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NLCS Preview: Atlanta vs. Los Angeles

Familiar foes face off again. Who Will Win?

#3 Atlanta vs. #4 Los Angeles Dodgers

 

Game 1: Saturday, Oct. 16, 8:08 p.m. EDT, TBS – TBD vs. Fried

Game 2: Sunday, Oct. 17, 7:38 p.m. EDT, TBS – TBD vs. TBD

Game 3: Tuesday, Oct. 19, 5:08 p.m. EDT, TBS – TBD vs. TBD

Game 4: Wednesday, Oct. 20, 8:08 p.m. EDT, TBS – TBD vs. TBD

Game 5*: Thursday, Oct. 21, 8:08 p.m. EDT, TBS – TBD vs. TBD

Game 6*: Saturday, Oct. 23, 5:08 p.m. EDT, TBS – TBD vs. TBD

Game 7*: Sunday, Oct. 24, 7:38 p.m. EDT, TBS – TBD vs. TBD

* if necessary

 

Recent History

 

These two teams have been meeting on-and-off in the playoffs for much of the last decade, with the same result every time. In 2013, the 92-win Dodgers defeated the 96-win Atlanta team in four games in the NLDS, with the deciding moment coming on a go-ahead Juan Uribe home run while Craig Kimbrel was waiting in the bullpen.

That loss sent Atlanta tumbling into rebuild-mode, but when they resurfaced in the playoffs in 2018, the Dodgers were waiting. Again, Los Angeles rolled to a 3-1 NLDS victory, with the only Atlanta victory coming thanks to 20-year-old Ronald Acuña Jr.’s Game 3 grand slam off Walker Buehler. Last season, the two teams met for the first time in the NLCS, with Atlanta jumping out to a 3-1 series lead before the Dodgers came back to crush their spirit one more time. Round four begins tonight.

In the regular season this year, the Dodgers took the series 4-2 overall. They lost two of three in Atlanta, then swept the series in California at the end of August. Atlanta has not been swept since.

Atlanta (88-73)
Lineup:

 

Note that Joc Pederson will slot in for one of Duvall or Soler against RHP. Terrance Gore was added to be a defensive replacement/speedy pinch-runner.

This lineup is built to hit a lot of dingers and hit dingers they did (sort of). They finished the season with 239 HRs as a team, good for 3rd in all of baseball. And, Atlanta tacked on a home run in each game of the NLDS.

Atlanta finished with the second-highest team ISO in baseball (.191) as well, so they pack a serious power punch overall. During the regular season, they got 52.6% of their runs off of home runs, which ranks 2nd among all playoff teams (see below), which will be interesting to watch against a Dodgers team that does an excellent job of suppressing homers (3rd-lowest HR/9 and 7th-highest GB%).

Team Home Run-Run Percentage (Guillen Number)

The NLDS showed that even though Atlanta is missing Ronald Acuña Jr. and Marcell Ozuna , they still have a lineup of very good hitters to surround Frederick Freeman. Austin Riley, who quietly stacked up a 135 wRC+ during the regular season, hit for a .908 OPS against the Brewers. Adam Duvall produced an .804 OPS for the NLDS after knocking in over 100 runs during the regular season. The real star of the series, though, was Joc Pederson, who blasted 2 homers and 5 RBI in 7 ABs. “Joctober” is in full swing.

 

Rotation:

Atlanta was able to ride this rotation to the NL East division title, finishing with the 7th-best starting pitcher ERA and 13th-ranked FIP in baseball in the second half of the season. That second-half ERA mark was buoyed by Max Fried’s absurdly good 1.74 ERA across 14 appearances (3rd-best in that span) and Charlie Morton’s 3.01 ERA across 15 games. They will be the first two starters in this series — as they were in the NLDS — and for good reason.

During the playoffs, this staff absolutely came alive. Ian Anderson gave 5 strong, scoreless innings in Game 3. Max Fried tossed 6 scoreless in Game 2. Charlie Morton came out and shoved (mostly) in Game 1 (6 IP, 2 ER), but struggled a bit in Game 4 (3.1 IP, 2 ER).

