LOS ANGELES -- Pardon the Braves if they remain on edge despite building a 2-0 advantage in the National League Championship Series. While teams with a 2-0 lead in any best-of-seven series have historically fared well, going on to take that series 84% of the time (73 of 87), the most recent comeback involved the Dodgers swatting aside the Braves' 2-0 and 3-1 leads to win last year’s NL pennant.
So it’s unsurprising that Atlanta is on guard against a repeat heading into Game 3 on Tuesday at Dodger Stadium, featuring a roster that, in manager Brian Snitker’s words, has gained “a year’s more maturity as a club and experience in what we did.”
“I’ve said before we found out how hard it is to win a game, and you can’t take anything for granted, and you’ve got to go after today,” Snitker added. “But I think with a year’s experience and in the same position, that these guys are better versed for it right now.”
The Braves also have more than just experience working in their favor:
1. Atlanta’s rotation is legit
Upon jumping out to a 2-0 series lead last year, the Braves found themselves with no easy pitching answers. A lack of experienced depth prompted them to turn in Game 3 to Kyle Wright, who had produced a 6.22 ERA over 19 career regular-season outings, and in Game 4 to Bryse Wilson, another rookie with a 5.91 lifetime ERA. The pandemic also condensed the NLCS schedule, forcing Atlanta to choose between a bullpen game or Max Fried on short rest in Game 5.
None of it was ideal. And although Wilson pitched well in his start, Wright struggled badly, as did several members of a taxed bullpen in Game 5. The result was a win and two losses, giving Los Angeles plenty of momentum by the time Fried and Ian Anderson came back around for Games 6 and 7.
This year, the situation has completely changed. The acquisition of Charlie Morton gives Atlanta an experienced veteran ready to go for Game 3, followed by the only bullpen day that Snitker will need to manage in Game 4. Should they lose one or both, the Braves can turn back to Fried, Anderson and Morton in order, all on regular rest, with the final two games in front of jacked-up home crowds at Truist Park. These are luxuries Snitker simply didn’t have a year ago.
2. Dodgers’ rotation isn’t in the same shape
Walker Buehler will provide a Game 3 challenge for the Braves -- there’s no getting around that. But Atlanta proved in the eighth inning on Sunday that it can hit presumptive Game 4 starter Julio Urías, whose relief work could affect his next outing for the worse -- just look at how Max Scherzer performed in his first start back from a bullpen cameo. The Dodgers also won’t be able to take a series lead at any point without winning a bullpen game in Game 5, whereas the Braves can lose their bullpen game and still maintain an edge.
None of this is a knock on the Dodgers’ rotation, which produced a Major League-leading 2.93 ERA during the regular season. But with Clayton Kershaw and others absent, that group looks as vulnerable as it has in a while.
3. This time around, there’s no bullpen mismatch
The Dodgers ranked second in the Majors with a 3.12 ERA this season, while the Braves were 11th at 3.94. But a closer look reveals that the gap in bullpen ERAs has closed:
• Since the start of August: Dodgers 2.40, Braves 3.11
• Since the start of September: Dodgers 2.55, Braves 2.67
• Since the start of the playoffs: Dodgers 2.21, Braves 1.52
To be clear, these are both elite units. Los Angeles relievers have generally done their jobs excellently. But with Tyler Matzek, A.J. Minter, Luke Jackson and Will Smith all pitching well, Atlanta has been able to neutralize one of the Dodgers’ foremost advantages. Recall that in last year’s NLCS, Braves relievers produced a 6.82 ERA. It’s a different story this time around.
4. Gone are many of the offensive villains
Even in jumping out to a 3-1 series lead last year, the Braves struggled to contain Los Angeles hitters, allowing them to hit for an .820 OPS in those games. Of particular note were Max Muncy, Edwin Ríos, Corey Seager, Kiké Hernández and Joc Pederson, all of whom posted OPS figures above 1.200 from Games 1-4.
Muncy is not on this year’s NLCS roster due to a left elbow injury. Ríos is recovering from right shoulder surgery. Hernández is with the Red Sox while Pederson is, of course, a member of the Braves.
Seager remains, and while it would be foolish to count out him, Mookie Betts, Justin Turner and the Dodgers’ other top sluggers, Braves pitchers have mostly managed to neutralize that bunch. They only need to figure out how to do so two more times.
5. Freddie Freeman is walking through that door
One man unlikely to stay down for long is Freeman, whose string of seven consecutive strikeouts to open the NLCS seemed less troubling thanks to Atlanta’s inability to win. Consider his downturn unlikely to last. Counting the postseason, Freeman has four home runs in 26 career at-bats against Buehler and Urías. He hit .340/.415/.468 over the final two weeks of the regular season and .308/.471/.615 in the NL Division Series, so it’s not as if this slump has lingered long.
With Freeman, a breakout seems more “when” than “if.” For a Braves team anchored around him, there is perhaps no better reason for optimism with a 2-0 series lead.