LOS ANGELES – For a while, it looked as if Game 1 of the NLDS could have been called after the top of the fourth. The Dodgers’ hitters had become fired-up and dialed-in after center fielder Yasiel Puig was plunked by an Adam Wainwright fastball, and the Cardinals’ hitters had begun sinking in the quicksand poured by the game’s best pitcher. Given the 92-degree heat, the Dodgers might have welcomed the rest, but the Cardinals -- following the gritty, late-inning example of another Missouri baseball team -- pounded Clayton Kershaw for six earned runs during an eight-run seventh inning, giving St. Louis a 10-9 win and a 1-0 lead in the best-of-five series.
“We just couldn’t stop the tide that one inning,” Dodgers manager Don Mattingly said afterward. “We didn’t fold, we just struggled to get guys out for a while there and it cost us.”
Kershaw, the imminent Cy Young winner, was untouchable for six innings following the home run he allowed to Cardinals rookie Randal Grichuk on the game’s seventh pitch. Kershaw would not allow another runner to reach base until Matt Carpenter hit a solo shot in the sixth that cut the Dodgers’ lead to 6-2. Between those two homers, the Cardinals managed only choppers, popups and seven wilting strikeouts against the Dodgers’ ace.
The partisan crowd had melted comfortably into their seats by the bottom of the third, when Wainwright’s high fastball struck Puig in the right shoulder blade. All appeared calm as Puig walked to first (“I actually heard Wainwright say, ‘My bad,’” Mattingly said later), but then Cardinals catcher Yadier Molina began jawing with the next batter, Dodgers first baseman Adrian Gonzalez. Both dugouts half-emptied and both bullpens followed suit. Instead of punches being thrown, however, the disagreement merely provided the comic relief of watching reserve catchers sprint across the outfield, shinguards flapping. Two batters later, Hanley Ramirez, who had a rib fractured by a Cardinals pitch in last year’s NLCS, laced a single through the infield that scored Puig from second to tie the game at one.
Carl Crawford doubled home Ramirez to give the Dodgers a 2-1 lead. Kershaw struck out the side in the fourth and sauntered back to the dugout beneath a deafening roar. The Cardinals, hitters of fewer regular-season home runs than any team in the NL, were staring a 1-0 series deficit in the face.
Throughout the sweltering night, the body language of the teams -- and sometimes the spoken kind of language -- made it clear that neither party particularly liked the other. Not only did the Cards reclaim home-field advantage, Friday’s Game 1 marked a re-spilling of the bad blood that first spattered the ground in the 2013 postseason and was still flowing two months ago, when Kershaw plunked Matt Holliday after Ramirez was hit (twice) in a game in St. Louis. As Stan Musial’s grandson tweeted Friday night following the Puig fracas, the scene “remind[s] me of the rivalry grandpa talked about in the 40's.”
With the Dodgers up 6-2 after six innings, some fans began gallantly streaming toward the parking lot (that’s the line Wynonna Judd flubbed during the pregame anthem). Then Kershaw opened the seventh by allowing four straight singles and the the bombs really began bursting in air.
Matt Carpenter crushed a three-run double off Kershaw to make it 7-6 Cardinals, capping an eight-pitch at-bat that recalled their penultimate 11-pitch joust in Game 6 of last season’s NLCS.
“They’ll probably be talking about that at bat [Friday] for a while, just like last year’s,” said Cardinals manager Mike Matheny. “To see guys like Matt repeatedly put their nose in there and fight … it makes you proud. That guy over there [Kershaw] doesn’t give up many runs, much less big bunches of them.”
“Yeah, there was a moment [during the at-bat] when I was feeling some of the same emotions I felt [in the 2013 NLCS at bat vs. Kershaw],” Carpenter said, “but mainly I was focused on what I needed to accomplish… I don’t enjoy facing him. It’s never a comfortable at-bat. I just wanted to keep the line moving.”
After Carpenter cleared the bases, Kershaw was replaced by Pedro Baez, who walked Grichuk and watched his first pitch to Holliday get hastily delivered to fans in the left field seats. Suddenly it was 10-6, Cardinals. Everyone was surprised, Holliday said later, but the guys in the gray uniforms.
“People say we have been a disappointment offensively this season, but we won 90 games,” he said. “We won our division. We pick up our pitchers. Adam [Wainwright] didn’t have his best night tonight and we picked him up.
“In a series like this we know we might face Kershaw and [Zack] Greinke two or three times,” Holliday added. “We don’t back down from that. We have guys on this team who know how to grind at bats and compete. What other choice do we have?”
Holliday also didn’t back down from the notion that these two teams aren’t particularly friendly. “Sure, with [Ramirez] getting his rib broken last year, I can see how that would contribute to some emotion, but I don’t have any ill will toward them. [Dodgers hitting coach] Mark McGwire is a good friend of mine ... This is just two teams who want the same thing.”
A two-run home run by Adrian Gonzalez in the eighth adrenalized the partisan crowd of 54,265 and brought the Dodgers to within 10-8, but with two outs in the ninth, and with Puig at the plate representing the tying run, Cardinals reliever Trevor Rosenthal got the Dodgers’ star swinging.
“I don’t want to talk about the fight of our team or any of that,” Mattingly said curtly. “We’ve been through a lot. We know who we are. We have to put this behind us real quick, then we’ll even the series tomorrow.”