Column: Scary Cardinals are biggest threat to a Dodgers championship repeat
This is not about a wild card.
This is for the full deck.
This is more than one game.
This is an entire season.
It says here, if the Dodgers can survive this one game against this one steamrolling team, they will march mostly unscathed to their second consecutive World Series championship.
Nobody will challenge the Dodgers in five or seven games like the Cardinals will do it in one game. Nothing threatens the deep Dodgers riches like what is essentially nine innings of a coin flip.
If the Dodgers can beat the magnificent Adam Wainwright and a powerful lineup and a dugout filled with crazy belief, there’s nobody else in baseball who can offer them a similar test.
The Dodgers’ World Series title defense begins with a wild-card game Wednesday against the St. Louis Cardinals. Max Scherzer will start on the mound for L.A.
Not the overachieving San Francisco Giants. Not the outmanned Milwaukee Brewers or Atlanta Braves. Nobody in the underwhelming American League. They’ve already defeated the Tampa Bay Rays once. They won’t get beat by the those cheating Houston Astros twice.
This is the biggest moment at Chavez Ravine since Game 7 of the 2017 World Series against the Astros. This is their most pressurized evening since Game 7 last season against the Braves.
For the Dodgers, this is a breathing cliché, a game that will serve as a true winner-take-all.
They win now, they will eventually take all.
But, first, there stands the Cardinals, recently winners of 17 in a row, niftiest defense in baseball, best mojo in sports, and a revived 40-year-old starting pitcher who has won 14 of his last 16 decisions including shutting down the Dodgers just last month.
“Waino is a competitor ... he wouldn’t be doing what he’s doing at his age if he wasn’t,” said the Dodgers’ Justin Turner. “It will be a challenge for us.”
The word “challenge” is an understatement. It could be the Dodgers’ biggest pitching hurdle of the postseason, and it appears on the first steps of the first lap.
Wainwright seems ready, so ready he basically laughed his way through Tuesday’s news conference. He clearly loves this stage. He seems plenty big for this moment.
“It is a harsh atmosphere out there ... there’s a lot on the line ... winner-take-all games are ... I mean, it’s as fun as it gets, right?” Wainwright said, smiling. “I always talk about the big moments when as a kid, it was never, you know, Game 17 against the worst team in the league. It’s all what you’re going over in your mind in the backyard is always: Bottom of the ninth, bases loaded, Game 7. It’s always that deciding game. Just doesn’t get more fun.”
Listening to Wainwright, the last month has been a blast for the team as it fearlessly rolls into the league’s toughest place to play.
Chavez Ravine is going to be deafening. But there is a chance the Cardinals could play louder.
“Definitely, definitely, it was a fun time, for the first time guys looking at each going, I don’t think we are ever going to lose another game again,” said Wainwright of their winning streak. “That was a great thing to hear. Several people say that, like it feels like we’re going to win every day, and I look at them and say, that is what a winning club feels like when they show up to the park. That is what championship teams feel like.”
The Dodgers have encountered Cardinals teams like this before in the playoffs and, four out of five times, the Dodgers have lost in defeats so epic they’ve got their own titles.
There was the Jack Clark Series, where Dodgers manager Tom Lasorda failed to walk Jack Clark before the Cardinals slugger hit an eventual game-winning home run in the 1985 NL Championship Series.
There was the Hanley Ramirez Series, where then-Cardinals pitcher Joe Kelly hit the Dodgers’ hot-hitting shortstop in the ribs in the first inning of the first game of the 2013 NLCS and the Dodgers offense never caught its breath.
Then there were the two Clayton Kershaw Series, consecutive duels in 2013 and 2014 in which the former Dodgers ace was shellacked both times in fashioning the lousy postseason reputation that haunted him for much of his career.
The Cardinals have made such an indelible impression on Dodgers history, even though the Dodgers won 16 more games than the Cardinals this year, they have rarely been more wary of one game against one opponent.
“Our only focus is tomorrow,” said manager Dave Roberts on Tuesday. “Do whatever we can to prepare to win a ballgame.”
That focus will start with Max Scherzer, who will square off against Wainwright in a battle of World Series rings. Scherzer has been the Dodgers’ pitching savior since joining the team a couple of months ago, making up for the loss of Trevor Bauer and the injury to Kershaw, but he’s not yet been officially christened a Dodger.
That title will come with a shut-down performance of a Cardinals team anchored at the corners by slugging Nolan Arenado and Paul Goldschmidt. Scherzer has a 3.38 postseason ERA in 22 appearances, so he’s embraced big situations before. But if Scherzer wants to make his mark in Los Angeles before probably leaving the team as a free agent this winter, he must make it now.
“It starts tomorrow,” Scherzer said Tuesday. “We have to win tomorrow.”
He will be backed by an offense that is both hot and cursed.
Hot, in that Corey Seager is hitting out of his mind and headed toward October MVP status again, Mookie Betts has found himself, Justin Turner is the same old big-hit J.T., and Trea Turner has become only the team’s best player.
“For the offense the last two, three weeks to kind of start finding its stride is certainly more promising than if we were not,” said Justin Turner.
Cursed, though, in that their leading slugger Max Muncy will probably miss the playoffs after injuring his elbow in the season’s final game that wound up being meaningless.
“Obviously, he’s the cornerstone of our offense,” said Justin Turner. “The at-bat quality, we’re certainly going to miss, but we still have a pretty dynamic lineup, and I think the best way to look at it is an opportunity for someone else to step up and take it.”
Does this mean Albert Pujols fills in and haunts his old team? Wouldn’t that be something?
While loaded in every area, the Dodgers’ biggest advantage here is their postseason experience. They’ve played in an amazing six winner-take-all games in the last nine seasons and, though they are only 3-3 in those games, it has strengthened their mettle.
Trea Turner quickly became an invaluable part of the Dodgers lineup after being acquired from the Nationals in a July trade along with ace Max Scherzer.
“We’ve had a lot of guys who have been through it before,” said Justin Turner. “That helps the mentality going into it and knowing what’s at stake and knowing how to prepare and knowing that you’ve got to play 27 outs and take advantage of every opportunity you can.”
Believe that for the Dodgers, the next 27 outs will determine the next four weeks.
Believe that it’s going to be 27 outs of struggle.
“That’s the one thing I’ve been amazed with this team is, we keep coming, we do. There’s no game that really rattled us,” said the Cardinals’ Arenado. “We kept coming and we went on a great streak and now we’re here.”
Here, the beginning of the Dodgers second consecutive march to a World Series championship.
Or here, the end.
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