Los Angeles Dodgers vs. St. Louis Cardinals: Keys to Winning NLCS Game 1

Ely Sussman@@MrElyminatorCorrespondent IOctober 11, 2013

Los Angeles Dodgers vs. St. Louis Cardinals: Keys to Winning NLCS Game 1

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    Matt Carpenter needs to break out of his playoff funk immediately for St. Louis to take the NLCS opener.
    Matt Carpenter needs to break out of his playoff funk immediately for St. Louis to take the NLCS opener.Scott Rovak-USA TODAY Sports

    The St. Louis Cardinals will compete in the NLCS for a third straight year, as the 2013 edition begins on Friday night hosting the Los Angeles Dodgers. Both division winners have well-rounded rosters, so the keys to a Game 1 victory are rooted in exploiting each other's subtle weaknesses.

    During the regular season, the Dodgers and Cardinals faced off seven times. L.A. prevailed in four of those games, outscoring the Red Birds by a slim 30-27 margin.

    In other words, these contenders are very evenly matched.

    This series could go the distance, and obviously, whoever prevails in the opener will have a much easier path to the World Series.

    *Stats provided by Baseball-Reference.com and FanGraphs unless otherwise noted.

Los Angeles Dodgers: Getting Andre Ethier in the Lineup

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    Doug Pensinger/Getty Images

    Andre Ethier's presence obviously bolsters the Los Angeles Dodgers lineup.

    The 31-year-old led the team in on-base percentage after the All-Star break. Also, with Matt Kemp sidelined due to an ankle injury, Ethier is far and away the best defensive option L.A. has in center field.

    MLB.com's Ken Gurnick reports that he's progressing and "a good bet" to start for the Dodgers after being relegated to pinch-hitting throughout the NLDS. On the other hand, Danny Knobler of CBS Sports tweets that a decision hasn't been made yet.

    Ethier has eight previous plate appearances against St. Louis Cardinals starter Joe Kelly, two of which resulted in extra-base hits. His history against St. Louis reliever Edward Mujica is even more encouraging (.375/.444/1.125, 2 HR in 9 PA).

    There's no denying that Ethier's $85 million contract extension was an overpay, but Dodgers ownership pulled the trigger because he can be trusted to mash right-handed pitching.

St. Louis Cardinals: Yadier Molina Containing Yasiel Puig

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    Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sport

    Ah, yes—the much-anticipated matchup of superstars whose names begin with the letter "Y," Yasiel Puig and Yadier Molina.

    The former is almost certainly going to find a way to get on base against Joe Kelly. The Game 1 starter for the St. Louis Cardinals posted one of the lowest swinging strike percentages in baseball, while Puig had a surreal .383 BABIP. His combination of bat speed and agility will ensure that most contact results in hits.

    That's where Molina comes in. Opposing players seldom attempt to steal bases against the All-Star catcher considering his stellar defensive reputation. Kelly definitely wouldn't have had the best strand rate in the National League (min. 100 IP) if not for Molina's intimidating presence.

    With Matt Kemp injured, Carl Crawford past his prime and Hanley Ramirez constantly connecting for extra-base hits (advancing himself into scoring position), Puig ought to be the one to who the St. Louis battery pays closest attention.

    It worth noting these two have never played against one another. Molina was on the disabled list when Puig and the Dodgers took three of four at Busch Stadium in early August.

Los Angeles Dodgers: Zack Greinke Attacking Left-Handed Batters

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    Scott Cunningham/Getty Images

    In his look at NLCS X-factors, Bleacher Report's Joel Reuter noted that the Los Angeles Dodgers bullpen is "far from a sure thing" leading up to closer Kenley Jansen.

    Southpaw Paco Rodriguez, for example, who dominated for much of the 2013 season, hasn't been effective in recent weeks. Six out of eight Atlanta Braves to face him in the previous round of the playoffs reached base, and Rodriguez was disturbingly hittable in September (1.168 OPS against, 3 HR allowed in 6.1 IP).

    Similarly, Ronald Belisario has issued eight walks in his past nine appearances (regular season and postseason), compared to only three strikeouts.

    The upshot is that it's not enough for Zack Greinke to keep the St. Louis Cardinals off the scoreboard; he needs to do so while pitching into the later innings of Game 1. Specifically, Dodgers manager Don Mattingly is hoping he'll make it through the seventh and hand-deliver a lead to Brian Wilson and Jansen.

