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Braves-Dodgers NLCS: What you need to know

by Chris Brown

After out-scoring their opponents by a collective 41-14 mark in three-game NLDS matchups, the Atlanta Braves and Los Angeles Dodgers will square off in the League Championship Series beginning Monday, Oct. 12. 

Neither the Dodgers or Braves, who both finished first or second in runs scored, home runs and OPS this season, have lost a game during this year’s playoffs, but it’s been their pitching that’s powered much of that success. That’s hardly a surprise for the Dodgers, as Dave Roberts’ club posted the best ERA in the majors this season. For the Braves, who posted the third-worst starters ERA and 15th-ranked overall team ERA during the regular season, the pitching success has been much more noteworthy.

The Braves held the Reds scoreless in a Wild Card Series sweep before handling the Marlins with ease in the NLDS, handing Miami its first-ever postseason series loss. The Dodgers kept a weak Brewers offense in check for two games in the first round before sweeping a pitching-taxed young Padres team that wasn’t able to put up the fight many expected. It’s the fourth NLCS in the last five years for the Dodgers, who are still looking for their first World Series title since 1988. The Braves, meanwhile, haven’t made it this far since 2001, having just won their first postseason series in 19 years against Cincinnati.

Let’s break down four things you should know heading into the National League Championship Series:

Who: Atlanta Braves vs. Los Angeles Dodgers

When: (Game 1) Monday, Oct. 12, 2020, 8:08 p.m. ET

Where: Globe Life Field, Arlington, TX

How to watch/listen: FOX, ESPN Radio

1. The Braves pitching staff is on a historic run.

Let’s start with this: Atlanta pitchers have posted zeros in 46 of their 49 innings this postseason. The team’s cumulative playoff ERA is 0.92. With their 7-0 victory over the Marlins in Game 3 of the NLDS, the Braves became just the second team ever with four shutouts in their first five games of a postseason. The other is the 1905 New York Giants, who won the World Series that year. Brian Snitker’s club also became the first in MLB history to post back-to-back shutouts twice in the same postseason.

It was clear entering the postseason that the Braves’ greatest weakness, as had been the case most of the regular season, was rotation depth, with both Mike Soroka (torn Achilles) and Cole Hamels (shoulder fatigue) sidelined. As it turned out, the club’s top two starters have been so dominant that they’ve only once had to turn to another starter in the playoffs to date. 

Left-hander Max Fried allowed four runs to Miami in Game 1 of the NLDS but shut out the Reds for seven innings in Game 1 of the NL Wild Card Series. The best pitcher in the MLB postseason, though, has been 22-year-old Braves rookie Ian Anderson, who’d only made six major league starts before the playoffs. The right-hander’s numbers in two playoff starts: 11.2 IP, 0 R, 5 H. 3 BB, 17 K. He became the first pitcher under 23 years old to tally multiple starts of 5+ scoreless innings in the same postseason since 2013. 

The duo started the first four games of the postseason for the Braves before the club handed the ball to right-hander Kyle Wright, who posted a 5.21 ERA this season. The rookie stepped up with the best start of his career, spinning six shutout innings with seven strikeouts in the club’s Game 3 victory. Wright and Anderson became the first pair of rookies with back-to-back scoreless starts in the postseason in MLB history.

Atlanta will undoubtedly be counting on Fried and Anderson to continue their strong postseason runs, but will also have to turn to at least two other starters in a best-of-seven LCS. Aside from one outing, their rotation depth hasn’t been tested yet. If Wright can deliver again, that will go a long way in helping the Braves compete against a Dodgers team with great starting pitching depth.

It also wouldn’t do justice to the Braves’ playoff success to not mention their incredible bullpen, which posted the fourth-best ERA in MLB in the regular season and has allowed just one run in 20 ⅓ innings this postseason. Relievers Mark Melancon and Will Smith have combined to face 26 batters and record 26 outs and lefty Tyler Matzek has struck out eight of the 12 batters he’s faced during the playoffs. A short outing from a starter doesn’t put the Braves in a horrible position with a bullpen like that. After series wins against below-average to horrible offensive teams in the first two rounds, though, the Dodgers will unquestionably be the biggest test for Atlanta’s hurlers yet.

2. Travis d’Arnaud and Dansby Swanson have been the Braves’ offensive MVPs of the postseason thus far.

Atlanta’s offensive success this season has been well-noted, and as mentioned, the Braves and Dodgers rank by many measures as the top two hitting teams in baseball this year. Freddie Freeman, Marcell Ozuna and Ronald Acuña Jr. are all legitimate MVP candidates, but the two players who’ve played the biggest role in the team’s offensive success in the postseason reveal just how deep the Braves’ lineup is. 

d’Arnaud, who just 17 months ago was released after more than a half decade with the Mets, was quietly one of the best catchers in baseball this year, ranking fourth in home runs (9) and first in RBI (34) among MLB backstops along with a .321 average and .919 OPS. He’s been one of the hottest hitters this postseason, going 8-for-19 (.421) with two longballs and two doubles in five games. In Game 1 of the NLDS, d’Arnaud became the first catcher in baseball history to reach base five times and drive in four runs in a postseason game. It came much later than everyone expected, but the 31-year-old is now delivering on the immense potential scouts saw in him several years ago and is an integral part of this Braves team. 

