(1) San Francisco Giants vs. (4) Los Angeles Dodgers
One win and 380 miles separate the Giants and Dodgers, who will face off in this best-of-five NLDS. These two teams faced each other 19 times in the 2021 regular season, with the Giants winning the season series with 10 wins to the Dodgers’ 9.
A new layer to this rivalry will commence with the start of the NLDS as these two teams match up in the playoffs for the first time. As MLB.com’s Sarah Langs mentioned on Twitter, this will be the first postseason series between two teams with 105 or more wins apiece.
San Francisco Giants (107-55)
The Giants have dealt with some lineup shuffling due to injuries, most notably to Brandon Belt. The veteran first baseman led the team with 29 home runs during the regular season but will miss the NLDS with a fractured thumb. LaMonte Wade Jr. spent most of his time in the outfield, but he’s an option at first base. Belt isn’t the only Giants veteran performing well. Buster Posey, Brandon Crawford, and Evan Longoria are having fantastic seasons of their own. Posey returned with gusto after opting out of the pandemic-shortened season, blasting the most home runs in a season since 2015. Crawford is 34 years old and having the best season of his career. Longoria looks like his Tampa Bay Ray self.
Kris Bryant cooled off in the final month of the season, but his acquisition brought the Giants another player with extensive playoff experience. And although Mike Yastrzemski didn’t find a hot streak this year, the Giants didn’t have to rely on just a hot streak when they had contributions from so many other players. The success of the 2021 season has been a team effort for the Giants.
Righthander Logan Webb will take the mound in Game 1. He faced the Dodgers three times this season, including in back-to-back starts. Webb kept the defending champions quiet, allowing seven hits in a combined 16 innings, and the Giants won all three of those games.
Game 2 starter Kevin Gausman had two distinctly different first and second halves. His 1.73 first-half ERA more than doubled after the All-Star Break, where he posted a 4.42 second-half ERA. Opposing batters struggled to hit Gausman in the first half, mustering just a .159 batting average against and a minuscule .476 OPS. After his first career All-Star selection, however, Gausman wasn’t as dominant. Batters had much more success in the second half, posting an above-average .276 batting average and .781 OPS. When the Dodgers faced him in the first half, they recorded only two hits and failed to score. In the second half, Gausman allowed three runs and walked more batters (five) than he struck out (four). Which side will we see on Saturday?
Anthony DeSclafani’s worst start this season was against the Dodgers in May where he allowed 10 earned runs in 2.2 innings. He’d end up facing Los Angeles five more times over the course of the season and finished strong. The lone lefthander in the Giants’ rotation is Alex Wood, who spent five seasons with the Dodgers. Wood’s slider gets batters to chase out of the zone and generates a lot of whiffs. He’s also struggled with his control this season, however, hitting 16 batters and throwing seven wild pitches.
Jake McGee was closing games out all season for the Giants, converting 31 of 36 opportunities into saves, but has not pitched since Sept. 12 because of a right oblique strain. McGee is now active and will likely rejoin the team, but Giants manager Gabe Kapler may choose to stick with Camilo Doval who picked up three saves in the final week.
Tyler Rogers also picked up some saves this season, but he was most effective in the set-up role. His 83 mph fastball won’t overpower batters and he doesn’t strike out a ton of batters, but he’s able to induce a lot of soft contact with his slider and has a knack for missing barrels. Rogers is unconventional, but it works. The funky submariner reminds me of my fastpitch softball days. If you don’t believe me, check out a slider from Rogers that Callen Elslager featured in a Nastiest Pitches article a few weeks ago…good luck Dodgers’ hitters!
How They Got Here
The Giants needed each and every one of their 107 wins to avoid the one-game NL Wild Card. With Buster Posey behind the dish, Brandon Crawford in the infield, and Brandon Belt leading the way, the Giants reached the pinnacle of their division and barely eluded the win-or-go-home game. We can’t forget about Evan Longoria, Darin Ruf, and Johnny Cueto. As if the wisdom from these 30-somethings wasn’t enough, they also acquired Kris Bryant at the trade deadline! The Giants’ offense has come alive and their defense has improved in 2021. They’ll face their biggest test yet in this NLDS.
