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Zack Greinke, Don Mattingly & the 8th inning

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Harry How

LOS ANGELES -- Before the Dodgers boarded the emotional roller coaster that was the eighth inning, the story of Game 2 of the NLDS was Zack Greinke, who nearly ended up more of a story for when he wasn't pitching as much as when he was.

Greinke was great through seven innings, allowing just two hits, two walks, and no runs, with seven strikeouts. In four playoff starts since joining the Dodgers, Greinke is 2-1 with a 1.93 ERA, 24 strikeouts and four walks, and has averaged seven innings per start.

He also got two hits at the plate, just the fifth Dodgers pitcher with two hits in a postseason game, and the first since Orel Hershiser in Game 2 of the 1988 World Series.

Greinke won the Silver Slugger Award as the National League's top-hitting pitcher in 2013 and this year including the playoffs is hitting .222/.279/.365.

"It makes a difference, because last year I'm not positive if we won or lost this particular game but Joe Kelly got a base hit off me and I'm pretty sure he scored - [Ed. note: Kelly did single and score in Game 1, a game won in extra innings in St. Louis] - and it's a big difference sometimes. Today at least one extra run scored because of it," Greinke said. "It's really important fielding your position and hitting, not being an absolute out."

But on the mound was where Greinke shone the brightest on Saturday. He said his fastball and slider command were especially sharp, and Greinke cited a fastball to strikeout Jhonny Peralta to end the sixth as one of his best pitches of the night.

"That was big time. A.J. Ellis told me he wanted to do it and it worked out," Greinke recalled. "I executed good, had a good game plan and it was a big situation."

That ended an inning that saw Greinke work around a leadoff double - by Matt Carpenter, naturally - and saw him end the frame with 88 pitches.

It was after the sixth inning that manager Don Mattingly talked with Greinke, figuring out how much rope he had left with his starter. The two decided Greinke would pitch one more inning or to five more batters - through Carpenter - or whichever came first.

Greinke got through the seventh inning in order on 15 pitches, and Mattingly pulled him before the start of the eighth inning, with left-handed pinch hitter Oscar Tavares announced to bat.

"He was done," Mattingly said of Greinke," I knew where kind of his limit was."

Greinke said the decision was "both our calls, I guess," and added, "It probably could have went either way, I guess."

This is where we get to the crux of the problem of the first two games of the NLDS for the Dodgers.

It probably could have went either way.

Mattingly made a choice in Game 1 to stick with his struggling ace, needing one more out to protect a two-run lead. His choice in Game 2 was to pull his other ace on a night he was seemingly cruising, and at a reasonable pitch count.

"I think we're seeing with the emotion of these games, that it's just a tick different than the regular season," Mattingly said. "I think these guys are getting pretty good and amped up and it seems like we're kind of hitting that wall in there just a little bit quicker than we did during the regular season."

Neither decision worked out for Mattingly, and both really thanks to Carpenter, who hit a go-ahead three-run double off Kershaw on Friday and a two-run Stairsian bomb on Saturday.

It probably could have went either way.

For the record, I would have left both starters in their respective games - Kershaw to face Carpenter as his last batter, and Greinke until he at least allowed a baserunner. But I really didn't have a problem with either decision.

If there is anyone who has earned the right to talk his way into staying into a game for one more batter with his body of work, it's Kershaw, widely regarded as the best pitcher in the game.

The fact is, there aren't many reliable arms in the Dodgers bullpen. There is Kenley Jansen, who is one of the best relievers in baseball, then essentially J.P. Howell as the list of Dodgers relievers I currently trust, though that's probably a bit unfair to Brandon League.

Howell was the choice on Saturday, and quite logical with three left-handed batters due up. Howell since joining the Dodgers in 2013 held left-handed batters to hitting just .167/.252/.227 with two home runs in 225 plate appearances entering Saturday.

The Cardinals in the eighth inning were 3-for-3 with a home run against Howell.

It probably could have went either way.

The flip side is leaving Greinke in to pitch the eighth inning, when batters hit .318/.400/.773 with five extra-base hits in 25 plate appearances this season.

To have Greinke make his 104th pitch and beyond. Hitters in 2014 hit .225/.298/.475 with three home runs in 40 at-bats. To have Greinke face a lineup for a fourth time (okay, just one batter, in Carpenter, but bear with me), when batters hit .240/.345/.440 against him.

In the end, Mattingly made two decisions. Neither worked out. It's easy to say in hindsight what the right decision was. But it's much more difficult when there are a myriad of possible outcomes.

Up next

The Dodgers fly to St. Louis on Sunday morning. Mattingly said Clayton Kershaw wants to throw on Sunday, which in theory could line him up to start in Game 4 on Tuesday on three days rest. For now Dan Haren is the listed starter for Game 4, but that could change.

"We'll talk about Game 4, probably on the plane," Mattingly said. "We'll see where we are with that."

Game 3 is Monday night at Busch Stadium, with Hyun-jin Ryu returning to the mound facing John Lackey for St. Louis. Monday will start at 6:37 p.m. PT if the Angels win on Sunday, or at 6:07 p.m. PT if the Royals win on Sunday.