Playoff Preview: Nationals vs. Dodgers
After an intense and hard-fought Wild Card game, the Washington Nationals (93-69) find themselves in the NLDS with the Los Angeles Dodgers (106-56). The Nationals pulled out all the stops to beat the Brewers, including a stellar three-inning relief performance from Stephen Strasburg and one hell of a clutch at-bat from Juan Soto. The Nationals are looking for their first World Series title and just the second NLCS appearance in franchise history (last time coming in 1981, when they were the Montreal Expos). The Dodgers are hoping to finally make something of their seven consecutive NL West division titles and win their seventh World Series after falling short in each of the past two years.
Game 1: Thursday, Oct. 3, in Los Angeles, 8:37 PM EDT.
Game 2: Friday, Oct. 4, in Los Angeles, 8:37 PM EDT.
Game 3: Sunday, Oct. 6, in Washington, D.C., Time TBD.
Game 4 (if necessary): Monday, Oct. 7, in Washington, D.C., Time TBD.
Game 5 (if necessary): Wednesday, Oct. 9, in Los Angeles, Time TBD.
All games will be aired on TBS.
Regular Season Results
The Dodgers and Nationals played each other seven times during the regular season, a four-game set in Los Angeles in May and a three-game series in Washington in July. The Dodgers took the season series 4-3 and also outscored the Nationals 30-27.
The Nationals enter the postseason as one of the hottest teams around, going on a second-half run that rivals the best teams in baseball. After the All-Star break, the Nationals went 46-27, good for a .630 winning percentage, putting them on a 102-win pace over the course of a full season. They were hurt a little bit by how the playoffs are structured: The Nationals finished the season with the third-best record in the National League but had to play in the Wild Card game as a result of not winning their own division.
This is Washington’s fifth playoff berth in the past eight seasons, but they have not made it out of the Division Series during this stretch. Part of the problem is they keep running into dominant teams in the first round. In 2012 and 2014, they lost to the eventual World Series champion San Francisco Giants. Then they lost two heartbreaking five-game series in a row, in 2016 to the Dodgers and in 2017 to the Chicago Cubs, both of which were one-run losses that were decided after the sixth inning. The Nationals are hoping that this is the year they can shake the ghosts of past failures and make a deep run.
Washington was above average on both sides of the ball this year, ranking sixth in the majors in runs scored per game at 5.39 and ninth in runs allowed per game at 4.47. Their run differential of nearly one run per game ranked sixth in the majors and second in the NL. One of the main reasons behind the Nationals’ success is their ability to get on base; as a team, they got on base at a .342 clip, second-best in the majors. Third baseman Anthony Rendon and left fielder Juan Soto lead the Nationals’ patient attack, with on-base percentages of .412 and .401, respectively. Rendon has received some late-season buzz as a potential NL MVP candidate, boasting the third-best OPS+ (153) in the NL and a strong stat line of 34 home runs, 117 runs, and a league-leading 126 RBI. Soto (138 OPS+) showed absolutely no fear of the spotlight in the Wild Card game, driving in the winning runs against one of the best relievers in baseball in Milwaukee’s Josh Hader.
The rest of the lineup is strong as well, with shortstop Trea Turner (113 OPS+, 35 stolen bases), right fielder Adam Eaton (101 OPS+), and a career year from utility infielder Howie Kendrick (142 OPS+) all helping buoy the Washington offense. Add in second baseman Asdrubal Cabrera, who is having quite the resurgence after signing with the Nationals on Aug. 6, and you have a deep lineup that cannot be underestimated. And while rookie center fielder Victor Robles has not had the offensive impact that was hoped from him yet, his defense has been every bit as good as advertised, with a defensive rating in center field that put him in the same category as two-time Gold Glove winner Kevin Kiermaier.
As we saw above though, the Nationals are not just a strong offensive team. They also boast one of the best starting rotations in baseball, led by three-time Cy Young Award winner Max Scherzer (2.92 ERA, 1.03 WHIP) and strong 2019 Cy Young candidate Stephen Strasburg (3.32 ERA, 1.04 WHIP). Washington led the National League in quality starts and innings pitched by starters and also had three starting pitchers eclipse 230 strikeouts (Strasburg, Scherzer, and Patrick Corbin).
