The 33-year-old left-hander proved to be the most consistent starter for the repeat NL West champions, although he quickly rejects the label of staff ace.
“I almost despise that word,” Wolf said Tuesday. “A guy like Chris Carpenter(notes), you could consider him an ace. He’s done it year in, year out. He’s the guy who is almost a perennial top-five Cy Young voting guy.”
Carpenter will start for the NL Central champion St. Louis Cardinals in Game 1 Wednesday night against Wolf. The 2005 Cy Young winner is a strong contender again this season, boasting a 17-4 record and a NL-best 2.24 ERA.
Wolf describes himself in less lofty terms.
“I’ve kept the team in the game,” he said. “With this staff, we could have an ace on any given day. That’s why I don’t like to use that term. It’s just try to pitch as well as you can, that’s the key.”
Wolf proved durable this season, setting career highs with 34 starts and 214 1-3 innings just two years after lasting half a season for the Dodgers because of injury.
The Dodgers open the series with two pitchers who lack playoff experience, between Wolf and Kershaw, a 21-year-old left-hander. Manager Joe Torre went with the two lefties because the Cardinals batted .234 against southpaws compared to .274 against right-handers.
“Kershaw, we’ve spent the better part of two years trying to protect him and insulate him from all this exposure because he’s just a kid. Then you hand him the ball (last) Saturday and say, `Here, kid,’ and he comes back with a division title. He’s pretty well not anybody to be concerned about.”
Wolf spent eight seasons with Philadelphia, enduring his share of runner-up finishes and playoff misses. Then he missed the Dodgers’ playoff run last season, which ended in the NLCS against the Phillies.
“You obviously start feeling like there’s some kind of a jinx even though I’m not a big believer in that, but luckily that went away,” he said.
Wolf couldn’t have predicted his success in the offseason, when he thought he would be returning to the Houston Astros. That didn’t work out and the Dodgers stepped in to sign him for a second stint about a week before spring training began.
“I was happy to have that opportunity to come to LA again, and I felt that I owed them something,” said Wolf, who grew up in the San Fernando Valley. “I felt I had some unfinished business.”
He got off to a rocky beginning with a 5-6 record, a 3.55 ERA and 13 no-decisions in his first 24 starts. Coincidentally, his luck seemed to turn around the All-Star break when he switched his jersey from No. 21 to 43, and won that day.
“I always wanted No. 43. It was the number I had in Philly for a long time,” Wolf said.
Carpenter had his own share of problems, missing nearly all the previous two seasons to injuries. He was 2-0 with 1.20 ERA against the Dodgers this season.
“He has a bunch of weapons, so he can pitch to all areas,” manager Tony La Russa said. “He competes like a maniac, he’s a complete guy.”
“If you ever take Manny Ramirez for granted, you’re crazy, no matter what he’s swinging,” Carpenter said. “I’m not concerned if Manny is 0 for 50. He can hit. You go out and you continue to execute your game plan, that’s it.”
Ramirez tailed off after returning from a 50-game suspension for violating baseball’s drug policy. He was hitting .348 with six homers and 20 RBIs before sitting out. He returned to hit .269 with 13 homers and 43 RBIs in 77 games
“He tries to get too big and really it affects his balance,” Torre said. “He just has to think more in terms of smaller, like the line drive instead of long way. Usually the long ball will come when you sort of get yourself back in rhythm.”
Torre announced his starting lineup for Game 1, with Ramirez hitting in the cleanup spot. He chose infielder Ronnie Belliard(notes) (hitting .351 since coming from Washington) over All-Star Orlando Hudson(notes) (.284).
“He doesn’t have as wide a range as Hudson does, but I think offensively he’s maybe a little fresher right now,” Torre said. “We asked O-Dog to do a lot of stuff early in the year. We’ll go day-to-day right now.”
La Russa declined to identify his starters, saying the biggest issue remained who will play center field against the left-handed Wolf.
Right-hander Joel Pineiro(notes) will start Game 3 in St. Louis, while the Dodgers will go with righty Vicente Padilla(notes). Torre said All-Star right-hander Chad Billingsley(notes) would start Game 4 if necessary.
“I was just a little more comfortable with where Padilla is now,” Torre said. “I know Billingsley is getting there, otherwise he wouldn’t even be considered for No. 4 if I didn’t think I was more comfortable watching him.”
Billingsley threw 85 pitches in a simulated game Monday at the Dodgers’ spring training complex in Arizona. A year ago, he went into the division series as the Game 2 starter and beat the Chicago Cubs. But he was mostly ineffective after the break.
“Everything felt good mechanically,” he said about the simulated game. “I’m feeling a lot better out on the mound. That’s what you want to see.”