NLCS Preview: Dodgers at Cardinals, Game 6
Start time: 8:30 p.m. ET
Series: Cardinals lead 3-2
The Dodgers avoided elimination at home on Wednesday in Game 5 (behind starte Zack Greinke), and they'll have to do so again tonight in St. Louis in order to have the privilege of facing Cardinals ace Adam Wainwright at Busch Stadium in a winner-take-all Game 7 on Saturday.
If the Los Angeles --or really, any team in baseball -- could pick one starter for such a situation, it would be Clayton Kershaw, who will in fact get the ball for the Dodgers in Game 6. The left-hander has established himself as the best pitcher in baseball over the last three seasons, and has allowed just one earned run in 19 innings across three playoff starts this month.
Against St. Louis in Game 2, Kershaw allowed one unearned run on a mere two hits and a walk. But he also pitched just six innings because L.A. manager Don Mattingly, with his team still trailing by that lone unearned run in the seventh, pinch-hit for Kershaw, who had singled in his previous at-bat. Michael Young flew out in Kershaw's place, and the Dodgers lost, 1-0.
Mattingly's questionable decision to remove Kershaw isn't the reason L.A. lost. The real reason for the Cardinals' victory was Kershaw's opponent in that game -- and his opponent again tonight -- 22-year-old rookie right-hander Michael Wacha. In his last three starts, two of which have come in the postseason, Wacha has allowed one run on seven hits and three walks, while also striking out 26 in 22 2/3 innings. When facing teams that finished the regular season with winning records (in both the regular season and the playoffs), Wacha's ERA in seven starts and four relief appearances (56 innings) is 1.13. He is getting a reputation as a giant killer, and if he can deliver the pennant to St. Louis tonight by beating Kershaw for the second time in this series, he'll cement it.
Los Angeles had never faced Wacha before Game 2. With the little data that we have available on a pitcher who has made just 11 major league starts, however, it seems that seeing Wacha for a second time won't be of much benefit. The four teams that faced him twice this season (the Braves, the Cubs, the Pirates and the Reds) combined to score just one run on four hits in 16 innings in those rematches. That same sort of effect is apparent within games as well. Batters facing Wacha for the third time in a game he started during the regular season hit a mere .234/.288/.298 in 53 plate appearances, a rate of production very similar to that of hitters facing Wacha for the first time in a start.
Wacha relies on three pitches, a mid-90s fastball, an upper-80s changeup and a mid-70s curve. Of those three, the changeup is the monster, typically resulting in either a swing-and-miss or a ground ball. In fact, per the data at BrooksBaseball.net, of the 47 changeups Wacha has thrown in his two starts this postseason, only six have been put in play, and those six were all ground balls. It seems the best strategy against Wacha's changeup is to take the pitch and hope that it's called a ball, something hitters have successfully done 15 times in his last two starts.
Dodgers shortstop Hanley Ramirez and center fielder Andre Ethier will both be getting their first looks at Wacha in Game 6. Ramirez and Ethier sat out Game 2 due to injury -- a cracked rib and a sprained left ankle, respectively. There are serious doubts about the viability of Ramirez, who has not made it past the sixth inning in either of the last two games, going 0-for-6 with four strikeouts, due to the pain in his left side.
Ramirez's injury has robbed L.A. of its most potent bat. Fortunately for the Dodgers, right fielder Yasiel Puig has stepped up in response, going 5-for-9 with an already legendary triple, one walk and two strikeouts over the last three games. It will be interesting to see if Puig, who struck out all three times he faced Wacha in Game 2, can keep that up in Game 6.
The L.A. hitter quietly having the best postseason is first baseman Adrian Gonzalez, who is hitting .343/.395/.657 with three home runs in nine games. Gonzalez has a hit in eight of those games. The only exception? Against Wacha in Game 2, when he went 0-for-3 with a walk. As for the Cardinals' bats, it says just about all you need to know about this series that St. Louis, which leads 3-games-to-2, is hitting .178/.246/.270 as a team in the first five games. The average score of a game in this NLCS has been 3-2. Don't expect that many runs to be scored tonight.