    However, Greinke hasn't accomplished that in any of his past six starts, one big reason being that he's top-toeing around left-handed batters. The former AL Cy Young Award winner gets in bad counts when at a platoon disadvantage, and the results reflect that:

    Zack Greinke, 2013 Platoon Splits
     Against RHB Against LHB

    Greinke's game plan against Matt Adams, Carlos Beltran and Matt Carpenter will go a long way in determining whether or not he works efficiently.

St. Louis Cardinals: Capitalizing with Runners in Scoring Position

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    Jeff Curry-USA TODAY Sports

    Many analysts were optimistic about the St. Louis Cardinals advancing deep into the MLB playoffs on the strength of their production with runners in scoring position.

    That's because home runs are difficult to come by against top-tier pitching staffs. With an astonishing .330 team batting average with RISP during the 2013 season, the Cards seemingly had an extra dimension to their offense that could help them compete in any matchup.

    Well, we didn't see it in the NLDS.

    St. Louis batters combined to go 5-for-27 (.185 BA) in their battle with the Pittsburgh Pirates. Actually, if not for six total long balls (their most in a five-game span since late August), they would be watching the rest of the postseason from a couch.

    Somehow, the Cardinals will need to remedy the situation with the same personnel. They were hoping to add clutch slugger Allen Craig to the NLCS roster, but MLB.com's Chad Thornburg reports that he's still recovering from a lingering foot sprain.

    The nightmare scenario for the Red Birds would be a repeat of Aug. 5, when Zack Greinke defeated them in a series opener at Busch Stadium. That night, St. Louis put on 11 baserunners against the Los Angeles Dodgers, but lost 3-2 after succeeding only once in nine opportunities with guys in scoring position.

Los Angeles Dodgers: Laying off Joe Kelly's 'Waste Pitches'

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    Jared Wickerham/Getty Images

    With the exception of catcher A.J. Ellis, the Los Angeles Dodgers are collectively very aggressive at the plate.

    During the second half of the regular season, L.A. swung at the 10th-highest percentage of pitches outside the strike zone, dead last among the eventual MLB playoff teams.

    Perhaps Joe Kelly can exploit that.

    He has been among the most successful pitchers in the majors since transitioning into the St. Louis Cardinals starting rotation at midseason. Tempting the opposition to chase offerings in hard-to-reach places is always a key for him. As a starter, Kelly located only 43.3 percent of pitches in the strike zone this past summer (league average for starters was about 45 percent).

    The Dodgers will find ways to put balls in play against the right-hander, but they'll have difficulty making solid contact if he continues to be "effectively wild."

St. Louis Cardinals: Energizing the Crowd

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    Jeff Curry-USA TODAY Sports

    At 45-36, the Los Angeles Dodgers tied for the best road record in the majors this summer. 

    Then again, they had the luxury of playing nearly half of those games at NL West venues. Relatively small and Dodger-friendly crowds greeted them at Chase Field, Coors Field and Petco Park, and not surprisingly, the team posted winning records at each of those ballparks.

    AT&T Park, meanwhile, was an exception. Supporters of the defending world-champion San Francisco Giants filled the facility and rooted their club to six victories on the nine dates when the Dodgers came to town.

    Overall, L.A.'s players have limited experience with "playoff atmospheres." Also consider that during each of the past three seasons, Zack Greinke has been significantly less effective away from home:

    Zack Greinke, 2011-2013 Home/Road Splits
     Home StatsRoad Stats
    20113.13 ERA, 1.13 WHIP, 119 K in 95.0 IP 4.70 ERA, 1.29 WHIP, 82 K in 76.2 IP
    20122.98 ERA, 1.05 WHIP, 118 K in 99.2 IP 3.91 ERA, 1.32 WHIP, 82 K in 112.2 IP
    20132.11 ERA, 0.91 WHIP, 84 K in 93.2 IP 3.21 ERA, 1.35 WHIP, 64 K in 84.0 IP

    The noise generated by raucous fans impairs verbal communication and visitor performance. That was evident in 2011, when the St. Louis Cardinals went 6-3 at Busch Stadium in October en route to a World Series championship.