Los Angeles Dodgers: 6 Necessities for Blue Crew to Pull Off NLCS Title
After two disappointing losses in St. Louis, it seemed as though the Dodgers were doomed, but Game 3 brought the Blue Crew back to life.
Momentum in the NLCS vigorously swung back in the Dodgers’ favor on Monday as Hyun-Jin Ryu delivered a tremendous outing and shut down the Cardinals with a 3-0 victory.
After all hopes seemed to be soiled in St. Louis, the Dodgers now have the opportunity to even the series at 2-2 with a win in Game 4 as Ricky Nolasco takes the mound for the Boys in Blue against the Red Birds’ Lance Lynn.
Yet, the Dodgers still have a significant challenge ahead of them as they strive to advance to the World Series.
Even if they claim all three victories in Los Angeles, the Blue Crew would still be forced to snag a win in St. Louis to close out the series.
As they enter Game 4 down 2-1 in the series, here’s a look at what the Dodgers need to do to pull off an NLCS title.
1. Hanley Stays in the Lineup
Never was Hanley Ramirez’s presence felt more than it was in Game 3.
The Dodgers’ slugging shortstop, who was struck with a pitch in Game 1 of the NLCS that gave him a hairline fracture, made all the difference for the Dodgers after being sidelined for Game 2.
He not only made key contributions to the offense as he did all throughout the regular season, but he has also brought a vital intangible: leadership.
Ramirez has contagious confidence at the plate that spreads throughout the lineup, particularly to the hitters directly below him: Adrian Gonzalez and Yasiel Puig.
The drastic difference in the Dodgers’ offense in Games 2 and 3 reaffirmed Ramirez as the central catalyst to the team’s run production.
If the Dodgers are to pull off the NLCS, Ramirez is going to have to be on the field.
An injured Ramirez brings a lot more to the table than a fully healthy replacement, which was proven when he went 2-for-4 with a run batted in in Game 3.
2. Nolasco Delivers a Quality Start
If the Dodgers were nervous to send Hyun-Jin Ryu out on the mound after his miserable postseason debut in the NLDS, they are terrified to watch Ricky Nolasco make his postseason debut in Game 4 of the NLCS.
Because of the Dodgers’ desperation to win Game 4 of the NLDS to prevent a return to Atlanta, Don Mattingly opted to forgo Nolasco’s scheduled start and send ace Clayton Kershaw to the hill.
The move paid off for the Dodgers, as they clinched the NLDS that game, but it only further clouded the skies above Nolasco, who experienced a very dreary end to the season after a string of solid starts for the Blue Crew.
In his final three starts of the season, the 30-year-old righty dished out 18 earned runs in 12 innings pitched (13.50 ERA), only lasting 1.1 innings in a brutal shellacking in San Francisco in which he surrendered five earned runs.
Moreover, despite seven seasons in the majors, Nolasco has never pitched in the postseason, which makes Game 4 his October debut.
With the Dodgers still down 2-1 in the series heading into his start, it’s crucial that he deliver a quality start and put the Dodgers in a good position to win the game.
The Dodgers aren’t expecting Nolasco to keep on pace with the tremendous performances of Zack Greinke, Clayton Kershaw, and Hyu-Jin Ryu—who only allowed a combined two earned runs in the first three games—but they need him to give a good six innings and allow no more than three earned runs.
Due to the scarcity of scoring in this series for both clubs, it’s important that Nolasco remain in control of the game and not allow the Cardinals to gain an insurmountable lead.
Because Game 4 means so much to this series, a quality start from Nolasco is essential to the Dodgers’ pulling off the NLCS.
3. Middle Relief Holds Its Ground
The Dodgers have perfected a one-two knockout punch at the end of the rotation in set-up man Brian Wilson and closer Kenley Jansen.
However, the team’s middle relief hasn’t been quite as reliable, as its dependability weakened towards the end of the season and spilled over into the postseason.
While lefty J.P. Howell has been excellent, lefty No. 2, Paco Rodriguez, looked very shaky in the NLDS, as did rookie righty Chris Withrow.
Don Mattingly hopes to have fortified the middle relief by axing Rodriguez from the NLCS roster (Withrow was kept) and adding Carlos Marmol and starter Edinson Volquez to the `pen for the series.
The Dodgers understand how important middle relief is in the postseason, particularly in a series in which a mere nine runs were scored by both teams combined in the first three games.
