Highflying Redbirds battle West's best
As LA stirs with playoff fever, October traditions nothing new in St. Louis
ST. LOUIS -- Forget the Lakers, the Kings and all that NFL talk. Los Angeles is a baseball town now, as far as the Dodgers are concerned.
That thought struck general manager Ned Colletti recently as he saw all the blue and white hats popping up around Southern California. Such fandom should make for entertaining theater, now that the Dodgers are scheduled to open the National League Championship Series in one of the country's most traditional baseball towns, St. Louis, with Game 1 set for Friday at 7:30 p.m. CT/5:30 p.m. PT on TBS.
"We love being at home, and we feel like we've got a sea of red behind us," Cardinals manager Mike Matheny said.
It's a phenomenon that the Cards enjoy annually each October, as waves of red caps and jerseys wash over St. Louis. The usual swarm is sure to be at full force Friday for Game 1 at Busch Stadium, with Zack Greinke starting for the Dodgers and Joe Kelly for the Cardinals.
But while the Cardinals may be used to all this, having earned seven playoff berths, three pennants and two World Series titles over the past decade, they understand how little their recent history matters now. The Dodgers, who are relying on an almost entirely new cast of characters to reach their first postseason in four years, dispatched the higher-seeded Braves in four games in the NL Division Series. When they are playing to the peak of their abilities -- as they were in going 42-8 during one midsummer stretch, posting the league's best 50-game record in 71 years -- they seem unbeatable.
"Very well rounded," was how Matheny described the Dodgers. "They have good pitching. They have a very potent offense. And they're going to make the plays."
What's more, their supporters on the left coast appear just as amped.
"You can measure a lot in a city and its passion and its pride for its sports teams by how many hats you see downtown," Colletti said. "And I see that Dodger hats are everywhere."
Los Angeles' offensive combination of Hanley Ramirez, Yasiel Puig and Adrian Gonzalez is formidable, even without injured hitters Matt Kemp or Andre Ethier in the picture -- though Ethier may be healthy enough to play the field at some point this series. The Dodgers' one-two rotation punch of Clayton Kershaw and Greinke may be the best in baseball. Their revamped bullpen, featuring Kenley Jansen and Brian Wilson, is strong.
"It's a team that seems like they had more fun than any team I've been around," manager Don Mattingly said. "They love playing."
Contrast that with the Cardinals, who have earned a reputation as the yeomen of the NL. Year in and year out, the Cards construct clubs without obvious weaknesses, this summer parlaying a late charge -- they won their final six games, eight of their last nine and 10 of 12 -- into home-field advantage over the postseason's first two rounds.
Facing a hungry Pirates team with some similarities to the upstart Dodgers (albeit without the weighty payroll), the Cards won their NLDS in five games despite losing Games 2 and 3. Their pitching may not be lined up as perfectly as that of the Dodgers, who have Greinke and Kershaw set for Games 1 and 2, respectively, but their roster boasts far more postseason experience.
"Their lineup is so deep," Greinke said. "They have injuries, and then they bring up someone and it's like they don't miss anything."
For what it's worth, the Dodgers won four of their seven regular-season meetings with the Cardinals, including three of four in St. Louis in August, outscoring them 22-12 in that series.
"When we played St. Louis the last time there at their place, they were kind of struggling a little bit," Mattingly said. "But we really felt like they were the best team in that division at that time. They were a couple games back, but it felt like they were going to win that division.
"They've kind of got a good mix of everything -- they've got a lot of young players, they've got power arms in their bullpen, they've got power arms starting, they've got veterans who hit the ball out of the ballpark. They're a good mixture."
Since watching Albert Pujols walk to the Angels as a free agent two winters ago, the Cardinals have only improved that mix, increasing their win total to 97 this summer. Pujols' replacement, Allen Craig, may be out for the postseason due to injury, but Craig's replacement, Matt Adams, hit a critical eighth-inning home run to seal NLDS Game 5 for the Cardinals. That's the type of stuff Greinke was talking about.
St. Louis may not possess as many household names as the Dodgers, but the Cardinals have thrived with contributions from players such as Adams, Pete Kozma and MVP candidate Matt Carpenter. Their pitching staff is a mix of battle-tested arms, including Adam Wainwright, alongside young guns Michael Wacha, Shelby Miller, Trevor Rosenthal and Carlos Martinez. Imagine that -- as good as the Cardinals have been, they're set up to remain strong for quite some time.
Then again, they are currently only concerned with being good in October, dispatching the Dodgers on their way to another World Series title.
And the Dodgers? Understandably, they have other plans.
"To have the opportunity that we now have is wonderful," Colletti said. "To be back here is special. It's always special. When you look at that scoreboard and there's nobody else playing, you know you've done some pretty cool stuff."