ST. LOUIS--The Los Angeles Dodgers and St. Louis Cardinals know which tandem of pitchers they want to get the most outs during the National League Championship Series, which begins Friday night at Busch Stadium.
The Dodgers have their co-aces lined up to potentially pitch four times if the best-of-7 series goes the distance. Right-hander Zack Greinke will start Game 1, with left-hander Clayton Kershaw going in Game 2 on Saturday.
The Cardinals have their own dynamic duo. Rookie phenom Michael Wacha will start Game 2 against Kershaw, with Cardinals ace Adam Wainwright ready for Monday's Game 3 in Los Angeles.
But the Dodgers now also have a tandem lined up to potentially get the most important outs in a series that could be decided by one pitch -- closer Kenley Jansen and his new bearded frontman, Brian Wilson.
They need look no farther back than Monday's clinching victory over the Atlanta Braves to be reminded how valuable it is to be able to start closing out games in the eighth inning. Juan Uribe's heroic moment came in the eighth off Braves reliever David Carpenter while the National League's best closer, Craig Kimbrel, stood in the bullpen warming up for a ninth-inning assignment that never came.
"It changes a lot," Dodgers manager Don Mattingly said of having a two-man hammer at the back end of his bullpen. "Basically, it shortens the game by one inning for us from the standpoint of where we're trying to get to. I think we're all pretty confident at this point if we get the ball to Willie in the eighth he's going to get through that inning. It's kind of his inning. We're not trying to mix and match with the lefty-righty thing. With him and Kenley, it just kind of shortens the game a hair.
"It reminds me of some of the Dodgers teams coming out here (as a New York Yankees coach) in '04. It was (Eric) Gagne and (Guillermo) Mota and (Darren) Dreifort. You got to the sixth inning (behind), you felt like the game was over. That's what we'd like to do."
But the Dodgers took a circuitous route to set up this late-game cul-de-sac for opponents. For the first couple months of the season, their bullpen was one of the least reliable in the majors.
When Mattingly bowed to the obvious and moved Brandon League out of the closer's role in favor of Jansen in mid-June, things stabilized. But the setup trio of Ronald Belisario, J.P. Howell and Paco Rodriguez carried a heavy load -- and dropped it occasionally. Only Howell has been reliable since the end of August.
General Manager Ned Colletti went shopping for help at the midseason trade deadline and the best he could find was Carlos Marmol, discarded by the Chicago Cubs. So he took a gamble.
"At that time of year, you take a flier," Colletti said of signing Wilson in mid-August, 15 months removed from his second Tommy John surgery.
"He's 30, 31 years old. We know what he did in the heat of the battle for a handful of years there (as the San Francisco Giants closer). We never doubted what makes him who he is. We just needed to see if the arm would come back and be close to who he was."
Wilson was still struggling to touch 90 mph when the Dodgers activated him in late August. But the numbers on the radar gun have gradually increased. Another set of numbers has stayed small -- in 18 appearances, Wilson allowed just one run on eight hits while striking out 13 in 132/3 innings. He appeared in three of the four NLDS games, retiring the side uneventfully and striking out four in three innings.
Of all the millions Colletti has spent on this team, the $1 million he spent on Wilson could be critical in the NLCS against the Cardinals.
"It was a fairly low-risk contract on our part, financially," Colletti said. "So the gamble was really on his health coming back and ... it wasn't a monetary gamble on our part. And when you look at our payroll (it was) a very tiny percentage of it."
Already criticized for his bullpen choices in the only playoff game he has ever lost as a manager (Game 2 against the Braves), Mattingly knows he has at least somewhere to turn in the late innings.
"Anybody we play is going to be a good team," Mattingly said. "They're going to be confident. They're going to have had success. They're going to have had two celebrations. They've won something, then they've won a playoff round. They're going to come in with momentum and they're going to be confident. Whoever we're playing, they're not going down easy.
"You're going to have to fight for your outs. We're finding out that getting through those innings between the starter and trying to get back there are tough innings for us. To have two guys back there who can shorten it, really helps you out."
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