ST. LOUIS — It was around the time Los Angeles Dodgers first baseman Adrian Gonzalez put his hands to the side of his head and wiggled his fingers at his own dugout Wednesday afternoon that the National League Championship Series became a referendum on one pressing (though rarely considered) question: Does Mickey Mouse have a place in baseball?
The Dodgers, having recently embraced their inner Mickey, would undoubtedly answer “yes.” With the NLCS set to resume with Game 6 on Friday night at Busch Stadium, they have the appearance of a loose, confident, freewheeling bunch — despite the circumstances that remain stacked against them: They still trail the St. Louis Cardinals in the best-of-seven series, 3-2, and to earn a berth in the World Series must win a pair of games this weekend in a stadium where the Cardinals are 17-3 since the start of September.
“If you’re not having fun in the playoffs,” said Gonzalez, the Dodgers’ unlikely ringleader, “then you don’t deserve to be here.”
Beneath the Dodgers’ loose demeanor is a quiet confidence, undoubtedly stemming in large part from the fact they will be sending the best pitcher in baseball, lefty Clayton Kershaw, to the mound in Game 6 to face Cardinals rookie Michael Wacha in a rematch of Game 2. In that game, neither pitcher allowed an earned run, but the Cardinals stole a 1-0 victory via an unearned run off Kershaw in the fifth inning.
The Dodgers clearly believe they will benefit from having seen Wacha — who will be making just his 12th big league start — five days earlier. “Now that we’ve faced him and have an idea how he’s going to attack us,” Gonzalez said, “we . . . feel more confident definitely seeing him a second time.”
If the Dodgers win Friday night to force a Game 7, it would be Dodgers lefty Hyun-Jin Ryu facing Cardinals ace Adam Wainwright. When they faced off in Game 3, Ryu outpitched Wainwright in a 3-0 Dodgers win.
The Dodgers’ lefty-lefty starting pitcher combo this weekend gives them one significant advantage: The Cardinals were one of the worst offensive teams in baseball this season against lefties, hitting just .238 (27th in the majors) with a .672 OPS (26th).
But increasingly, this series has become less a matchup of pitchers vs. batters than one of competing ideologies. Never was that more evident than in the three games just completed at Dodger Stadium — highlighted by the polarizing showboating of Dodgers right fielder Yasiel Puig and Gonzalez’s own antics and the Cardinals disapproving reactions to each.
Despite what he said about simply having fun, Gonzalez — typically a quiet, dour sort — is too smart, too experienced and too wily for anyone to believe his antics were merely a childish expression of frivolity. More likely, he saw an opportunity in the escalation of a simmering feud between the teams over baseball decorum and used that opportunity to both loosen up his own struggling teammates and get under the skin of his opponents.
On both points, Gonzalez appears to have succeeded. The Dodgers enter Game 6 on the heels of Wednesday’s emphatic 6-4 win at Dodger Stadium, in which Gonzalez himself hit two home runs. On the first of these, he flashed his “mouse ears” sign at his dugout — an obvious reference to comments made by Wainwright after Game 3, when he accused Gonzalez of “some Mickey Mouse stuff” during that game.
Once the Dodgers knew their antics were grating on the Cardinals’ nerves, their natural response was to crank up the dial. “I’m pretty sure it rubbed them the wrong way, and they’re going to use that as some kind of fuel,” Dodgers left fielder Carl Crawford said to Gonzalez following the Game 5 win. “So you might as well keep doing it.”
The Cardinals, of course, won’t acknowledge they are bothered by the Dodgers’ antics. But they don’t have to. It’s obvious.
“Other teams are going to do whatever they need to do in order to prepare themselves and have their guys ready,” Cardinals Manager Mike Matheny said Thursday. “As far as getting under our guys’ skin — our guys want to compete. We’re not out there to make friends. We’re not out there to do anything except win.”
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