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FBI probe of Cardinals makes it fair to question series with Dodgers

Bill Plaschke: As Cardinals are investigated by FBI, it's fair to question their playoff series with Dodgers?

After watching the planet's best pitcher endure two unimaginable meltdowns in the same situation to the same team in consecutive Octobers, some Dodgers fans began to wonder.

Were the St. Louis Cardinals cheating?

Maybe not, but now federal authorities think they may be cheaters.

Just call them the New England Cardinals … or maybe the St. Louis Patriots … or maybe just call them phonies in the wake of a New York Times report that they are being investigated by the FBI for hacking computer networks and stealing information about the Houston Astros.

The Cardinals have long promoted themselves as keepers of baseball's old-fashioned flame, the curators of smart and selfless play, the architects of what they proudly call, "The Cardinal Way." Yet the FBI believes that "way" detoured into a dark place in which employees gained access to the Astros' database with passwords Astros General Manager Jeff Luhnow used when he worked for the Cardinals. He worked for St. Louis for eight years until he went to Houston after the 2011 season. With this access, the Cardinals allegedly obtained information on everything from player evaluations to trade talks.

There is no evidence the Cardinals' alleged spying involved any team other than the Astros. When asked Tuesday, the Dodgers publicly dismissed speculation their postseason losses involved any sort of digital espionage.

Yet, just as any NFL team can raise their eyebrows after the Patriots' Delfategate and Spygate, so too can Dodgers fans now reasonably wonder.

If the Cardinals would sneak into an opponent's computer, which is a federal crime and far worse than deflating a few footballs, what else would they do to gain an edge? If they would cheat against a long-struggling team such as the Astros, why wouldn't they cheat to beat the richest team in baseball and their Cy Young Award winner Clayton Kershaw?

It was always assumed the Cardinals defeated the Dodgers in both the National League division series and Championship Series because substance beats style. But so much of the Cardinals success was so eerie, Dodgers fans wondered whether this so-called model franchise was actually a model of deceit. The FBI investigation doesn't address those fears but it certainly validates them. Two years' worth of complaints now seem less like sour grapes and more like common sense.

Start with the fourth pitch to the third batter of their first game in the 2013 NLCS. Joe Kelly sent a fastball into Hanley Ramirez's side, fracturing one of his ribs and dramatically changing the series almost before it started.

At the time, Ramirez was the Dodgers' hottest playoff hitter, batting .500 in the first round of the division series against the Atlanta Braves with four doubles, a triple, a homer and six RBIs in just four games. After the plunking, Ramirez could never fully swing again, batting .133 in the series with one RBI and no extra-base hits.

At the time, many gave Kelly and the Cardinals the benefit of the doubt, believing they wouldn't so blatantly direct a cheap shot at the Dodgers so early in the series. That benefit is now gone. Does anybody not believe that hit was intentional? Because it occurred in the first half inning of the series, would it be so surprising if it was organizationally planned and ordered?

Then there was the curious case of Kershaw, who was mostly untouchable during Cy Young Award-winning seasons in 2013 and 2014, but completely fell apart when facing the Cardinals under pressure each of those years. Same hitters, same situations, same results, consecutive postseason collapses by baseball's best pitcher under very unusual circumstances with absolutely no warning signs.

In 2013, Kershaw pitched two brilliant games against the Braves in the division series, allowing one run in 13 innings. In Game 2 of the NLCS against the Cardinals he was just as powerful, allowing no earned runs and two hits in six innings. Nothing indicated what would happen next, when, in Game 6, he allowed seven runs in four innings in a 9-0, series-ending loss. He was so bad, throwing a career-high 48 pitches in the third inning, that it looked as if the Cardinals hitters knew exactly what was coming.

Turns out, maybe they did. Three of the Cardinals' four run-scoring hits occurred with a Cardinal standing on second base peering into catcher A.J. Ellis' glove. Stealing signs by simply looking at the catcher is part of the game — if you don't like it, change your signs — but who knows if that's all the Cardinals were doing?

Kershaw was asked Tuesday whether he thought the Cardinals could have used anything against him.

"No," he said, then picked up a stack of statistical notes and his research while noting it was available to everyone.

"I don't know anything but if the FBI's involved, it's a criminal act," he said of the Cardinals. "Stealing pitches isn't a criminal act, it's part of the game."

During Kershaw's seventh-inning disintegration in the series opener, he blew a 6-2 lead by allowing three run-scoring hits each time with Cardinal runners on second base. He eventually gave up eight runs in 6 2/3 inning in a 10-9 loss.

Then there was Game 4, a 3-2 loss in which Kershaw allowed all three runs in the seventh inning on arguably the most unusual home run of the season. Matt Adams went deep on a Kershaw curveball for the first homer by a left-handed hitter against the pitcher all season. It was also the first home run by a left-handed hitter on a curveball in Kershaw's seven-year career. And, what a surprise, there was a Cardinal on second base.

Ellis said Tuesday the team's pitching plan was not kept digitally and would be impossible to steal. He said there was nothing that would make him worry about the Cardinals in the future.

But still … were the Dodgers beaten by the Cardinal Way, or the Cardinal Con? It might be unfair to reach that conclusion, but it is now fair to ask that question.

bill.plaschke@latimes.com

Twitter: @billplaschke

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