Atlanta Braves a formidable obstacle in the Dodgers’ path to the World Series
The Dodgers and Atlanta Braves made the first two rounds of the playoffs look easy, completing one-sided sweeps in the wild card and division series. Their meeting in the National League Championship Series beginning Monday probably will be anything but.
Even in a shortened season with an expanded playoff field, the top two seeded NL teams will square off to win the pennant. And with a World Series on the line, they’ll be each other’s biggest challenge to date by far.
For the first time this postseason, the Dodgers will meet an opponent whose pitching staff is at full strength. The Braves finally will see an offense that ranked above average — actually near the top of the league — in most key hitting statistics.
They traveled similar paths. As the Dodgers made easy work of the Milwaukee Brewers in the wild card series, the Braves shut out the Cincinnati Reds in back-to-back games to win their first playoff series since 2001.
The Dodgers stampeded over the Padres in the National League Division Series, but Kenley Jansen and Joe Kelly haven’t been reliable late in games.
Their division series matchups against the San Diego Padres and Miami Marlins, respectively, were tougher, but both navigated neutral-site bubbles in Texas without a loss. Now, they’ll meet in the playoffs for the first time since 2018, when the Dodgers won a best-of-five NLDS 3-1.
“Very talented,” Dodgers manager Dave Roberts said when asked about Atlanta. “Offensively, they’re good left-handed, right-handed. Arguably the best player in the National League this year in Freddie Freeman.
“They play the game the right way.”
Indeed, Freeman led one of the best offenses in baseball this season.
Atlanta ranked second in runs (384, one behind the Dodgers), tied for first in slugging (.483, matching the Dodgers) and led the league in Fangraphs’ “offensive runs above average” metric.
Freeman’s .341 batting average, 13 home runs and 53 RBIs might make him the National League MVP, yet teammate Marcell Ozuna was the team leader in long balls (18), RBIs (56) and hits (77).
The Atlanta Braves are heading to the National League Champion Series for the first time since 2001 following their three-game sweep over the Miami Marlins.
The lineup received other veteran contributions, especially from resurgent catcher Travis d’Arnaud and outfielder Adam Duvall. The dynamic young duo of Ronald Acuna Jr., the 22-year-old leadoff hitter who had almost as many home runs (14) as singles (15), and 23-year-old second baseman Ozzie Albies, who hit .271 in an injury-shortened season, also helped push the Braves to their third East Division title in a row.
It’s the health of the Braves’ pitching staff, however, that gives them the biggest edge over the Dodgers’ previous playoff opponents.
Ace Max Fried has recovered from a September injured-list stint to start both of the team’s Game 1 wins. Rookie right-hander Ian Anderson flourished after a mid-season call-up and has not given up a run in 11⅔ postseason innings. No. 3 starter Kyle Wright blanked the Marlins over six innings Thursday in his postseason debut to complete the Braves’ NLDS sweep.
The Braves’ bullpen is also deep, led by closer Mark Melancon and featuring six relievers who recorded sub-3.00 earned-run averages in at least 18 appearances this year.
In their five playoff games, the Braves shut out their opponent four times.
“They’re a really good team,” Dodgers catcher Will Smith said. “Really high-powered offense. Got some good arms. Should be a good matchup. Should be a lot of good baseball. We’re looking forward to it.”
Atlanta’s first two opponents were nothing like the Dodgers either.
Whereas the Marlins and Reds ranked in the bottom third of MLB in runs, the Dodgers led all of baseball. Whereas those lineups lacked the talent and experience of a true postseason juggernaut, the Dodgers scored 23 runs and had a .287 team batting average in the NLDS against the Padres.
Globe Life Field will seat 11,500 fans at each World Series and National League Championship Series game, but temperatures won’t be taken to gain admission.
“The Dodgers’ team is obviously great,” Braves catching coach Sal Fasano said. “What we have to do is break it down, understand that they’re going to make contact, and when they make contact, hopefully we’re gonna be in the right position.
“We can’t pitch for a strikeout all the time with this team because they have a chance to do damage.”
The Dodgers also have the advantage of knowing Globe Life Field, the newly built host site for the NLCS in Arlington, Texas, that the Braves have yet to visit.
For the first time this season, there will be a limited number of fans allowed to attend the series as well. One of every four seats should be filled, a total of 11,500 per game.
“I expect Dodger fans to be out here, cheering hard and really giving us that home-field advantage,” Smith said. “I’m looking forward to it. I’m assuming all my teammates are. It will probably up the intensity a little bit. But once the game starts, it’s intense. It’s every pitch matters.”
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