Commentary

Zack Greinke lives up to the moment

And with Clayton Kershaw and Hyun-Jin Ryu next in line, Dodgers gotta love it

Updated: October 17, 2013, 12:42 AM ET
By Jayson Stark | ESPN.com

LOS ANGELES -- Days ago, even when much of America was predicting their imminent doom, the Los Angeles Dodgers had a plan.

Greinke … Kershaw … Ryu.

[+] EnlargeZack Greinke
Jayne Kamin-Oncea/USA TODAY SportsThe Dodgers needed Zack Greinke to give them a chance, and he delivered.

"All we have to do," said Jerry Hairston Jr., after the Dodgers fell behind, two games to zero, in this National League Championship Series, "is get the ball back in the hands of our aces."

Greinke … Kershaw … Ryu.

And even Wednesday morning, in the locker room of a team that was down three games to one -- meaning it was out of postseason games it could afford to lose -- the Dodgers looked into the future and liked what they saw.

Greinke … Kershaw … Ryu.

"I actually said before the game today," said Skip Schumaker, after his team's season-saving 6-4 win in Game 5 of the National League Championship Series, "if they're going to beat us, they've got to go through our horses. And I felt pretty good about that."

So little did those unsuspecting St. Louis Cardinals know, as they were taking that three-games-to-one lead and reaching the precipice of a trip back to the World Series, that the Dodgers had them right where they wanted them.

"Well," Schumaker laughed, "I wouldn't say that. You never want to be down, 3-1. But if you are …"

Greinke … Kershaw … Ryu.

Remember those names. And then remember this: Some people look at the 2013 Dodgers and just count dollar bills. What they actually should be counting up, though, are aces.

Put aside the Dodgers' glitter and glitz for just a moment. Put aside the antics of Yasiel Puig, not to mention Adrian Gonzalez's newfound affection for the mouse-ears sign. And remind yourself of this:

What the Dodgers are really built to do is pitch. So they may have found themselves having to win three monster October baseball games in a row if they wanted to live to see another day of Puig-a-mania. But look at the guys they had lined up to pitch Games 5, 6 and 7:

Greinke … Kershaw … Ryu.

If that was the plan. It was an excellent plan, indeed.

Over Games 1, 2 and 3 of this series, the Cardinals hit exactly .232 against those three men -- Zack Greinke, Clayton Kershaw, Hyun-Jin Ryu. That works out to 9-for-68 … nine hits in 21 innings … with 19 strikeouts … and only three runs scored, just two of them earned.

So with their three best starters lined up to pitch three gigantic climination games, the Dodgers always looked at themselves as a team with a chance. And after the biggest postseason win of Greinke's life on Wednesday, that chance is now bigger and better than ever, with The Best Pitcher in Baseball (Kershaw) set to start Game 6, back in St. Louis on Friday.

[+] EnlargeDon Mattingly
Harry How/Getty ImagesDodgers skipper Don Mattingly can breathe easy after Greinke helped send the series back to St. Louis.

"We're still climbing that mountain," catcher A.J. Ellis said. "But we don't have as far to go today as we had 24 hours ago. So today was a big day."

Sooner or later, in one of these league championship series, you had to figure somebody's Cy Young might actually win a game.

"And hopefully," chuckled the Dodgers' Mark Ellis, "it was going to be one of our Cy Youngs."

Well, whaddaya know. Along came Greinke to do what Justin Verlander, Max Scherzer, Kershaw and (come to think of it) Greinke himself couldn't do in their first spin through the LCS rotation -- win a must-win October baseball game.

If you just checked out Greinke's line at the end of his day -- seven innings, six hits, two earned runs (his 15th straight start allowing two earned runs or fewer) -- you'd think it was pretty much another day in the life and times of Zack Greinke. But if you watched it all unfold, you know the truth.

He almost buried his team before it ever got a chance to swing the bat.

Three batters into his afternoon, Greinke found himself staring at every pitcher's worst nightmare: Bases loaded. Nobody out. In the first inning. On a couple of looping singles, sandwiched around a four-pitch walk to Carlos Beltran.

Asked to describe the look on Greinke's face as he stared in at hulking Cardinals cleanup hitter Matt Adams at that fateful moment, Greinke's catcher had to laugh.

"It was kind of more like bewilderment than anything else," A.J. Ellis said. "Like, 'How'd the bases get loaded?' … But he kind of got rid of that quickly."

Hey, good thing. Because he had quite a mess on his hands. But Greinke went right to work to try to get a double-play ball from the lumbering Adams, figuring, Ellis said, "that with the bases loaded and nobody out, you're just trying to limit the damage to one run."

Instead, Greinke got to 2-and-2, against a fellow who had whiffed eight times in 15 at-bats in the series, so he decided it was time to "go for a strikeout" there. And he got it -- with his best put-away curveball. So that was one out.

Next up, though, was the guy who has been the Cardinals' most consistent hitter in this series, Yadier Molina.

"So now," Ellis said, "you're thinking 'double play' with Yadi up, which is no easy task."

Well, actually, it's easier than he was letting on. Molina has grounded into 159 double plays in his career, the 23rd-most of all active players. And again, Greinke was able to snap off a fire-breathing breaking ball at the knees.

