Commentary

Cy Youngs vs. young'uns in NLCS

Two L.A. aces face a pair of St. Louis kids in Games 1 and 2 of NLCS

Updated: October 11, 2013, 3:17 AM ET
By Jayson Stark | ESPN.com

ST. LOUIS -- We can sum up the plotline of the National League Championship Series for you in six words:

It's Cy Young versus really young.

On one hand, those Los Angeles Dodgers will roll into the NLCS all set to start Cy Young winners in Games 1 and 2 on Friday and Saturday. Introducing Zack Greinke and Clayton Kershaw, ladies and gentlemen. Perhaps you're familiar with their work.

[+] EnlargeZack Greinke
Scott Cunningham/Getty ImagesZack Greinke had an impressive 2.63 ERA in his first season with the Dodgers.

But the team they're facing, those St. Louis Cardinals, will take a slightly different approach -- by starting two pitchers who have yet to spend a full year in a big league rotation in Games 1 and 2. That would be Joe Kelly, who is about to make the 33rd start of his big league career (counting the postseason), and Michael Wacha, who is about to make the 11th.

So ... isn't that interesting?

"Hey, why not?" chuckled Cardinals infielder Daniel Descalso. "That's what we've done all year."

And that would be true. But just because they've done it all year doesn't mean you see a whole lot of matchups like this in October.

First off, if you don't include the Braves of 1995-2001, who did this virtually every October, the Dodgers are just the eighth team in history to start former Cy Young winners in Games 1 and 2 of any postseason series, according to the Elias Sports Bureau. (In fact, since the Dodgers just started Kershaw and Greinke in the first two games of the NL Division Series, too, they'll be the first team besides those Braves ever to do that in more than one series in one year.)

The previous seven teams make for quite the glittering list of names:

There's Don Drysdale and Sandy Koufax (1965 and '66 Dodgers).

There's Steve Carlton and Jim Lonborg (1976 and '77 Phillies).

And, in the wild-card era, you have Pedro Martinez and Bret Saberhagen (1999 Red Sox), Cliff Lee and Pedro (2009 Phillies), and Roy Halladay and Lee (2011 Phillies).

And that's one cool array of aces.

But guess what? Just two of those seven teams won their series -- the '99 Red Sox and '65 Dodgers. The 2013 Dodgers, obviously, just made it three out of eight by dismissing the Braves from this year's postseason festivities.

Now, though, let's take a look at the other side of these matchups. Only twice before have the teams facing two Cy Youngs in Games 1 and 2 started two pitchers against them who were 25 or younger, as the Cardinals will do with Kelly (25) and Wacha (22) -- and both of those teams went on to win that series.

One was the 1976 Reds, who matched up 25-year-old Don Gullett and 24-year-old Pat Zachry against Carlton and Lonborg – and won both games.

The other was the 1966 Orioles, who trotted out 23-year-old Dave McNally and a 20-year-old kid named Jim Palmer to face Drysdale and Koufax -- and also won both games.

So experience is great. Trophies are cool. And it's never a bad thing to round up as many Cy Youngs in one rotation as you can splice together. But just because Cy Young versus really young is going to be the big storyline in this series, history tells us that doesn't mean it's going to determine what happens in this series.

"If you're a rookie versus Cy Young, that's great," said Cardinals pitcher Jason Motte. "But Cy Young isn't hitting. You're throwing against their hitters. And if you go out there and say, 'I'm pitching against that guy,' that's not the way to look at it.

"The goal is to go out there and handle your business, do what you do. So it's about having a good approach, having a good game plan, going out there and executing your pitches."

That's a message that has already been emphatically delivered to Kelly and Wacha. So it should be no shocker that those two had almost identical takes on the aces they'll find themselves dueling in these games.

When Kelly was asked Thursday about facing Greinke in Game 1, he had his lines down pat.

[+] EnlargeJoe Kelly
Dilip Vishwanat/Getty ImagesKelly made seven appearances in the 2012 postseason, all in relief.

"[I've] gone against a few good pitchers this year," Kelly said. He added that you just need to focus on "yourself and what your team is doing and just making pitches." He even referred to this as "a really good, fun duel." So he definitely passed Interview Session 101.

