5 keys to Braves upsetting Dodgers in NLCS

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The National League’s top two seeds, the Dodgers and Braves, will begin the best-of-seven Championship Series on Monday in Arlington.

It will be the second time the Braves have faced the Dodgers in the past three Octobers. Los Angeles won, 3-1, in the 2018 NL Division Series. Both teams have evolved since that meeting, but the Braves have particularly grown, having won two division titles and two playoff series since taking on the more-experienced Dodgers that postseason.

“I thought when we faced them the last time, and I said it afterwards, we weren’t as strong as they were,” Braves manager Brian Snitker said. “We’ve made a lot of progress in that regard. We’re a better club now. We’re more well-rounded. We’re a stronger team than we were two years ago. Our offense, the bullpen, what we’ve seen out of the young starters is pretty good, too. We feel like we’re a lot better than we were two years ago.”

Now, the two NL legacy franchises are playing for a berth in the World Series. The Braves, who are underdogs, are seeking their first Fall Classic appearance since 1999 and first title since 1995. The Dodgers last appeared in the World Series in 2017 and 2018, but they’re seeking their first championship since 1988.

“It’s a complete club,” Snitker said, evaluating the Dodgers. “It seems like they’re not as much a platoon club as they were the last time we saw them in the playoffs. It’s a very experienced, veteran team. They don’t beat themselves. It’s just a solid, solid club.”

Matchups and stats to watch as the Braves try to make the World Series:

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1. Who breaks a pitching stalemate?

The Braves’ rotation issues aren’t nearly what they were, but it’s helped they’ve only needed one start by an individual not named Max Fried or Ian Anderson this postseason. The questions at the back of their rotation are unavoidable this time, however, and that weakness could be what separates them from the Dodgers.

Statistically, the Braves should have a pitching edge based on postseason performance. They’ve pitched four shutouts in five games, accumulating a 0.92 collective ERA with a .169 average against. The Dodgers, who’ve likewise swept their way to this point, have a 2.00 ERA and .178 average against.

The Braves have ninth-inning certainty in Mark Melancon. That isn’t the case for the Dodgers. Kenley Jansen, once arguably baseball’s best closer, has been shaky in the role and Dodgers manager Dave Roberts hasn’t committed to sticking with him in the final inning. The Padres rallied late and almost won Game 2 against Jansen, who was replaced by Joe Kelly in the Dodgers’ narrow win.

That uncertainty doesn’t make the Dodgers’ bullpen a weakness, however. Their relievers posted a 2.74 ERA and 3.5 fWAR, both third best in the majors. Their bullpen allowed just 0.84 homers per nine, walked 2.57 per nine and earned a 51% ground ball rate, all of which were best in the bigs.

This is a battle between the NL’s two best bullpens. The starting matchups won’t disappoint, either. The Dodgers’ top two, Walker Buehler and Clayton Kershaw, are elite. The Braves’ top two, Max Fried and Ian Anderson, have proven they’re high level and can keep pace in pitchers’ duels.

Probable Game 3 starter Kyle Wright settling down to pitch six scoreless innings in Game 3 against the Marlins should comfort Braves fans. The Dodgers haven’t announced their Game 3 starter for this series, but Dustin May, Julio Urias and Tony Gonsolin comprise an impressive back-of-the-rotation trio. Whatever happens with Wright and whomever the Braves start in Game 4 — Huascar Ynoa and Bryse Wilson are the options — could determine the series.

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2. Who breaks the offensive stalemate?

The Braves no longer hold a significant offensive advantage over their postseason opponent. The Dodgers outscored them and out-homered them. This will be the first time the Braves face an offensive equal. The four shutouts in five games was nice, but it’s much easier to do against the contact-deficient Reds and punchless Marlins.

That said, the Braves’ MLB-best OPS (.832) outpaced the Dodgers (.821), who were second. The Braves and Dodgers each had .483 slugging percentages, tying for the MLB lead, but the Braves had the better on-base percentage (.349 versus .338).

