Game 7 is upon us in the National League Championship Series, and it’s hard to overstate what that means for two franchises steeped in October entries … and October angst.
When the Braves and Dodgers meet one final time at Globe Life Field on Sunday night, an NL pennant is obviously on the line. But so are individual legacies, organizational esteem and the frazzled hearts of two tormented fan bases.
“Game 7,” Dodgers manager Dave Roberts said. “That’s what you live for, man.”
With their 3-1 victory in Game 6 on Saturday, the Dodgers completed a comeback from a 3-1 deficit in this best-of-seven series and maintained hope of ending a World Series title drought that extends to 1988.
But while that drought is a veritable eternity for a big-market ballclub with sustainable resources, it’s particularly pronounced for a team that has captured eight straight NL West titles and two of the past three NL pennants without winning the big one.
Atlanta’s recent history is not quite as conspicuous. We are in Year 3 of a new era of Braves baseball, and the advancement to the NLCS was itself a big step forward.
But the past 30 seasons have, incredibly, seen 20 Braves teams reach the postseason. And almost as incredibly, only one went the distance -- 25 years ago this month. This is the Braves’ chance to not only get to the World Series for the first time this century but to avoid being lumped in with other Atlanta teams (in MLB and elsewhere) that couldn’t hold onto a lead.
So while it’s fun to speculate strictly on what will happen within Game 7 (such as whether Ian Anderson can keep his 15 2/3 scoreless postseason innings streak going in a do-or-die game or how right-hander Dustin May and the Dodgers' bullpen will try to piece together 27 outs), this winner-take-all game is best appreciated from a bigger-picture perspective.
Here is a not-comprehensive-but-compelling list of five folks from each team who have a lot riding on Sunday’s outcome.
Freddie Freeman: Prior to the 2014 season, he signed an eight-year extension that cemented him as the face of the Braves. And then the club blew everything up around him by trading away Jason Heyward, Craig Kimbrel, Andrelton Simmons and Justin Upton over the next 14 months.
Even at the risk of having his prime years wasted, Freeman never wavered in his belief that the Braves were doing the right thing for the long-term success of the franchise, and his faith has been rewarded these last few years. And after a scary bout with COVID-19 in the summer, Freeman’s having perhaps the best season of his great career and a fantastic NLCS (.409 average, two homers, three doubles).
A World Series entry would be a chance for a wider audience to see one of the game’s good guys shine.
Brian Snitker: He’s a disciple of Hall of Famer Bobby Cox. And Cox, as a winner of five pennants and one championship, casts a large shadow.
But Cox won those pennants with rotations fronted by Hall of Famers. The battering the Braves’ rotation has taken this season -- with the losses of Mike Soroka and Cole Hamels and disappointing performance elsewhere -- would make the achievement of advancement all the more sweet and certainly earn Snitker high marks.
Not taking advantage of a 2-0 and 3-1 series lead, on the other hand …
Ronald Acuña Jr.: He’s one of the elite young stars in the sport. But as we are painfully reminded each year by Mike Trout’s Angels, the game’s biggest stage is not guaranteed to even the brightest of lights.
One can never be sure when Acuña, who has struggled in this series (4-for-21), will again have a chance to lead a team to the Fall Classic. He needs to shake off a quiet NLCS and seize the moment.
Marcell Ozuna: With a fantastic performance on a one-year "pillow" contract (1.067 OPS in the regular season, .933 OPS in this NLCS), he’s already established himself as one of the upcoming free-agent market’s top offensive options.
But with the industry deeply affected by the pandemic, every little bit counts in the search for a long-term deal. Boosting the Braves into the World Series can’t possibly hurt Ozuna’s cause.
Pablo Sandoval: Yes, in case you haven’t paid attention to this series to this point, the Panda really is on the Braves. He made the last out of Game 6, and, having been designated for assignment by the Giants a little more than a month ago and done little at the plate this season, his career could be winding down.
So just imagine Sandoval, the 2012 World Series MVP Award winner, getting a chance to play in his fourth Fall Classic. This year has been full of surprises, but that one would have to rate pretty darn high.
Clayton Kershaw: He could conceivably pitch out of the ‘pen on two days’ rest. But whether or not Kershaw actually appears in Game 7, he has a lot on the line. Literally, the only way he is going to shake or reduce the “playoff choker” label -- a label that remains attached after his start went sideways in the sixth in Game 4 on Thursday -- is by pitching well in a World Series that the Dodgers win. Kershaw was on that path in 2017 until … reasons interrupted. He took the loss twice in ‘18.
The Dodgers are built to last, but with a ton of mileage on that left arm, Kershaw can never be sure of another opportunity to redeem himself. He needs this.
Dave Roberts: Speaking of labels, Roberts is trying to avoid being known as an October failure, too. That’s quite a shift in tone for a guy known for keying one of the great rallies in postseason history in his playing days with the 2004 Red Sox. But Roberts’ managerial maneuvering has come under great scrutiny, as the five teams he’s taken to the playoffs have all fallen flat for one reason or another.
The only skippers with more postseason appearances and no World Series titles to show for it are Dusty Baker (10), Bob Melvin (seven) and Ron Gardenhire (six). So yeah, Roberts needs this, too.
Andrew Friedman: The Dodgers executive’s imprint was all over this LCS round, given the impact he had in reinventing the Rays, his hiring of Astros GM James Click as an intern with Tampa Bay and the lessons he taught Alex Anthopoulos when Anthopoulos worked for L.A. while in-between GM jobs with the Blue Jays and Braves.
But if the Dodgers don’t get it done yet again, Friedman will once again face the questions about what he could have done to put Roberts in a better position with his bullpen options. The club has gotten so many aspects of building a championship-caliber roster right, yet relief questions have been an annual rite of October.
Corey Seager: No matter what happens Sunday, Seager has had one of the great individual series performances in recent memory. He's one home run shy of Nelson Cruz’s record (2011 American League Championship Series), and his 11 RBIs are two fewer than Cruz’s record total in that same series.
But all of it means more if Seager’s team actually advances. And with free agency just a year away and the post-2021 shortstop class loaded with stars (Carlos Correa, Francisco Lindor, Trevor Story and Javier Báez), it might be nice to have “2020 NLCS MVP Award” on your business card.
Mookie Betts: He just turned 28, but it’s not too early to start thinking about his Cooperstown case. Betts’ 45.2 career bWAR ranks 16th all-time for a player in his first seven seasons, sandwiched between Frank Robinson (46.0) and Eddie Mathews (45.1).
So Betts is clearly on the trajectory. Playing a big role on pennant winners with multiple franchises is the kind of thing that could tip the scales when the time comes. And in the meantime, well, reaching the World Series with his new club would only add to the superstar status Betts has attained.