The Los Angeles Dodgers renew their rivalry with one of their most-frequent October foils, the St. Louis Cardinals Friday afternoon (3:37 p.m. PT) at Dodger Stadium. To check up on the state of the Redbirds, we enlisted the help of St. Louis Post-Dispatch beat writer Derrick Goold. You can read his fine work, including an exploration of why the Cardinals have handled Clayton Kershaw relatively well, here.
Q: Derrick, give us a state of the Cardinals synopsis. Do you have the sense they are in better shape or worse shape than they were going into last season's NLCS?
A: This is not the brawny lineup with its RISP-infused swagger that the Dodgers faced a year ago. That club led the NL in runs scored and had the absurd .330 average with runners in scoring position. They didn't hit many homers, but they didn't need to because they could string doubles, baserunners, and timely strikes together to get all the crooked numbers they need. This team has been starved for runs, especially on the road. Going into the weekend at Arizona, only three teams in the NL had scored fewer runs on the road than the Cardinals. All three were in your NL West, and two of them changed GMs this season.
How and if the Cardinals are going to score runs is the biggest question following them into October. Even without Michael Wacha, however, the pitching may be deeper and the bullpen more versatile than last year's pennant winners. Lance Lynn is bona fide No. 2, and John Lackey adds a depth and October experience unusual for a No. 3. The relievers have clearly defined roles, and that will allow manager Mike Matheny to be aggressive when he has a lead, especially with righties Seth Maness, Carlos Martinez, and newcomer to the postseason with the Cardinals sidewinder Pat Neshek.
Q: Many Dodgers fans think last year's series pivoted on Hanley Ramirez getting knocked out in Game 1, but the Cardinals pitching obviously was formidable. The numbers suggest it may not be quite as stifling this season, kind of middle of the pack in ERA. Do you anticipate that changing now that depth won't be as big of an issue in the playoffs?
A: Yes. The overall ERA of the team reflects a team that was trending toward trouble there late in July, right before the trade deadline. While they searched for runs, many of us in St. Louis were trying to stress how the team would look for starting pitching at the trade deadline because a) it was more readily available than a bat and b) they needed it. An innings crisis was approaching. They relied on a young group of starters that included Miller, Wacha, Gonzales, Kelly, Lyons, et. al., and as a result they got the inconsistencies of youth. The trades haven't been the direct booms imagined. Justin Masterson was never right physically and won't be seen in this series. Lackey did give the Cardinals seven quality starts (and one ugly one in Baltimore) in his 10 starts.
But both gave innings when they were needed and allowed the rotation to stabilize. Post-deadline Shelby Miller does not resemble the pre-deadline Miller the Dodgers saw at Dodger Stadium. He's sharper, more consistent, and he's outfitted his one-pitch trick with at least a couple others that he can count on. The rotation is more experienced and more effective entering October than their overall ERA suggests.
Q: How do the Cardinals feel about facing Clayton Kershaw? Do you think they are still angry about him hitting Matt Holliday? Very few teams have ever hit him like the Cardinals did in Game 6. How'd they pull that off?
A: The HBP has not come up, not outside of the context of the obvious animosity between these two teams. The Country Mouse vs. Mickey Mouse, or however we the media will end up positioning it this week. The Cardinals have had some success against Kershaw. I have these numbers at my fingertips because of a story I was just writing here today for the paper. At one point in his career, the Cardinals won seven of a nine-start stretch by Kershaw against them. That includes the two starts he lost in last year's NLCS. His ERA against the Cardinals is nearly a run higher than it is against the rest of the NL. Obviously, he righted that trend a bit earlier this year with that dominant turn at Dodger Stadium vs. the Cardinals. His seven scoreless with 13 strikeouts from 28 batters faced was one of the most impressive turns I saw for or against the Cardinals this season. They have individuals with some success against Kershaw -- Molina .300 average, Kozma 4-for-8 with three doubles, Matt Carpenter .458 slugging -- and they drew on that to have success in Game 6. The story I wrote sort of framed it around the 11-pitch at-bat that Carpenter had with one out in the third inning. Kershaw tested him with everything -- 95 mph this, 75 mph that, 88 mph there -- and Carpenter lashed a double that opened the four-run rush. Half of the 24 batters Kershaw faced reached base, including five consecutive with two outs in that inning. Needless to say they aren't banking on that happening again.
Q: Lackey's numbers don't jump out since the Cardinals landed him in that trade. How has it worked out in your opinion and how much of it was intended for how he could impact the postseason rotation?
A: This is a tricky answer to quantify. As mentioned above, Lackey gave the Cardinals what they so desperately needed -- consistency every fifth day. The value of his seven quality starts in 10 games cannot be overstated. General manager John Mozeliak told me just this week that the rotation was "putting too much of a burden on the young pitchers." The results were what you'd expect: some good, some bad, but mostly short. The bullpen was being asked to handle those leftover middle innings and with so many close games the mileage was going on the key relievers. Lackey's impact was of the trickle-down variety. He handled his six innings every fifth day. Miller improved. And come September, Adam Wainwright soared. He brought a needed glue to the rotation. And when he wasn't fighting through that "dead arm" funk that left his pitches feeling lifeless (or wasn't getting ejected before the 45th pitch of a start), he was exactly as advertised: a feisty cuss on the mound who was going to find a way to get through six innings no matter what with a chance to win. The Cardinals are counting on his edge and reliability to be a factor as the third starter in the NLDS -- what could be the pivot, right, of a best-of-five?
Q: The Cardinals broke the Dodgers' hearts in the 1980s. The Cardinals have had the upper hand lately. In that town, is this viewed as a secondary rivalry, not Cubs-Cardinals, but do the Dodgers' uniforms get Cardinal fans riled up?
A: Back when Tony La Russa was manager, I would have suggested the Dodgers have to get in line. Lance Berkman once stood in the Miller Park clubhouse and recounted the best rivalries in the National League Central. "Cardinals-Cubs, Cardinals-Astros," he said, "and now you're telling me Cardinals-Brewers, and what about the Cardinals-Reds brawl? What's the common theme here? Maybe it's us." Some of the cayenne has been taking out of those rivalries. The Cubs weren't competitive until the final month of the season. The Reds acrimony has faded. The Brewers and Cardinals looked like they might have something going this season, but it peaked with Lucroy's political attack-style ad for the All-Star Game that took aim at Yadier Molina. He said he didn't approve that ad and the friction fizzled.
It seems that the NL Central has a monopoly on producing tinder for rivalries, but come October ... well, that's for the Dodgers. Gone are the Astros teams that the Cardinals dueled with a decade ago, replaced with the big-payroll Dodgers, their style, and their abundance of aces. With so many meetings in the postseason (three now in the NLDS) and so many memorable moments -- Lima Time! Towel Time! Mickey Mouse Ears! Wachamania! -- and feisty exchanges 'tis the season that the Dodgers do grab the attention of the Cardinals fans. I sense they mostly admire the Dodgers from afar during the season, but, like the temperature, come fall the fanbase's view of the Dodgers starts to chill. I imagine the same is true out west.