On top of having three starting pitchers that most teams would love to have as their ace, they also have a strong fourth starter in Anibal Sanchez (3.85 ERA, 1.27 WHIP), who refuses to let Father Time get the best of him. Normally, a fourth starter wouldn’t be a factor in the division series, but it likely will be one here after both Scherzer and Strasburg pitched in the Wild Card game. It’s not out of the question that Strasburg would start Game 2 on short rest, but Washington manager Dave Martinez has already expressed confidence in Sanchez as a potential starter in Los Angeles. Washington’s starting rotation is arguably the best on the NL side of the playoffs and will be counted on to go deep into games this postseason as their margin for error is slim to none.
The reason the Nationals need their starters to be nearly perfect is because of how bad their bullpen has been all season long. The Nationals were tied for third in the majors in bullpen losses with 33, behind Seattle and Miami and tied with Detroit, Cincinnati, Kansas City, and San Diego. Not exactly the kind of company you want your playoff bullpen to keep. They were also the worst team in the majors when it came to letting inherited runners score, with an unsightly 42% that was in a class all of its own. Deadline acquisition Daniel Hudson has been a godsend, posting a 1.44 ERA with the Nationals, and was counted on to close the Wild Card game. The rest of the bullpen has been a mess, and Washington knows it, bringing only five relievers on to the Wild Card roster. They will certainly be hoping to use their relievers as little as possible.
Overall, the Nationals look like one of the strongest teams in the National League, and if they were playing against the Braves or the Cardinals, I’d likely have them favored in the first round. But life isn’t fair, and neither is baseball, and the Nationals will have to beat the Dodgers instead. In order for them to do so, they’ll need their hitters to keep their team in front by large enough margins that they can withstand some turbulence from the bullpen. Alternatively, getting nine innings from their starters wouldn’t hurt either. They have a chance, and for now, that will have to be enough for the Washington faithful who want to see the Nationals win their first playoff series in franchise history.
Los Angeles Dodgers
The Dodgers are the closest thing to a playoff antithesis that you could get to the Nationals. While Washington has yet to win its first playoff series, the Dodgers have six such series wins … in the past six years. But the bigger you are, the harder you fall, and no team has fallen harder in the playoffs in the past two years than the Dodgers.
As a lifelong Dodger fan who was unfortunately born after the 1988 World Series, I can say without hesitation that the past two seasons have been the most painful to go through. Even though this run has had, bar none, the best Dodger teams of my lifetime, there are few pains like making it to the World Series and losing. And I lived through the Frank McCourt years, so that really says a lot.
The Dodgers offense ranked fifth in the majors and first in the National League, and they allowed the fewest runs per game in the majors as well. This led to the second-best run differential in the majors, just a hair behind the Houston Astros. The Dodgers are very patient at the plate, waiting for and attacking mistakes, ranking fourth in the majors in both walk percentage and total home runs.
No one embodies this approach as well as NL MVP candidate Cody Bellinger and infielder Max Muncy, despite having very different paths to this moment. Bellinger was consistently ranked as one of the top Dodgers prospects and came into the league mashing but really struggled to adjust in his second season last year. This year though, Bellinger has completely bounced back, finishing third in the majors in OPS+. Muncy, on the other hand, was released at the start of the 2017 season and signed a minor league contract with the Dodgers; since coming up to the big leagues in early 2018, he has consistently gotten on base and slugged to the tune of .256/.381/.545 slash line. These two are joined by left fielder Joc Pederson to form this year’s 30-plus home run club, as Pederson continued his return to form as one of the best sluggers in baseball. Veteran third baseman Justin Turner has been the leader of this team over the past few playoffs but has had his injury issues down the stretch and enters the playoffs in questionable form with back tightness. The starting catcher will likely continue to be Will Smith, who has been as streaky as they come but ended the season on a high note.
The rest of the lineup is rounded out by Corey Seager (113 OPS+), AJ Pollock (108 OPS+), and a crew of utility players in Enrique Hernandez, Chris Taylor, and Matt Beaty. Who’s going to start? We’re not even sure Dave Roberts knows, as the Dodgers once again used seemingly every possible combination of players. They utilized 125 different lineups this year. The Dodgers will play the matchups every game, trying to find their optimal shot at winning, and will almost certainly use a different lineup each game.
