When Adrian Gonzalez stepped to the plate in the bottom of the third inning Wednesday, with Game 5 of the 2013 NLCS tied at two, no Los Angeles Dodgers batter had hit a home run all series. Though the game was tied, the weight of staring elimination in the face grew heavier with each out. The Cardinals had a chance to knock out the Dodgers and set their rotation for the World Series. Then, BOOM!
It’s true that, looking at the season as a whole, home runs were not the focus of the Dodgers offense, but during thier remarkable 42-8 run, and afterward, they hit for real power. Hanley Ramirez and Yasiel Puig had infused an offense with solid on-base skills with a punch it had badly needed, and the runs had flowed freely. Before and after that streak, one of the team’s most glaring flaws was the inability to score runs without getting three hits.
Gonzalez, though, deposited a Joe Kelly pitch into the right-center-field seats, giving LA an edge it wouldn’t relinquish. He would homer again, later, as would Carl Crawford and A.J. Ellis, in a 6-4 Dodgers win.
The series now moves back to St. Louis, and the Dodgers have to take what they just rediscovered East if they hope to beat the Cardinals there and advance. Hanley Ramirez was hit in the rib by the first pitch he saw in this series, fracturing the bone, leaving his power decidedly diminished. That was a huge blow. Ramirez was the league’s most dangerous hitter this season, when healthy, and the loss of his thump had the lineup reeling for, as it seems, four and a half games.
Ramirez might well play in every game left in the series, but his power isn’t going to magically reemerge. Too much of a big-league hitter’s pop comes from the violent rotation of a swing, the wrenching of oblique and abdominal muscles, things it’s clear Ramirez can’t do as quickly or smoothly because of the injury. In order to beat the Cardinals, who limit walks and excel at averting disaster when opponents put runners on base, the Dodgers have to keep finding non-Ramirez power sources. They have to be able to score in short sequences.
They don’t need 10 runs, either. Clayton Kershaw gets the ball for Game 6, and should be able to shut down the Cardinals lineup—one that scuffles against left-handed pitching. In three starts this postseason (one on shortened rest), Kershaw has pitched 19 innings, allowing just five walks, eight hits and four runs, striking out 23.
The prospect of needing just a run or two might induce Dodgers manager Don Mattingly into making a mistake, like trying to run on Yadier Molina or bunting every time a guy leads off an inning with a single. That’s the opposite of the strategy the team needs to execute. The plan should be to get the ball in the air, hopefully with a man or two on base, and score in sneak-attack fashion.
Crawford now has four homers this postseason. He’s been batting leadoff for LA. Unsurprisingly, second hitter Mark Ellis has yet to homer this October (he homered just six times all season), but he has reached base 13 times in 39 plate appearances. Mattingly might entertain flipping the two in his batting order for Game 6, to improve the chances that a well-timed homer could net multiple runs.
Mattingly also needs to flip Puig and Andre Ethier. Ethier batted fifth in Game 5, Puig sixth, putting platoon-vulnerable lefty bats (Gonzalez and Ethier) next to one another, right ahead of a righty perfectly capable of breaking them up. The difference in expected production between Ethier and Puig should be small enough to wash out any consideration other than the platoon advantage, and Mattingly gives that away under the lineup construction he used Wednesday.
If the Dodgers find themselves in a high-leverage situation Friday night, with Kershaw’s lineup spot due, Mattingly should go to Scott Van Slyke. Though he’s gotten just two at-bats this postseason, Van Slyke is a righty bat with some real power off the bench. I might even use him as a tactical pinch-hitter if Ethier or Crawford draws one of the Cardinals’ two lefties out of the bullpen in a big situation. Those two have large enough platoon splits to make at least a case for it.
Kershaw is as good a starting pitcher on whom to bet as any, but still, probably shouldn’t be counted on to deliver an automatic win. This postseason has been forceful rebuttal, to my eye, of the notion that starting pitching wins in October. It sure seems like all the teams that reach October have great starting pitching, and the game is more often decided by power bats and power relievers. The Dodgers have loaded up on the latter, but hope not to need them. Their ability to force a Game Seven will depend on the former.Next post: 2013 ALCS Game 4: Tigers Beat Red Sox, but John Farrell Beats Jim Leyland
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