They didn’t go particularly deep into games during the NLDS, but Atlanta didn’t need them to and the bullpen should be well-rested for the start of this series should they need to come in early. I am guessing that Atlanta won’t start Ynoa unless they absolutely have to; he came out of the bullpen in Game 4 for his only action of the series and gave up 2 ER in 1 IP.

 

Bullpen

The bullpen finished the first half with a suspect 4.58 ERA (21st in baseball) but turned into the lights-out unit we expected in the second half, collecting a second-half ERA of just 3.24 (4th). The bullpen, much like the other units of this team, came together down the stretch, with several of the above-listed names (Matzek, Smith, Jackson, among others) rounding into form just in time for this series.

And, the bullpen was just as advertised; the only runs allowed by this Atlanta pitching staff came from Charlie Morton in each of his two starts and Huascar Ynoa’s one inning out of the bullpen. Otherwise, the ‘pen combined for 13.2 IP, 0 ER, and 17 Ks. Manager Brian Snitker should feel comfortable going to these guys night in and night out against the Giants.

Will Smith is the unquestioned closer, while Luke Jackson acted as the setup man as the season concluded. That continued into the playoffs, as Smith picked up 3 saves on his 3 opportunities. Snitker went to Jackson and Matzek to preserve the lead in each of Atlanta’s 3 wins.

Minter and Chavez also got some work in, but Atlanta didn’t need to go deeper into the ‘pen, so Jacob Webb, Drew Smylyand Dylan Lee didn’t see any action in the NLDS. I would expect them not to see much action in the NLCS if Atlanta can help it.

 

How They Got Here

 

Atlanta got here by beating Milwaukee in 3 out of 4 games in the NLDS. After dropping the first game, 2-1, to Corbin Burnes and the rest of the Brew Crew, Atlanta’s offense picked up, scoring at least 3 runs in each of the final 3 games of the series. That was more than enough to hold off the Brewers’ meek offense (or, Atlanta’s pitching staff did their job quite well, maybe even both!) and give Atlanta the chance to win Game 4 at home.

In Game 4, Charlie Morton struggled to get outs easily and left the game in the fourth inning with Brewers up, 1-0. Jesse Chavez came in and served up another run (credited to Morton), but Atlanta was able to rally for 2 runs in the bottom of the fourth off of Hunter Strickland (both runs credited to Eric Lauer, who went 3.2 IP to start Game 4). In the top of the fifth, Huascar Ynoa came in and served up a 2-run homer to Rowdy Tellez to make it 4-2.

But, once again, Atlanta rallied, scoring 2 runs in the bottom half of the inning to tie the score at 4. The teams traded goose eggs until the bottom of the eighth. Josh Hader was on the hill, and up stepped Freddie Freeman

That would be all Atlanta needed, as the non-catching version of Will Smith came in and shut down the Brewers to close out the series.

 

Breakout Star of the Series

 

Is it too unfair to say Joc Pederson after what happened last series? I mean, Joctober has only just begun, right?

Even though Dodgers manager Dave Roberts will certainly try to force Snitker to use Pederson in suboptimal spots, I see Pederson getting at least one at-bat every single game, maybe more. Apparently, Atlanta does not want to give Pederson regular starting ABs, despite the Brewers starting RHPs in the first three games of the NLDS. However, Pederson showed that limited usage isn’t as much a problem, gashing the Brewers for plenty of runs in his 7 total ABs.

Atlanta will certainly need a little more help from guys not named Freeman, Riley, or Duvall this series, especially against a deeper and more talented Dodgers offense. I think Pederson will be the one to step up and get it done if and when they need a clutch hit.