If the Nationals have the best rotation in the NL, the Dodgers are right on their heels, with three elite starting pitchers of their own in Walker Buehler (3.26 ERA, 1.04 WHIP), Clayton Kershaw (3.03 ERA, 1.04 WHIP), and Cy Young candidate Hyun-Jin Ryu (2.32 ERA, 1.00 WHIP). Rich Hill (2.45 ERA, 1.13 WHIP in just 58.2 innings pitched) has already been slated for Game 4 should we get that far, making this series truly one about rotation depth. Buehler has been announced as the starter for Game 1, and he’ll be looking to build on the solid postseason he had last year, as he posted a 3.80 ERA and 0.85 WHIP across four starts. The real gem that he’ll be looking to repeat was his Game 3 performance against the Red Sox, when he shut out their offense over seven innings with seven strikeouts and no walks.
Kershaw will be trying to improve upon his overall postseason record of just 9-10, accompanied by a very un-Kershawsian 4.32 ERA. Ryu will also be hoping to answer some questions, questions raised this season about whether his regular-season performance was for real or just a fluke. He did stumble in August but turned it around in his final three starts and will be trying to carry that momentum into the postseason.
It sort of feels like I’m writing the same thing for both teams now because both teams have a very similar overall outlook. Both have elite offenses, both have stellar starting pitching, and both teams’ Achilles’ heel is their bullpen. The Dodgers have typically never had questions about their bullpen because even at their lowest over the past few years, they were still anchored by one of the most dominant closers in baseball in Kenley Jansen. This year has been far from that, as Jansen posted his lowest save percentage since becoming the full-time closer in 2014. The rest of the bullpen hasn’t done much to earn the Dodgers’ trust either, but there is some reason for optimism. Kenta Maeda, Julio Urias, and Ross Stripling should be part of the Dodgers’ postseason bullpen, and all three have shown the ability to be lockdown in relief. Adam Kolarek has been lights out as a left-handed specialist, and some combination of Pedro Baez, Yimi Garcia, Casey Sadler, and Joe Kelly will be on the roster as well, all of whom have shown flashes of reliability down the stretch. Kelly and Baez are no strangers to postseason baseball: Both pitchers posted sub-2 ERAs in the 2018 playoffs. This series may come down to which team can successfully navigate the late innings, and both teams have some potentially great relievers to work with.
The Dodgers won’t ever admit this, but they would more than likely rather be facing either the Cardinals or Braves right now, but as the best team in the National League, they have to be confident that they can beat any team that tries to take them down. They’ve earned that confidence as well, with a well-rounded team that’s led by a dangerous offense and a strong starting rotation. They also have been the best fielding team in baseball by the defensive runs saved metric, saving 135 runs defensively this season. They’ll need to fire on all of these cylinders if they want to finally get to the top of the mountain and win the World Series. Anything short of that will unfortunately be seen as a failure by both the fans and the organization.
Things to Watch
- Who will pitch Game 2 for the Nationals? Will they be aggressive and put Strasburg out there after he pitched three innings on Tuesday? Sure, he only threw 34 pitches, but they were high-leverage pitches in a tight game, and this was the first relief appearance of his career. There’s no guarantee that he’ll be ready to go, but will Martinez pull the trigger anyway? Or will he stay conservative and let fourth starter Sanchez head out there?
- Roberts has expressed nothing but confidence in Jansen, but there comes a point where the Dodgers can’t keep throwing him out there in save situations. If Jansen falters early, who gets the first save opportunity?
- This is the first playoff appearance for a lot of exciting young players, namely Washington’s Soto and Robles as well as Los Angeles’s Smith and potentially Gavin Lux. Soto showed in the Wild Card game that he’s not afraid of the bright lights, but I’ll be curious to see how these guys perform on this big stage.
- I truly believe this series will come down to which team can get through their bullpen with the least number of mishaps. We aren’t in the era of complete games anymore; relief pitchers will factor into this series. Which bullpen will step up?
|1981||NLCS||Dodgers win 3-2|
|2016||NLDS||Dodgers win 3-2|
Dodgers in five games. This is the toughest first-round series in my opinion, and ultimately, I think it will be the best one to watch. I fully expect both managers to make drastic changes as the series goes on in terms of bullpen usage, and that probably will make all the difference. For now, the tie-breaker goes to the team with home-field advantage and the superior offense.
Featured image by Justin Paradis (@FreshMeatComm on Twitter)