Commentary

Zack Greinke is man on the spot

With the Dodgers facing elimination, the tough righty is their hope for survival

Updated: October 16, 2013, 2:18 AM ET
By Mark Saxon | ESPNLosAngeles.com

LOS ANGELES -- This was kind of the point, wasn't it?

When the Los Angeles Dodgers made Zack Greinke the best-paid right-handed pitcher in baseball history last December, the scenario that came to mind goes something like this: elimination game, a trip to the World Series hanging by a thread, Greinke on the mound.

Let's not pretend this isn't the way it was supposed to be either. Don Mattingly made the right call to let Greinke get his normal rest and to use Ricky Nolasco in Game 4 on Tuesday, which sputtered out in a blah 4-2 loss that has the Dodgers on the brink of elimination. Good call, bad outcome. Happens all the time in sports.

[+] EnlargeZack Greinke
Jeff Curry/USA TODAY SportsThe Dodgers hope having Zack Greinke on the mound in Game 5 is the first step to a comeback in the NLCS against the Cardinals.

Quibble with Mattingly's postseason strategy all you want and, frankly, you'd have plenty of fodder. Pinch-running for Adrian Gonzalez backfired. Pitching to Jason Heyward didn't go well.

But Tuesday, his reasoning was sound, his explanation apt. Nolasco was going to have to pitch in the series at some point. This isn't 1965. Nobody was going to go on two days' rest. Sandy Koufax might still draw a Dodgers paycheck, but not for those types of things any longer. After the Dodgers squandered gems by Greinke and Clayton Kershaw in the first two games, it crystalized Monday while Hyun-Jin Ryu was keeping the Dodgers alive.

They had to win three of four games. It didn't matter which three. So, why not use your pitchers in situations they're most likely to succeed in, with their bodies properly refreshed and their routines undisturbed. You can argue that things worked out pretty well when he rushed Kershaw to the mound in Game 4 of the NLDS, but you could make a lot of mistakes equating other people to Kershaw. There's only one. OK, maybe two, but like we said, Koufax is retired.

Nolasco left a 91 mph sinker a little too close to the plate and Matt Holliday pummeled it into the back of the Dodgers' bullpen on a majestic arc, so now the Dodgers are in desperate straits. So what, Nolasco couldn't have done that in Game 6? And, if you're looking for reasons why the Dodgers are in this spot, you could tick off plenty before landing on Mattingly's pitching decisions. How about the fact they've scored seven runs in four games? Or that they've scored one run on the St. Louis bullpen in 14 innings?

And so, here they are. They have Greinke standing between St. Louis and a showdown with Boston or Detroit for the trophy and the ring. If that works out, they hand the ball to Kershaw. If that goes well, Ryu is the last man standing in Game 7. That seems like a long way away, but it's only Saturday, and is it such a stretch to imagine three pitchers who finished in the top eight in the league in ERA ending a series with a flourish?

"Kind of the best thought I have is I've got one of the best pitchers in baseball pitching tomorrow. If we come out here and play well tomorrow and get a win, I've probably got the best pitcher in baseball pitching the next day," Mattingly said. "Ryu hasn't been too bad."

Greinke struck out 10 of these Cardinals over eight innings the last time he pitched, in Game 1. He gave up only four hits. In fact, amazingly, the Cardinals are up three games to one despite having picked up only 19 hits in the entire series. They're batting .148. Greinke didn't sound entirely confident in his ability to replicate that mastery facing the Cardinals yet again, but you have to have been around Greinke for a while to get a feel for how comically honest he can be.

"A lot of times, you'll have 'one good start, one bad start' type of thing," Greinke said of facing a team in consecutive starts. "Or, if you do bad, you'll probably do good the next time. They're going to make an adjustment and you've got to be faster than them at it."

Nolasco might have been in a bit of denial when he called the pitch to Holliday a good pitch. It was at a tantalizing velocity in a dangerous zone. Nolasco said he has gotten Holliday out on the same pitch in the past. It doesn't matter, because Holliday hit it so hard, it was more likely to dent the promotional white truck that sits beyond left field than it was to be caught.

Supposedly, the ball traveled only 426 feet, but that measures only lateral distance. The Dodgers get another crack Wednesday at Joe Kelly, a guy who held them to two runs in Game 1. If they survive it, they'll face the brilliant young righty Michael Wacha. But even if Greinke and Kershaw deal zero after zero yet again and match or outpitch those guys, the Dodgers aren't going anywhere unless they manage to put a scare in a St. Louis reliever one of these days.

Right now, one pitcher after the next is jogging out of the bullpen, popping fastballs into Yadier Molina's glove and sending the Dodgers muttering back to the dugout. Before the game, Mattingly said he had never seen such dominant pitching in a postseason series, both staffs combined. His hitters aren't arguing.

"I was talking about that the other day. I've never seen this consistency of hard throwers, guys who throw 96 to 100 [mph]," Carl Crawford said. "You wonder where they find all these pitchers."

It's called a farm system. As Vin Scully pointed out before the game, the Cardinals invented it. And, now the Dodgers are in the process of trying to get theirs up to speed, but they haven't got time for that now, of course. They're stuck with the arms they have and, all things considered, that's nothing anybody's going to pity them for.

Mark Saxon

ESPNLosAngeles.com
Mark Saxon is a staff writer for ESPNLosAngeles.com. He spent six years at the Orange County Register, and began his career at the Oakland Tribune, where he started an 11-year journey covering Major League Baseball. He has also covered colleges, including USC football and UCLA basketball.

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