ST. LOUIS -- Behind every formidable starting rotation lies an effective bullpen.
This is one of baseball's basic truths that the Dodgers almost surely will reinforce if they complete their comeback against the Cardinals in the National League Championship Series.
Trailing in the series, 3-2, the Dodgers have the utmost confidence in Game 6 starter Clayton Kershaw and, if they win that contest Friday night (5:30 p.m. PT on TBS), Hyun-Jin Ryu in Game 7 on Saturday. The pair combined to allow zero earned runs and five hits spanning 13 innings in their first starts of this series.
Ultimately, however, the relief corps is bound to make its impact. Bullpens inevitably do during the postseason.
Ask Brian Wilson. The bearded right-hander played a key role in bringing the Giants their 2010 World Series title with a near-perfect postseason performance. He allowed no earned runs and struck out 16 in 11 2/3 innings while recording six saves in 10 appearances. Wilson has maintained his October excellence for the Dodgers, pitching six shutout innings in this postseason.
To Wilson, stopping opponents isn't just a goal. It's an obligation.
"That's part of our game, to score first, and then let everyone do their job and pass the buck," said Wilson, who the Dodgers signed as a free agent on July 30 after he overcame his second Tommy John surgery.
Los Angeles' bullpen did its job superbly in the regular season, limiting opponents to an NL-low .208 batting average and recording a 2.76 ERA after the All-Star break. But its development as a unit was gradual.
Fear the Beard
|1.||J. Rocker||1998-2001||20||20 2/3|
|3.||B. Wilson||2010-13||16||17 2/3|
|5.||D. Cook||1996-2000||19||16 1/3|
|6.||D. Mails||1920||2||15 2/3|
Brandon League opened the season as the team's closer and converted 14 of his first 18 save opportunities, which encompassed a stretch of 26 appearances. But his 5.54 ERA and .308 opponents' batting average in that span reflected his vulnerability.
Kenley Jansen provided a significant upgrade upon assuming the closer's role in June. Late that month, he converted four consecutive save chances, then reeled off 21 saves in 22 opportunities from July 3 to the end of the season. The imposing 6-foot-5, 260-pound right-hander received an indoctrination to closing last year, when he saved 25 games. His performance this season solidified his closer's mindset.
"Whenever I have that ball in my hand," Jansen said, "I can control the situation."
The remainder of the bullpen gelled around Jansen. Left-hander J.P. Howell, who has surrendered one run over 5 1/3 innings in six postseason appearances, posted a career-best 2.03 ERA and held opponents to a .193 batting average in the regular season. Another lefty, rookie Paco Rodriguez, emerged as one of the league's top relievers. Rodriguez, who's not on the NLCS roster, ranked among the league leaders in relief ERA (2.32), opponents' batting average (.164), WHIP (0.90) and appearances (76). He allowed only 14 of 69 inherited runners to score and limited left-handed batters to a .131 average.
Wilson's arrival truly solidified the bullpen. The three-time All-Star provided an essential complement by becoming the eighth-inning bridge to Jansen. Wilson was unscored upon in 17 of 18 regular-season outings and allowed one run in 13 2/3 innings (0.66 ERA).
"He came basically saying, 'I want to get outs for you. I want to be a part of this,'" Dodgers manager Don Mattingly said. "Then, as we moved forward, he's pretty much been consistently good every time out. He pretty much looks like the same guy. In San Francisco, he was hitting 100 [mph] at times. Here we've seen a little different style, but we also see him clip 96 a few times. When he wants it, it's there."
Wilson's 17 2/3 scoreless postseason innings to open his career is the Major Leagues' third-longest streak, eclipsed only by John Rocker (20 2/3 innings) and Joe Niekro (20).
If Wilson adds to that figure, it'll likely mean bad news for the Cardinals.