Sports

Baseball Playoff Preview: Dodgers call Wolf in opener

The St. Louis Cardinals have a couple of Cy Young Award candidates in Chris Carpenter and Adam Wainwright. The Philadelphia Phillies have Cliff Lee and Cole Hamels, the New York Yankees have CC Sabathia, the Boston Red Sox have Jon Lester and Josh Beckett and the Angels have Scott Kazmir.

The Dodgers?

None of their pitchers won 13 games. Their only 12-game winner, Chad Billingsley, earned his last victory seven weeks ago.

Starting for them in tonight’s Game 1 of the National League Division Series against the St. Louis Cardinals is Randy Wolf, a crafty 33-year-old left-hander who has never pitched in the postseason and, by his own admission, doesn’t have “ace stuff.” In Game 2, the Dodgers will hand the ball to Clayton Kershaw, a 21-year-old kid with 13 career victories.

So what matters more? That the Dodgers might be the only team in the playoffs without a bona fide ace? Or that their pitching staff posted a 3.41 earned-run average that was the best in the majors?

Conventional baseball wisdom dictates that pitching — and starting pitching in particular — wins championships.But consider this: Sabathia has a career postseason ERA of 7.92.

And this: the team down the Interstate 5 won a World Series in 2002 without a so-called ace.

“It can happen,” Angels manager Mike Scioscia said. “Our bullpen really evolved, gave us ability to shorten the game, which we did. If guys got to a certain point of a game, all of a sudden, depth of our bullpen came into play in the fifth or sixth inning, not the seventh and eighth innings. If your bullpen is strong enough and you have enough depth, you can still win without a dominant starter.”

The strategy was simple: Have the starter go five or six innings and put the game in the hands of a bullpen that included Troy Percival, Francisco Rodriguez, Brendan Donnelly, Scot Shields, Ben Weber and Scott Schoeneweis.

Angels starters averaged barely over five innings per game in their run to the World Series.

The Dodgers think they have the kind of bullpen that could let them shorten the game in a similar way.

“We’ve had the best bullpen in the league all year,” Kershaw said. “It’s going to be one of our keys to winning the series.”

Especially if Kershaw runs up his pitch count as he has several times this season.

Game 3 starter Vicente Padilla has averaged 51⁄3 innings per start with the Dodgers. The last time Game 4 starter Chad Billingsley pitched more than six innings in a game was July 5.

But there’s a reason why the Dodgers are comfortable.

Jonathan Broxton was an All-Star in his first full season as the Dodgers’ closer, as he saved 36 games and posted a 2.61 ERA.

Midseason addition George Sherrill, the former closer of the Baltimore Orioles, had a 0.65 ERA in 272⁄3 innings with the Dodgers.

Ramon Troncoso (2.72 ERA) tied Broxton for the team lead in appearances with 73. Previously unknown Ronald Belisario posted a 2.04 ERA.

Jeff Weaver, who will be used as a situational right-hander in this series, was 6-4 with a 3.65 ERA as a long reliever and spot starter. Left-hander Hong-Chih Kuo battled health and control problems but finished the regular season with 32 strikeouts in 30 innings.

The Dodgers’ bullpen ranked first in the majors in ERA (3.14) and third in innings pitched (553).

“He gets you ready for it in the regular season,” Sherrill said of manager Joe Torre.

The regular-season workload could be a concern.

In the previous 12 seasons, only the 2007 Colorado Rockies had a bullpen that ranked in the top 10 in the majors in innings pitched during the regular season and went on to play in the World Series.

Torre has won before with this kind of formula. His 1996 New York Yankees, who won the World Series, ranked sixth in innings pitched.

The Cardinals’ bullpen probably won’t be as involved.

Carpenter averaged 6.88 innings per start and Wainwright 6.85.

The Cardinals won the four games Carpenter and Wainwright started against the Dodgers this season.

Carpenter was 2-0 against the Dodgers and held them to three earned runs and 15 innings. Wainwright was 1-0 with two earned runs in 15 innings.

Game 3 starter Joel Pineiro held the Dodgers to one run in eight innings July 29.

But the Dodgers aren’t conceding that they’re at a disadvantage.

Told by a reporter that on paper, the pitching matchups looked heavily slanted in the Cardinals’ favor, Kershaw interjected, “According to you.”

“I probably can’t think they’re better pitchers than me,” said Kershaw, whose participation in last season’s playoffs was limited to two innings of relief. “They had great seasons. But Game 1 is Game 1. Their seasons don’t matter after that. They lose one game, they lose one game.”

“We didn’t win the most games in the National League for no reason,” he said. “We’re a pretty good team ourselves.”

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