Dodgers embark on their stiffest test yet

ST. LOUIS – Catcher A.J. Ellis is among the most articulate and accessible Los Angeles Dodgers, so when he wants to avoid answering a question, you know it’s an uncomfortable one.

After the Dodgers lost 3-2 to the Atlanta Braves Wednesday night, somebody asked Ellis how challenging the upcoming road trip – seven games in six days at St. Louis and Colorado -- will be. Ellis sighed and said, “I’m not a big fan of preview questions. We have an off-day [Thursday]. I’m just focused on relaxing. I just played three games in a row, for crying out loud!”

When Yasmani Grandal returns Saturday, Ellis figures to slide back into the backup catcher role and perhaps then he’ll be less stressed out.

Or, then again, maybe not. The Dodgers are jumping into their most relentless stretch of the schedule, starting with three games at Busch Stadium, home of the best team in baseball at the moment, followed by a series at Coors Field that includes a doubleheader and will stretch the Dodgers pitching even thinner than it already is. The big picture is even more hectic: The Dodgers are about to play 34 games in 34 days. June 11 is their only open date between now and July 2. They’ll play games in eight different cities in those 34 days.

Ellis eventually relented. The Dodgers haven’t yet faced the team that knocked them out of the playoffs two seasons in a row, both times by beating Clayton Kershaw. This Cardinals team might be better than those two. So far, it has won 31 games and lost just 16 for the best winning percentage in baseball.

“It’s always a test going into St. Louis,” Ellis said. “They’re probably the best team in the National League right now. They have some amazing players on both sides of the ball. It’s going to be a big challenge for us, especially going in there without Zack [Greinke] or Clayton.”

It says something about the time of year and the emphasis the team puts on this series that it didn’t shuffle the pitching rotation to get Kershaw involved. Kershaw’s season has ended two years in a row with disappointing losses at Busch Stadium in the playoffs. He pitched well against the Cardinals in his lone regular-season start there last season.

The Dodgers could easily have used Thursday’s off-day to skip Carlos Frias, who just allowed 10 runs on 12 hits over four innings, but they wanted to get all their starters an extra day of rest, so Kershaw’s next start will be Monday in Colorado. He will, however, face St. Louis at Dodger Stadium in just nine days, on June 6.

The Dodgers enter their most trying series to date with Mike Bolsinger, Frias and Brett Anderson taking the mound. St. Louis will counter with John Lackey, Michael Wacha and Carlos Martinez.

Dodgers manager Don Mattingly expects an intense environment on the field for the next three games largely because the teams have met each other so frequently in the playoffs. The Dodgers knocked the Cardinals out in 2009, but have been on the wrong end of their October meetings in each of the last two seasons. There has, at times, been bad blood between the teams. Kershaw hit Matt Holliday with a pitch last season in retribution for several times Hanley Ramirez was hit in the previous two years.

“They’ve got a good club every year and meeting in the playoffs like that just ups the regular season when you play those clubs,” Mattingly said. “So, it’s definitely a little bit different than when you play Milwaukee or someone. Not to downplay Milwaukee, but we haven’t met them in the postseason three different times. It just changes things.”