Globe Life Field can put a damper on the long ball, so there’s an even greater emphasis on converting with runners in scoring position, especially with two outs.

The Dodgers with runners in scoring position with two outs (267 plate appearances): .298/.408/.547 with 10 doubles, two triples and 14 homers. The Dodgers have struck out 41 times and walked 35 times in such circumstances.

The Braves with runners in scoring position with two outs (299 plate appearances): .264/.365/.426 with 15 doubles and nine homers. The Braves have struck out 69 times and walked 39 times in such situation.

As with every series, one hit can make the difference.

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3. Making plays with the ball in play

The Dodgers don’t strike out much. They piled up the fourth-fewest strikeouts in the majors, which is even more impressive when you consider their power production. Their discipline means the ball will be put in play. The Braves, typically a sound defensive team, can’t afford any miscues. The Dodgers are the last team that needs extra chances.

We’ve seen Freddie Freeman’s diving grab, Ozzie Albies’ basket catch, Nick Markakis’ heads-up play to turn a bloop hit into an out at second, and other high-I.Q. plays that make the Braves a good defensive club. That’s going to be most important over the next week, when they’ll need to play near perfect defense to win.

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4. Slow down the MVPs; Get your MVPs going

There’s a reason everybody in the sports realm is clowning the Red Sox for trading Mookie Betts. He’s a sensation, good in every aspect and capable of impacting the game in endless ways. The Dodgers giving him a mega deal was money well spent.

Despite underwhelming regular season numbers, Cody Bellinger is likewise a force at the plate and in the field. He homered and robbed Fernando Tatis Jr. of a go-ahead home run in the Dodgers’ Game 2 win over the Padres. He’s the reigning MVP and embodies all the qualities you want in a franchise player.

Betts and Bellinger are one of baseball’s best duos. This isn’t to say the Braves need to make other Dodgers beat them, because they’re easily capable of that, but there’s little chance the Braves advance if Betts and Bellinger go nuclear.

On the other hand, the Dodgers must contend with the Braves’ duo of Freddie Freeman, potentially the 2020 NL MVP, and Marcell Ozuna, who if not for Freeman might be the MVP himself. There are few teams who can match the Dodgers’ pairing, but this Braves team can — and that’s without mentioning Ronald Acuna and Ozzie Albies, who are a dynamic duo themselves.

The Braves’ pairing was more productive in the regular season. Freeman and Ozuna combined to hit .340 with 37 doubles, 31 homers, 109 RBIs with 89 runs scored in the 60-game season. Betts and Bellinger hit .266 with 19 doubles, 28 homers, 69 RBIs with 80 runs scored.

In the postseason, Betts and Bellinger have bested Freeman and Ozuna through five games. Betts is 7-for-19 (.368) with five doubles and four RBIs. Bellinger is 6-for-19 (.316) with a homer, triple and five RBIs. Freeman has hit 3-for-18 (.167) with one RBI. Ozuna has hit 5-for-22 (.227) with a double, homer and five RBIs.

There’s no shortage of firepower on either side, but it’ll be interesting to see how those four players perform.

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5. Who comes through in the clutch?

Travis d’Arnaud was the Braves’ best player in the NLDS. Dansby Swanson, who homered twice in the series, is one of baseball’s best clutch hitters. Lefty Tyler Matzek was the unsung hero of the Braves’ Game 1 victory over the Reds, getting out of two jams. Kyle Wright surpassed expectations in Game 3 against the Marlins, overcoming early nerves to pitch six scoreless.

Championship teams require more than just their best players meeting expectations. Obviously the Braves need Freeman, Ozuna and Acuna to crush Dodgers pitching. But they also need the complementary players to come up big.

Whether that happens, and who those players are, will be revealed during the series. We just saw the Rays’ Mike Brosseau — not the most recognizable name — send the Yankees home with a late homer. If the Braves upset the Dodgers, they probably will have a Brosseau moment or two.

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©2020 The Atlanta Journal-Constitution (Atlanta, Ga.)