ARLINGTON, Texas — The final team standing between the Dodgers and another trip to the World Series is the only other one with an undefeated postseason record. The Atlanta Braves, after going 35-25 to win the NL East, went 5-0 with four shutouts against the Cincinnati Reds and Miami Marlins to earn their first trip to the National League Championship Series since 2001.
They scored the second-most runs in the majors during the regular season (one fewer than the Dodgers) and hit the second-most home runs (15 fewer than the Dodgers). Now the teams will play a best-of-seven series at Globe Life Field, where fly balls go to die.
Game 1 is scheduled for Monday at 5:08 p.m. PDT. The Dodgers, the NL’s top seed, will be the home team. Who has the edge? Let’s take a look:
The Dodgers are one of the few teams in the majors with five capable starting pitchers; it’s such a surplus that they traded a starter at the trade deadline. That doesn’t mean there aren’t questions. The biggest one will take center stage in Game 1: What will they get from Walker Buehler? The right-hander hasn’t thrown more than four innings in a start since Sept. 2 because of a blister on his right index finger. Clayton Kershaw will start Game 2. Game 3 and beyond will depend on how the first two games go. But with the potential of playing seven games in seven days, the Dodgers will need Tony Gonsolin, Julio Urías and Dustin May to log starters’ innings even if they come out of the bullpen as “bulk” pitchers.
The Braves rotation was never at full strength this season. All-Star Mike Soroka tore his Achilles tendon in his third start. Cole Hamels, a veteran signed to a one-year contract, made one start before succumbing to shoulder fatigue. Without them, Studio City Harvard-Westlake High graduate Max Fried emerged as a Cy Young Award candidate with a 2.25 ERA in 11 starts. He’ll start Game 1. Game 2 will go to rookie right-hander Ian Anderson, who made his debut Aug. 26 and only once in eight starts has yielded more than two earned runs. He’s tossed 11 2/3 scoreless innings across two playoff outings. Kyle Wright likely will start Game 3. He had a 5.21 ERA in eight regular season starts before logging six scoreless innings in Game 3 of the NLDS.
Dodgers manager Dave Roberts has said this is the best bullpen he’s had during his five-year tenure. Still, they enter the NLCS with uncertainty at the back end. Kenley Jansen is no longer the Dodgers’ closer. Roberts danced around that fact after Jansen’s disastrous performance in Game 2 of the NLDS, but the chances of Jansen pitching in a save situation again in 2020 are slim to none. The Dodgers have options, but none stand out as an obvious answer for the ninth inning. Brusdar Graterol, Blake Treinen, Joe Kelly, and Victor González figure to be in the late-game mix.
The Braves don’t have any such uncertainty. Mark Melancon, another cutter-heavy right-hander, has solidified himself as the closer for a stingy relief corps. Chris Martin, Shane Green, A.J. Minter and Will Smith are among the arms that make the Braves’ bullpen one of the best in the majors — and helped the club absorb rotation troubles.
Braves first baseman Freddie Freeman, an Orange native, contracted COVID-19 in July. His fever spiked to 104.5 degrees one night. He prayed for his life. Then he returned to put together what might end up being his first MVP season. Freeman appeared in all 60 regular season games and batted .341 with 13 home runs, 23 doubles, and a 1.102 OPS. Ozzie Albies is a dynamic second baseman, but missed a month with a wrist injury and posted a 99 OPS+ — 100 is average — in 29 regular season games. He’s four for 20 in the playoffs. Shortstop Dansby Swanson had his best offensive season (110 OPS+). Third baseman Austin Riley batted .239 with an 86 OPS+ in 51 regular season games.
The Dodgers don’t have a leading MVP candidate in the infield, but they have the more complete group. Shortstop Corey Seager had five hits, four walks, and a sacrifice in the first two rounds to pick up where he left off from a torrid regular season. Third baseman Justin Turner is just two for 18 in the postseason but he is a proven playoff performer who took the Dodgers’ all-time franchise lead in postseason hits (64) in the NLDS. Chris Taylor and Kiké Hernández are likely to split time at second base. First baseman Max Muncy had a frustrating season (97 OPS+), but has a .409 OBP (three hits, six walks) in the postseason.
