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Hanley, Yadier the driving forces in NLCS

Dodgers shortstop ailing; Cardinals catcher guiding young staff @LyleMSpencer

LOS ANGELES -- The Cardinals have grown together, 80 percent of their roster coming up through the system. The Dodgers were thrown together, stars arriving in Hollywood from Boston to Miami, Korea to Cuba.

As the "Show Me State" troupe carries a 2-0 lead into Monday night's Game 3 of the National League Championship Series (live on TBS at 7 p.m. CT/5 p.m. PT), growing together looks like the way to go.

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History, however, is rich with teams that rallied from an 0-2 deficit to prevail. The 1985 Cardinals spotted the Dodgers two games in the NLCS and snatched four in a row. Game 6 is forever etched in the hearts and minds of Jack Clark, Tom Lasorda and Tom Niedenfuer. Jack the Ripper unloaded on Niedenfuer after Lasorda elected not to walk him, rendering a full house in Chavez Ravine eerily silent.

These well-heeled Dodgers, beaten in a pair of one-run decisions in St. Louis, have the weaponry to turn it around in a heartbeat. It will help immeasurably if Hanley Ramirez, a man who makes hearts beat rapidly at Dodger Stadium, can swing the bat.

The slugging shortstop is determined to take his No. 3 spot in the order. But if the game had been staged Sunday, his injured ribs would not have allowed him to play. The pain was too intense.

"I'm going to try 100 percent to go until the last minute," Ramirez said. "I hope I can make it. I just want to win the first game. I'll keep swinging the way I have. It's not going to change my game. I'm going to be the same hitter -- just try not to think about it."

If Ramirez can't make it, Nick Punto, a tough guy and tough out, plays shortstop. He was 1-for-4 with stellar defense in Ramirez's absence in a Game 2 loss to rookie Michael Wacha and the firing squad manning the St. Louis bullpen.

While Ramirez's ribs are the primary storyline with the NL West champs, it's fundamentally about the beautiful mind of Yadier Molina for the NL Central kings. Nobody has a more compelling impact on a game and a team than the sport's best catcher.

"He's involved in every aspect of the game -- especially with all the young kids we have here," Cardinals center fielder Jon Jay said. "Our pitchers trust him; everyone trusts in him. He's arguably the best defensive player in the world, but he puts in his work every day, preparing. It sets a good example for everyone.

"Absolutely, I'd love to see Yadi win [the NL Most Valuable Player Award]. He's got my vote. He has all the talent in the world, and when you take into account all the things he does for the pitchers, he's just an unbelievable player and teammate."

Whether it's a veteran such as Adam Wainwright, who faces rookie Hyun-Jin Ryu in Game 3, or one of the half-dozen freshmen on Cards manager Mike Matheny's staff, the common thread is Molina's ability to bring out the best in all of his arms.

Age, which hand you use, style, attitude, where you grew up -- all of that matters, but not nearly as much as Molina's ability to figure out how to make it work. He guided gifted, amped Joe Kelly and a procession of relievers through Game 1. With the brilliant Wacha in Game 2, Molina made several mound visits to set up Yasiel Puig for a critical bases-loaded, one-out strikeout.

"He knows every pitcher better than anyone," Kelly said. "He studies us, the other team. You go into a game knowing you have a good plan. He knows hitters' strengths and weaknesses. Not only is he a good defender; he blocks everything in the dirt. That's really underrated, knowing he'll block anything you throw."

A .284 career hitter, Molina has batted .305, .315 and .319 the past three seasons, becoming the total package.

Molina's influence is so pervasive Dodgers manager Don Mattingly, without prompting, made several flattering mentions of him on Sunday.

Asked about Puig, 0-for-10 with six strikeouts after batting .471 in the Division Series against the Braves, Mattingly referenced how "Yadier and their pitching staff" were "kind of yo-yoing and keeping him in that rocking chair where it's back and forth -- and got him guessing a little bit. They've done a nice job with him. I'm sure he's feeling pressure to do something."

This rare ability to make pitch selections that frustrate dangerous hitters is hard to translate into numbers -- other than how the final score so often favors the Cardinals with Molina behind the plate.

Ramirez's influence on the Dodgers was profound in June when they launched the 42-8 run that lifted them from the dregs to the top of the NL West heap. Finally free of shoulder issues that dogged him for several years, Hanley became the force he'd been in Florida. Puig was an electrical jolt running through the clubhouse, but it was Ramirez who completed this team and made it dominant.

"He was the best hitter on the planet," said Skip Schumaker, the former Cardinal who handles center field when Andre Ethier isn't able to go in Matt Kemp's absence. "I'm hoping he's playing. Nick Punto's hoping he's playing. We're a better team with Andre Ethier and Hanley in the lineup."

Among hitters with at least 300 at-bats, only Miguel Cabrera exceeded Ramirez's 1.040 OPS (on-base plus slugging). Hanley raised it to a preposterous 1.618 in the NLDS against the Braves, producing four doubles, a triple and a homer to drive in six runs in four games.

"It's not tennis," Ramirez said when asked about the impact of his absence on teammates. "It's not like that. It's not only one guy. It's 25 guys. We've been doing this all year long."

Doing it now, against Team Molina, is a stiff challenge.

Lyle Spencer is a reporter for

Los Angeles Dodgers, St. Louis Cardinals