Another integral part of this Braves team is Swanson, the shortstop who swatted 10 home runs during the regular season while posting career best marks in OBP (.345) and SLG (.464). Like d’Arnaud, Swanson keeps coming up big for Atlanta in October, hitting homers in back-to-back games to start the NLDS and notching two hits in Game 3. Swanson has posted a .970 OPS this postseason.

Combine those two players with the likes of Freeman, Ozuna, and Acuña Jr. as well as Ozzie Albies, Adam Duvall and Nick Markakis and you’ve got a lineup that makes an opponent work for every out. Dodgers pitchers faced a similarly deep and star studded lineup in the Padres but will again have their work cut out for them in this series.

3. The Dodgers’ pitching has been predictably outstanding, but there is a major question at the back end of the bullpen.

Despite the departures of Hyun-jin Ryu and Kenta Meada this past offseason, the Dodgers’ pitching has been just as great as ever this year, with eight-time All-Star Clayton Kershaw pitching at a Cy Young level again and a group of young starters that includes Dustin May, Julio Urias and Tony Gonsolin all impressing. There’s proven stars in Kershaw and Walker Buehler and quality depth in those young pitchers and a host of high-level relievers including Kenley Jansen, Blake Treinen, Adam Kolarek and Brusdar Graterol.

Dodgers pitchers have posted a collective 2.00 ERA this postseason in 45 innings, tallying 59 strikeouts to 14 walks with a .178 opponent batting average and .517 opponent OPS. Kershaw threw eight shutout innings against the Brewers and six three-run innings against the Padres. Buehler hasn’t one more than four innings in a start due in large part to a blister issue, but has still been effective, striking out eight batters in both of his playoff outings. Urias is 2-0 with eight scoreless innings out of the bullpen and May and Treinen have both not allowed a run in roughly three frames. The sheer volume of strong pitching options for Dave Roberts, from starters who can come on in relief to young and veteran relievers puts the team in a great position.

Despite all this, it’s not a perfect pitching picture for the Dodgers, as the closer role is now unsettled following the recent struggles of Kenley Jansen. The veteran right-hander, who’s been one of the best closers in baseball over the last decade, struggled down the stretch, showed decreased velocity in the Wild Card Series and nearly threw away a three-run lead in Game 2 of the NLDS. Heading into Game 3 of that series, Roberts wouldn’t commit to deploying Jansen in high-leverage situations moving forward.

The lack of closer clarity didn’t end up mattering in an NLDS Game 3 the Dodgers won by nine runs, but it will almost certainly be a factor in the NLCS. Despite the team’s multitude of quality relievers, there’s no obvious No. 2 for the closer’s role behind Jansen, leaving the Dodgers with a big question entering this series against an opponent that can go off for several runs in a hurry.

4. In a postseason full of homers, the Dodgers have shown they can succeed without them.

Through the end of the all the division series, teams were 22-1 in games where they out-homer their opponent this season. The Astros hit 10 longballs in their four games against the A’s. The Braves tallied five in three games versus Miami. And the Rays slugged 11 in their five-game series victory over the Yankees. The Dodgers, who led MLB in homers this season, scored 23 runs against the Padres in the NLDS despite hitting just one homer. That’s the most runs scored on one home run or fewer in a postseason series in the Divisional Era (since 1969), per MLB.com’s Sarah Langs

Make no mistake: the Dodgers have several players capable of unloading a 450-foot blast at any moment, from Cody Bellinger to Mookie Betts to Corey Seager, Justin Turner, Max Muncy and more. But this is also a team that doesn’t rely on the long ball to succeed offensively. Simply put, they can flat out hit and string together a rally without a homer with ease. Betts has five doubles through five postseason contests, Bellinger is hitting .316 with a homer, Seager has two doubles and a homer, and in Game 3 of the NLDS Will Smith became the first Dodgers player and first catcher ever with five hits in a postseason game. 

Dodgers batters can also take a patient approach, with the team’s 27 walks this postseason ranking second behind only the Yankees, who’ve played in two more playoff games. It’s been hard to find a hole in this Dodgers offense this season, and that’s only carried over into October. As mentioned prior, the Braves’ pitchers will certainly have to keep up their great run for Atlanta to advance to the World Series for the first time this century.

Photos by Bryce Edwards / Flickr (Kershaw), All-Pro Reels / Flickr (Ozuna), Ian D’Andrea / Flickr (Bellinger), All-Pro Reels / Flickr (Anderson).

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