 

If Atlanta wins this series, it’s because…

 

  1. The starting pitching continues to pitch lights-out. It seems so obvious for pretty much every team that you’d want some good starting pitching to help “carry the freight.” But, if Atlanta can get the game to their bullpen with a lead or a tie ballgame, then the ‘pen is going to give them a great chance to win. The starting pitching has been a little suspect at times, especially behind Max Fried or Charlie Morton, so taking some strain off of the ‘pen and keeping the team in games will go a long way towards that long-awaited World Series berth.
  2. The offense continues to tack on extra-base hits. Atlanta is especially geared towards the home run ball, even in our HR-focused era. So, if the team struggles to get the ball into the gaps or can’t put it over the fence, they’re not going to be able to dink and dunk their way into wins. This team isn’t really built for that, although it hasn’t been a problem just yet.

 

Prediction

 

I bet against them in the previous series, but I’m choosing to ignore that mistake and will once again bet that despite Atlanta’s excellent playoff run thus far, they will fall to a deeper and more talented Dodgers team in a rematch of the 2020 NLCS. Once again, Atlanta’s bullpen will keep them in games, especially if they fall behind early, but I think this is the series their luck runs out. Dodgers in 6.

– Adam Sloate

 

Los Angeles Dodgers (106-57)

Projected Game One Lineup

* combined stats from multiple teams

So far in the playoffs, projecting the Dodgers lineup has proved increasingly difficult as Dave Roberts has freely moved pieces around to best capitalize on certain matchups. The biggest revolving door has been at first base, where Max Muncy’s absence has forced Roberts to get creative. In the Giants series alone, we saw Matt Beaty, Albert Pujols, and Cody Bellinger all earn starts at the cool corner.

The NLCS should be a similar story, with the names changing on a day-by-day basis. But with lefty Max Fried starting Game 1 for Atlanta, it’s a pretty good bet we’ll see Pujols in there on Saturday, especially since he started against Alex Wood on Monday and earned two hits off him.

While these replacements have done fine (Bellinger’s production has been a very pleasant surprise), there’s no denying the impact of the Muncy-sized hole in the Dodger order.

The burly slugger led the team in fWAR this season, he was the only Dodger to top 30 home runs, and he finished top-2 in nearly every other offensive category. Reports indicate that Muncy could still return at some point in the playoffs, but it’s unlikely to happen for the NLCS.

Outside of Muncy, the only Dodgers to hit 25 or more homers this year were Justin Turner, Trea Turner, and Will Smith. But despite this relative lack of individual pop—Atlanta finished with five such players, not counting Ronald Acuña Jr., and four of them topped 30—they still got the job done.

With modest power up and down the lineup, L.A. actually led MLB in home runs against left-handed pitching. In six postseason games without Muncy, the team has hit a total of five homers (two off lefties), and been shut out twice. This could come into play against the homer-happy Atlanta lineup and their lefty-heavy bullpen.

The Dodger bench has fluctuated with the lineup, but you should expect to see Bellinger, Gavin Lux, and Beaty to see plenty of action throughout the week, with Stephen Souza Jr., and Austin Barnes available as deeper options. In the 2020 NLCS, Belli’s two homers were second only to series MVP Corey Seager, who exploded for five taters, 11 RBI, and a 1.230 OPS against Atlanta. These teams know each other well, and it should make for a fun game of strategy on both sides.

 

Rotation

Name GS IP ERA FIP WHIP K% BB%
Max Scherzer* 30 179.1 2.46 2.97 0.86 26.0% 6.4%
Walker Buehler 33 207.2 2.47 3.15 0.97 26.2% 5.1%
Julio Urías (L) 32 185.2 2.96 3.13 1.02 26.2% 5.1%
Tony Gonsolin 13 55.2 3.23 4.53 1.35 27.2% 14.2%

* combined stats from multiple teams

This is where things get interesting. As I talked about in the NLDS preview, with Clayton Kershaw out, those three guys at the top are pretty much the whole story for the Dodgers’ postseason starting rotation. All three are excellent, and they’ve looked the part so far in October.

Max Scherzer rebounded from a shaky performance in the Wild Card Game with seven innings of one-run, three-hit, 10-strikeout ball in Monday’s loss. Walker Buehler pitched into the seventh in his Game 1 start, then delivered four-plus quality innings on short rest Tuesday, keeping the Dodgers alive in the series. And after throwing 72 pitches in Game 2, Julio Urías returned on Thursday to toss four solid frames out of the bullpen, with his only blemish a 3-2 middle-middle fastball that Darin Ruf deposited far, far away.

