ARLINGTON, Texas – They have won eight consecutive National League West titles, the last five under manager Dave Roberts. Yet Roberts does not hesitate when asked if this is the best Los Angeles Dodgers squad in that run.
“It is,” he says simply, citing the power arms on the pitching staff, the ability of his hitters to control the strike zone (thank you, Mookie Betts) and a “buy-in” that pays off in manners subtle and significant, be it taking an extra base or shifting positions selflessly.
Yet as they chase a first World Series championship in 32 years, and a third NL pennant in four years, the Dodgers will find the going just as perilous. Standing in their way for now, in a National League Championship Series that begins Monday night, are the Atlanta Braves, the three-time East champs who are a far different club than the one the Dodgers beat in four games of the 2018 NLDS.
Mookie Betts was added to the Dodgers lineup this season. (Photo: Mark J. Rebilas, USA TODAY Sports)
"I think we’re more talented, we’re deeper than we were," Braves general manager Alex Anthopoulos said Sunday of a club that hit 103 home runs, second in the major leagues to only the Dodgers' 118. "In that 2018 series, we just didn’t match them with power. The biggest change is offensively, a lot more firepower, by design, and the bullpens are a lot deeper."
When they meet for Game 1 at Globe Life Field, it will be a fascinating mix of veteran and youth on both sides, with just one significant player having achieved the game’s ultimate goal.
All games at Globe Life Field, Arlington, Texas (*if necessary and all times ET)
Game 1, Monday: Braves (Max Fried, 7-0, 2.25 ERA) at Dodgers (Walker Buehler, 1-0, 3.44 ERA ), 8:08, Fox
Game 2, Tuesday: Braves (Ian Anderson, 3-2, 1.95 ERA) at Dodgers (Clayton Kershaw, 6-2, 2.16 ERA ), TBD, FS1
Game 3, Wednesday: Dodgers (TBD) at Braves (Kyle Wright, 2-4, 5.21 ERA), Fox/FS1
Game 4, Thursday: Dodgers (TBD) at Braves (TBD), TBD, Fox/FS1
Game 5*, Friday: Dodgers (TBD) at Braves (TBD), TBD, FS1
Game 6*, Saturday: Braves (TBD) at Dodgers (), TBD, FS1
Game 7*, Sunday: Braves (TBD) at Dodgers (TBD), TBD, Fox/FS1
Three things to watch
K cavalry: The Braves’ 1-2 starting punch of Fried and Anderson, with an assist from Wright, made history, becoming the first team since 1905 to toss shutouts in four of their first five playoff games. While Fried is the undisputed ace and a Cy Young Award candidate, Anderson may be the most crucial piece to this series. He made his debut on Aug. 26 but has been their best pitcher since, and has struck out 17 in his 11 2/3 shutout innings these playoffs. More important, he can generate swings and misses in the strike zone with both his fastball and changeup, which will provide a huge challenge to even Roberts’ disciplined batters.
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Wraps coming off?: The Dodgers managed to steamroll the Brewers and Padres with scarcely a contribution from rookie arms Dustin May and Tony Gonsolin. While May got some key relief outs in 3 1/3 innings against Milwaukee and started Game 3 (but pitched just one inning) against the Padres, this seven-game series with no games off would seem to force May into a starting role. As for Gonsolin? He might have started Game 4 of the NLDS had it gone that far and figures to assume a key role in this series. That’s not a bad thing for the Dodgers: Gonsolin struck out 46 2/3 in 46 innings this year.
Late and close: The Dodgers may need to strike early and hold on, as it appears Atlanta may hold an advantage in the late innings. The Dodgers’ Kenley Jansen saga took another turn for the worst with an ugly Game 4 outing, with Roberts still insisting he’s not necessarily not the closer. If not Jansen, then who? Rookie Brusdar Graterol and his 101-mph sinker, most likely, with Joe Kelly and Blake Treinen looming, as well. “When the phone rings and my name is called, I’ll throw,” Treinen said Sunday. “Anything from the sixth inning on may feel like a closing situation.”
With at least four games in four days, the Dodgers will have far less flexibility to leverage their starters and swing guys early or late as the series moves on.
Meanwhile, Atlanta’s bullpen has given up just one run in five postseason games, with Tyler Matzek and Will Smith able to lock down left-handed batters and Chris Martin, Darren O’Day, Shane Greene and closer Mark Melancon able to match up or gobble innings on the right-handed side.
It may come down to Roberts' ability to deploy young arms Julio Urias, May and Gonsolin. The Dodgers have more depth, experience and the two best players in the series: Betts and Cody Bellinger. Dodgers in 6.
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