The Los Angeles Dodgers now find themselves in serious trouble.
Going into the series, the idea was to neutralize the Cardinals' home-field advantage by starting their best two pitchers, Clayton Kershaw and Zack Greinke, in the first two games of the series, hopefully earning at least a split, then taking a game or two behind Hyun-Jin Ryu and Ricky Nolasco at home. If everything went well, they'd have the luxury of starting one of their aces in Game 5, to head off a return to St. Louis and rest up before the World Series.
Things have gone the opposite of well. The pitching did its job, with the Dodgers staff surrendering only four runs in the first two games in the series -- but unfortunately, when the offense only scores two runs in those same two games, you're not likely to win them. Dodgers hitters repeatedly let Joe Kelly and the Cardinals bullpen off the hook with men on base in the first game, and then they were shut down by rookie Michael Wacha in the second.
Thanks to a Kelly hit-by-pitch and then further aggravation on a jumping catch moments later, Dodgers shortstop and lineup pillar Hanley Ramirez missed the second game with sore ribs, and though x-rays on the injury came back negative, his status for Game 3 is still very much up in the air. Meanwhile, Andre Ethier, played centerfield for much of the first game -- and whose bat is a clear asset against an entirely right-handed St. Louis rotation -- also sat out Game 2 with general soreness. Their replacements, Nick Punto and Skip Schumaker, offer little more at the plate than experience, though Punto at least is a step up from Ramirez defensively.
The remaining premium hitters in the Dodgers lineup, Yasiel Puig and Adrian Gonzalez, have been atrocious so far in the series, going a combined 1-for-15 with a single and two walks (all Gonzalez), including 6 strikeouts in Game 2. The Dodgers need either both of those men to revert to their previous form immediately, or for someone unexpected like Juan Uribe or Mark Ellis to step up and go on a tear -- or perhaps both -- if they don't want the St. Louis Cardinals to eliminate them at home.
The problem, of course, is that the Cardinals are now moving back to the top of their rotation, starting Adam Wainwright in Game 3. There's a danger in automatically marking down a start by a great pitcher as a win -- after all, if that were the case, then it the Dodgers would be up 2-0 in the series instead of the Cardinals -- but it would be just as foolish not to recognize that Wainwright gives St. Louis a great opportunity to jump to 3-0 in the series.
The only bright spot for L.A. so far has been manager Mike Matheny's deplorable handling of stellar young pitcher Shelby Miller, refusing both to use him in the rotation and to use him in any sort of situation with leverage out of the pen. Miller is a better starter than Kelly and Lance Lynn on merit, but he will remain in the bullpen while Lynn makes the Game 4 start, despite having been used as a reliever in the series already. Some pitchers are great enough and reliable enough that this isn't a problem; Lance Lynn hasn't proved he's one of them. Lynn does have experience as a swing man, so that at least should be helpful, but it also strengthens the argument for Miller in the rotation and Lynn in the pen. As it is, either Miller has been nursing some kind of injury this postseason (in which case he should be off the roster), or Matheny refuses to trust him due to his inexperience or innings pitched (and is willing to hand the ball to Wacha instead). Whatever the reason, even with Wainwright starting in Los Angeles, the Dodgers aren't completely out of it yet.
Of course, even if the Dodgers score runs, it might not matter once playoff-dominating Carlos Beltran gets a hold of Nolasco, Ryu and the Dodgers pen. As anyone paying attention to baseball media has heard, perhaps to the point of exhaustion over the last few days, Beltran is the best hitter in postseason history, and while he was able to average only a .708 OPS off of Zack Greinke and Clayton Kershaw in the first two games (doing all his damage against Greinke and practically winning Game 1 of the series by himself), none of the pitchers he'll face the rest of the way from Los Angeles stack up to their caliber. If he does see the top Dodgers pitchers again, they'll likely be pitching on short rest. And Beltran isn't even the best hitter in a Cardinals lineup that includes Yadier Molina, Matt Carpenter and Matt Holliday.
The Dodgers stacked those first two games in St. Louis as much to their advantage as they could -- their two best starters against two young, untested, Cardinals right-handers. They couldn't jump on that advantage, and now the only thing between them and going down 3-0 is the back of their rotation and a depleted lineup at home against Adam Wainwright. It's certainly looking like the Cardinals are on their way back to another World Series -- but this is baseball, and Los Angeles has no intention of getting swept out of the playoffs at home. If they can pull off a win against Wainwright, and if they can take care of business against Lynn, then the series is even again -- and who knows what will happen then.