Up first will be a Cardinals team that ousted Los Angeles from the postseason last year, albeit in the NL Championship Series, not the best-of-five NL Division Series. Game 1 will be Friday (3:30 p.m. PT on FOX Sports 1) at Dodger Stadium. What follows are the three most important elements to an NLDS triumph for the Dodgers:
1. Stay healthy
Naturally, this goes for any team against any team, but maybe the Dodgers more so, because they have a veteran nucleus and often rely on depth. They have their fingers crossed that Hyun-Jin Ryu and Dee Gordon have rebounded in time. In workouts this week, both appeared to be fine. Gordon has recovered quickly from earlier twinges in his right hip. Ryu has done the same after resting a shoulder that tends to tire. Just in case, fourth starter Dan Haren said he will be on standby in Game 3, meaning that Clayton Kershaw can be expected to start Game 4 (if necessary) on short rest, as he did last year in the NLDS. And maybe Hanley Ramirez should wear a flak jacket to the plate before he gets his ribs broken by a pitch, such as happened vs. St. Louis in last year's playoffs. Otherwise, the Dodgers at least enter this series far healthier than in 2013, when they had no Matt Kemp, and Andre Ethier was playing on a broken leg.
2. Set it up
The eighth inning has clearly been a bullpen weakness down the stretch. Brian Wilson has lost his velocity and nibbles around the corners, even though he says he still has 95 mph in him for the postseason. J.P. Howell is no longer as untouchable as he was over the first five months of the season. Manager Don Mattingly has stuck with the pair, but the inexperienced Pedro Baez at least throws hard enough to get away with his mistakes. And Mattingly has hinted that he might be more willing to use closer Kenley Jansen for more than just three outs.
3. Be clutch
Puzzling for a division champ, but the Dodgers were 0-56 in games they trailed after eight innings, 1-53 in games they trailed after seven innings, 2-54 in games they trailed after six innings and 5-13 in extra innings.
Ken Gurnick is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.