NLDS Game 1 preview: Pirates at Cardinals; Dodgers at Braves
After three straight days of one-game playoffs, the 2013 postseason finally starts in earnest on Thursday with the first games of the best-of-five National League Division Series. Here's a quick look at the matchups for those games, which feature two of this year's top NL Cy Young contenders in St. Louis' Adam Wainwright and Los Angeles' Clayton Kershaw.
Start time: 5:00 p.m. ET
Starting pitchers: A.J. Burnett (10-11, 3.30 ERA) vs. Adam Wainwright (19-9, 2.94)
In the National League Wild Card Game, Pirates starter Francisco Liriano set the tone in the top of the first, dominating the Reds to such a degree that by the fourth inning, Pittsburgh's 3-0 lead seemed insurmountable. Wainwright, who was one of the five best starting pitchers in the National League this year, has the ability to do the same to the Pirates in this game.
The last time Wainwright faced the Bucs in St. Louis, on Sept. 7, he held them scoreless on two hits and two walks over seven innings while striking out eight. If you leave out his disaster start against the Reds on Aug. 28, Wainwright posted a 1.89 ERA in his 16 other home starts this season, and in his last five regular season starts, which admittedly came against weak opponents, he went 4-0 with a 1.80 ERA.
In stark contrast to that, Pittsburgh's A.J. Burnett gave up five runs in just three innings the last time he took the mound at Busch Stadium and allowed 10 runs in 7 1/3 innings in his last two starts in St. Louis. On the season, Burnett went 5-7 with a 4.22 ERA on the road with just six quality starts in 16 road appearances, and two of those quality starts qualified as such only because three of the runs he allowed in each were unearned. Burnett did pitch well against the Cardinals in two starts against them in Pittsburgh this season, but his home/road split both against them and the rest of the league is striking.
The postseason track records of these two pitchers tell a similar story. Wainwright didn't allow a run in nine postseason appearances as the Cardinals' closer in their championship season of 2006 and has allowed more than one run in just one of his four postseason starts since (that being a disaster in Game 5 of last year's Division Series against the Nationals). Burnett, meanwhile, has had his October highlights, most memorably his crucial win in Game 2 of the 2009 World Series for the Yankees, but three of his seven postseason starts have been disasters, pushing his career postseason ERA to 5.08.
Given that these two pitchers would rematch in a potential Game 5 in St. Louis, this stands as a huge game for the Pirates. With Liriano due to take the mound in Pittsburgh in Game 3, making the Pirates the clear favorite in that game, an upset in Game 1 would put them in position to need just one more win to avoid that Game 5 rematch. If the Cardinals win, however, they would need to win just one of the next three games to guarantee they get to that very favorable Game 5.
Start time: 8:30 p.m. ET
Starting pitchers: Clayton Kershaw (16-9, 1.83 ERA) vs. Kris Medlen (15-12, 3.11)
Much of the talk regarding this series on Wednesday concerned who wouldn't participate, specifically Braves second baseman Dan Uggla, who was left off Atlanta's roster, and Dodgers centerfielder Matt Kemp, who has been shut down for the season due to his sprained left ankle. The same injury will also limit Los Angeles' Andre Ethier to pinch-hitting duty in this game, meaning the Dodgers will be starting Skip Schumaker in centerfield.
Of course, Kershaw could render all of that moot. The Best Pitcher In Baseball hasn't seen the postseason since 2009, when he was a 21-year-old sophomore whose on-turn start in Game 5 of that year's League Championship Series against the Phillies, with the Dodgers facing elimination, was skipped in favor of Vicente Padilla. Kershaw returns Thursday night having led the majors in ERA in each of the last three years, the first pitcher to do so since Greg Maddux from 1993 to 1995, and coming off a season in which he posted the lowest ERA (1.83) by a qualified starter since Pedro Martinez's 1.74 in 2000. Kershaw also led the majors in WHIP (0.92) and ERA+ (194) and the NL in strikeouts (232), and he averaged more than seven innings per start. On the road, he was 8-3 with a 2.14 ERA.
The Braves haven't seen Kershaw since 2011 (he struck out 10 in seven innings in his last start in Atlanta in September of that year). Brian McCann, Evan Gattis, Andrelton Simmons, Elliot Johnson (Uggla's replacement) and B.J. Upton have never faced him. Only two Braves in tonight's projected lineup have faced him more than four times and those two, former Diamondbacks Justin Upton and Chris Johnson, are a combined 4-for-41 (.098) against him. This doesn't bode well for Atlanta.
It will be up to Kris Medlen, who started last year's NL Wild Card Game, to keep up with Kershaw, and he just might do it. Medlen allowed only one unearned run in 13 2/3 innings over two starts against L.A. this year and posted a 1.29 ERA over his final eight starts of the regular season. At least two Dodgers have small-sample success against Medlen: Schumaker, who is 4-for-9 in his career against the Atlanta starter, and Hanley Ramirez (5-for-9, one home run).
For all of the attention given to rookie Yasiel Puig, Ramirez was most valuable Dodger not named Clayton this season. Though he was only healthy enough to start 77 games, he hit .345/.402/.638 with 20 home runs and 10 stolen bases (in 12 attempts) while playing an above-average shortstop and was second only to Kershaw on the team in Baseball-Reference's Wins Above Replacement. The Dodgers, who had a .568 winning percentage on the season, went 55-31 (.640) in games in which Ramirez played, and, though he was slowed by a nerve injury in his back toward the end of the season, he will start at shortstop tonight coming off a .370/.462/.704 performance in September. LEMIRE: NLDS Preview: Kershaw looms large in Dodgers-Braves matchup