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Three things to know about each NL Wild Card Series matchup

by Chris Brown

When the final day of the MLB regular season began, not a single matchup for the best-of-three Wild Card Series was settled, with two NL playoff spots and seeding up in the air. By the end of Sunday afternoon, though, a wild 60-game schedule had come to a close, and with it the postseason field is now set for games beginning on Tuesday, Sept. 29.

In the field: a team on pace for 116 wins, two clubs below .500, four teams from one division and two that battled extensive COVID-19 outbreaks.

With little time off for any teams before the beginning of the playoffs, let’s dive into the postseason field with a look at three things to know about each first-round matchup, continuing with the National League side of the bracket:

(8) Milwaukee Brewers @ (1) Los Angeles Dodgers

Game 1: Wednesday, 10 p.m. ET, ESPN

1. Expectations remain sky-high for the Dodgers.

No team has been better in 2020 than the Dodgers. No team faces more pressure in the playoffs than the Dodgers, who’ve won the NL West for the eighth straight year but have still failed to capture a World Series title in that stretch. The club became the first in the NL with a .700-plus winning percentage since 1909, never lost more than two games in a row, and, per MLB.com’s Ken Gurnick, joined the 2001 Mariners as the only teams since World War II to lead baseball in runs scored and ERA. It’s also not as if every player performed up to expectations. 2019 NL MVP Cody Bellinger hit just .239, Max Muncy just .192 and Justin Turner missed time with injury. But it just didn’t matter, as the team had strong reinforcements everywhere and players like Corey Seager (.307 AVG), Mookie Betts (16 HR) and AJ Pollock (16 HR) powering the offense. On the pitching side, Clayton Kershaw (2.16 ERA) pitched at a Cy Young-caliber level and young hurlers Dustin May and Tony Gonsolin posted ERAs in the mid-2.00s. There are just no obvious holes on this Dodgers roster, and few reasons to bet against them heading into the playoffs.

2. The Brewers made the postseason despite not spending a single day above .500 this season.

We all knew that something like this could happen with the expanded playoff format this year, but that doesn’t make it any less remarkable in its own right. Of the 16 teams that made the postseason, Milwaukee is pretty clearly the team that makes the least sense being there. The Brewers rank 26th in baseball in runs and batting average and have been only slightly better than league average on the mound. Christian Yelich (.205 AVG) has really struggled at the plate after back-to-back seasons finishing top two in the NL MVP race, and not a single qualified hitter on the team has posted an OPS above .800. Corbin Burnes, who was in the running for NL Cy Young with a 2.11 ERA for the year, is sidelined with an oblique strain. Possible Game 3 starter Brett Anderson exited his start on Sunday with a blister issue. The odds are against the Brewers here in a big way. But hey, as manager Craig Counsell said Sunday, “There’s no reason to apologize for getting in the playoffs. We beat the other teams, we got the eighth spot, and so we’re in. And we’ve got a chance.”

3. The difference between these two teams is staggering.

Yes, in a best-of-three series anything could happen, but the difference between these two teams in performance this season is immense. As The Athletic’s Pedro Moura pointed out, the Dodgers won 14 more games the Brewers, scored 102 more runs and allowed 51 fewer in the 2020 regular season. Dave Roberts’ club also bested Milwaukee in team OPS by almost 120 points and in ERA by over a full run. The Dodgers were on pace for 116 victories in a 162-game season while the Brewers were two games under .500, so the extreme statistical mismatch, while eye-opening, isn’t exactly surprising. 

