A dubious pitching change here, a hanging slider there, and it could all blow up in the faces of the Dodgers. Again.
For proof of the precarious nature of a short playoff series, look no further than last year’s National League Division Series. Clayton Kershaw came out of the bullpen in Game 5 and gave up score-tying, eighth-inning homers to Anthony Rendon and Juan Soto, and Howie Kendrick hit a 10th-inning grand slam to send the Washington Nationals hurtling toward their first World Series title and the 106-win Dodgers home without a championship for the 31st year in a row.
The first round of the 16-team playoffs this season is even shorter, a best-of-three that leaves no room for error for the Dodgers, as great as they are after clinching their eighth consecutive division title and the NL’s No. 1 seed Tuesday.
The Dodgers, who entered Wednesday leading baseball in run differential (plus-124), winning percentage (.709), home runs (104) and ERA (3.04), will be far superior than their No. 8-seeded opponent, no matter who it is.
But the team they face at Dodger Stadium beginning next Wednesday — six clubs are within two games of one another for the final four playoff spots — could still pose problems in a short series.
Several have dominant right-handed starters who could neutralize the Dodgers’ right-handed hitters. Others have deep bullpens that could help win low-scoring games. Almost all are relative unknowns — the Dodgers have not even played five of the six contending teams this season.
A look at the Dodgers’ possible first-round opponents, ranked from those posing the biggest threat to the least:
CINCINNATI REDS (29-28)
The Reds might be the least desirable wild-card foe because they’ve won eight of 10 games since Sept. 13 and boast a superb starting pitching trio in Cy Young Award candidate Trevor Bauer, Luis Castillo and Sonny Gray.
Bauer is 4-4 with a 1.80 ERA, two shutouts and 88 strikeouts. Castillo, who mixes a fastball that averages 97.5 mph with a slider and changeup, is 4-5 with a 2.86 ERA and 85 strikeouts. Gray, who returned from a back strain Tuesday, is 5-3 with a 3.73 ERA and 68 strikeouts.
Joey Votto (10 homers) leads a lineup that has a major league-low .211 batting average but features three others who with double-digit homers: Eugenio Suarez (14), Nicholas Castellanos (14) and Jesse Winker (11).
MIAMI MARLINS (28-28)
A team that lost an NL-high 105 games in 2019 is in contention despite an early season COVID-19 outbreak that sidelined 17 players and forced the postponement of seven games. For that, the Marlins can thank two young right-handed starters who could make them extremely dangerous in a short series.
Sixto Sánchez, a stout and sturdy 22-year-old from the Dominican Republic, has used a fastball that routinely hits 100 mph and a late-breaking 89-mph slider to go 3-2 with a 2.75 ERA and 31 strikeouts.
Fellow Dominican Sandy Alcantara, a long, lean 25-year-old right-hander, has mixed a 97-mph fastball with a slider and curve to go 3-2 with a 3.12 ERA and 30 strikeouts. And Pablo Lopez (5-4, 3.96 ERA, 53 strikeouts) is no slouch.
ST. LOUIS CARDINALS (27-26)
What the Cardinals lack in offensive firepower they make up for in grit. If they reach the postseason, they’ll have survived a brutal schedule that required them to play 53 games, including 11 doubleheaders, in the final 44 days after a COVID-19 outbreak forced the postponement of 17 games from July 31 to Aug. 14.
Pitching and defense are strengths, the rotation fronted by Jack Flaherty (4-2, 4.84 ERA) and Adam Wainwright (5-2, 3.05 ERA) and the bullpen led by closer Giovanny Gallegos, left-handers Andrew Miller, Tyler Webb and Genesis Cabrera and right-hander Alex Reyes.
An offense led by veterans Yadier Molina and Paul Goldschmidt ranks 27th in runs (219), 29th in homers (48) and 24th in OPS (.700).
MILWAUKEE BREWERS (27-28)
The Brewers are the ultimate wild card — so unpredictable that they scored 18 runs on Sept. 15, just two days after being no-hit by Cubs right-hander Alec Mills.
Keston Hiura (13 homers, 32 RBIs, .215 average), Christian Yelich (11 homers, 21 RBIs, .214 average) and Ryan Braun (seven homers, 25 RBIs, .248 average) lead a less-than-imposing lineup. But Daniel Vogelbach, a Sept. 3 waiver claim, has supplied pop from the left side, batting .395 with a 1.109 OPS, three homers and 10 RBIs in 13 games for Milwaukee.
Converted reliever Corbin Burnes, who is 4-0 with an NL-best 1.77 ERA and 83 strikeouts, gives the Brewers a chance to win Game 1 in any series.
SAN FRANCISCO GIANTS (28-27)
The Giants won four of 10 games against the Dodgers and would love nothing more than to spoil the World Series hopes of their despised division rivals.
The Giants have just enough pop to cause concern, and they don’t rely on one or two players — Brandon Belt (.983 OPS, eight homers, 27 RBIs), Alex Dickerson (.964 OPS, 10 homers, 27 RBIs), Mike Yastrzemski (.944 OPS, 33 RBIs) and Donovan Solano (.339 average, 29 RBIs) have had solid seasons.
But a Johnny Cueto-led rotation that has a 5.10 ERA does not appear deep or dominant enough to suppress the Dodgers’ offense twice in three games.
PHILADELPHIA PHILLIES (28-29)
The Phillies don’t have enough pitching to win a five-game or seven-game series, but their top starters — Zach Eflin (3-2, 4.28 ERA), Zack Wheeler (4-1, 2.67 ERA) and Aaron Nola (5-4, 3.06 ERA) — could make them competitive in a best-of-three.
The problem is the bullpen, which has a major league-worst 7.21 ERA, has converted only 11 of 24 save opportunities and allowed 41 homers in 176 innings.
Add the fact that three of team’s best hitters — Rhys Hoskins (left elbow), Bryce Harper (lower back stiffness) and J.T. Realmuto (hip flexor) — are slowed by injuries, and the Phillies clearly must lean on starting pitching to become a threat.