ST. LOUIS -- The Los Angeles Dodgers don't just have two of the most skillful pitchers in baseball and two of the most athletically gifted pitchers in baseball, they also have two of the most studious pitchers in baseball.
Combine those three factors -- skill, athletic ability and adaptive thinking -- and you can see why the Dodgers mowed down all those teams that had to face Clayton Kershaw and Zack Greinke in the same series over the regular season. It also is the Dodgers' best hope for the National League Championship Series against the best-hitting team in the league, the St. Louis Cardinals.
Greinke, who pitches Game 1 on Friday night, had already dissected the Cardinals' lineup Thursday and had a pretty good idea how hard it was going to be. Unlike the strikeout-prone Atlanta Braves, whom Kershaw and Greinke generally dominated, the Cardinals find ways to make pitchers work and, sometimes, to get in a pitcher's head.
It might be this back-and-forth between the Cardinals' lineup and the Dodgers' two best pitchers that decides which team goes to the World Series. In a painfully ironic twist for the Dodgers, it is their hitting coach, Mark McGwire, who helped instill a patient, balanced approach in St. Louis' lineup. McGwire spent three seasons as the Cardinals' hitting coach before the allure of working closer to his Orange County home brought him west.
"They don't really give up any at-bats, so it's always a grind," Greinke said. "Even when they bring the young guys up, it's like they make adjustments faster than other teams. I talked to Skip [Schumaker] and McGwire about, 'How do they make adjustments so fast?'"
Greinke said he remembers thinking once how easy it was to get Jon Jay to make outs quickly in the count.
"Then, the next year, you couldn't really do it anymore," Greinke said. "It seems that their team does that better than any other team."
The Dodgers are going to need Greinke's arm, but his mind will prove a more important tool in the two games he figures to start in this series.
One of the reasons the Dodgers signed Greinke to a six-year, $147 million contract last December is that he wowed them with his intellect.
OK, so there was the 95 mph fastball and a vast array of off-speed pitches, too.
You don't need to solve quantum physics problems to be a great major league pitcher, but it helps to be able to think about hitters in creative ways.
With the help of scouts, pitching coach Rick Honeycutt and catcher A.J. Ellis, Kershaw and Greinke have excelled in, at times, out-thinking hitters. Greinke probably does it as well as any pitcher in the game.
Some scouts say that, when Greinke struggles, he appears to be overthinking things. Kershaw, when he's in trouble, can just rely on a 96 mph fastball or cartoonish curve to get him out of it.
Greinke has to continue to think.
"They probably analyze as well as anybody every pitch that's thrown, pitch to pitch, and adjust between. That's really the best," Dodgers general manager Ned Colletti said. "That's like a Greg Maddux-type guy, to be able to read one swing and adjust for the next pitch."
Greinke had his finest season since the 2009 Cy Young year in Kansas City, but few people knew about it because Kershaw put up numbers that should make him a lock for another Cy Young Award. Kershaw, who is scheduled to pitch Game 2, led the majors in ERA for a third straight season.
Despite missing five weeks after Carlos Quentin broke his left collarbone in a fight, Greinke ranks 10th among NL pitchers in WAR (3.9). He went 15-4 with a 2.63 ERA and 1.11 WHIP. He also answered some questions about his postseason nerves by pitching six innings in Game 2 of the division series, giving up two runs and needing only 83 pitches. He would have gone longer but the Dodgers got the tying run to second base when his spot in the lineup came up.
Dodgers manager Don Mattingly has virtually ruled out using Greinke on three days' rest and he won't have the opportunity to use Kershaw again on short rest, so winning all four of those two pitchers' starts might be the easiest way to get back to the World Series for the first time in 25 years. Ricky Nolasco and Hyun-Jin Ryu have struggled badly of late and have scarcely pitched.
For Mattingly, it's comforting to know he has one of baseball's most unusual perfectionists on the mound for Games 1 and, if necessary, 5. He also knows he'll get a straight answer when he needs one. A lot of fans fumed at Mattingly for lifting Greinke in Game 2, but the pitcher said afterward he agreed with the move.
"I think it makes it easy because he just tells you the truth," Mattingly said. "If you ask him a question: 'How you feeling?' or 'What's going on?' And for me, some of them are like just going back out there again. It's like he's just honest with his answers. You talk about using him to pinch hit some, and he's just like I don't see this guy good. He's straight up with everything."
The longer it takes for Mattingly and Greinke to have that conversation, the better off the Dodgers will be.