NLDS Preview – Braves vs. Dodgers

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Ah, October baseball. You haven’t changed a bit.

Tuesday’s National League Wild Card Game saw the Colorado Rockies come into Wrigley Field and dethrone the Chicago Cubs, the latest snapshot of just how fascinating postseason baseball is.

The National League Division Series surely won’t disappoint, either.

The Los Angeles Dodgers will play host to the Atlanta Braves beginning Thursday night. The Braves, who won the NL East for the first time since 2013, are one of the better stories this baseball season has seen. Atlanta is on the upswing of a rebuild and are making an October appearance a year or two ahead of schedule. So, of course, there’s plenty of young talent on display in this series. Ironically, the last time the Braves were in the playoffs in 2013, they were edged by the Dodgers, 3-1, in the NLDS.

Dave Roberts‘ Dodgers captured their sixth consecutive NL West crown this year. It’s the usual culprits who got them there, a la Clayton Kershaw and Justin Turner, but the Dodgers also boast a few new faces who paved the way to the postseason. They’re the favorite in this series, for several reasons, but if there’s anything we’ve learned about October, it’s that nothing is for certain.

Here is what needs to go right for both teams in order to march to the NLCS.

Los Angeles’s X-Factors

Healthy Kenley

In recent postseasons, we’ve really seen how a dominant back-end of the bullpen can swing a series.

The Dodgers have one of the better relief corps in the game, owning a 3.72 ERA per Fangraphs. Part of that lies on the shoulders of the club’s closer Kenley Jansen. The 31-year-old Jansen had a very up-and-down season, and a key to Los Angeles winning this series is whether he can harness the “up” version for October.

Now, part of these struggles were because of an irregular heartbeat. He was placed on the 10-day disabled list Aug. 10, and then activated 10 days later, but he still didn’t look right shortly after.

The month of August saw Jansen throw eight innings, yielding eight earned runs and four home runs.

He looked like the Kenley Jansen of old in September, though. He tossed 11.1 IP of two-run baseball, striking out 13 and walking just two. His ERA that month sat at a cool 1.59.

The Dodgers are just a better, more complete team when Jansen’s right. And no hitter, especially in October, looks forward to stepping into the box when the two-time reigning champion of the NL Reliever of the Year award toes the rubber.

New guys on the block

A quick look at the Dodgers roster shows you just how different a club can look in the span of one year. But, hey, credit the Los Angeles brass for coming one win away from the World Series and pledging to do whatever it takes to win one the next fall.

This year they’ve added Manny Machado, Brian Dozier, David Freese, Matt Kemp, and Max Muncy into the mix. Kemp and Muncy were a bit of wild cards themselves, but they’ve had fantastic years that have allowed the Dodgers to reach October for a sixth straight season.

And when it comes down to it, general manager Farhan Zaidi made moves for these guys for this exact reason: to compete for a World Series.

Dozier and Freese can provide some late-inning thump off the bench. Kemp and Muncy are practically guys Roberts builds his lineup around now. And Machado, slashing .273/.338/.487 as a Dodger, is a complete game-changer.

This group of guys has quite the impact on this series, one that could make-or-break the club’s postseason fate.

Atlanta’s X-Factors

‘Pen they do it?

In terms of a bullpen, the Braves are a pretty middle-of-the-road bunch. Fangraphs had Atlanta’s relievers combine for a 4.15 ERA, ranked No. 17 in the game. That kind of production won’t fly in October, especially when they could be called in to shut down the teeth of the Dodgers’ batting order in the late-innings.

They’re anchored at the back-end by Arodys Vizcaino and A.J. Minter, who have teamed up 31 of the team’s 40 saves.

Sam Freeman, who has bounced around in the minors in recent years, hasn’t given up a run since July 28, spanning 10.2 IP. He allowed two runs in 0.2 IP that night against the Dodgers, and the night before, surrendered another run while recording one out against them. Uh oh.

Brad Brach was a great deadline acquisition. He has appeared in 27 games with the Braves, holding hitters to a .237 average to complement a squeaky-clean 1.52 ERA. Since joining Atlanta, he has given up four runs. He has some postseason work under his belt, too, from his tenure in Baltimore.

This will be a huge test all series for Atlanta’s relievers. If they can be stingy on a potent Los Angeles lineup, this could make for an interesting series.

Respecting the elders

You have to. In a clubhouse full of young talent, it almost makes you appreciate guys like Freddie Freeman and Nick Markakis even more.

A huge key to this series falls on the shoulders of those guys, too. See, the younger studs like Ozzie Albies and Ronald Acuna Jr. don’t have playoff experience. In fact, the lineup the Braves are expected to roll out Thursday night will feature five hitters who will be playing in the postseason for the first time.

That’s why it’s imperative for the veteran leaders like Freeman and Markakis step up in this series. In the postseason, Freeman’s hitting .400 (8-for-20) and Markakis .258 with a home run and three RBIs.

Albies and Acuna and even Johan Camargo have displayed jaw-dropping talent in their short time at the big-league level, but the postseason is a bit of a different beast. The Braves are here because of their youth, but we’ll see if it can carry them even further into October.

Head-to-head

Better lineup?

The Dodgers, no doubt. Everyone’s a tough out up-and-down that entire order. I mean, seriously, everyone has some pop. Look at Cody Bellinger, whose “sophomore slump” saw him end the regular season with 25 long balls and 79 RBIs. He has so much protection that you almost forget what he’s capable of doing.

Acuna and Albies and Freeman is a formidable trio, but it’s no comparison to the monster the Dodgers will roll out.

Better rotation?

Dodgers. They’ve got one of the top starting corps in the game, led by Kershaw, of course. But what’s made them especially good this year is the production they’ve gotten from everyone. Hyun-Jin Ryu started 15 games this year and has an ERA sub-two (1.97). Rich Hill is Mr. Consistent, and Walker Buehler burst onto the scene as an arm Los Angeles can build around post-Kershaw, whenever that may be.

Of course, the Braves have a pretty solid NLDS rotation with Mike Foltynewicz, Anibal Sanchez, Kevin Gausman, and Julio Teheran. Folty is throwing the best baseball of his life this year, and Sanchez was a pleasant low-risk, high-reward offseason acquisition. Gausman has been great since being packaged with Brach from Baltimore, and Teheran has seven quality starts dating back to August.

Not a bad bunch, either, but I feel more comfortable about the Dodgers rotation than I do the Braves.

Better bullpen?

Eh. This is really the only one I went back and forth on. I’ll go with the Dodgers, mainly because I think Jansen looked really good in September, and that’s a huge game-changer in itself.

Kenta Maeda and Pedro Baez are going to see a lot of time. They’ve both been fantastic in the second half coming out of the bullpen. That trio — Maeda, Baez, and Jansen — looks pretty good when all three guys are on. And in the last month, they’ve been on.

I mentioned earlier that the Braves struggle out of the bullpen as a whole, but guys like Vizcaino, Minter, Freeman, and Brach have really held it down. That’ll need to hold up, but they also need to be lock-down collectively. I just don’t see that happening.

The verdict

The Braves are such a fun and exciting team. They shook up the NL East this year and won it for the first time in five years. And really, I don’t think they’ll look back for the next handful of years. They’ve got a great young core, and fans can get used to seeing these Braves as October regulars.

But against the Dodgers, I don’t think the Braves match up well. You’ve got a team that was one win away from a championship and another who’s just getting a taste of the celebratory champagne that eluded them for five seasons. The Braves are there — in the playoffs — and that’s ultimately what matters, but give them a year or two for them to really piece it together.

I think the Dodgers win this series, 3-1.

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