• Dustin May

    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.

    Message Delivered: Braves Beat L.A., Make Statement

    By Bud L. Ellis

    BravesWire.com

    ATLANTA – Braves fans metaphorically circled this third weekend in August the moment their return-to-prominence 2018 season expired last October at the hands of the Los Angeles Dodgers.

    This weekend became underlined with red ink after the monsters from the West Coast, the two-time defending National League champion, raced through the Braves by an aggregate score of 23-7 during an ugly three-game sweep in early May at Chavez Ravine. Entering the weekend, the Braves were 7-20 since 2016 against Los Angeles. Any hopes of October greatness, dampened by the sobering realization that the Dreaded Blue Menace – their immense big-league talent, their seemingly limitless payroll, their stacked farm system – stands menacingly at the toll booth.

    So naturally, the Braves won this series so many had denoted weeks and months in advance. Standing inside SunTrust Park (aka the city’s largest sauna) Sunday afternoon, I was struck at how this weekend transpired. The Braves finally beat the Dodgers, logging their first series victory against Los Angeles since 2015. That’s noteworthy in and of itself.

    But the real story is how they did so.

    They did so with Freddie Freeman not recording a hit. They did so with Dansby Swanson and Nick Markakis and Austin Riley stuck on the injured list. They did so with Ender Inciarte playing just two innings in the series. They did so with Ronald Acuna Jr. playing just four innings in the series finale.

    They did so with the likes of Adeiny Hechavarria, Adam Duvall and Rafael Ortega playing major roles.

    Just like we all drew it up, right?

    Baseball is beautiful because it can get so absurd at times, and the level of “what the heck” peaked several times in a series where the Braves sought to deliver a statement to the Dodgers. Since leaving Los Angeles on May 8, Atlanta is 56-33 while clearly establishing itself as the second-best team in the NL. But no such announcement of arrival – or at least a notice of threatening to storm the castle – would carry any weight without actual head-to-head evidence.

    In other words, the Braves had a chance to prove something this weekend. And they delivered the message in the most absurd way. Consider:

    • Atlanta’s most resurgent hitter of late, Inciarte, sprained his hamstring racing home with a run in the second inning Friday. Inciarte, who admirably found a way to score on the play, is lost for at least a month, further depleting a depth chart that is so thin at the moment Ortega – he of 113 big-league games before Sunday – is in the majors.
    • Duvall, mired in a 3-for-33 slump that resulted in his demotion to Triple-A Gwinnett on Friday afternoon, hastily was recalled after the Inciarte injury. His sixth-inning homer Saturday off Cy Young favorite Hyun-Jin Ryu snapped a 3-all tie and lifted the Braves to a 4-3 victory.
    • Hechavarria, who wasn’t even with the organization Friday morning, started at shortstop all three games. He collected at least one hit in each and went 4-for-9 in the series, while settling a position defensively that had become a black hole since Swanson’s heel sent him to the injured list.
    • Then there’s Ortega, who played 41 games with the Marlins in 2018 and acquitted himself well at Gwinnett this season, hitting .285 with 21 homers and 14 steals. He was added to the 40-man roster and brought to the majors to serve as the last man off the bench. All he did Sunday was start in left field, move to center, then dramatically flip the game with a sixth-inning grand slam off Dustin May, the No. 33 prospect in baseball according to MLB Pipeline.

    Ortega’s defensive switch came as a result of a day Acuna won’t soon forget. It began by him nearly making another “catch-of-the-season” type play in the first, leaping high at the fence in center and getting his glove on Cody Bellinger’s three-run homer, the 21-year-old dropping his glove and hat to the warning track dirt in disbelief that he didn’t record his second homer-robbing catch in four games.

    Then came the third inning, and an opposite-field shot high off the bricks in right-center. Acuna admired the ball for far too long, never really got into a sprint and found himself standing on first base instead of second. He then compounded the mistake by trying to steal on the first pitch, when the entire ballpark knew he was going (including the Dodgers, who called a pitchout), resulting in a caught stealing.

    Both moments destroyed what should have been runners on second and third, no outs, and Ozzie Albies, Freeman and Josh Donaldson coming to the plate in a 3-0 game. Acuna’s day ended after four innings, Snitker taking his young phenom into the tunnel for a conversation, then returning to the manager’s post while Acuna headed to the clubhouse.

    Braves Twitter, to the shock of nobody, combusted in flames. (For what it’s worth, I was watching the flight of the ball, then watching the relay, and didn’t see Acuna’s lack of hustle out of the box live. Upon seeing it on replay, it was egregious.). The view here is it was a necessary message delivered and will serve as a lesson learned.

    It wasn’t the only message delivered this weekend, although it will be one the blogosphere and national media will hyper-focus upon. Nobody will equate a series in the sauna of August with one played amid the chill of October. But for the Braves to be taken seriously, at some point they had to beat the Dodgers. That mission was accomplished, and for all the weirdness and unsuspecting supporting actors who stepped up, don’t lose sight of how the Braves navigated the weekend.

    Mike Soroka pitched like an ace against a juggernaut offense. Mike Foltynewicz needed 107 pitches to get through 4 2/3 innings Saturday, but stayed focused and grinded through times when a few weeks ago he may have crumbled. Max Fried shook off allowing three runs in a rough first inning Sunday to give the Braves five innings and keep the game close.

    And as important as the beginning of the game was this weekend, the most telling sign is what happened when the bullpen gate opened. Yes, Sean Newcomb coughed up the lead Friday, but don’t overlook his 1 1/3 perfect innings Saturday that netted him the win after homers by Donaldson and Duvall in the sixth. Anthony Swarzak fired a scoreless inning Sunday.

    That paved the way to the closing trio of Chris Martin, Shane Greene and Mark Melancon – lauded as terrific moves at the trade deadline, but ones that had delivered mostly terrible results. On this weekend, we finally saw three guys settled into their roles, and the productivity speaks for itself.

    Martin struck out two in a perfect ninth Friday and breezed through a perfect seventh Sunday. Greene needed 16 pitches to strike out the side in the eighth Saturday, and half that number to record a 1-2-3 eighth Sunday. Melancon worked the ninth Saturday and Sunday, allowing just one hit while recording a pair of saves.

    The Braves won the series so many had circled with so many unexpected pieces contributing. They won the series with several key cogs sidelined. They won the rubber game with their brightest young star benched.

    Most importantly, they won the series with their new bullpen triumvirate doing what they were brought here to do: Help a very good team surge closer to the top. That’s where the Dodgers reside. That’s where the Braves seek to be. After this weekend, the Braves aren’t there yet, but they’re closer.

    And the Dodgers know it.

    —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.