Molina bounced it to third for an inning-ending double play. A humongous zero went up on the board. And the early arrivers in another sellout crowd at Dodger Stadium let loose the kind of roar that was once only reserved in this town for dunks by Kobe.

"Wow," Mark Ellis said. "That was huge. What a huge inning. You know, the first inning can sometimes make or break a game. And obviously, we were going to have to come back and score some runs. But that was a huge feeling -- because you know, when you're on the other side of that, it's a really bad feeling when you don't score any runs there. And it just felt like the momentum shifted."

"That," A.J. Ellis said, "was a game-changer."

Yeah, but that's not all. How rare is it for a pitcher to work himself into water that hot that early in a game and live to become the winning pitcher? You won't believe this one.

According to ESPN's Mark Simon, it was the first time any starting pitcher had filled up the bases against the first three hitters in a postseason game, got out of it without a run being scored and then went on to win the game since -- ta-taaaaa -- Bob Wolcott, of the 1995 Mariners. So there you go.

Greinke's troubles weren't over, though. After the Dodgers got him a 2-0 lead in the second, Greinke gave both runs right back in the third. But then, with runners on first and third, he got Molina to hit into another pivotal, inning-ending double play to keep the game tied. And after that, he was a different guy.

How'd his first 2 1/3 innings go? He allowed seven of the first 13 hitters he faced in this game to reach base. And how'd the rest of his day go? He then allowed none of the final 13 hitters he faced to reach base. That'll work.

"For Zack to be at 61 pitches after three innings, and then find a way to give us four more," said his catcher, "that was amazing."

But more important, it did what great pitching, and great pitchers, always do: open the door for their lineup to have some fun. Which this lineup -- last seen hitting a robust .223, with zero homers and .589 OPS going into the game -- finally did.

After hitting no home runs in its first 151 at-bats in this series, the Dodgers then erupted, naturally, for four homers in their next 19 at-bats. Heck, of course they did. It was just the third four-homer game in the Dodgers' 182-game postseason history.

Carl Crawford, who hit six homers all season, mashed his fourth of the postseason. That, naturally, is more than any other hitter in these playoffs. A.J. Ellis lofted his first since Sept. 27. And Gonzalez, who had driven in one run all series, pounded two majestic long balls -- including a 450-foot space shuttle in the fifth inning that carried nearly to the back of the right-center-field pavilion and put the Dodgers ahead in this game to stay.

[+] EnlargeClayton Kershaw
Jeff Curry/USA TODAY SportsIt's now up to Clayton Kershaw to exploit the Cardinals' struggles at the plate, especially against lefties.

According to ESPN's Home Run Tracker, it was the longest home run hit in Dodger Stadium this year -- meaning it was even 27 feet longer than Matt Holliday's much-talked-about towering shot to the back of the Dodgers' bullpen the night before.

That would come as a shock to eyewitnesses who saw both of them. But Dodgers reliever Chris Withrow, who was stretching in that bullpen when Holliday's bomb exploded, cast his vote for Gonzalez's homer.

"When the ball comes off his bat, it's just got a different backspin that he puts on it," Withrow said. "He's just got perfect control, perfect backspin, and the ball carries extremely well. … But I've got to admit, I'd always rather watch our guys hit a home run. So I'm going to side with Adrian on that one."

As it turned out, though, it wasn't the length of that home run that became the hot topic of the day. It was Gonzalez flashing his favorite mouse-ears sign on the way back to the dugout -- in response, as even he confessed later, to Adam Wainwright's criticism of his "mickey-mouse" gestures out at second base in Game 3.

"I was just having fun with the comment that was made earlier," Gonzalez said afterward. "Nothing against them or anything. It was just to have fun."

But he soon found himself being asked seven different questions about the mouse ears in an especially enjoyable trip to the interview room, whereupon he finally announced: "I'm going to retire them so they're not talked about once again."

Well, good luck on that -- because it was clear the Cardinals didn't seem to think this was in as much rollicking fun as Gonzalez did.

And their reaction forced Gonzalez's teammates to do their best to rise to the defense of him and his trusty mouse ears. Mickey, Minnie, Goofy and Pluto would have been proud.

"Look, you don't want to overdo it. I get it," Schumaker said. "But you're excited to play in these games. So as long as you're not doing it toward the other side, it's not really a big deal. I mean, they get a big hit and they do some stuff toward their dugout. When they get a big strikeout, they're pumping toward the dugout. So it's the same thing. To me, if you [gesture] toward the other dugout, that's when there's an issue.

"We're not doing anything toward them. They're not doing anything toward us. It's just an exciting series. It's an emotional series. They're one win away. We're two wins away from the World Series. So it's an exciting time for everybody."

Yes, sir. And it's getting more exciting by the minute.

You'll no doubt spend the next 48 hours reading about who's showing up whom, and about who has the momentum now -- with the Cardinals heading home and the Dodgers riding the wave of a win that kept their hearts pumping.

But remember, if the Dodgers like how they had their pitching lined up before this game, they like it even better with The Best Pitcher in Baseball ready to rock in Game 6. And who can blame them?

"When you've got Clayton Kershaw going for you in a game like this," Schumaker said, "now that's momentum."

Jayson Stark | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com

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