Cardinals have had a consistently below-average offense all year.
Let's hope it doesn't come to that. For all of the excitement provided by the Royals at this early point in the postseason, if there's one must-watch game out of the four to be played on Friday, this matchup of two of the game's most dominant aces is it.