- Mark Saxon, ESPN Staff Writer
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The Dodgers might have lost the National League Championship Series three batters into it. That might be overstating it, but it might not.
It’s hard to know whether Hanley Ramirez, who was struck by a 95-mph Joe Kelly fastball in the ribs, was more costly to the Dodgers by his absence or his presence. Ramirez was in and out of the lineup and, when he played, batted a punchless .133. Obviously in pain, he wasn’t the same player who spurred the Dodgers' offense from early June until that pitch.
Then again, as well as the St. Louis Cardinals pitched, perhaps they would have shut Ramirez down as they did so many of his teammates. It was a far cry from the NLDS, when the Dodgers pounded Atlanta pitching.
The series was closer than the four games-to-two result might have indicated. In fact, both teams batted an identical .211 (42-for-199). The difference was the Cardinals, particularly Michael Wacha and Trevor Rosenthal, were too much for the Dodgers to handle.
Might that have been different if Ramirez had been able to anchor the No. 3 spot in the lineup? No one will ever know.
The Dodgers scored twice as many runs in four games against the Braves as they did in six games against the Cardinals. The tone for the series was set with the first two games, when Clayton Kershaw and Zack Greinke combined to allow two earned runs in their 14 combined innings and the Dodgers lost both games.
The Dodgers hit seven home runs against Atlanta, but didn’t hit their first long ball of the NLCS until Game 4, a warm day in Los Angeles when balls were flying high and deep.
The struggles of the offense were democratic, with stars like Andre Ethier batting .150 and role players like Skip Schumaker and Michael Young combining to go 0-for-13. In fact, if there was one underrated aspect of the Dodgers’ poor performance, it was a bench that provided virtually nothing.
There were a couple of highlights. A.J. Ellis (.316) continued his hot hitting from the previous series and Adrian Gonzalez (.700 slugging percentage) was as steadily productive as ever. But with Ramirez out, the Dodgers needed their other right-handed power hitter to produce and Yasiel Puig (.227, 10 strikeouts) was the most erratic player on the field.
Nobody should be too surprised that the Cardinals' offense finally sprang to life in Game 6. They did, after all, bat .330 with runners in scoring position during the regular season.
But everyone should be very surprised that the pitcher they woke up against was Clayton Kershaw. The Dodgers' ace pitched his worst game in at least three years, taking the blame for the Dodgers downfall. People have conjectured that the high innings total (259) finally took its toll at the end of the season, but Kershaw insisted he felt good. Nor did Kershaw blame his bad evening on having worked on three days’ rest in the NLDS. Sometimes, good players have bad days. The Dodgers probably wouldn’t have been playing that late in the season without Kershaw.
In a way, it’s too bad, because it would have been interesting to see how Hyun-Jin Ryu handled the pressure of a Game 7. He had looked shaky in one postseason start and polished in another. The Cardinals had struggled against lefties most of the season, though Kershaw wouldn't have known it Friday. Subtract Kershaw’s last outing and Dodgers pitchers had a 2.28 ERA in the series.
The Dodgers handled themselves well in the field until the final two games, when Puig’s erratic play in the outfield finally began to cause some issues. He lost a ball in the sun for a double in Game 5, then jogged after it. He made two poor throws and overran a ball in Game 6.
Don Mattingly cost the Dodgers Game 1.
That seems to be the narrative according to many Dodgers fans, unhappy that Mattingly pinch ran Dee Gordon for one of his few healthy power hitters, Adrian Gonzalez. But there are several leaps of logic there. What if Gordon had stolen second base? What if Michael Young, Gonzalez’s replacement, hadn’t hit into two double plays? How do we know Gonzalez wouldn’t have done the same?
Other people will bicker with Mattingly going with Ricky Nolasco in Game 4 rather than handing the ball to Greinke on three days’ rest. Again, there are arguments either way, but there were good reasons Mattingly elected to go the conservative route and, other than one bad sinker to Matt Holliday, Nolasco didn’t pitch poorly.
Had the Dodgers scored a few more runs, nobody would be talking about Mattingly’s strategic moves and the Dodgers might still be playing.
About an hour after Game 6 ended, general manager Ned Colletti talked about how much he liked so many of the Dodgers players, not just as talents but as people. This group was one that easily could have proved flammable, with big-money players coming from a lot of different teams and cultures, but it somehow worked.
One area that will need to be addressed going into 2014 is Puig's demeanor. Fans might not want to admit it because he was so fun to watch, but something will have to give. If he can’t control his emotions on the field, whether it’s in relationships with the umpires or getting over bad at-bats, he’ll never be the player he could be. It's an issue that is better handled in the clubhouse than by the manager.
STATE OF CONTENTION
The Dodgers aren’t going to play in their first World Series in 25 years, but with very few free agents and with owners who are clearly willing to continue adding, there seems little doubt the organization will field a competitive team in years to come.
2dBrian Heyman, Special to ESPN.com