Dodgers looking uncomfortably familiar vs. Cards
Los Angeles resembling team that scuffled early in regular season
ST. LOUIS -- Vin Scully isn't a homer, rooting for his team at all costs. He's not an alarmist, either. You don't survive 64 seasons behind the mike by taking daily rides on an emotional roller coaster.
Scully is a straight shooter who is as honest as he is optimistic, which is among the 1,000 reasons he's revered by Dodgers fans and almost everyone in baseball. It's also why the words he said Saturday carry such weight.
He told his listeners that he almost hated to say it but the Dodgers are looking like they did in May, when no one knew if they'd get their act together. That's bad. But after a 1-0 loss to the Cardinals in Game 2 of the National League Championship Series, the reality is the urgency is actually worse than it was in May, at least in terms of their potential shelf life.
Adam Wainwright in Game 3, and they can't play the Yasiel Puig card. They did that in early June and, along with a healthy Hanley Ramirez, the kid no one got out in Spring Training keyed the 42-8 run that made the Dodgers the NL's most feared team.
He never needed his Superman cape more than he did Saturday. With injuries knocking Ramirez and Andre Ethier out of the lineup, it was the 22-year-old Puig the Dodgers looked to as the cleanup hitter against wunderkind Michael Wacha.
Puig responded by going 0-for-4 with four strikeouts, swinging and missing seven times against Wacha and Trevor Rosenthal, and leaving four runners on base, including three in scoring position. That's how you lose when the soon-to-be-crowned Cy Young winner, Clayton Kershaw, works a combined two-hitter.
A.J. Ellis' uncharacteristic passed ball led to an unearned run in the fifth inning off Kershaw, and the Dodgers were 0-for-6 with runners in scoring position. They're a going-nowhere 1-for-16 in those situations as the NLCS moves to Los Angeles.
"We're just swinging too hard, trying to do too much when runners are in scoring position," said Ramirez, who spent part of his Saturday getting X-rays on the ribs that were damaged by a Joe Kelly fastball in the first inning Friday. "We just have to shorten our swing down. ... We're going to get better, hopefully soon. We're going to learn from these two games."
As Pittsburgh's Neil Walker said about laying off Wainwright's low curveballs during the Division Series, easier said than done.
With Ethier's left ankle forcing him to the X-ray room after Game 1 and Ramirez unable to get his left side loose enough to hit balls off a tee before Game 2, Don Mattingly went with one of those lineups he was cobbling together in April and May, when the Dodgers were 24-32 and in last place in the NL West, 7 1/2 games out. That's when Puig entered.
But the crazily talented Cuban is looking awfully mortal against the Cardinals' high-octane pitching staff. He was 8-for-17 and scored five runs in the Division Series victory over Atlanta but didn't hit a home run. Yadier Molina is pulling the right strings behind the plate to exacerbate Puig's frustration as he looks for his first homer since Sept. 24.
Mattingly praised the Cardinals catcher for "doing a nice job as far as yo-yoing him back and forth and keep him in the rocking chair." He cited Puig's "inexperience" but Adrian Gonzalez, moved from the cleanup spot to third after Ramirez was scratched, said it's not fair to single out Puig.
"You know, I think just like everybody, he swings at bad pitches ... chased pitches when they're out of the zone, just like myself," said Gonzalez. Maybe so, but the veteran first baseman was walked intentionally to get to Puig with one out and runners on second and third after Matt Carpenter's throwing error in the sixth inning. It was Puig who didn't cash in on the game's biggest at-bat.
With Matt Kemp shut down because of a recurring ankle injury and out of sight because of a subsequent shoulder surgery, Mattingly is making it up as he goes in the NLCS. Juan Uribe and Skip Schumaker, who both had more at-bats this season in the No. 7 spot than anywhere else, batted fifth and sixth against Wacha, who is on one of the all-time autumnal rolls.
The Dodgers are 25 games over .500 with Ramirez (58-33) and three games under .500 (37-40) without him.
"It's tough," Kershaw said about playing without Ramirez. "Hanley's been our best player. Every time he's in the lineup he's probably the best guy on the field. ... You can't dwell on it but it definitely doesn't help our chances."
Before Ramirez and Puig joined forces to turn Chavez Ravine into baseball's magical kingdom, the Dodgers were just another underachieving team, like the crosstown Angels or the Hot Stove champion Blue Jays. They looked like that misfiring team the last two days in the NLCS, which is bad news. Equally bad is that the Cardinals have started to play the way they did early in the season, when they were the best team in the National League.
On cue, Gonzalez delivered a message to Dodgers fans before heading out for a flight home.
"We started off this season on a low note and we started this series on a low note," Gonzalez said. "We have the ability to turn it around. Stay with us just like you did during the year and we'll turn it around."
Against Wainwright? Not with Ramirez out of the lineup and Puig trying to hit the ball 600 feet. These Dodgers have known dire straits this season but not like this.
Phil Rogers is a columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.