Thursday, October 12, 2017

NLDS: The Dodgers Sweep the Snakes

By Jeff Kallman

Psychologically speaking, when you get Sandy Koufax's endorsement for a trip to the World Series it's gilt-edged insurance. Speaking in baseball, alas, the Dodgers' more than impressive sweep of the Diamondbacks out of their National League division series was just step one.

The Dodgers await the net results of the Nationals-Cubs division series. Which of them proves the Dodgers' League Championship Series opponent didn't exactly seem to faze Koufax as he stood outside the Chase Field visitors' clubhouse while the Dodgers partied heartily enough after Monday's 3-1 win.

"It's great to be around them, it's really a good bunch of guys," said the Hall of Famer who shone in four World Series with the Dodgers during his own career. "They're good players, and they're good people, and it's kind of fun to be here. I'm happy for them, and have more wins and everything is good.

"I'll be be back Oct. 24," Koufax continued, referring to the start of the World Series. "I really believe they're going to get there. Why not? This is a very impressive team."

Yes, they are. When your number three starter turns in the most impressive pitching performance of any starter in your division series, that's impressive as hell.

When you jump the Diamondbacks' starters for eleven runs in ten and a third innings' work, that's impressive, even if you knew in your heart that going for broke in their wild card game put the Snakes at a slight pitching disadvantage.

They had to give the wild card ball to Zack Greinke. They had to turn to Robbie Ray during the game and just about drain their bullpen to beat the Rockies. Except that it meant neither Greinke nor Ray would be available to open the set. And it meant the Dodgers out-hitting Clayton Kershaw's shaky Game 1 start to hand him his first postseason win at home, anyway.

It also meant backup Dodger catcher Austin Barnes reaching base three times in Game 2 and having the night's biggest blow, a fifth-inning two-run double, part of the lineup slot number 6-7-8 trio including Logan Forsythe and Yasiel (The Wild Horse) Puig reaching base nine times between them.

That's a big way to turn an early 2-0 deficit into a 7-2 lead by the fifth. And that isn't factoring that his leadoff bomb in the sixth put paid to Greinke's evening and season.

It meant Game 3 putting manager Dave Roberts' best instincts on full display — lifting Yu Darvish at the split second Darvish went from cruise control to hitting the wild skid after he conked Diamondbacks pinch hitter Christian Walker on the bill of the batting helmet to open the sixth.

Which meant Roberts bringing in Tony Cingrani, who compelled an inning-ending double play. "We didn't want to give them any chances," said Darvish, who struck out eight and walked only one until then. "If I was the manager, I would do the same thing."

Which meant Roberts going to Brandon Morrow, who sliced and diced the Diamondbacks before Kenta Maeda (he of 25 regular season starts) pureed them and closer Kenley Jansen — whose five-out save in Game 2 was nothing short of virtuoso — put them in the refrigerator for the season with a spotless ninth.

Having five days off before the NLCS should do the bullpen the biggest favour, according to Kershaw. "I think that'll be great," he said, before adding the starters will have to "figure out some kind of routine" over those days. They'll give Roberts the luxury of going with his customary plan pending something spotted among either the Cubs' or the Nats' tendencies.

Roberts almost couldn't care less who the Dodgers face. "Both clubs are very good, very talented," he said. "So we're going to have our hands full."

They didn't exactly have their hands full with their former marksman Greinke in Game 3. He hadn't gone past the fourth in his previous three starts. The Dodgers weren't exactly feeling nostalgic for their old mate, either. They put the cleat right on his throat at the beginning, when Chris Taylor wrung a full count before ripping a game-opening double.

That at-bat was almost a microcosm of how the Dodgers got through the set. They might have lost the season series to the Snakes but they figured out the way to get to them was to wear the Arizona pitching down with grinding, extended at-bats, until they got what they wanted. Greinke could only admire that kind of attack plan.

"Going through that first time through the order," he said in the clubhouse of the vanquished, "I don't think they swung at one pitch out of the zone. They're really tough to beat when they're not chasing anything or anything close."

Are you listening, Cubs and Nationals?

Cody Bellinger, the Dodgers' Rookie of the Year lock, came out big in Game 3. He cashed in Taylor in the first with a single, blasted his first postseason homer to make it a 2-0 lead in the fifth (becoming the youngest Dodger ever to hit one out in the postseason), ending a 1-for-12 series slump while he was at it, and nearly scrambled his insides falling over the rail into the Dodgers' dugout catching Jeff Mathis's pop foul to end the bottom of that inning.

He also almost dropped into Roberts' lap. "I should have been a little quicker to save him," Roberts said, "but that was a heckuva play."

And it was too cruelly appropriate that Jansen should dispatch Paul Goldschmidt with a criminal of a cutter to end the game. Other than his two-run bomb in Game 2, Arizona's perennial MVP candidate was kept in check by the Dodgers. He went 1-for-11 with one walk and three strikeouts.

The Diamondbacks' long ball power was wasted in the set. Hitting four solo shots off Kershaw in Game 1 — including the pair that chased Kershaw during his usual postseason bugaboo inning, the seventh — didn't stop the Dodgers from winning. They hit seven over the fences all series long and it didn't help. They had only one extra base hit otherwise all series long. They hit an anemic .189 to the Dodgers' .298. They pitched to a 6.48 team ERA to the Dodgers' 3.33 for the set.

Everyone who thought the Diamondbacks would manhandle the Dodgers after winning the final six regular season games between the two rivals had to think again. Hard.

The Cubs or the Nats?

The good news for the Dodgers: the Cubs had trouble scoring on them during the regular season, and only the Cubs were better at working out walks than the Dodgers. Not to mention that Nats bombardier Bryce Harper hasn't had a lot of success against them.

The bad news: if it's the Nats, the Dodgers face tougher pitching even if they can match Kershaw to Max Scherzer and Darvish to Stephen Strasburg. Get past one of those two, though, and the Dodgers have the advantage, considering a recently gassed Gio Gonzalez versus an Alex Wood who was the Dodgers' fourth starter but still made an All-Star team and rolled a 2.72 ERA.

Tough choices. the Dodgers have one day to think about either and four more days to think about today's winner in Wrigley Field. They'll take either one, of course. But it won't be as simple to win their 23rd pennant as Sandy Koufax thinks, even if it's lovely to have that kind of endorsement going forward.

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