Cardinals delivering championship-level pitching
Lack of offense vs. Dodgers overcome by young arms' stellar performances
ST. LOUIS -- The conventional wisdom about the Los Angeles Dodgers being favorites in the 2013 National League Championship Series was built upon three elements:
1. Name recognition.
2. People who are impressed by other people spending a lot of money.
3. A lack of credible information regarding the St. Louis Cardinals. There is, of course, plenty of credible information available regarding the Redbirds, but the people picking against them either didn't have that information or chose to ignore it.
Now, however, we have actual evidence in the form of two baseball games upon which useful judgments can be formed. And what we see is that the Dodgers have used their two best starting pitchers and have lost two games.
There was absolutely nothing wrong with the way Zack Greinke pitched in Game 1 or the way Clayton Kershaw pitched in Game 2. They pitched well enough to win, almost all of the time.
The problem was that the Cardinals' starters, two relative newcomers, Joe Kelly and Michael Wacha, ages 25 and 22 respectively, pitched as well as their Dodgers counterparts. In Game 1, St. Louis' bullpen proved sturdier than the Dodgers' relief corps. In Game 2, the margin of victory in a 1-0 triumph for the Cards was an unearned run.
With the way the Cardinals are pitching in the clutch, they could be favored not only over the Dodgers, but over the 1927 New York Yankees.
Given his recent work, Saturday afternoon's start at Busch Stadium was another day at the office for Wacha. He had given up two hits in his last 16 innings, taking a no-hitter into the ninth and then taking a no-hitter into the eighth.
Here, Wacha once again allowed no runs, but he did give up five hits. On the astounding side of his performance, there was the sixth inning, a 1-0 game when there were runners on second and third with no outs, and then bases loaded with one out. Wacha ended the threat with back-to-back strikeouts of Yasiel Puig and Juan Uribe.
"I was just trying to get locked in with Yadi [Molina] back there," Wacha said. "We took some time between batters, a lot of mound visits, just to make sure we were on the same page. I was pretty pumped up after I got a couple strikeouts there to end the inning and keep our team in the lead."
"It comes down to a young pitcher being put on the big stage in high leverage and making pitches," Cardinals manager Mike Matheny said. "The way this kid has gone about it has been -- it's really hard to describe. I don't want to keep describing it, because I'd like to watch it happen a few more times. But he's going about it the right way, there's no question. Just watching him continue to improve is pretty impressive."
When Wacha left the game in the seventh with two outs and one on, he was serenaded with a sound of appreciation that the term "ovation" does not adequately cover. The standing roar of approval the Cards faithful gave Wacha was the kind of noise that you imagined could have been provoked by an announcement that from this day forward all taxes -- federal, state and local -- would henceforth be abolished.
After Wacha, the Dodgers got exactly nothing against four St. Louis relievers, all in a pressure-packed 1-0 setting. Kevin Siegrist (24), Randy Choate (38), Carlos Martinez (22) and Trevor Rosenthal (23) were untouched. Martinez struck out the two batters he faced in the eighth and then Rosenthal, the newly minted closer, struck out the side in the ninth, throwing fastballs that topped out at 101 mph.
Far from folding under the pressure, the young Cardinals pitchers seem to expand their horizons when pressure appears.
"We've got a great team, so I'm just trying to fit in and do my part," Rosenthal said. "The last couple of days, some really close games. It's just fun to be a part of right now."
The Dodgers could argue that they were far from full strength for this one. Andre Ethier was out again after returning to the lineup for Game 1. Hanley Ramirez was out after being struck in the ribs by a pitch in Game 1. Matt Kemp is already out for the LCS.
But the Cards haven't been at full strength the whole season. They're missing two starting pitchers on the disabled list. They're on their fourth closer. Their leading RBI man, Allen Craig, hasn't played in the postseason.
But the Cardinals don't need excuses, because they brought all this pitching. The Redbirds scored just four runs in the first two games, but that small total yielded two victories because the Dodgers scored only two runs.
The Cards were technically underdogs in both of the first two games of the NLCS, but somebody forgot to tell the St. Louis pitchers. These people are not performing like favorites. They are pitching like champions.
Mike Bauman is a national columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.