(BaseballSTL) -- It’s not unfair to say the Los Angeles Dodgers are the favorites in this best-of-five NLDS against the Cardinals. It’s not unfair at all. They’re just flat out better on paper.
But if sports has proven us anything over the last, oh, 100 years it’s that the better team on paper doesn’t always win. It just makes them the so-called “favorites”. But it means much less than you might think once the games begin.
That doesn’t mean winning this series will be easy. On the contrary, it’ll be a challenge harder than maybe anything this team has faced over the last few years.
Starting in 2011 (the Cards run of unprecedented success in October) maybe only the NLDS against the Phillies in ‘11 could compare to what the Redbirds are about to face. In many ways, this series is very similar to that. Facing arguably the best team - again, on paper - in the league and doing so in a short series while having to contend with possibly the best pitcher on the planet (Roy Halladay then, Clayton Kershaw now).
No one in their right mind expected the Cards to beat the Phillies that year. And why would they? Philadelphia had the best record in the National League and was primed to start what could have been a mini-dynasty featuring Ryan Howard, Chase Utley and Jimmy Rollins - in addition to the pitching staff led by Halladay.
So how did the Cards come away and win that series that year? Well, it started with coming away with a split in Philly during the first two on the road. That’s mandatory. Games 1 and 2 are always at the site of the team with home field and while it’s beyond unreasonable to think the road team will win both of those games, anything less than winning one puts them at a significant disadvantage.
Going back home for Game 3 having lost a pair in a row and having to stave off elimination three straight times? No thanks. You have no momentum, no mojo, no confidence, no nothing at that point. Come back home tied 1-1 and now having home field advantage in a best-of-three series? Yes please.
There’s no way around it. If the Cardinals are going to win this series against the Dodgers they have to find a way to either beat Clayton Kershaw with Adam Wainwright or beat Zack Greinke with Lance Lynn. It’s unavoidable. Given the way the Cardinals have swung the bats all season (the word inconsistent comes to mind) this series will likely have to be won with overwhelming pitching. That means both Wainwright and Lynn don’t just need to pitch well enough to win, one of them very well might have to WIN the game by himself.
Seven innings and three runs allowed may not be enough with this offense going against those pitchers. It could. We could be surprised. This is October after all. But the odds are against it.
The next thing the Cardinals are going to have to do is not make any costly mistakes. And by that I mean blatant errors on defense or on the bases. This NLDS could very well come down to one missed location on a slider away from a middle reliever in the 7th inning of Game 4. They can’t afford to give away gifts by not taking an extra base or giving the Dodgers extra outs.
If the Cardinals were the significantly better team here I might be inclined to say they could overcome a few of those mistakes. But they’re not. Every last detail must be given extreme focus. If not, that could be the difference in this series.
And, finally, to win this series the Cardinals are going to have to get creative. That means doing the unpredictable. That means stealing some bases here and there. That means out managing Don Mattingly by trying some things the Dodgers won’t expect. If the Cardinals play this straight up and try to go toe-to-toe with LA it may not be enough. The offense just hasn’t shown enough this year to believe they can score enough runs - even with terrific pitching backing them up.
Maybe Mike Matheny needs to try a suicide squeeze early in a scoreless game? Maybe he needs to unleash Kolten Wong on the bases to get more runners in scoring position? Maybe he needs to try a few more hit and runs just to get things moving.
The challenge is hard. But it’s not impossible. The Los Angeles Dodgers lost 68 games this year. To make it 71 the Cardinals will have to play close to flawless baseball.