ST. LOUIS - The Dodgers had just blasted their way back into the National League Championship Series on Wednesday afternoon, and in every corner of the joyous clubhouse, their re-energized players couldn't help but boast.
Yes, they still trail three games to two against their accomplished foes, the Cardinals. And yes, they must win both games at Busch Stadium to win the pennant.
But with Clayton Kershaw on the mound for Friday's Game 6, the Dodgers know that for the Cardinals to advance, they'll have to beat one of the best pitchers in the game.
"Not one of the best," said Adrian Gonzalez, correcting a questioner, shortly after his two-homer performance in Game 5. "The best."
Yet the Dodgers must take full advantage of having the 25-year-old on the mound, which they struggled to do for much of the regular season.
Kershaw likely will win his second NL Cy Young Award after posting a league-best 1.83 ERA, 232 strikeouts and 0.915 WHIP. When ranked by adjusted ERA, he produced one of the top 20 pitching seasons of the last 50 years.
Among his peers? Tom Seaver, Randy Johnson, Sandy Koufax.
Nevertheless, Kershaw posted just a 16-9 record, a product of mediocre run support. In his starts, the team went 19-14.
Game 2 of the NLCS served as a microcosm for the lefty's season. Kershaw took the loss in a 1-0 game against Cardinals rookie Michael Wacha, whom he will face in a Game 6 rematch. The only run against Kershaw was unearned, scoring partly because catcher A.J. Ellis failed to catch a fastball that Kershaw threw over the middle of the plate.
Including Game 2, the Dodgers have failed to score more than two runs in Kershaw's starts 17 times.
Of course, the Dodgers' task won't get any easier in Game 6 against Wacha, 22, who has enjoyed a charmed postseason. The righthander has shown no signs of flinching in the glare of the playoff spotlight, allowing one earned run in 14 innings in his two October starts, both of them wins.
"I feel like if you can just attack the zone, basically all of our pitchers have been doing this series, it will be pretty good," Wacha said.
Meanwhile, even after the Dodgers broke out with four homers in Game 5, the middle of their lineup remains in a precarious state.
Shortstop Hanley Ramirez again will be a game-time decision. When healthy, he was the Dodgers' most dangerous hitter in the regular season, and he continued that roll in the NLDS against the Braves. But he suffered a cracked rib in Game 1 of the NLCS and has been weakened ever since. He's 2-for-10 in the series and has been pulled in the last two games because of discomfort in his side.
Meanwhile, Andre Ethier continues to battle a lingering ankle issue. To have his bat in the lineup, the Dodgers have been forced to accept that his defense in centerfield might be compromised.
Yet Kershaw has spent much of the season blocking out things he can't control. He'll have to do the same again in Game 6.
"Obviously, the talent of Andre and Hanley is something you can't really replace, and we understand that," Kershaw said. "But at the same time, it doesn't do any good to think about what-ifs. We realize that."