(5) St. Louis Cardinals @ (4) San Diego Padres

Game 1: Wednesday, 5 p.m. ET, ESPN2

1. There’s no easy out in this Padres lineup.

San Diego’s rise from a fourth or fifth place finish in the NL West for five straight years to one of the best teams in the NL and a playoff berth for the first time in 14 years has been one of the most exciting storylines in baseball this season. Fernando Tatis Jr. (17 HR, 11 SB) and Manny Machado (16 HR, 6 SB) have rightly received a lot of attention, but there are several other hitters having productive seasons who’ve made the Padres’ lineup so scary. Outfielder Wil Myers, the team’s longest-tenured player, has had a resurgent campaign, hitting .288 with 15 homers and 14 doubles. Eric Hosmer has posted a strong .851 OPS, Jake Cronenworth (.831 OPS) is a Rookie of the Year candidate, Trent Grisham has 10 homers and even Jurickson Profar hit nearly .280. Add in veterans Mitch Moreland and Tommy Pham and a solid group of catchers and opposing pitchers can never let their foot off the gas. The Padres finished the regular season third in MLB in runs, fourth in home runs and fourth in OPS.

2. The Cardinals’ path to the playoff was far from an easy one.

In the midst of a COVID-19 outbreak which impacted 18 individuals and led to 17 days off from play, there was talk of the MLB season continuing without the Cardinals. Now, after a stretch of 53 games in 44 days, including 11 doubleheaders, the Cardinals posted a winning record for the 13th consecutive season and secured the 5-seed in the NL field. Aside from a few bright spots like first baseman Paul Goldschmidt (.883 OPS), the team’s offense has been mediocre at best, ranking second-to-last in the NL in OPS and dead last in the majors in home runs. The pitching staff has been much stronger, posting a 3.90 ERA, the fourth-best in the NL. Adam Wainwright, who pitched against the Padres in their last postseason appearance back in 2006, has been crucial for the redbirds this season, posting the 10th-best ERA (3.15) among qualified NL pitchers at age 39.

3. Much could depend on the status of San Diego’s top starters.

Amid a number of upgrades, the Padres made the biggest move ahead of the trade deadline, acquiring Mike Clevinger from the Indians to slot in atop the team’s rotation heading into the postseason. But Clevinger is now dealing with a right-elbow impingement which has left his status for the Wild Card Series in question. The team’s other top starter, Dinnelson Lamet, who logged a remarkable 2.09 ERA and 93 strikeouts this year, is also a bit of a question mark after exiting his final regular season outing with right bicep tightness. The Padres have expressed optimism that Lamet can still start Game 1 of the series. San Diego would still be the favorite even with those two pitchers unavailable, but their absence in a best-of-three series would certainly be significant.

(6) Miami Marlins @ (3) Chicago Cubs

Game 1: Wednesday, 2 p.m. ET, ABC

1. Several of the Cubs’ top hitters have underperformed this year.

.222, .188, .203 and .206. Those are the batting averages of middle-of-the-order hitters Anthony Rizzo, Kyle Schwarber, Javier Baez and Kris Bryant, respectively. Outfielders Jason Heyward and Ian Happ have had good years, but the Cubs’ offense has underperformed mightily overall, posting the fourth-worst batting average in MLB. This core group is clearly capable of better, and the dynamic of the team’s roster could be shifted immensely by a few of those players getting hot. The Cubs were 14th in the NL in strikeout rate (25.7%) and contact rate (72.8%) this season. The team’s top pitchers won’t be able to carry them to victory on their own.

2. The Marlins overcame adversity and the odds to register their first winning season in over a decade.

Miami entered the season with a mere 9.2% chance of making the postseason, per FanGraphs, even lower than the Pittsburgh Pirates, who finished with the worst record in baseball. The Marlins’ preseason odds of capturing one of the top two spots in the NL East: 4.3%. Then, in the first week of the season, 18 players tested positive for COVID-19, prompting the postponement of several games and a scramble to fill out roster spots. Despite all this, the team, which lost 105 games last year, remained resilient, posting its first winning season since 2009 and snagging its first playoff berth in 17 years (the longest streak in the NL) by finishing second in the division standings. Veteran manager Don Mattingly will undoubtedly be one of the top finishers in the balloting for NL Manager of the Year. The Marlins got strong production from young pitchers like Pablo Lopez (3.61 ERA) and Six Sanchez (3.46 ERA) as well as veteran hitters like Miguel Rojas (.888 OPS) and Brian Anderson (11 HR). But to be clear, the Marlins statistically have not been a great baseball team, posting a -41 run differential and ranking outside the top 20 in MLB in runs scored and team ERA.