Against the Giants, the Dodgers were able to make it work with just their big three, bolstered by strong work from key members of the bullpen. Neither of their two long-relief options, Tony Gonsolin and David Price, made a single appearance. But with five games in six days coming up, Roberts may have to make some concessions, starting with Gonsolin.

The team hasn’t yet announced much of its pitching plans for the NLCS, but with Corey Knebel serving as the opener again in Game 1, you’d expect them to follow a similar formula as Thursday. Since Price was left left off the roster entirely this time, the long man is probably set to be Gonsolin if needed. That gives them the option to start Scherzer or Buehler on Sunday, possibly depending on Saturday’s result. I would lean Scherzer given Buehler’s home/road splits, but there’s no wrong answer.

Either way, Urías should be ready to go on regular rest for Game 4 on Wednesday, and they’ll figure it out from there. I’d expect another bullpen game in Game 5, with the Game 2 starter possibly available in a clinching scenario. If it gets that far, they’ll no doubt have Scherzer, Buehler and Urías all ready to rock in the final two games.

 

Bullpen

* combined stats from multiple teams

If the Dodgers rotation is their strength, and the lineup is strength-B, then I think it’s fair to say that this bullpen is strength-C. So far in the playoffs, the Dodgers bullpen trails only Atlanta’s with a 1.44 ERA, and its 0.68 WHIP in six games leads everyone. If you take out Ruf’s Game 5 homer vs. Urías, every run that the Dodgers relievers have given up this postseason can be summarized thusly:

Yeah, that’s it. Treinen and Kenley Jansen have been excellent as usual, combining to throw 8 innings so far with 14 strikeouts against just three hits. Graterol has been terrific as well, tossing 4.2 scoreless innings with three hits and three Ks across five appearances. They made two changes for the NLCS, dropping Price and adding two relievers in lefty Justin Bruihl and righty Evan Phillips.

Atlanta’s lineup is mostly righty-heavy, but they have two dangerous lefty flex bats in Joc Pederson and Eddie Rosario, both of whom may draw find themselves starting as long as Jorge Soler is unavailable. But if and when we do see Joc pinch-hitting (he hit two PH home runs in the NLDS, and how can they resist that matchup?), expect to see someone like Vesia or Bruihl ready to go.

 

How They Got Here

 

The Dodgers core has no shortage of NLCS familiarity. Five of the last six pennant matches have featured the blue and white, and Bellinger, Seager, Jansen, Muncy, Taylor, and Justin Turner have been there pretty much the whole time. After losing the World Series in back-to-back years in 2017 and 2o18, the additions of Betts and Smith helped them finally break through against the Rays last year.

In total, 16 of the 26 players on last year’s NLCS-winning roster are back for this go-round — and most of the rest are still in the dugout with various injuries. This club may as well have “experience” written across its chest in curly blue script.

One name that isn’t on that list, of course, is Joc Pederson. He’s in the other dugout now, wearing the uniform of the team that L.A. dispatched in dramatic fashion in last year’s NLCS, coming back to win in Game 7 after trailing three games to one.

For one brief moment, it looked like the Dodgers’ old habit of dominating the regular season only to collapse at the gate to the promised land. But then they did the thing, and it ended pretty well for them after all.

This season, despite bringing back an even-more-loaded roster and adding two MVP-caliber players at the deadline, it looked like an uphill battle for the champs to defend their title. After dispatching the red-hot Cardinals in the Wild Card Game, they were pushed to the brink by the Giants, trailing 1-0 and 2-1 in the series before storming back and doing the thing once again.

Now, a quick glance at the postseason landscape might suggest that their biggest challenges in the pursuit of a second straight title are behind them. Their status as +135 betting favorites to win at all supports this conclusion. But there are still games to be played, and as the Rays learned last week, anything can happen in October.

