Dodgers catcher A.J. Ellis will be offering his analysis throughout the World Series. Ellis, 32, recently completed his second full season as a starter for the Dodgers by batting .333 in a National League division series against the Atlanta Braves and .316 in the NL Championship Series against the St. Louis Cardinals. Ellis is familiar with the Boston Red Sox, a team the Dodgers faced during the regular season.
The Cardinals did against the Red Sox what we were unable to do against the Cardinals. Zack Greinke and Clayton Kershaw both pitched well enough to win their respective games to open the National League Championship Series; nonetheless we found ourselves boarding a plane down two games to none.
We lost Game 1 in 13 innings, unable to capitalize on the few — yet strong — scoring opportunities in the late innings. Zack, outside of a three-batter stretch, was as good as I’d seen him, yet left the game after eight innings with the score tied 2-2. Playoff king Carlos Beltran’s game-winning single in the13th was the exclamation point on a game in which he single-handedly defeated us with both his bat and arm.
Down but still optimistic, we entered Game 2 of the NLCS with the momentum of having the best pitcher in baseball, Kershaw, on the hill for us. As Zack did, Clayton dominated, cruising through six innings on 72 pitches and allowing only an unearned run.
However, we were shut down by rookie sensation Michael Wacha. Wacha was never pressured, other than when he escaped a second and third, no-one-out jam to kill our spirits. As in Game 1, the Cardinals bullpen shut us down and we flew back to Los Angeles shaking our heads, pondering what just happened.
The outstanding Cardinals pitching limited our chances, but we still had opportunities. With a big hit or a break, we could have been tied at a game apiece with the momentum in our direction instead of being depressed and distraught knowing we had to win four out of five from the toughest team in the league.
The Cardinals had limited chances Thursday night in Game 2 at Boston, but were able to come through just by simplifying their approaches and doing the job as they had all season long.
Why are their at-bats so consistent? Why do they hit so much better than the rest of the league with runners in scoring position? The answer, in a word, is unselfishness.
As a catcher back there trying to call pitches, I’ve seen how these Cardinals hitters take pride in hitting to the situation. They take chances for extra-base hits with no one on and shorten their swings with runners on base. They stay inside the baseball — which allows them to stay back and not be fooled by off-speed pitches — with runners in scoring position, using the middle of the field.
Case in point from World Series Game 2: Left-handed-hitting Matt Carpenter faced a tough left-handed pitcher in Craig Breslow but stayed inside a pitch designed for him to roll over on the ground with the bases loaded. Carpenter backed the baseball up and lifted a fly ball to the opposite field — always a sign of someone not looking to do too much — and drove in the tying run. The Cardinals won the game and turned this into a best-of-five series with the Cardinals now having the home-field advantage.
If there is anything we have learned from the Red Sox, it’s that this is far from over. This veteran-laden team will not panic and will come to St. Louis confident and ready to play with a slightly different, but still team-oriented approach to hitting.
Nobody makes opposing pitchers work harder than the Red Sox. Their goal is simple — drive up the starter’s pitch count and feast on the middle relievers. The Red Sox are very selective early in the count, take the pitches designed to strike them out, foul off the pitches on the edges and never give up an at-bat.
For fans of counting pitches and golf, 15 pitches an inning is usually par. The Red Sox make certain most pitchers they face are so far over par they miss the cut. Even in his six impressive innings in Game 2, Wacha threw 114 pitches, placing him 24 pitches over and forcing him out of the game.
The Cardinals bullpen picked up the remaining innings with ease, but the Red Sox forced the young ace out of the game earlier than previous playoff opponents, while getting a better look at him in case of a Game 6 rematch.
The Cardinals’ approach was implemented by current Dodgers hitting coach Mark McGwire. As we transition into Year 2 with “Big Mac,” I hope we can put into practice pieces of the approach the Cardinals bought into. I can still hear him reminding us to “stay up the middle” as we walked to the plate with runners out there in scoring position. The Dodgers are flush with God-given talent that makes our lineup among the most dangerous in the game. With patience, hard work and discipline, perhaps we can take strides to be listed alongside the Red Sox and Cardinals as tough and relentless lineups.