To understand why the Los Angeles Dodgers are skittish despite their healthy lead in the National League West, consider the first two games of a series against St. Louis.
The Dodgers took on a true ace in right-hander Chris Carpenter and lost. The Dodgers took on a budding ace in right-hander Adam Wainwright and lost. Carpenter and Wainwright combined to allow one run in 15 innings.
The losses will have no impact on the Dodgers’ march to the playoffs.
The losses tell why the Dodgers could be short-timers when the playoffs begin.
The Dodgers have a good club for the long haul of a 162-game season and have benefited from playing in a soft division. They went into Wednesday’s game at Busch Stadium at 30-12 against the NL West and 32-26 in all other games.
The Dodgers are not set up well for the playoffs.
The club lacks the starting pitcher(s) that can win against the top-shelf starters such as Carpenter and Wainwright, who both rank among the NL’s top eight in ERA.
A Dodgers-Cardinals series is a real possibility for the NL playoffs. In that matchup, the Cardinals would hold a huge advantage because Carpenter and Wainwright outweigh any pair from the Dodgers’ current rotation.
And in a third game, the Cardinals could trot out right-hander Joel Pineiro, who ranks ninth in the NL for ERA at 2.95.
In one breath, Dodgers outfielder Manny Ramirez said it is too early to talk about the playoffs. In the next breath, Ramirez said “you see a lot of good pitchers in the playoffs.”
That explains why general manager Ned Colletti is pushing for a top-shelf starting pitcher before Friday’s waiver-driven trade deadline. (Another arm for the fraying bullpen would help, too.)
What the Dodgers have now in the rotation — kids and questions — will not do come October. The manager understands that.
“I don’t think that it’s any secret that we’ve been inquiring about how we can make this ballclub better,” manager Joe Torre said. “Pitching is always the priority. Pitching controls everything.”
In their current form, the Dodgers lack a starting pitcher who can go 4-0 in a postseason, as Philadelphia left-hander Cole Hamels did last season and Boston right-hander Josh Beckett did in 2007.
The Dodgers consider themselves fortunate to get a starter through the sixth inning. Their starters have averaged only 5.62 innings per game, the second-lowest total in the NL.
That is no way to go into a postseason.
Torre has been on both sides of the equation. He understands what that one bell-cow pitcher can do for a team in the postseason. With the New York Yankees, he had that pitcher in right-handers Roger Clemens, David Cone and Orlando “El Duque” Hernandez.
“From knowing that you’re going to have a Chris Carpenter pitching against you and how that makes you feel,” Torre said. “And when you have that guy pitching for you, I know that puts the other team at a bit of a disadvantage. I know how that starter can change the personality of a game.”
The Dodgers’ top two starters are right-hander Chad Billingsley and left-hander Clayton Kershaw. It would be an act of faith to send them out for the first two games of a postseason series.
Kershaw is 21 years old and has all of two innings of postseason experience. He has won his last five decisions but is prone to walks and inflated pitch counts that force him out of games early. He goes into Wednesday night’s scheduled start against St. Louis averaging 5.03 walks per nine innings.
Billingsley leads the rotation with 10 wins but has been erratic, with one win in his last nine starts. On Tuesday, Billingsley shut out the Cardinals for five innings but allowed six runs without getting out of the sixth. It marked the third time in Billingsley’s last four starts that he could not go six innings.
Billingsley also carries the mental scars of last season’s poor performance against Philadelphia in the NL Championship Series.
He lost twice, allowing 10 earned runs in five innings. Billingsley also failed to respond in kind after Philadelphia’s Brett Myers brushed back Ramirez in the second game of the series.
At the start of spring training, Torre met with Billingsley to discuss the fallout form his playoff failures. As the New York Yankees manager, Torre had a similar talk with closer Mariano Rivera in spring training back in 1998. Rivera recovered from his playoff failure of the previous season to become a Hall-of-Fame-worthy closer. Billingsley is still proving his mettle.
“The thing I liked about the conversation was Chad didn’t pretend he wasn’t thinking about what had happened,” Torre said. “We addressed it right away. I thought that was very positive.”
Of the other three starters, only right-hander Jason Schmidt has postseason experience, but he is a shell of his former self. After missing nearly two years because of shoulder problems, Schmidt has made two unimpressive starts as he tries to remake himself into a finesse pitcher.
Right-hander Hiroki Kuroda, the opening-day starter, has also been ineffective since missing nearly two months because of a strained oblique muscle. He is 2-5 with a 4.85 ERA for 10 starts since returning.
That leaves left-hander Randy Wolf, who has never pitched an inning in the postseason. Wolf is the club’s hard-luck pitcher of the season. The Dodgers have had seven blown saves behind Wolf.
It’s a stretch to count on the bad-karma pitcher in the playoffs. It’s a stretch for the Dodgers to count on any of their starting pitchers in the playoffs.