The Braves have a young superstar in Ronald Acuña Jr., but the Dodgers have two former MVPs roaming the outfield. Cody Bellinger didn’t play like the reigning MVP during the regular season, but the center fielder shined in the NLDS at the plate (he hit the Dodgers’ only home run), defensively (The Catch), and with his speed (he recorded an infield hit and forced an error). Meanwhile, Mookie Betts has continued showing off his all-around game. The right fielder has five doubles in five playoff games. He executed a timely double-steal. He’s been the Dodgers’ metronome out of the leadoff spot. AJ Pollock has emerged as the team’s everyday left fielder after slugging 16 home runs in the regular season.
The Dodgers will go from facing Fernando Tatis Jr. to confronting Acuña Jr., another one of baseball’s top young stars. The 22-year-old overcame a slow start to finish with 14 home runs and a .987 OPS in the regular season. Left fielder Adam Duvall has power and right fielder Nick Markakis, who originally opted out of the season and rejoined the team in early August, is steady. Veteran Ender Inciarte was the club’s opening day center fielder but lost his job, batted .190, and didn’t make the team’s NLDS roster.
Both clubs have benefited from breakout seasons from their starting catchers, but the Dodgers boast the better depth.
For the Braves, Travis d’Arnaud, a Dodger for about a week last season, continued a resurgence he started with the Tampa Bay Rays in 2019. The former New York Met, who signed a two-year deal over the offseason, batted .321 with a .919 OPS in 44 games during the regular season. He’s eight for 19 with two doubles and two home runs in the Braves’ five playoff games.
For the Dodgers, Will Smith has emerged as one of the sport’s top hitting catchers in his first (sort of) full major league season. The 25-year-old dealt with bad luck early in the campaign before the hard-hit balls started falling. He finished the regular season with eight home runs and a .980 OPS. A similar pattern developed in the postseason; he was 0 for 11 before setting a franchise playoff record with five hits in Game 3 of the NLDS.
The difference lies in the backup catchers. The Dodgers’ Austin Barnes is four for five in the playoffs. He will start when Kershaw pitches, moving Smith over to designated hitter. Tyler Flowers, the Braves’ backup, hasn’t taken an at-bat in the postseason. He batted. 217 with a .673 OPS in 22 regular season games.
Marcell Ozuna, an outfielder by trade, settled into the DH spot for Atlanta and is an instrumental piece in the middle of the lineup. The 29-year-old batted .338 with a 1.067 OPS and 18 home runs during the regular season after signing a one-year, $18-million contract.
The Dodgers cycled through several players at DH during the regular season but only Pederson, Ríos and Smith have gotten the DH starts in the postseason.
The Dodgers’ bench isn’t as strong as in the past when they platooned at multiple positions, but it still features versatility and names with postseason pedigree. Hernández has hit three home runs in a playoff game and can play anywhere on the diamond. Joc Pederson’s postseason résumé includes huge hits. He had a forgettable regular season, but went two for three with two RBIs in Game 3 of the NLDS. The Dodgers’ group would get a boost if Edwin Ríos is deemed ready to go after missing the NLDS with a groin injury.
The Braves’ bench for the NLDS included infielders Pablo Sandoval and Charlie Culberson, outfielder Cristian Pache and Flowers. They could swap in Johan Camargo, a versatile infielder, or Inciarte. Pache is regarded as a top-10 prospect across baseball, but likely would serve as a pinch-runner or late-inning defensive replacement.
GAME 1 PROJECTED LINEUPS
1. Mookie Betts RF
2. Corey Seager SS
3. Justin Turner 3B
4. Max Muncy 1B
5. Will Smith C
6. Cody Bellinger CF
7. AJ Pollock DH
8. Chris Taylor LF
9. Kiké Hernández 2B
1. Ronald Acuña Jr.
2. Freddie Freeman 1B
3. Marcell Ozuna DH
4. Travis d’Arnaud C
5. Ozzie Albies 2B
6. Dansby Swanson SS
7. Adam Duvall LF
8. Nick Markakis RF
9. Austin Riley 3B