LOS ANGELES -- The Cardinals would have like to have returned home Wednesday night with a week off to rest up for the World Series. Instead, they boarded a plane back to St. Louis to make a date with Clayton Kershaw.
Faced with elimination from the playoffs, the Dodgers defeated the Cardinals 6-4 in Los Angeles on Wednesday afternoon to trim St. Louis' National League Championship Series lead to three games to two. Prior to this victory, the Dodgers had lost six straight elimination games dating back to the National League Division Series in 1995.
"We wanted to win [Game 5], but it didn't happen," said catcher Yadier Molina. "We lost, and we're gonna be ready to go in Game 6."
The Cardinals are no strangers to this situation. Just last year they took a 3-1 series lead over the San Francisco Giants in the NLCS only to drop the final three games in a stunning playoff exit. The Giants went on to win the World Series, their second title in three years.
St. Louis has a couple of things going for it that it didn't have last season, however. For starters, it'll be playing Game 6 and (if necessary) Game 7 in front of its hometown fans instead of a hostile road park. The Cardinals are also handing the ball to Michael Wacha, their 21-year-old rookie phenom who matched Kershaw pitch for pitch in a Game 2 victory, hurling shutout ball over 6 2/3 innings.
The Cardinals' first-round pick in the 2012 MLB draft, Wacha made his major league debut in May but was sent back down to the minors two weeks later. He didn't rejoin the big club for good until Aug. 10, and didn't solidify his spot in St. Louis' postseason rotation until mid-September.
If Wacha is nervous about his Game 6 start, he certainly didn't show it when speaking to reporters after Game 5. When asked if he could have imagined pitching in this big of a spot this season back on Opening Day when he didn't even make the Cardinals roster out of camp, he said he wasn't surprised at all.
"If you have doubts in your mind that you're not gonna be a good pitcher in the postseason, you're not gonna do any good out there ever," said Wacha. "My expectations at spring training were to be up with the big club and help them win the World Series. We haven't met those expectations yet. Winning today would have been nice, but we've got Game 6 and we're gonna try to win it at home."
When asked whether losing Game 5 in Los Angeles felt like déjà vu from when the Cardinals dropped the same contest to the Giants last season en route to being knocked out of the playoffs, Wacha downplayed the ghosts of last season's past on his psyche.
"I have no idea where I was," he said of last year's Games 6 and 7. "I'm not even sure if I watched those games."
The kid has a right to be confident. In his last start prior to blanking the Dodgers, he came within five outs of no-hitting the Pirates while facing elimination in Game 4 of the National League Division Series. And in his final start of the regular season, Wacha pitched 8 2/3 innings of no-hit ball versus the Nationals.
He'll have a tough task, though, in facing presumptive National League Cy Young winner Clayton Kershaw in Game 6 on Friday. With their season on the line, the Dodgers also expect to field a lineup that includes Hanley Ramirez and Andre Ethier, two of their best hitters whom Wacha didn't face in Game 2 because they were sidelined by broken bones.
Kershaw -- who led the majors in ERA (1.83) this year -- was equally brilliant in Game 2 but took a tough loss after giving up just two hits and one unearned run over six innings. Molina expressed confidence that Cardinal bats will have better success off him this time around. "We faced Kershaw at home the last time and won," he said. "And we're gonna be more comfortable about it."
Dodgers catcher A.J. Ellis said he anticipates Kershaw will be his usual stingy self when it comes to giving up runs, so it's up to the club's offense to show up.
"Our starters deserve a lot better than what we've given them," said Ellis. "They beat Kersh already once, so we gotta show up as a team. Michael Wacha's no slouch. He's a big-game pitcher. He's shown that already in his two playoff starts."
Should Kershaw and the Dodgers beat the Cardinals in Game 6, they know St. Louis ace Adam Wainwright is lurking for Game 7.
"We're climbing the mountain, and we've got a long way to go," Ellis said. "But we're closer right now than we were [Wednesday morning], that's for sure."