LOS ANGELES -- After the Dodgers won a crucial Game 3 of the National League Championship Series in Los Angeles on Monday night to trim the St. Louis Cardinals' series lead to 2-1, manager Don Mattingly was able to enjoy the victory for a few short minutes before being asked the question that was on everyone's mind:
Who is starting tomorrow?
"Ricky (Nolasco)," he answered. But when Mattingly was pressed further, he added a cryptic: "As of right now."
Those are four words that wouldn't have meant anything, except that they were the same words Mattingly uttered the last time Nolasco was supposed to start, the night before Game 4 of the National League Division Series. After assuring reporters Nolasco would get the nod, the following day the club handed the ball to presumptive 2013 Cy Young winner Clayton Kershaw on three days' rest instead. That risk was rewarded when Kershaw was brilliant (6 IP, 6K, 3H, 0ER), and Los Angeles knocked the Braves out of the playoffs.
Though the Dodgers' company line since this series began has been that Nolasco would start Game 4, rumors were already swirling before Game 3 that Game 1 starter Zack Greinke would take Nolasco's place in the rotation and pitch Tuesday on three days' rest. Some Dodgers players and team officials were privately still under the impression that Greinke would pitch Game 4 even after Game 3 on Monday night. But two sources told ESPN.com that after the Dodgers won, management changed their minds and opted to stick with Nolasco in Game 4, then pitch Greinke on regular rest in Game 5. That would set up Kershaw in Game 6 (if necessary) and set up Game 3 winner Hyun-Jin Ryu for a potential Game 7.
The decision to stick with Nolasco makes sense. The 30-year-old right-hander came to the Dodgers in a trade from the Marlins in early July and pitched well as Los Angeles' fourth starter, going 8-3 with a 3.52 ERA and striking out 75 batters in 87 innings. But the club's confidence in Nolasco seemed to wane after he struggled in his three final starts in September, surrendering at least five earned runs in each of those turns. He has not pitched in a game since September 29.
Greinke has been excellent down the stretch for Los Angeles, but pitching him on short rest in Game 4 would have created a potentially dangerous domino effect. If they were to go with Greinke on Tuesday, the Dodgers likely would then follow suit with Kershaw on short rest in Game 5 on Wednesday. Assuming they won at least one of those games, they'd be looking at either starting Nolasco in Game 6 on Friday in St. Louis in a potential elimination game, or throwing Ryu in that game on three days' rest -- something he's never done in his career.
The only way to avoid pitching Nolasco at all this series would have been to start Kershaw and Ryu on three days' rest in Games 5 and 6, and Greinke on short rest in Games 4 and 7. The Dodgers weren't keen on doing that if they could avoid it. (Greinke has pitched on three days' rest twice in his career, going 1-0 with a 2.00 ERA, but lasting just nine innings total.)
The choice to start Nolasco is also bolstered by the fact that the Los Angeles-area native -- who grew up a Dodgers fan -- has pitched exceptionally well at Dodger Stadium this year, posting a 2.48 ERA with 30 strikeouts in 36.1 innings.
One player who expressed confidence in Nolasco was batterymate A.J. Ellis. "Ricky's gonna be great," said Ellis. "I like the matchup. He's got a great mix of pitches to keep these guys off-balance and use his fastball when he needs to. He'll give us a great chance to win the game. We're excited to have him out there."
The Dodgers' decision to stick with Nolasco over Greinke might not matter if the Cardinals' bats continue to be ice-cold. Through the first three games of the NLCS, St. Louis is hitting an anemic .134. According to Elias, that represents the lowest batting average through the first three games of a league championship series in postseason history. Yet the Dodgers still find themselves down 2-1 in this one because their hitting has been almost as bad. Prior to their Game 3 three-run explosion, the Dodgers had scored just two runs in the first two games combined.
The Cardinals will counter Nolasco with Lance Lynn on Tuesday night. The 26-year-old righty put up respectable numbers for St. Louis this year (15-10 with 3.97 ERA and 198 Ks in 201.2 innings), but struggled in his only other postseason start, giving up 5 earned runs in 4.1 innings in Game 1 of the NLDS versus the Pirates.
Still, the Dodgers aren't taking him lightly. "It's gonna be a big test for us against Lance Lynn," said Ellis. "But if Ricky can put up zeroes for us hopefully we can find some runs."
That is, if the Dodgers don't change their minds again on Wednesday and throw Greinke instead.