And when Wacha was asked about Kershaw, he went out of his way to describe Kershaw as "an unbelievable pitcher," a guy whose Cy Young Award "speaks for itself" and a pitcher who is "a lot of fun to watch." But when asked if he'd reflected much on what it will be like to match up against Kershaw in a game of this magnitude, Wacha cut off the flow of compliments right there and said, succinctly: "I'm just trying to not pay much attention to that right now."

Wacha also said he'd spent no time whatsoever reflecting on his 7 1/3-inning no-hit bid in Pittsburgh on Monday. And that, too, was a lesson he has learned well from Adam Wainwright, Chris Carpenter, Motte and all the veterans around him.

"You can't be patting yourself on the back and saying, 'Look how good I was the other day,'" Motte said. "The Dodgers don't care how good you were last time out. I guarantee you that."

But the Dodgers do care how good their own collection of aces is. And it's pretty dazzling.

Kershaw -- who is only 25 years old himself, by the way -- had a 1.83 ERA this season, the lowest by a National League starter since Greg Maddux, the lowest by a Dodger since Koufax. Greinke, meanwhile, has allowed a total of 21 runs in his past 17 starts, counting the postseason -- which computes to a 1.65 ERA.

So the challenge for the Cardinals has nothing to do with the hardware those two men won once upon a time. It has to do with how tough and talented they are.

"Clayton Kershaw's got the best stuff I've ever seen," said Dodgers utility whiz Skip Schumaker, whose perspective on this series, as a longtime former Cardinal, is especially on target. "And he's as mentally prepared and physically prepared as any pitcher I've ever seen -- and he's 25 years old.

"It's unbelievable to me, to see a guy who's this talented and mature, at such a young age. He has a great future. This kid could be one of the best ever."

Meanwhile, Schumaker admits he once "hated" Greinke, back when he was a Cardinal and Greinke was a Brewer, and Greinke had some uncomplimentary things to say about Carpenter on the eve of the 2011 postseason. But now, Schumaker said, "I've gotten to love Zack. I'm glad I got to play with him. Now that I know him, I know he's just honest. He can't tell a lie.

[+] EnlargeClayton Kershaw
Kevin C. Cox/Getty ImagesKershaw allowed only one run in 13 innings against the Braves in the NLDS.

"I could ask him to give a scouting report on me, and he'll tell me how bad I am -- and he's serious. He's not joking. But that's Zack. You ask him a question, he's not going to sugarcoat it."

It's the Dodgers' rotation that makes them the favorite in this series. But Schumaker spent enough years on the Cardinals to know it would be a really bad idea for the Dodgers to underestimate the guys the home team will run out there over the next two games.

"You can talk about how young those guys are if you want, but what you're forgetting is that Yadier Molina makes their staff," Schumaker said. "Ask any one of those pitchers what Yadi brings to the table. They'll tell you he makes them comfortable when they're out there. Yadi's scouting and preparation for these games are the best I've ever seen. So whatever [signs] he puts down, I don't think they'll be shaking too much.

"So our pitching staff might be more veteran, and we obviously have a great staff. But those guys' arms are electric. And they've got Adam Wainwright and Chris Carpenter helping them out. So that's a good combination. That's why they are who they are."

But Kelly and Wacha might not be the only phenoms the Cardinals run out there in this NLCS. While their manager, Mike Matheny, declined to name his starter for Game 4, there were indications the Cardinals were leaning toward starting rookie Shelby Miller, who just turned 23 on Thursday, instead of Lance Lynn.

If that happens, the Cardinals would become just the fifth team in the wild-card era to start three pitchers, 25 or younger, in the same postseason series, according to Elias. The others: the 2003 Marlins, the 2008 Rays and both the 2012 and 2013 A's. And how'd that turn out?

Those Marlins won the World Series. Those Rays reached the World Series. And both of those A's teams took the heavily favored Tigers to a fifth game in the ALDS.

And now there are these Cardinals, a team that has won five of the six postseason series it has played over the past three years -- and fully expects to win this one, no matter how accomplished the starters on the other side may be.

"We feel like, with the arms we have and the lineup we have, we feel good about our chances against anybody," said Descalso, "no matter who we're facing."

Jayson Stark | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com

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