Any seven-game playoff series is always about Game Three. Really…
Consider each of the following possible scenarios for the third game in this standard playoff format (home-field advantage not considered here, although it can add to the importance of Game Three, of course):
If you’re down 0-2, you absolutely must win Game Three because losing that third contest puts you in a hole from which there is very rarely a successful recovery. Only a handful of teams in the history of sports have come back from an 0-3 deficit to win a seven-game series. And it’s only happened once in more than a century of postseason Major League Baseball.
In a series tied at a game each, both teams really want to win Game Three to get that edge as the series gets deeper. Sure, losing the third game in this scenario isn’t the end of the world by any stretch. But on the whole, you’d rather be up 2-1 than down 1-2, as the latter leaves slightly less margin for error.
If you’re up 2-0, you know that winning Game Three all but secures the series for you, since — as noted above — it’s truly rare for a team to overcome the ultimate deficit in a seven-game series. In fact, in MLB history, only the 2004 Boston Red Sox achieved the feat, beating the New York Yankees in a seven-game American League Championship Series that October on their way to their first World Series title since 1918.
This is why the Los Angeles Dodgers did exactly what they needed to do on Monday night to keep their World Series chances alive: they won Game Three at home after losing the first two games in St. Louis against the Cardinals. And they beat the best pitcher their opponents had to offer, as well (returning the favor from Games One and Two, in fact).
Consider this now: the Dodgers probably will start Zack Greinke and Clayton Kershaw on Tuesday and Wednesday nights, respectively, each on three days rest each, even though both lost their first series start.
In the old days it was normal to start playoff games on three days rest. In recent times, the fear of injury to these extremely high-paid assets makes this more rare. Kershaw actually just did start both Games One and Four of the National League Division Series against the Atlanta Braves last week, winning Game One on the road and getting a no-decision in Game Four. The Dodgers went on to win that fourth game and, of course, the series.
Are the Dodgers rolling the dice here? Yes, but it’s a risk worth taking. Los Angeles needs at least one more win at home to ensure the series keeps going, albeit back to St. Louis, where Greinke would be ready to start a possible Game Seven, again on three days rest, and Kershaw surely would be willing to pitch in relief on two days rest. It’s about maximizing your tremendous assets to leverage the best possible chance of winning the series and advancing.
Historically, staff aces have done this kind of thing when warranted, and Dodgers Manager Don Mattingly knows all too well how it can turn out. In 1995, his last season as an active player, Mattingly saw two staff aces pitch in relief against each other in Game Five of the AL Division Series between his New York Yankees and the Seattle Mariners. Unfortunately for Mattingly, it was his last game, because Randy Johnson out-performed Jack McDowell in the last inning of that classic game, and Donnie Baseball never got his Yankees to the World Series.
Besides, the chances that the Cardinals — as good as they have been in 2013, which is pretty amazing considering they set an all-time record for team batting average with runners in scoring position (.330) — can once again win consecutive games started by Greinke and Kershaw are pretty slim, all things considered. You just don’t get away with that kind of thing twice in one series.
And this is why the Dodgers, despite trailing in the series 2-1, are sitting pretty with an excellent chance to emerge victorious after their all-important Game Three win on Monday night.