5 Keys to Beating the Cardinals in the NLDS

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Game 6 of the 2013 NLCS still stings. The Dodgers were so very close to appearing in their first World Series since 1988, yet the Cardinals came out on top after an extremely disappointing and gut wrenching Clayton Kershaw start. I could never be upset with Kershaw for that humbled start in the NLCS since he was pitching on short rest and the Cardinals had already taken out the Dodgers’ best hitter in Game 1 when Joe Kelly cracked Hanley Ramirez‘s rib. After all, Kershaw was one of the reasons why the team 2013 got as far as they did anyways. Perhaps the Game 6 clunker was setting up the biggest redemption narrative of the young ace’s career.

Kershaw began his M.V.P. caliber season in Sydney, and battled through a shoulder injury to come back and pitch one of the greatest seasons of any Los Angeles Dodger pitcher. A no-hitter, 21 wins, a fourth consecutive ERA title, a division clinching start in September, and a baby daughter on the way. The only thing the southpaw is missing is that golden ring. Clayton Kershaw and the Dodgers now have the opportunity to redeem themselves for that NLCS Game 6 disaster this October, but they will only have five games to do so in the NLDS against the Cards.

What are the key strategies needed to beat the St. Louis Cardinals this year and move on to the NLCS? Let’s take a look at the 5 areas which could mean the difference between ruffling those bird feathers or going home in defeat once again against St. Louis.

1. Quality Starts

The Dodgers will need quality starts from all four of their starting pitchers. It would be optimal if the Dodgers could sweep the Birds in three games, but it is more likely that Dan Haren will need to come through as the fourth starter in the NLDS and beyond. The real question mark going into the NLDS is Hyun-jin Ryu‘s shoulder. Ryu hasn’t pitched since September 12th in San Francisco when he left after one fateful inning with the injury.

Without strong starts from Clayton Kershaw, Zack Greinke, Hyun-jin Ryu and Dan Haren, the Dodgers will be hard pressed to beat the Cardinals in the short series. One disaster start could equal a knockout loss in the first round. Clayton Kershaw pitched a 32-pitch simulated game on Sunday to ready for the NLDS opener on Friday. Winning the first two games at home would be optimal so that Kershaw does not need to pitch on short rest in a potential Game 4. Kershaw went 1-0 with a 0.69 ERA against Atlanta in two NLDS starts last season, but he struggled mightily and allowed 7 runs on 10 hits through 4 disastrous innings in the last game of the NLCS.

Dodger starters had the second-best ERA in the league in 2014 behind the Washington Nationals (3.20).

2. Solid Defense

I’m terrified to see a costly error from either Hanley Ramirez or Dee Gordon in the NLDS. The Dodgers’  defense was extremely shaky through the first half of the season, but it was tidied up a bit during the second half. Hanley Ramirez’s error at shortstop cost Clayton Kershaw a perfect game in June. Even though I wouldn’t trade Hanley’s bat for the glove of Miguel Rojas, I still hold my breathe every time he double clutches a routine grounder. The defense needs to be extra sharp for the Dodgers during the NLDS, because the Cards will seize any opportunity they can. There’s no reason to leave the door cracked ajar when it comes to middle infield defense.

The Dodgers are second to last in the league with 107 errors on the season just behind Pittsburgh who committed 109 miscues.

3. Aggressive Offense

The Dodgers need to get ahead early since they often struggle to score late in games this season. Late inning comebacks have not been their forte, so being aggressive at the plate is important in the short series especially against a tough opening starter like Adam Wainwright. Once the Dodgers get on base, they can use Dee Gordon’s speed to manufacture runs. Of course the Dodgers should not flail at pitches outside the zone (I’m looking at you Yasiel Puig), but at the same time they should not be waiting on the perfect pitch which may never come.

The Dodgers hit .232 in the eighth inning or later during the 2014 regular season.

4. Banking on the Bullpen

The number four key goes hand in hand with the first key. If the Dodger starters can go deep into the game, then bridging the gap to Kenley Jansen in the ninth inning is a much more smooth and successful transition. If one of the starters should fail to do so, then the Dodgers will need to rely on their middle relief pitching which has been shaky at times during the regular season. The walks issued by the relief corps has been the most detrimental weakness, and the bullpen will need to curb the free passes in order to shut down St. Louis in the later innings.

Don Mattingly and Ned Colletti will need to make some tough decisions to who they choose for the postseason roster with the bullpen being an area where they could go with a variety of configurations. Will they select three left-handers? Will the flame thrower Pedro Baez grab a spot? Would Donnie and Ned be bold enough to leave off Brandon League or Chris Perez who are unreliable at times? Is Donnie confident enough with Brian Wilson to pitch him in the eighth inning? All big questions going into Friday’s game.

The Dodger bullpen combined for a fourth-best 3.80 ERA in the N.L., but they walked the second most batters (206).

5. Help from Holliday

A little luck never hurt. Whether it be a ball hit into the crotch of Matt Holliday or a moth strategically placed in the outfield to distract the outfielder, the chances for Matt Holliday helping out the Dodgers in some way is usually pretty high. While St. Louis will be looking for that one costly Dee Gordon bumble, an errant throw from Yasiel Puig, or a base running blunder by Carl Crawford, the Dodgers will in turn try to capitalize on any mistake by the Red Birds. Wave those white rally towels, Dodger fans!

With these 5 keys the Dodgers could unlock a series win against the Cardinals and redeem themselves for the disappointing loss in the NLCS last year. Beating the Birds will be a lot tougher than defeating the Braves last year, but I believe this team anchored by Kershaw will not allow history to repeat itself.

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