Healthy LA swaggers into rematch vs. Cardinals

After falling to St. Louis last year in NLCS, Dodgers ready to turn tables

Healthy LA swaggers into rematch vs. Cardinals

LOS ANGELES -- Tommy Lasorda took the microphone, encircled by the thousands of roaring Dodger Stadium fans who stayed Sunday after the final game of the regular season. The 87-year-old congratulated the Dodgers on their accomplishments this season, on winning the National League West, and he paused for a second to soak in the applause. Then, ever the manager, Lasorda shifted focus to a more pressing matter.

"We've got to bring those Cardinals in here and beat them," Lasorda said. "They deserve it."

At that moment, Lasorda encapsulated the sentiment of an entire fan base -- and perhaps even the Dodgers themselves. Current manager Don Mattingly has called the Cardinals a thorn in their sides, a team that always gives Los Angeles a hard time. They're the team that eliminated the Dodgers a season ago, in the National League Championship Series, and in decimating fashion. 

Cardinals Game 1 starter Joe Kelly hit shortstop Hanley Ramirez -- arguably the team's hottest hitter -- in the first inning and fractured a rib, essentially nullifying him for the remainder of the series. And in the decisive Game 6, the Cardinals shocked the Dodgers by roughing up ace Clayton Kershaw for seven runs on 10 hits, cruising to a 9-0 victory.

  Date   Matchup Highlights
Gm 1 Oct. 3   STL 10, LAD 9 video
Gm 2 Oct. 4   LAD 3, STL 2 video
Gm 3 Oct. 6   STL 3, LAD 1 video
Gm 4 Oct. 7   STL 3, LAD 2 video

"I just remember everything kind of unraveling a bit, and we had been a little surprised because we had Kershaw on the mound," outfielder Carl Crawford said. "You take it all through the offseason and see them go to the World Series. It's something that stays with you all offseason."

For many Dodgers, last year's postseason was a first. But the core of that team is still in place, and there's a renewed confidence to it. 

"I think this team has a lot of swagger," Crawford said. "It's no secret."

Part of that swagger comes from last year's experience. 

"I think people from last year learned a lot about themselves, have grown and know how to handle that pressure of being in the playoffs," outfielder Matt Kemp said. "I've been in the playoffs a couple times, it's intense. It's not something you can just go in and be ready for."

But there's also a confidence that stems, quite simply, from being healthy. The Dodgers limped through the playoffs a year ago. Kemp missed the postseason entirely with left ankle surgery. Andre Ethier was limited by a stress fracture in his left leg. And Ramirez -- who had batted .345 with 20 home runs in 86 games for L.A. last season -- was a shell of his former self after fracturing his rib. Just like that, the Dodgers lost three middle-of-the-order bats. 

That's not the case this year. 

"I don't know about preparation, but we're better," first baseman Adrian Gonzalez said. "Kemp's in the lineup, Carl's in, we've got our whole outfield healthy, we've got Hanley healthy. We basically have our whole team healthy, and it looks like we'll be able to pitch. I think going into it healthy is a big factor."

Kemp is fit and flourishing, winning the National League Player of the Month Award for September after hitting nine home runs and driving in 25 runs. He's solidified the cleanup spot in the order behind Gonzalez, who led the Major Leagues with 116 RBIs. Ramirez, though he's dealt with a laundry list of injuries this season, is apparently healthy going into the postseason.

Those bats fuel a lineup that is considerably deeper than it was a year ago. Second baseman Dee Gordon went from being a pinch-runner last October to being the igniter at the top of the batting order and leading the league in stolen bases. Crawford had a torrid second half, batting .333/.374/.462, and infielder Justin Turner has been a key -- and somewhat of a surprise -- contributor off of the bench, batting a team-leading .340 with a .404 on-base percentage in 288 at-bats. 

"The lineup is definitely deep," Kemp said. "We've got a bunch of guys that do some special things, one through nine. Even our pitching can hit."

And their pitching can pitch, too. Kershaw is the front-runner for the NL Cy Young Award and was 1-0 with a 1.93 ERA in two starts against the Cardinals this year. Zack Greinke is 9-4 with a 3.17 ERA against the Cardinals in his career. And left-hander Hyun-Jin Ryu, who is recovering from left shoulder inflammation but seems poised to return in time, threw seven scoreless innings against the Cardinals last postseason.

"I think both teams are going to know each other pretty well," Mattingly said. "We'll have scouted them, played them a number of times with the same guys. They've played us a number of times with the same guys. To me, the playoffs are going to get down to momentum. Can we get a big hit? Can we get a big pitch?"

At the very least, the Dodgers will have more big hitters and more big pitchers at their disposal.

Michael Lananna is an associate reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.