3. Yu Darvish and Kyle Hendricks form a strong 1-2 punch at the top of the Cubs’ rotation.

The rest of the Cubs rotation experienced a number of ups and downs, but Darvish and Hendricks provided consistency that helped the team remain soundly atop the NL Central. Darvish (8-3, 2.01 ERA) led the NL in FanGraphs WAR this season and is in the mix for the league’s Cy Young Award. Hendricks doesn’t have the overpowering arsenal of Darvish, but relies on weak contact and efficiency. He posted a 2.88 ERA this season and has logged just over 50 postseason innings in his career with a 2.98 mark. Veteran lefty Jon Lester (5.16 ERA in 2020) would likely get the call for a Game 3, but that wouldn’t be necessary if the team takes the first two contests behind that duo.

(7) Cincinnati Reds @ (2) Atlanta Braves

Game 1: Wednesday, 12 p.m. ET, ESPN

1. This is another matchup of elite starters vs. elite lineup.

The Braves’ offense has been unquestionably one of the best in baseball this year. Freddie Freeman (13 HR, 53 RBI, .341 AVG), Marcell Ozuna (18 HR, league-leading 56 RBI, .338 AVG) and Ronald Acuna (14 HR, .987 OPS) are all strong MVP candidates. Adam Duvall led the majors with 11 homers in September, Ozzie Albies hit .338 in the season’s final month, and Dansby Swanson has 10 longballs. I could keep going, but Atlanta’s second rank in runs scored and home runs and first rank in OPS in the majors speaks for itself. But the Reds bring to the table an outstanding trio of starters in Trevor Bauer, Luis Castillo and Sonny Gray. Bauer led the NL in ERA (1.73) and appears to be the frontrunner for the NL Cy Young Award, Castillo posted a 2.20 ERA in September and Sonny Gray returned from the IL late this month with two solid outings heading into the playoffs. Which of the Braves’ offense and Reds’ pitching wins out will very likely align with which team advances to the NLDS.

2. The Reds went on a remarkable run to end the season, but their offense has underwhelmed.

As recently as Sept. 12, Cincinnati’s playoff odds were down to 17%, per FanGraphs. Then, starting the next day, the team won 11 of its final 14 games to finish two games above .500, taking five consecutive series. The Reds rank seventh in baseball in home runs this season, scoring nearly two-thirds of their runs from the long ball. That rank may sound encouraging, but the team is also 30th in the majors in batting average (.212) and 27th in runs scored. With bats like Joey Votto, Mike Moustakas, Nick Castellanos and Eugenio Suarez, there’s no doubt that the Reds’ lineup has the ability to be league average or better, but the results just need to be better.

3. There are depth concerns about the Braves rotation, but that weakness may not be exposed in a short series.

After being sidelined all season due to triceps tendinitis, veteran lefty Cole Hamels made just one start before being placed on the IL once again with shoulder fatigue, ending his 2020 campaign. With young ace Mike Soroka out since early August due to a torn Achilles, the Braves have struggled at times this year to put together a complete, quality rotation, and questions do remain beyond the top few options. But those top options, left-hander Max Fried (7-0, 2.25 ERA) and rookie Ian Anderson (1.95 ERA) have been outstanding, and starting depth doesn’t figure to be as important in a best-of-three series. Atlanta’s bullpen has also posted the fourth-best ERA (3.50) in the majors, as well.

Photos by Ian D’Andrea / Flickr (Bellinger), Tyrone Islington Photography / Flickr (Hendricks), apardavila / Flickr (Freeman)

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