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    NLCS Preview: Braves Look the Part, but Do They Have Enough to Topple Favored Dodgers?

    By Bud L. Ellis

    BravesWire.com

    user282416407 · BravesWire NLCS Preview 2020

    SOMEWHERE IN NORTH GEORGIA – They came home from the west coast having been outscored 9-0 in two games, walking into that new ballpark at the confluence of Interstates 75 and 285 on Oct. 7, 2018, hoping to just win one game against the mighty Los Angeles Dodgers.

    The Atlanta Braves did so that night, riding Ronald Acuna Jr.’s famous grand slam and a tiebreaking homer from Freddie Freeman to beat the Dodgers 6-5 in Game 3 of the National League Division Series at SunTrust Park. Less than 24 hours later the series and season were over, but the Braves status as a contender only was beginning.

    Here they are now, winners of not one but two postseason series to bury the 19-year series drought narrative, in the NL Championship Series for the first time since 2001. So it’s only fitting the final obstacle between the franchise and its first World Series appearance in 21 years is the Dodgers, the measuring stick for every other major league team.

    Those Braves of 2018 were fresh faced, bright eyed, young and maybe a bit awestruck in those first two losses at Dodger Stadium. As manager Brian Snitker told reporters Saturday, “I thought when we faced them the last time, and I said afterward, we weren’t as strong as they were. We’ve made a lot of progress in that regard.

    “We’re a stronger team than we were two years ago.”

    We’re about to see just how strong starting Monday, as the Braves and Dodgers lift the lid on the NLCS with Game 1. It’s 2020, so naturally the road to the World Series technically runs not through Chavez Ravine, but Globe Life Field in Arlington, Texas.

    The Dodgers are the favorites in this series, as they should be. They’ve been here, done that. At some point, we all reasoned the Braves would have to go through the Dodgers to get to the World Series.

    Now, Atlanta gets that chance.

    Two Teams, One Pennant: MLB Network discusses the Braves/Dodgers matchup in the NLCS.

    Five Keys to the Series

    Can They Do It Again?: Snitker joked Saturday he didn’t have any choice but to feel comfortable with Ian Anderson and Kyle Wright taking the ball for Games 2 and 3, respectively. He then talked about how the young hurlers, who had combined for 18 major-league starts before the postseason began, have handled the playoff pressure.

    Yeah, you could say it’s going pretty well. Anderson and Wright have teamed up to allow five hits with 24 strikeouts and five walks across 17 2/3 shutout innings in three starts (two by Anderson, one by Wright). The Braves first-round draft picks in 2016 and 2017, Anderson and Wright have helped the Braves author four shutouts in five games in these playoffs.

    It would be foolish to expect Atlanta to continue posting zeros at that historic rate – opponents have scored in just three of 49 innings. But the confidence of Anderson and Wright, plus Game 1 starter Max Fried, is soaring at just the right time. Through two rounds, the Braves rotation has morphed from the shakiest part of the team to a difference-making strength.

    Snit Speaks: Atlanta manager Brian Snitker addresses the media before the NLCS.

    Who Can Be More Offensive: Take a look at the top of the team offensive stats from the regular season, and you’ll see a common theme: these two teams. Homers: Dodgers first in the majors, Braves second. Runs scored: Dodgers first, Braves second. OPS: Braves first, Dodgers second. OBP: Braves first, Dodgers second. Slugging percentage: Braves and Dodgers, tied for first.

    You get the idea. Both teams can hit. Good pitching stops good hitting in the postseason, as we heard plenty leading into the Reds series. And while one can argue Atlanta has faced better pitching overall on its path here, the Dodgers lead playoff teams in hard-hit rate (95 mph and higher) at 48 percent. Who’s second? Of course it’s the Braves (47.4 percent).

    Both offenses will face better pitching in this round than in the previous five games. And while the Dodgers have hit just two homers in five playoff games (Atlanta has seven), they still are averaging six runs a game. Former MVP Cody Bellinger is 6-for-19 with five RBIs this October after going 14-for-99 with nine RBIs in his previous five postseason series. He typically hits sixth in a L.A. lineup that is the deepest in the sport.

    Walk This Way: Dodgers manager Dave Roberts announces Walker Buehler will start Monday’s Game 1 of the NLCS.

    Buehler … Buehler: Walker Buehler takes the ball for L.A. in Game 1, and while the right-hander has pitched only four innings in each of his first two postseason starts due to blister issues, he’s struck out eight in each outing while surrendering a total of three runs and five hits. It will be the ninth career playoff start for the 26-year-old out of Vanderbilt; perhaps you remember his first?

    After giving up 10 runs across his first three career postseason efforts, Buehler has allowed four runs in his past five appearances with 38 strikeouts and 12 walks in 20 2/3 innings. Four of those walks came in the NLDS opener against San Diego.

    The Dodgers have watched lefty Clayton Kershaw turn back the clock this month – 19 strikeouts and one walk with a .180 opponents batting average in 14 innings. If Buehler pitches well in Game 1 and (presumably) Game 6, the uphill climb for the Braves get steeper.

