As the Dodgers and Cardinals get ready to tangle in the NLDS starting Friday, let's take a look at five keys for the boys in blue.
1) Kershaw and Greinke need to be the aces. If you tuned into the AL Wild Card game, then you probably were expecting a nice low-scoring game with Jon Lester and James Shield on the mound. Instead you got a wild, 12-inning, 9-8 slugfest that saw the Royals continually fight back to stay on top.
That just goes to show that anything can happen in one game. As good as Clayton Kershaw is, let's not forget that even he and his 1.77 ERA are prone to hiccups. The Diamondbacks unmercifully pounded on him back in May, and even the lowly Cubs put up three in the first inning off of him recently. Greinke has not given up more than four runs in any start this year, but has struggled a bit with high pitch counts of late.
The bottom line is that the Dodgers doled out a ton of cash to these two for games like this. Especially in the short five-game series, they need them to be on top of their games. If they are, then the Dodgers should be fine.
2) Keep on poundin' it at the plate. The Dodgers ended the season hitting the ball about as well as any point of the season. They're currently on a five-game winning streak where they've averaged 7.2 runs/game. They beat the Cubs 14-5, the Rockies 11-3, and pounded on the Giants 17-0 within the last three weeks.
Carl Crawford was red hot in September, hitting an insane .448. Juan Uribe hit .377 and drove in 17. Hanley Ramirez hit .352. Matt Kemp was awesome at .322 with nine homers and 25 RBIs, earning him NL Player of the Month. Super subs Justin Turner and Scott Van Slyke .422 and .432, respectively.
Obviously the level of completion goes way up in October, but after a season where the offense was a roller coaster, it's good to see them on such a high at the most important part of the season.
3) Middle relief has to deliver. If there's one thing that really scared me watching the A's and Royals on Tuesday, it was the shaky relief work. Both teams had their moments of not getting the big outs from the bullpen when needed, with the A's ultimately paying the biggest price.
As I watched both teams tee off against the 'pen, I immediately thought about the Dodgers. Their biggest weakness is by far middle relief, where guys like Brian Wilson has failed to deliver time and time again, and the once reliable J.P. Howell has an 11.68 ERA in September.
Simply put, the Dodgers will need guys to outperform themselves if they want to win close games. As good as Kershaw, Greinke, and Hyun-Jin Ryu are, they can't always be counted on to pitch at least eight innings before giving the ball to Kenley Jansen. Don Mattingly will need to call upon his middle relief at some point. How they perform when they do get the ball could be the difference between an early exit and a ring.
4) Continue the road dominance. The Dodgers had the best road record in baseball at 49-32. That's actually better than their home record of 46-35. Go figure. But in the postseason, that's actually a good thing, as they should have the confidence to steal a game or two on the road.
Back in July, the Cardinals took two of three at home over the Dodgers, all very close games. The Dodgers salvaged the series on ESPN's Sunday Night Baseball on an Adrian Gonzalez ninth inning RBI. That came after Kershaw gave up a couple runs in the sixth to tie the game. He still went seven innings for three runs, partially erasing his horrible memories from his start in Game 6 of last year's NLCS in that same park.
Considering the Cardinals won all three game in St. Louis in the NLCS, the Dodgers need to get over that hump if they want to advance.
5) Realize that home or away, the Dodgers are the better team. So play like it. It's really that simple. The Cardinals are still a very good team, as evidenced by their NL Central title. But they are without two of their studs from last season in Carlos Beltran and Allen Craig. Beltran was especially troublesome, as he drove him a team-high six runs in the NLCS.
This time around, the Dodgers have the same cast of characters back, plus a peaking Kemp, who sat out last postseason with an ankle injury. The Dodgers hit better in the regular season (.265 vs. .253), pitched better (3.40 vs. 3.50), and have more wins (94 vs. 90). Those numbers don't lie.
At the end of the day, the Dodgers have the home field advantage for a reason. They have their aces rested and ready to go. Their offense has been putting plenty of runs on the board. They have all of the reasons in the world to feel good about themselves. Now it's time to get it done.