NLDS Preview: Nationals vs. Dodgers

The Los Angeles Dodgers (106-56) and Washington Nationals (93-69) will square off in the National League Division Series. The Dodgers won the season series with the Nationals, 4-3. This marks the second time in four years that these two ballclubs will meet each other in the first round of the NL playoffs, as the Dodgers beat the Nationals in five games in 2016. On one hand, the Dodgers cruised to a seventh consecutive NL West division title and had their way with nearly every team in the NL. On the other hand, the Nationals pulled off an astonishing midseason turnaround after beginning 19-31 to make the playoffs, and then they defeated the Milwaukee Brewers in the NL Wild Card Game in thrilling fashion on Tuesday. This NLDS matchup figures to be an exciting, rollercoaster series. Here are the deciding factors to the series and which team will ultimately advance to the NL Championship Series.

Deciding Factors:

Will the Dodgers Rotation be Different This October?

When you think of the Dodgers in the postseason, there’s a recurring theme: underachieving starting pitching. Clayton Kershaw, Hyun-Jin Ryu, and Walker Buehler are elite pitchers, but all three have postseason demons or factors that have worked against them in previous postseasons. Kershaw owns a career 4.32 postseason ERA and has been removed from games early due to getting hit hard or putting too many runners on base; there’s some fear that the sport has figured out Ryu’s tendencies, and he recorded a 5.21 ERA in the four postseason starts he made last season; while he bounced back in his final two starts, Buehler’s first two 2018 postseason starts were a nightmare, as he surrendered nine runs and two home runs in 12 innings.

Meanwhile, the trio has accounted for one of the best rotations in baseball this season. Kershaw’s stuff is still electric, as is his presence on the hill; Ryu had a remarkable season, where he pitched the entire season (injuries have been an issue for the southpaw), started for the NL in the MLB All-Star Game, and recorded a 2.32 ERA and 1.01 WHIP; Buehler followed up his superb rookie season by recording a 3.26 ERA and 1.04 WHIP while totaling 215 strikeouts.

If they pitch to their strengths and keep the Nationals guessing in the batter’s box, the Dodgers can have their way in this series. But until they actually overcome the demons and string together a series of steady postseason outings, the Dodgers rotation remains a Wild Card.

Will the Dodgers Bullpen Answer the Call?

Statistically speaking, the Dodgers bullpen, as a whole, has been a reliable bunch this season. The problem lies in the late innings, especially the ninth. Kenley Jansen has been shaky. He has blown eight saves, recorded a career-worse 3.71 ERA and surrendered nine home runs. The big right-hander has been regarded as one of the elite backend relievers in the sport the last five years; he needs to return to his old ways.

Meanwhile, Pedro Baez, Joe Kelly, Dylan Floro, and Caleb Ferguson have been shaky themselves, as Kenta Maeda remains a guessing game. Outside of acquiring Adam Kolarek from the Tampa Bay Rays, the Dodgers decided to stand pat at the Major League Baseball trade deadline, passing on trades for big-name relievers such as Felipe Vazquez and Shane Greene. As a result, they need everyone to pick up the slack in their bullpen. It begins whenever Dave Roberts hands them the ball and ends with Jansen in the ninth.

Now, it’s not all doom and gloom for the Dodger pen. Julio Urias and Ross Stripling have excelled in split time in the rotation and pen, and Kolarek has been superb (Kolarek recorded an 0.77 ERA in 26 appearances with the Dodgers this season). But regular season reliability doesn’t always translate to postseason dominance. They need to bear down, close out games when they inherit a lead in the late innings, and perform to their capabilities. If they don’t, the Nationals will make them pay.

Can the Nationals Outhit the Dodgers?

Sure, the Dodgers have a great offense that features the likes of Cody Bellinger, Justin Turner, Max Muncy, Joc PedersonCorey Seager, and A.J. Pollock, among others, but the Nationals have a potent offense too. Whether it be Anthony Rendon, Juan Soto, Trea Turner, Howie Kendrick, Adam Eaton, or a handful of others, the Nationals have the offensive firepower to impose their will on a pitching staff — even one of the Dodgers’ pedigree.

They have a lot of speed and plate discipline, which is the catalyst for their ability to hit for contact and power and push runners across the basepaths. Turner and Eaton set the table for Rendon and Soto, but they also have pop in their bats. Meanwhile, the middle and backend of their order, which includes Kendrick, Asdrubal Cabrera, Victor Robles, and Kurt Suzuki, smacks line drives to all fields. Going up against Kershaw, Ryu, and Buehler will be a daunting challenge for this lineup, but the Nationals are a unit adept at putting the ball in play and not becoming a consistent victim to strikeouts; their offense was 27th in MLB in strikeouts (1,308) this season.

If the Nationals can get to the Dodgers pen early on, or earlier than Roberts would prefer, they can remove the star-studded rotation element from the equation. Doing so also allows the Nationals bullpen to potentially inherit a situation where they have a multi-run lead, and the more runs they have in their back pocket the better. Plus, the Nationals have won nine straight games. Perhaps momentum works in favor of Washington’s offense.

Will the Nationals Bullpen Hold Down the Fort?

Stephen Strasburg pitched three innings of relief in the NL Wild Card Game, which was an enormous reason for the Nationals coming out on top. But the stud right-hander can’t do the same against the Dodgers; the Nationals need their turbulent bullpen to find a way to get big outs.

The Nationals have been plagued by bullpen woes throughout their franchise’s existence, but this season it has been out of hand. Daniel Hudson, who was acquired from the Toronto Blue Jays at the MLB trade deadline, is having a breakout season, Sean Doolittle has found success in years past, Fernando Rodney has pitched in a multitude of situations, and Tanner Rainey hits 100 mph on the radar. But collectively, they’ve been a mess. Washington’s bullpen finished the regular season 28th in MLB in opponent batting average (.266) and 30th in ERA (5.66) and strikeouts (501) while blowing 29 saves (which was tied for third with the Dodgers and Seattle Mariners) and being 30th in innings pitched (500.2).

There are some proven commodities in this bullpen who have come through in big moments in years past, but those instances have been few and far between this season. At the end of the day, if their pen can execute clean innings and overcome inherited runners in this series, what happened in the regular season is irrelevant. With Strasburg, Patrick Corbin, Max Scherzer, and Anibal Sanchez likely taking the hill in some order, the Nationals will be looking to get the ball to their pen to get, at most, nine outs. Their ability to hold down the fort and come through in the late innings will be pivotal.

Prediction: Dodgers in Five

This is going to be a great series. It’s a battle between two teams who have the same assets and liabilities. However, the Nationals’ liability (their bullpen) has been far more detrimental than the Dodgers’ (their bullpen). They’ve been continually unable to provide manager Dave Martinez and company with a sense of comfort in the late innings, and if the Dodgers bats get to Corbin, Strasburg, Scherzer, and friends, the Nationals could be in peril.

The Dodgers pitching staff, especially their rotation, has a track record of puzzling Octobers, but they’ve never been more lethal than they are this season. They’re deep and have the deceptiveness to keep the Nationals’ well-versed lineup off-guard. They’ve been to three consecutive championship series, know what it takes to get to the pennant, and will grind their way to such play.

In a back-and-forth series that involves two plane flights, the Dodgers will defeat the Nationals in five games. Game 1 will take place on Thursday night in Dodger Stadium at 5:37 PST on TBS.

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