LOS ANGELES – The National League Championship Series took a small break from its debate over the preferred method of team building, a conversation that had gone on for too long anyway. They need ballgames this time of year to break up the prattle, you know. Besides, unless St. Louis Cardinals and Los Angeles Dodgers baserunners were assigned the weight of their clubs' payrolls, then had to wheelbarrow it ahead of them on the basepaths, the details of how one's 25 came upon another's 25 at this time of year, including measuring the moral decency of it, seems rather pointless.
[Photos: Dodgers vs. Cardinals in NLCS]
Granted, the Cardinals are what they've always been, and are what the Dodgers were. And the Dodgers, for their brand and their market and their wealth, have paid through Guggenheim's nose to become what they were and what the Cardinals are, at least as far as standing here on this day with Game 3 of the NLCS ahead of them. Granted, now, two games back, their best hitter not sure he can swing a bat and their scheduled Game 3 starter – Hyun-Jin Ryu – quoted Sunday as saying, "Truthfully, if I'm out there for five innings I'd be more than happy."
Easy there, tiger.
Pick your right and wrong, your means of finesse or sledgehammer. One may be America's baseball franchise, the other an evil Yankees knockoff. Everybody plays his part around here. The end result is a best-of-seven, go-to-the-World-Series, your-guy-against-their-guy thing in which there are no whip-out-your-paycheck tiebreakers, which meant the Dodgers would need Zack Greinke and Clayton Kershaw to pitch well and maybe even that wouldn't be enough. Besides, the Cardinals were one phone call from being on the hook for something like $200 million to Albert Pujols, so let's not get ourselves too carried away.
When all of that fell away this weekend, and the people of St. Louis waved their white towels, and the Cardinals started running those young, live arms to the mound and scoring just enough to hold off the wheezing Dodgers, well, this was less about what the Cardinals had done yesterday – impressive as it is – than their uncanny ability to execute today.
The venue changes for Game 3, to Dodger Stadium, before a crowd that might not recognize the club it sent off to St. Louis less than a week before. The Dodgers spent the aforementioned aces on two one-run losses, had their best hitter – Hanley Ramirez – fall out with a possible rib fracture (he'll play Monday night if able, but optimism for that was difficult to find on Sunday), saw the rookie Yasiel Puig submit to the emotional rigors of October and the entire offense contribute a single hit with a runner in scoring position. The Dodgers haven't scored in their last 19 innings, it having submitted to the tactical rigors of Cardinals pitchers and their catching muse, Yadier Molina.
The series turns in Game 3 to what appears to be a pitching mismatch, that being Cardinals ace Adam Wainwright against Dodgers left-hander Ryu, whose proficient rookie season flattened in the season's final weeks, including a less-than-efficient start in the division series. He allowed four runs in three innings to the Atlanta Braves and bungled a couple defensive plays, all while ignoring suspicions he could be hurt or plain wrung out. Wainwright, on the other hand, is an undisputed ace with the heart and stuff to nudge the Dodgers toward a quick elimination. In 48 2/3 career postseason innings over 15 appearances, his ERA is 2.03. The Pirates scored two runs on him in two starts, both of which Wainwright won. His complete-game eight-hitter beat them in Game 5.
"He's our guy," third baseman David Freese said. "Our ace. Adam Wainwright is who you want on the mound."
In a series thus far defined by its pitching – the Dodgers are batting .184, the Cardinals .134 – the Cardinals have done just enough to win, the Dodgers just enough to lose. Unless the Dodgers find a way back to their aces, or choose to pitch one or both on three days' rest, the NLCS feels like it is rolling downhill for the Cardinals. Kershaw was brilliant on short rest in the division series and perhaps better on his scheduled turn Saturday. Greinke could go Game 4 in place of Ricky Nolasco, who was skipped in the division series and hasn't pitched in two weeks, but that has not been decided. By late Monday night, Game 4 could be an elimination game.
"We haven't talked about anybody on three days' rest," Mattingly said. "It always makes sense any time you mention those two guys' names. But it's something, as I said, we haven't talked about at this point."
So, they wait on Ramirez's diagnostics, and Andre Ethier's health, and Ryu's disposition, and a conversation about who may or may not pitch Game 4, and then what the continuation of an ugly series for them might mean for Mattingly's future on that top step. So at least the Dodgers are no longer forced to defend the methods by which they built their team. Now they're asked how, overnight, they managed to build all this tension.