4 keys for the Braves-Dodgers NLCS

October 16th, 2021

ATLANTA -- For the second consecutive October, the Dodgers and Braves will square off in the National League Championship Series, which begins tonight at Truist Park.

Can these teams possibly top last year's seven-game thriller? We’re about to find out. Here are four things that might decide this year’s rematch.

Length from the Atlanta starters
It's not quite 2020, when the seven games of the NLCS were staged across seven consecutive days, with games held at a single neutral site in Arlington. Still, these two rotations will be tested.

That's especially true of the Braves. If there's one weakness for Atlanta, it's the bullpen, particularly the middle innings. The best way to solve that? Longer outings from the starting pitchers.

The Braves just might have the arms for it. Should the series go seven games, Max Fried, Charlie Morton and Ian Anderson would presumably get two starts apiece.

"I feel really good about all three of the guys that we're going to be featuring," said Braves manager Brian Snitker. "It's a significant difference from a year ago when we started this tournament."

Morton and Fried opened the NLDS with consecutive quality starts. Anderson followed them with five scoreless frames in Game 3. And while Morton's Game 4 start was cut short, that can be excused because he was on short rest.

Now, the challenge gets tougher. Per wRC+, the Brewers had the 11th best offense in the NL. The Dodgers' offense ranked second.

"They're relentless," Snitker said. "I know offensively these guys just, the at-bats they put up, are something else. They just keep coming after you."

Can Turner and Turner turn things around?
For all the Dodgers' regular-season success on offense, the NLDS against the Giants was a strange one. They were shut out in Games 1 and 3. They scored nine and seven runs, respectively, in Games 2 and 4. Then, when it mattered most in a decisive Game 5, the Dodgers bats had just enough to offer.

But, man, they could sure use a bit more consistency. Without question, the best way to get it would be to get more from two of their most prominent right-handed bats -- Justin Turner and Trea Turner.

In the NLDS, the two infielders combined to go just 4-for-42 (.095) with one walk. The at-bat quality was particularly poor for two hitters who are typically much better.

Looking for a potential breakout? Well, both Turners get a favorable right-on-left matchup in Game 1. Sure, Fried has been excellent lately. But Trea Turner owns a .333/.417/.524 career slash line against Fried. Justin Turner is 5-for-10 with a homer.

Which team plays its rotation cards right?
The Dodgers, fresh off a five-game thriller against the Giants, have the tougher decisions to make here. But both teams need to sort through some starting pitching questions -- the types of questions that could make or break the series.

Let's start with L.A. The Dodgers are still weighing whether to start Max Scherzer in Game 1, after he threw 13 pitches in relief on Friday night. Their other option would be to go with a bullpen game, perhaps featuring Tony Gonsolin.

There are common-sense reasons to say that the Dodgers should just give Scherzer an extra day to ensure he’s at his peak when he pitches. But it’s not that simple. Neither Walker Buehler nor Julio Urías could pitch Game 1, either. That leaves the Dodgers scrambling to find Game 1 arms. It also has repercussions later in the series. Los Angeles would probably only get five scheduled starts from its three aces, rather than six.

As such, Scherzer in Game 1 would be a huge boost for the Dodgers’ late-series pitching plans. But at what cost?

“Maybe he might be a little tired from pitching yesterday,” Braves slugger Freddie Freeman mused. “But, no, probably not, knowing Max.”

The Braves have a conundrum of their own, albeit a lesser one. Fried is starting Game 1. But they haven’t announced a Game 2 starter. That could be Morton on normal rest. But Morton threw on three days' rest in his most recent start. If they were to give Morton the extra day, they could schedule Anderson for Games 2 and 6 and Morton in Games 3 and 7.

There’s some benefit to that strategy. Morton boasts plenty of big-game experience and might be the right call for the first game at Dodger Stadium. Plus, Morton and Fried have routinely given the Braves length. If they’re pitching Games 3 and 5, that would lessen the burden on the Game 4 starter -- whoever that may be -- or on the bullpen, in the event of a potential bullpen day.

Freddie and Mookie
It is, of course, oversimplifying things to say this series might come down to two players. These are two of the deepest and most balanced rosters in baseball, and that's the biggest reason both are still playing.

Then again, Freeman and Mookie Betts are perhaps the two brightest stars left in this postseason. And they are no stranger to the big moments.

Consider their impact on the deciding games of the NLDS. It was Freeman's eighth-inning homer in Game 4 that proved to be the difference against Milwaukee. Meanwhile, Betts became the first player in Dodgers history with four hits in a winner-take-all game.

Betts and Freeman are perhaps the two offensive players who can truly take over a game in this series. It's not a stretch to say that a big game or two from either of them might swing the NLCS. They were stars of last year's edition after all, and both have a wealth of experience against this week's opponent.

"There's going to be no surprises," Freeman said. "They’re familiar with us, we're familiar with them, so I think it's just going to be another good series just like it was last year."