LOS ANGELES -- The teams were the same, but the results were completely different.
Last October, the St. Louis Cardinals defeated the Los Angeles Dodgers, 4-2, in the National League Championship Series, thus winning a trip to the World Series. This weekend, however, the Dodgers won three out of four against the Cardinals.
The last two games of this series were distinctly one-sided, the Dodgers winning 9-1 on Saturday and 6-0 on Sunday.
But the biggest difference was that three of Los Angeles' four starting pitchers were working at a nearly unhittable level. Against starters Josh Beckett in the first game, Zack Greinke in the third and Clayton Kershaw in the fourth, the Cards -- the leading offense in the league last season -- managed a total of one run. For the four-game series, they totaled four.
Sixty percent of the Redbirds' projected rotation is on the disabled list, but pitching was not the primary problem for the Cardinals here. Their perspective on this was that yes, the Dodgers' pitching was terrific, but that the St. Louis offense was not operating at full capacity. Given another opportunity, like a series against the Dodgers at Busch Stadium immediately after the All-Star break, the Cards believe that their results will be better.
"We're not clicking, producing, whatever word you want to throw with it -- we're not throwing a lot of hits together," Cardinals manager Mike Matheny said. "But you can't deny the fact that not a lot of people are throwing a lot of hits together against [the Dodgers]. So there's no reason to start standing on chairs and screaming at people. But I know our guys are frustrated, no matter who we face, walking out of here with zeros. We just don't think we're that kind of team.
"I think we've got to be pretty honest about how this [Dodgers] pitching staff is going right now. They're throwing the ball well. But so is ours. That doesn't necessarily mean that we can't walk out of here with more wins than losses. But they're throwing the ball well and we didn't stack together the kind of hits that we needed to.
"We expect [more offense] against anybody. We expect that we can score runs. We've scored runs off Kershaw when he was going really good before. We've scored runs off Beckett and Greinke. This was just one of those times. We've got to fight and figure it out.
"When they're on, they're on. It's like our offense -- when we're on, we're on and it doesn't matter who we're hitting against."
One major difference in this series was Kershaw, the Dodgers' ace, twice an NL Cy Young Award winner. In the deciding Game 6 of the 2013 NLCS, Kershaw had been atypically knocked around. The Cardinals got him for seven runs on 10 hits in four innings.
But Sunday, the real Kershaw was once again in evidence, throwing seven shutout innings, striking out 13, giving up just five hits, walking two.
Kershaw, just 11 days past throwing a no-hitter, is on what is, even for him, a roll. His streak of scoreless innings has reached 28. Kershaw was 6-0 in June. In those six starts, he had an ERA of 0.82.
If Kershaw had been hit hard by the Redbirds as he was last autumn, this series likely would have ended in a split. But the way Kershaw pitched Sunday was a much more reasonable expectation. This has a tendency to remind you of the twinned facts that he may be the best pitcher in the game, and he only works for the Dodgers.
When Kershaw left the mound after the top of the seventh, the crowd of 47,739 game him a thunderous standing ovation. These people knew that they were in the presence of greatness.
The Cardinals will avoid seeing this series as an indication that they have fallen behind the Dodgers in the baseball order of things. But the Cards also believe that there is a strong likelihood that they will meet the Dodgers in the postseason again.
"This is a team that, if we are where we want to be at the end of the year, it will have to go through these guys, I think," said Cardinals third baseman Matt Carpenter. "But if you're asking if them winning three out of four is not looking good for us if we meet them in the playoffs, I don't think so."
With Sunday's victory, the Dodgers, who made up 9 1/2 games in the standings in three weeks, moved into a tie for first place in the NL West. The Cards are 6 1/2 games behind the Brewers in the NL Central and in a virtual tie for second place with the Reds.
"Just because we come in here and lose three out of four to the Dodgers at the end of June, that this was the moment that, 'Oh, we're not playing very well.' It's been like that all season," Carpenter said. "We're trying to figure it out and get it going and catch a stride. It just hasn't happened."
A series in late June doesn't define a season. But this one showed clearly what the Dodgers' pitching can deliver, even against the defending NL 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.Less