Potential Breakout Star of the Series
Giants fans have dubbed LaMonte Wade Jr. Late Night LaMonte. Why? He’s clutch. Just this season, per Stats Perform, Wade has six game-tying or go-ahead hits in the ninth inning. SIX! Grant Brisbee, The Athletic’s Giants writer, wrote a fascinating article about just how clutch Wade has been. You should read the whole thing, so I’ll leave you with one unbelievable nugget about how well Wade performs in high leverage situations:
It’s important to know we’re comparing Wade with players from the past 100-plus years of baseball. There have been a lot of baseball players in that time. When it comes to hitters with fewer than 100 games played, Wade has the second-highest Clutch number in history.
LaMonte Wade Jr. is having immense success during this small stretch. Maybe it’s luck or maybe it’s not, but who really cares? It’s the postseason — the most unlikely characters become instantaneous heroes.
If the Giants win, it’s because…
O Captain! My Captain!
Brandon Belt is alive but not well. The first baseman is sidelined with a fractured thumb and will be unavailable for at least the NLDS. It’s a tough blow considering Belt’s resurgence this season, but the Giants aren’t living and dying by any one player. It’s been a collective effort from top to bottom. Don’t believe me? The Giants had more home runs than every team in the National League, but no one player cracked the 30 home run mark. Seven players had at least 15 home runs and a few more reached double-digits.
The Giants success this year has come as a team. If they win this series, it’s because their aging veterans and dependable journeymen contributed. A little added motivation? Captain Belt is eyeing a return if the Giants can get to the NLCS.
This will be the best series of the 2021 playoffs. I can see either team winning, but if I have to choose…Giants in 5.
— Nicole Cahill
Los Angeles Dodgers (106-57)
* – combined stats from multiple teams
The Dodgers threw in a wrinkle with their Wild Card Game lineup, slotting in Matt Beaty at first base in place of the injured Max Muncy. Muncy is expected to miss the entirety of the NLDS as well. We may see Albert Pujols get the nod at some point, but with the Giants rolling out righty after righty, Dave Roberts seems to prefer Beaty at the moment.
Another minor surprise from Wednesday was seeing Cody Bellinger in center field over Chris Taylor, presumably for his defense. While Bellinger has struggled greatly offensively this year, he rewarded Roberts’ faith by getting on three times, stealing a pair of bases off Yadi Molina and scoring the winning run. But of course, the reason he scored that run was thanks to Taylor’s walk-off home run. What does that mean for the NLDS lineups? Hard to say. The two players have similar career numbers against Webb, though Taylor did tag him for a home run this year back in July. It’s fair to expect them to stick with Bellinger for now, but rest assured you’ll see both players every night.
As for the rest of the lineup, you can expect to see the top half remain pretty consistent: Mookie Betts, Corey Seager, Justin Turner, Will Smith and AJ Pollock have carried the Dodgers offense all year, and the addition of Trea Turner has added another big-time punch in the middle. However Roberts decides to play it, this is a tough lineup packed with power and speed from top to bottom.
As far as the bench goes, the Dodgers dropped two bats from their wild card roster, but Billy McKinney and Steven Souza Jr. made the cut once again. McKinney provides an extra lefty bat, while Souza is a top pinch-running option.
The Brewers starting rotation gets a lot of the hype, and rightly so, but there’s really no better 1-2-3 punch in baseball than the the Dodgers — and that’s even without the injured Clayton Kershaw. Here are a few categories in which Max Scherzer, Walker Buehler and Julio Urías all rank top-10 among qualified starting pitchers: ERA, FIP, WHIP, fWAR… yeah, you get the idea. All three have been absolute workhorses this season, and together they form perhaps the most formidable frontline of starters in this year’s playoffs.