 

Potential Breakout Star of the Series

 

So far in the playoffs, I’m 0-2 in this category going off my gut, so I guess it’s time to try a different strategy. The obvious choice is established Atlanta-tormentor Trea Turner — but he’s already a star, so I’m going with Will Smith, and let me tell you why: he hit .333 with two home runs in the NLDS, and more importantly, he’s gotta be thirsty to prove that he’s the alpha Will Smith on the field.

Of course, you could argue that he did that last year when he homered off the elder Smith in a crucial spot in Game 5. But as they say in Chicago, once is a coincidence. Twice is a pattern.

Actually, at the time, Smith the catcher brushed off his accomplishment as no big deal, saying “it’s a common enough name.” What! Smith the reliever, by contrast, said he was looking forward to their future matchups and seeing “who wins the Will Smith battle in the end.”

Seeing as how he’s Atlanta’s closer now, I expect this is about as big a stage for a boss battle as the two are ever going to get. And with one of them being a 32-year-old streaky pitcher and the other an up-and-coming young star, it pains me to say it, but I like the kid’s chances. So give me William Dills Smith as my breakout star of the NLCS.

 

If the Dodgers win, it’s because…

 

To me, on a performance basis, these two teams aren’t nearly as separated as their records would suggest. The Dodgers lineup is stronger and deeper than Atlanta’s, but it’s not unbeatable, especially without Muncy.

The Dodgers rotation is stronger than Atlanta’s at the top, but with the way Max Fried, Charlie Morton, and Ian Anderson have been pitching for the last two months, the gap isn’t nearly what you’d think — and they’re pretty much even on depth at this point. But where the two clubs do separate, in my opinion, is in the bullpen.

And that’s not to say that Atlanta’s bullpen isn’t good, either. The trio of Smith, Tyler Matzek and A.J. Minter was brilliant in that Milwaukee series, and they’re much deeper than they’ve been in past years. The thing is, what Atlanta doesn’t have—and L.A. does, in spades—is dudes.

You know what I mean. The type of pitcher that brings overpowering stuff to the table, with triple-digit heaters and mind-bending off-speeds that are still quite speedy. Stuff doesn’t always top command, but it sure doesn’t hurt to have in your back pocket. If the Dodgers can get to Atlanta’s bullpen and wear out their top hurlers early, it’s hard for me to see Brian Snitker’s club being able to match the damage on the other end.

 

What to Watch For

 

Early success. This may sound silly considering how last year’s series ended, but Atlanta really did have the Dodgers on the ropes for a moment with that 3-1 lead. If they have a chance of pulling off the upset this year, they need to get at least one and probably two wins at home this weekend.

They have a few advantages by virtue of having two extra days to prepare for this series, one of which was setting up the top of their rotation for Games 1 and 2. On Tuesday, the series shifts to Chavez Ravine—and if Atlanta doesn’t capitalize on these opportunities early, it’s not hard to imagine it ending there. Their best chance of shocking the world begins with hitting the champs hard while they’re still coming off the high of Thursday night.

Conversely, the Dodgers need to stop them from doing this. And they also need to take care of business at home, since Atlanta was one the league’s best road teams this season. They’ve built up plenty of well-earned confidence at Dodger Stadium over the years, dispatching this very team on numerous occasions. Stay locked in, and nip the underdog story in the bud before it ever has a chance to saturate.

 

Prediction

 

I see Atlanta taking Game 1 behind Fried, but I’m afraid it’ll go downhill from there. L.A. will ride its star-powered offense to mount a 3-1 lead of their own, then drop one after getting a little too cocky. The series returns to the Peach State, but doesn’t stay there long, as Walker Buehler slams the door on Atlanta’s redemption hopes. Dodgers in 6.

– Wynn McDonald

 

Design by Michael Packard (@designsbypack on Twitter @ IG)

Adam Sloate

Die-hard Angels fan since birth; misses the good ol' days of Vladdy, Kendrys, and Weaver. Temple University alumnus, UCLA Law student.

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