Tied at 1-1, Monday's NLDS Game 3 between the Dodgers and Cardinals will be the crucial game of the series.

By Jay Jaffe
October 06, 2014

Dodgers at Cardinals

Start Time: 9:00 p.m. ET

TV: FOX Sports 1

Series: Tied 1-1

Starting Pitchers: Hyun-Jin Ryu (14-7, 3.38 ERA) vs. John Lackey (14-10, 3.82)

For the Dodgers, the mystery in this series was always going to be what lay beyond the one-two punch of Clayton Kershaw and Zack Greinke, rotation-wise. That moment has arrived, and given that the boys in blue were only able to secure a 1-1 split in Los Angeles, it's unsettling, to say the least.

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Ryu hasn't pitched in a game since Sept. 12 due to his second bout of shoulder inflammation this season, and the 27-year-old lefty has methodically rehabbed his way back without the benefit of anything more strenuous than a three-inning, 45-pitch simulated game last Wednesday. Under ordinary circumstances, it would be difficult to imagine him giving the Dodgers much more than 75 or 90 pitches, which would leave manager Don Mattingly to ask for a whole lot of work from a bullpen that was the bane of his existence for much of the season.

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The leap of faith for the Dodgers rests on the fact that Ryu went through a similar bout early this season, with the same amount of time — 23 days — between starts and no minor league tune-up. On May 21, he returned to throw six innings of two-run ball at the Mets, striking out nine over the course of his 89 pitches. The Cardinals, despite an offense that scored even fewer runs per game than the Mets (3.82 to 3.88) during the regular season, showed in Game 1 of this series that they have the tenacity necessary to wait out a good pitcher via long at-bats, which is to say that the Dodgers will be lucky to get anything close to six innings out of Ryu.

Dan Haren, theoretically penciled in to start Game 4 under the best of circumstances, is at the ready as the long man for Game 3, but his uneven season — a 4.76 ERA with 1.6 homers per nine allowed through his first 22 starts, and a 2.43 ERA with 0.8 homers per nine over the final 10 — doesn't inspire a ton of confidence. Using him would almost certainly mean calling upon Kershaw for Game 4 on three days' rest, come hell or high water, despite the history-making extent to which he’s been rocked by the Redbirds in his last two postseason starts. The alternatives — Jamey Wright or Carlos Frias — set the team up for a nine-inning clown car of bullpen fun.

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Getting back to Ryu: He delivered a quality start in 73 percent of his outings, and put up strong peripherals across the board — 0.5 homers, 1.7 walks and 8.0 strikeouts per nine — en route to a 2.62 FIP. His ERA, however, was about three-quarters of a run higher due to a .323 batting average on balls in play. He showed only a very small platoon split (.249/.290/.366 versus righties, .283/.310/.355 versus lefties); what stands out against the latter is that he yielded just one homer (to the Reds' Jay Bruce) and four walks but a .339 BABIP in 145 PA. He faced the Cardinals on June 27 in Los Angeles and was on the short end of a 3-1 decision, with seven innings and seven strikeouts undone by a Yadier Molina homer and a two-run double by Jhonny Peralta. He spun seven shutout innings against them in Game 4 of last year's NLCS, atoning for a dud of a Division Series start against the Braves.

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The Cardinals as a team hit .254/.330/.388 via lefties this year, as opposed to .252/.317/.363 via righties; in the small sample of this series, they’ve hit .343/.343/.629 against southpaws. From among their regulars, Matt Adams was inept against lefties during the regular season (.190/.231/.298 in 130 PA), Jon Jay (.375/.404/.455 in 94 PA) and Kolten Wong (.315/.324/.466 in 76 PA) both sizzling in small sample sizes, and Matt Carpenter (.262/.364/.361 in 218 PA) somewhere in between.

It's Carpenter whom the Dodgers are already seeing in their nightmares. The 28-year-old third baseman's season — .272/.375/.375 with 162 hits, eight homers and 3.0 Wins Above Replacement — didn't measure up to his breakout 2013 (.318/.392/.481 with 199 hits, 11 homers and 6.0 WAR), largely due to a drop in BABIP, from .359 to .318. Nonetheless, he did lead the league in both walks (95) and pitches per plate appearance (4.36), and while he saw fewer of the latter against southpaws (4.20), even that rate would have ranked fourth in the league.

Thus far in this series, Carpenter is 4-for-8 with two doubles and two homers — one apiece off Kershaw, plus a double off Greinke and an eighth-inning, game-tying two-run homer off lefty J.P. Howell in Game 2. He saw 22 pitches in five plate appearances in Game 1, including the back-breaking eight-pitch duel with Kershaw that ended in a bases-clearing double and then a seven-pitch encounter with Howell that ended in a flyout; his other three PA lasted a total of seven pitches, with his solo homer coming off a first-pitch fastball. He saw just nine pitches in Game 2, five of them on a third-inning walk, while both extra-base hits came on first pitches.

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On the hill for the Cardinals is the 35-year-old Lackey, a July 31 deadline acquisition who helped stabilize the rotation after being acquired but was hardly stellar; he put up a 4.30 ERA while allowing 1.3 homers per nine in 10 starts totaling 60 2/3 innings, compared to a 3.60 ERA and 1.0 homers per nine in 21 starts and 137 1/3 innings for the Red Sox. Even so, in both cases he delivered quality starts at a similar clip (71 percent AL, 70 percent NL), and in all, he was dead-on league average (100 ERA+) with a 3.78 FIP, a virtual ringer for his ERA.

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Lackey has a long history of postseason success, one that includes winning World Series rings with the Angels (2002) and Red Sox (2013). In 16 starts (eight quality starts) and three relief appearances totaling 104 innings, he's put up a 3.03 ERA despite striking out just 6.8 per nine; he's yielded just 0.3 homers per nine in that span, and has gone seven straight starts without letting a ball out of the yard.

As has generally been the case for his career, Lackey had a fairly even platoon split (.274/.310/.432 versus righties, .258/.304/.417 versus lefties) with the difference owing mainly to BABIP (.320 versus the former, .296 versus the latter). The Dodgers punished righties during the season (.271/.334/.412), and thus far in the series they've hit .333/.380/.470 against them. One player particularly worth keeping an eye on is lefty Carl Crawford, who has a long history of success against Lackey — longer than most most batter/pitcher pairings with players under age 40 go, at least — having hit .479/.479/.708 in 50 plate appearances, with two homers among his six extra-base hits, as well as just one strikeout. Though he's just 2-for-8 in this series, with an RBI double in Game 1, Crawford has been on fire since late August, batting .411/.451/.589 over his last 40 games.

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