They’re also just about all L.A.’s got. The rotation choices after the big three are sparse right now. This could be a problem down the line, but for the NLDS, the plan is simple enough: Buehler for Game 1, Urías for Game 2, Scherzer for Game 3, then figure out the rest from there. They could run with Buehler on short rest in Game 4, but the more likely option is a bullpen game buoyed by some combination of David Price and Tony Gonsolin. And you know something? It’s probably going to work. Because, Dodgers.
* – combined stats from multiple teams
In the Wild Card preview, I wrote about how a somewhat shaky season from the Dodgers bullpen was saved by the strong work of Blake Treinen, and a resurgent final month from Kenley Jansen, who recorded a sparkling 0.73 ERA in September. This much was illustrated on Wednesday night, as the Dodgers leaned on Treinen and Jansen for a combined 2.2 scoreless innings after Scherzer exited in the fifth. Roberts’ willingness to go to Treinen in the seventh in a tie game showed just how reliant the champs are on the 33-year-old right-hander, and Jansen ended up earning the win after striking out the side in the ninth. That’ll do.
A more interesting development was the use of Brusdar Graterol in the sixth. Graterol has all the stuff in the world, but he’s been tremendously inconsistent this year and was not a lock for a postseason roster spot. But after this performance, you’d have to think they’ll stick with him for at least another round. Personally, I’m here for all the Brusdar content.
Other than Buehler, the only pitching addition since the Wild Card Game is David Price. He could fill Urías’ role as a pliable lefty who can cover multiple innings in an emergency situation (or bullpen game).
How They Got Here
The story of the 2021 Dodgers — or at least, the one I’d like to tell — is one of hard work, determination, creative thinking and resilience in the face of great adversity. In reality, it’s more about top-end talent, organizational depth, creative thinking and deep, deep pockets. But hey, that’s a pretty good story, too.
On the one hand, the defending World Series champions won 106 regular-season games, tying a franchise record. They got an MVP-caliber season from Muncy, a Cy Young-caliber season from Buehler, and managed to acquire doubles of each in one trade with the additions of Scherzer and Trea Turner. Even while their other two former MVPs struggled (I know, this is a hilarious sentence) in Betts and Bellinger, their offense, defense and pitching remained near the top of the league in practically every metric. Even with everything they’ve lost, there’s a strong case to be made that this Dodgers team is better than the one that won it all last fall.
Still, there’s one more character in this story, and it’s a big one: the San Francisco Giants. With their long-time rival dating back to the boroughs of New York, the Giants did what many thought was impossible this year — steal a division crown from under the Dodgers’ noses. Yes, that unimpeachable eight-year streak of NL West titles came to an end in the year of our Lord, 2021. They seized upon the tiniest of openings, and they made the champs pay. But that was then. Now, it’s time to settle the score for good.
Potential Breakout Star of the Series
My Pollock pick from Wednesday may have fallen flat, but I’m ready to get back in the ring. Based on nothing more than a gut feeling of impending doom (AKA the experience of watching any Dodgers game), give me Gavin Lux. The moment will find him, and he will be ready for it.
If the Dodgers win, it’s because…
I see this series coming down to minimizing unforced errors. Both teams are elite at executing in the clutch, and each roster contains a wealth of postseason experience. While the Dodgers have a definite talent edge, in a short series like this, the ability to weather the storm and not beat yourself is more important than ever. If Los Angeles can play clean baseball from start to finish, their superior lineup and starting pitching should make the difference.
I predicted the Dodgers to win it all at the start of this thing, so their wild card victory was certainly reassuring. That said, I’ve gotten more of a feeling in the past few days that the Giants can absolutely win this thing. I’ll stick with my first instinct, but this should be as close as it gets. And it’ll be extremely fun to watch. Dodgers in five.
— Wynn McDonald
Photos by Icon Sportswire and Ronnie Macdonald | Adapted by Justin Paradis (@JustParaDesigns on Twitter)