In general, the Dodgers’ middle relief has looked much improved from the last series.
This is best exemplified by Ronald Belisario, who nearly blew Game 4 of the NLDS by surrendering a run that allowed the Braves a late lead. He seems to have recaptured his form in the NLCS by delivering two hitless innings so far.
Belisario and the remainder of the Dodgers’ middle relievers will have to continue to hold their ground in the NLCS.
The Cardinals have a tremendous bullpen in addition to their electric starting rotation, so the Dodgers will savor any runs they can squeeze out in this series, which makes holding any leads all the more important.
4. Capitalize on Home Stretch
After the Dodgers fell down 0-2 in St. Louis, the Cardinals were soaring with momentum and it appeared as though the Dodgers’ hopes of advancing to the World Series had been entirely shattered.
And then Game 3 came around.
With one win in Dodger Stadium, the entire momentum in the series instantly shifted in the Dodgers’ favor, which is a tremendous advantage for the Blue Crew in this series.
Yet, just as the momentum shifted dramatically when the series came to Los Angeles, it has the overwhelming potential to do the same when the series heads back to Busch Stadium for Game 6 and a potential Game 7.
If the Dodgers are to win the NLCS and advance to the World Series, they’ll have to make the very most of the remainder of their home stretch in Games 4 and 5, which are essentially must-wins for the Blue Crew.
In the event that the Cardinals swipe a game in Los Angeles, the Dodgers would be tasked with winning both games in St. Louis, which would be a nearly impossible feat, as they’d face Adam Wainwright in Game 7, who is undefeated at home in his postseason career.
Conversely, if the Dodgers sweep the Cardinals in their L.A. home stretch, they’ll have a 3-2 advantage going back to St. Louis, which would only require one win on the road.
Scheduled to start for the Dodgers in the first game of the series’ return to St. Louis: Clayton Kershaw.
5. Pressure the Cards to Make Plays
As was showcased in the Dodgers’ 3-0 victory over the Cardinals in Game 3, the Cards’ defense is shaky, a weakness that the Dodgers need to continue to exploit.
Poor outfield play by center fielder Jon Jay in Game 3 allowed the Dodgers a series of rally-sparking hits, which propelled their offense.
Although the Cardinals managed to pull off a pair of W’s in St. Louis, their defense also looked shabby in those two games, but the Dodgers were unable to capitalize on their errors.
Instead of shaking off the Cardinals’ Game 3 errors, manager Mike Matheny only added more pressure to Cardinals’ defense by being critical of the team and dwelling on the errors rather than dismissing them.
That, in addition to the sparseness of runs in the well-pitched series, needs to encourage the Dodgers to increasingly force the Cardinals to make defensive plays.
Of course, the goal of every team is to put the ball in play—it’s the underlying premise of scoring runs—but the Dodgers can exercise a few added strategies to position more pressure on the Cards’ struggling defense.
For example, Mattingly can encourage his hitters to be more aggressive earlier in the count instead of trying to work the count, put on more hit-and-runs, and even drop down a squeeze.
In the playoffs, any advantage helps, and the Cardinals’ poor defensive play presents the Dodgers with a useful advantage that can help them win the NLCS.
6. Keep It Loose
It’s a simple but repeatedly proven truism: The teams that keep the clubhouse and dugout loose are almost always the ones that claim victory.
Some teams manage to succeed with tense clubhouses, but the Dodgers aren’t one of those teams.
This team thrives on maintaining a loose environment rife with smiles, laughs, and bananas fed to Juan Uribe after he hits a home run.
Yet, even with their “loosey-goosey” tendencies, the Dodgers were tense in Games 1 and 2, especially when they were down late in the game, and it was evident through every player as they stood in the batter’s box.
The epitome of the difference between a loose and tense player is Yasiel Puig.
The Cuban phenom went 0-for-10 with six strikeouts in the first two games of the NLCS. It was clear that he was tense at the plate, over-thinking his approach and becoming increasingly frustrated at his shortcomings.
That all changed for Puig in Game 3.
While he struck out looking in his first at-bat, he came up the next at-bat looking more relaxed and comfortable at the plate, even mouthing words to a song. The result: his first hit of the NLDS, an RBI line-drive triple off the right-field wall.
Keeping the atmosphere loose in the dugout alleviates the overwhelming stress that players like Puig feel to perform at their pinnacle in the postseason.