    Braves Top Trio Must Be Heroes: No team had a better top three in its lineup this season than the Braves, as Acuna, Freeman and Marcell Ozuna all put together campaigns that will likely see each finish in the top 10 of MVP voting. And while all three have enjoyed moments so far this postseason, the overall production has not been what the Braves must have to beat the Dodgers.

    Acuna began the NLDS with an emphatic leadoff homer against Miami, but has struck out in 50 percent of his 22 playoff at-bats with just one homer and two walks. Freeman’s lone RBI came on his walkoff 13th-inning single in Game 1 of the NL Wild Card series against Cincinnati. Ozuna delivered two key hits in Game 1 against the Marlins, but has just three other hits with 10 strikeouts and no walks in 22 ABs.

    Freeman and Ozuna each collected two hits in Atlanta’s series-closing Game 3 victory Thursday. Acuna has shined in October during his young career, slashing .304/.400/.607 with a 1.007 OPS, six doubles, one triple and three homers in 65 postseason plate appearances. While Travis d’Arnaud has been the Braves best hitter in the playoffs, the three hitters ahead of him in the lineup must have big series for the Braves to advance.

    Moving On: Braves first baseman Freddie Freeman talks about beating Miami in the NL Division Series and advancing to the NLCS for the first time in his career.

    Win Early to Keep Playing: With potentially seven games in seven days, each pitching staff will bear more weight the longer the NLCS goes. That weight only gets heavier for the team that falls behind in the series, which is why the Braves need to win at least two of the first three games to have a realistic shot to capture the pennant.

    The good news is the Atlanta bullpen is as deep as any in baseball, putting up zeros in the postseason at a historic level. Tyler Matzek has become a revelation whose comeback story will get well-deserved national play this week. A.J. Minter has reinvigorated his career with a change-up. Now that Will Smith has found his stride after COVID-19 delayed his debut, he looks like the weapon the Braves handsomely paid for last winter.

    The Dodgers bullpen is very good – their relievers posted a 2.74 ERA and 1.044 WHIP in the regular season – but questions abound around Kenley Jansen’s hold on the closer’s role. L.A. does have options to close, namely veteran Blake Treinen. One name to watch: Brusdar Graterol, a hard-throwing right-hander who features 100 mph velocity and wicked movement.

    The X-Factors: Who Are You?

    This series is chock full of star power on both sides, but sometimes it’s an under-the-radar name who seizes the moment. Mike Devereaux and Eddie Perez come to mind from Braves NLCS appearances of yesteryear. For Atlanta, it’s hard not to lean toward Dansby Swanson and his knack for hitting in the clutch (two homers in the NLDS after a rough Wild Card series). If somebody in the bottom half of the Braves order can have a big series (such as Adam Duvall), it amplifies Atlanta’s chances to play beyond Sunday.

    For the Dodgers, infielder/outfielder Chris Taylor (co-NLCS MVP in 2017) is a lifetime .338 hitter against the Braves with a .944 OPS and eight extra-base hits in 65 career at-bats. Most Braves fans will remember him not for a gapper or homer, but a single through the left side with two outs in the ninth inning to break up Sean Newcomb’s 2018 no-hit bid. Taylor, who homered against Atlanta in the NLDS that fall, went 1-for-11 against San Diego in this year’s division series.

    The Difference

    The Braves lineup is as deep as it’s been in years. The Dodgers lineup is a bit deeper. The Braves options for Game 4 are Bryse Wilson, Huascar Yona or Josh Tomlin. The Dodgers options for Game 4 are Dustin May, Julio Urias or Tony Gonsolin. In a matchup of the NL’s top two teams, with a slender margin of error for both sides, these details are not insignificant.

    This is baseball’s stratosphere, and there are those in the game who will tell you winning the pennant is harder than winning the World Series. Even with limited fans at a neutral site, the pressure will be amplified on both teams – the Braves being at this point for the first time in forever; the Dodgers being at this point again with the expectations of World Series title or bust.

    I watched the Braves play that role for years, carrying the burden of trying to fulfill the prophecy of the fanbase and the rest of the sport. It’s not a light lift. Just ask the Dodgers, who followed up World Series losses in 2017-18 with a stunning home loss in Game 5 of the NLDS to the Nationals last fall. Can another NL East squad deny L.A. a World Series date for the second straight October?

    If the Braves win two of the first three games, they will win the series. If they get to a seventh game, they will win the series. It won’t be easy, but the Braves have come so far the past three years, from rebuilding franchise to playoff newcomer to legitimate contender.

    Now comes the next step: National League champions and a trip to the World Series.

    The Pick

    Braves in 7

    On Deck

    Reaction and analysis of every Braves NLCS game, starting Monday night.

    —30—

    Bud L. Ellis is a lifelong Braves fan who worked as a sports writer for daily newspapers throughout Georgia earlier in his writing career, with duties including covering the Atlanta Braves, the World Series and MLB’s All-Star Game. Ellis currently lives in the Atlanta suburbs and contributes his thoughts on Braves baseball and MLB for a variety of outlets. Reach him on Twitter at @bud006.