The National League Championship Series stage was set when the Dodgers and Braves both punched their ticket way back on Thursday -- an eternity ago, in baseball time. Brusdar Graterol has long since picked up the hat and glove he chucked in celebration of that great Cody Bellinger catch, and Travis d'Arnaud has exceeded the mandatory waiting period between postseason ding dongs. These boys are ready to play.
To have to wait all the way until Monday night for the start of the NLCS action at Globe Life Field seems cruel.
But thankfully, here at MLB.com, we’re not going to make you wait one second longer. We have looked into the future. We have seen this series. And we are willing to reveal the results right here, free of charge.
All you have to do is promise not to tell any of this to the socially distanced fans expected to attend these games. After all, they’re excited about the prospect of watching live sports in person again, and we want them to be surprised.
OK, here’s what happens …
1) Max Fried will be the story of Game 1.
The Los Angeles native who grew up idolizing Sandy Koufax will emulate his hero in the series opener. Fried didn’t just have a 2.25 ERA in the regular season; he was elite in terms of opponent exit velocity, hard-hit percentage, expected slugging percentage and barrel percentage.
All of these traits are going to play up in this Texas-sized ballpark, and what few fans who don’t already know the name Max Fried will know it after he dominates this deep Dodgers lineup in Game 1. The Braves will take a 1-0 series lead to announce their arrival as a legitimate threat to L.A.
2) And Clayton Kershaw's going to come through, too.
Kershaw has settled in now to the bubble in his backyard. A native and resident of nearby Dallas, Kershaw will take the ball in Game 2 and begin to take a real liking to Globe Life Field with his second straight win in the Rangers’ facility. Kershaw’s inconsistent October legacy is baked into a ho-hum 4.61 ERA in 13 career appearances (nine starts) in the NLCS round. But that includes four starts in which he went at least six innings while allowing one or zero runs.
This outing won’t be quite to that level (the Braves will tag him for a couple solo homers), but it will be another strong showing in what has, in terms of limiting traffic, been a resurgent season for the future Hall of Famer.
3) The Dodgers’ defensive advantage will be a big deal.
L.A. ranked second in defensive runs saved, at plus-29. The Braves ranked a distant 21st, at minus-8. It can’t be overstated how much the size of the ballpark could limit the long ball (per ESPN’s Park Factors, Globe Life Field rated as the most difficult ballpark to go deep in this year). So the ability to turn balls in play into outs will be even more elemental than usual.
The Dodgers’ deep staff is particularly skilled at limiting runs scored by non-homers because of the help they get on the defensive end. It’s going to be a difference-maker when the Dodgers begin to seize the series in Games 3 and 4.
4) The bullpens, though, are going to keep it interesting.
The Kenley Jansen issue is going to come to a head in a best-of-seven series with no off-days. We’ve seen and heard enough to know manager Dave Roberts doesn’t trust him in high-leverage spots. There are multiple other options to close out games. But will Joe Kelly walk on the wild side? Will Blake Treinen's September issues (nine runs in 10 2/3 innings) come to the forefront against a loaded Braves lineup? Will Graterol’s low strikeout rate limit his ability to get out of a big jam? Would the Dodgers rob from the rotation to put the fireballing Dustin May in during the late innings?
The Braves’ advantage in this series is that they don’t carry such questions. In Mark Melancon, Tyler Matzek, Chris Martin, Will Smith, Darren O'Day and Shane Greene, they have depth in leverage options, which will allow them to stay in the hunt even if starters Ian Anderson and Kyle Wright can’t quite deliver at the level they did in the earlier rounds. As a result, this series is going six games.
5) We will be reminded that Justin Turner is an October legend.
The free-agent-to-be, coming off a characteristically strong offensive year (.860 OPS, 135 OPS+) has been kept uncharacteristically quiet in the postseason to date. He’s just 2-for-18 and without an extra-base hit. This is not the red-bearded beast we came to see!
But fear not, friends. Turner will turn it on. There has been some bad batted-ball luck baked into his postseason. The difference between his weighted on-base average (.197) and expected wOBA (.301) is the fourth largest of any player whose club is still alive in this tournament. Turner had a career .931 postseason OPS with nine homers and 13 doubles in 236 plate appearances prior to this year. He’ll be back. And he’ll be the NLCS MVP, as he was in 2017.
6) And yes, the favorites will advance.
I picked the Braves to win the NL pennant back on New Year’s Day (I, uh, decided to leave out all the stuff about the looming pandemic). I stuck with that pick going into the shortened season. I lost faith when what looked to be a robust rotation instead lost its wheels, carburetor, windows and muffler, and the radio dial got stuck on AM. Despite all that, and to its credit, Atlanta has pieced together not just an effective postseason staff but one that has produced a 0.92 ERA through five games. And I don’t put it past the Braves to pull off this upset because of the aforementioned bullpen depth.
But the Dodgers (.821 team OPS in the regular season) are just different than the Marlins (.703) and Reds (.715). There’s no getting around it. This team is a machine, and that machine will prevail in six games. The Dodgers are headed back to the World Series for the third time in four years. I won’t tell you how that ends, though. I don’t want to give everything away here.