NL playoffs shaping up as a race to topple the Dodgers

BY J.A SCHWARTZ

The National League playoffs will kick off tomorrow and will do so without the reigning World Series Champion Washington Nationals, who will not have the opportunity to defend their title. Baseball has not seen a repeat champion since the 1998-2000 New York Yankee dynasty won three straight. Who will take the crown from the Nationals ?

Perhaps one of their NL brethren below is up to the challenge.

NL Wild Card Series matchups:

Los Angeles (1) hosts Milwaukee (8)

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In his 13th season with the Dodgers, Clayton Kershaw has continued to perform at an elite level, going 6-2 with a 2.16 ERA. Since 2014 Kershaw is 98-30 and he’s only had one season where we didn’t win at least twice as many games as he lost.

The Dodgers finished with the best record in baseball in 2020 at 43-17. They led the majors in runs scored, home runs and ERA, and have arguably the most complete roster in this postseason. Their offense is well balanced, led by trade acquisition and MVP candidate Mookie Betts, who hit .292 with 16 HR’s and 39 RBI’s and chipped in 10 steals and Gold Glove caliber right field defense. Their pitching was also outstanding, as Clayton Kershaw (6-2, 2.16) paced the group, which also features young hurlers Tony Gonsolin (2-2, 2.31) and Dustin May (3-1, 2.57) who both thrived in their first full years in the majors, along with Walker Buehler. Kenley Jansen is the closer, posting 11 saves and a 3.33 ERA, and he’s joined by a cadre of relievers, most of whom hold opposing batters to a sub-.200 batting average. Despite this collection of talented performers, Dodgers fans are fully cognizant of the failures suffered by the team in recent postseasons. This is their eighth straight NL West division title, and they’ve been in the playoffs thirteen times since their last World Series win back in 1988.

Looking to inflict further misery upon the franchise are the Brewers, who advanced to the postseason on the final day of the season despite losing to the Cardinals. Milwaukee finished 26th in the majors in runs scored, and down years by sluggers Christain Yelich (.205, 12 HRs, 22 RBIs) and Ryan Braun (.233, 8 HR’s, 26 RBI’s) contributed to their offensive struggles. The starting rotation will be without its ace, as Corbin Burnes (4-1, 2.11) strained an oblique muscle on September 25th, making it very unlikely he’ll pitch in the postseason. Brandon Woodruff (3-5, 3.05) will take the ball in Game 1, likely followed by Adrian Houser (1-6, 5.30), both of whom will be up against superior Dodgers hurlers in those contests. Any Brewers victories will likely include excellent performances by their bullpen, upon whom manager Craig Counsell figures to lean heavily in this series. Josh Hader had 13 saves but an unusually high 3.79 ERA despite allowing only 8 hits in 19 innings this season, and he’ll need to be unhittable to stymie the Dodger offense. Hader figures to be supported by rookie Devin Williams (4-1, 0.33), who struck out 53 in only 27 innings, surrendering only eight hits over that span.

Atlanta (2) hosts Cincinnati (7)

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Atlanta’s Freddie Freeman put up MVP caliber numberswhile helping the Braves to the NL East title in 2020. The 11-year veteran led all of baseball with 22 doubles and finished third in the majors with a .341 average while not missing a game.

Atlanta won the NL East with a 35-25 record, driven largely by their offense, which finished a single run behind the Dodgers for the major league lead and led all of baseball with a .349 on base percentage. The Braves lineup is anchored by Freddie Freeman, who hit .341 with 13 HR’s and 53 RBI’s and OF/DH Marcell Ozuna, who socked 18 HR’s while driving in 56. Their lineup trots out six hitters with an OPS north of .800, and they hope to score enough to support the pitching staff, which is led by southpaw Max Fried (7-0, 2.25). Fried left his last start with ankle pain, but is apparently well enough to start Game 1. Atlanta will likely turn to rookie Ian Anderson (3-2, 1.95) for Game 2. Their bullpen is led by veteran closer Marc Melancon who had 11 saves and a 2.78 ERA, and is fueled by lefties AJ Minter and Grant Dayton, who fired 49 innings between them with a 1.65 ERA.

The Reds offense finished 27th in baseball in runs scored and dead last in batting average at .211. Any chance for them to knock off the Braves will require more productivity from franchise icon Joey Votto, who struggled in 2020, hitting .226 with 11 HR’s and 22 RBI’s. OF/DH Jesse Winker was arguably the Reds best hitter, and his .932 OPS was over 100 points better than any other regular Cincinnati player. Any successful Reds postseason is almost certain to be led by pitchers capable of shutdown outings, fronted by Trevor Bauer. The UCLA product is the likely NL Cy Young Award winner following his 5-4, 1.73 campaign, and he’ll oppose Fried in a matchup of aces in Game 1. The Reds will then turn to Luis Castillo (4-6, 3.21) and Sonny Gray (5-3, 3.70) and hope they both can feature their best stuff against the dangerous Braves bats. Closer Raisel Iglesias had 8 saves and a 2.74 ERA, and he will be waiting to shut the door should Bauer, Castillo and Gray hand him a lead to protect.

Chicago Cubs (3) hosts Miami (6)

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Javier Baez had an off year at the plate in 2020, but the Cubs infielder is still capable of taking over a game and is just two years removed from being the runner-up for the NL MVP Award in 2018.

The Cubs won the NL Central with a 34-26 record, and are back in the postseason for the fifth time in six years after missing least year’s party, led by rookie manager David Ross, a hero of the Cubs 2016 World Series Championship squad. Ross will fill his lineup card with familiar names, including Anthony Rizzo, Javy Baez, Kris Bryant and Kyle Schwarber, each of whom played alongside their new manager during that dramatic title run. The 2020 versions of those players, however, have floundered to hit up to their career levels, and Rizzo’s anemic .222 average was the highest of that quartet. Fortunately, the Cubs feature starting pitchers with significant postseason experience, and will lean heavily upon those arms to get past the young Marlins. Yu Darvish (8-3, 2.01) is coming off his best year as a pro, and battle tested Kyle Hendricks (6-5, 2.88) will toe the slab at venerable Wrigley Field for Game 1. Southpaw Jon Lester (3-3, 5.16) will also get a start as he seeks his fourth championship ring (2007,2013 with Boston, 2016 with the Cubs). Jeremy Jeffress saved 8 games with a 1.54 ERA after taking over the ninth inning role from erstwhile fireman Craig Kimbrel, whose wildness fueled a 5.28 ERA and a demotion from pitching high leverage innings.

Facing off against the largely veteran Cubs are the Miami Marlins, arguably the least likely team to qualify for the playoffs. They ranked 21st in both runs scored and in ERA, but Manager Don Mattingly expertly guided his charges to the franchise’s first postseason berth since 2003. After losing 105 games a year ago, finishing 31-29 qualifies as a huge accomplishment for the Marlins, who are led by rookie sensation Sixto Sanchez, 22, who went 3-2, 3.46 in his major league debut. Sandy Alcantara (3-2, 3.00) figures to follow Sanchez to the bump at Wrigley, and they’ll need those two young guns to be firing bullets to stage an upset of the veteran Cubs. Brandon Kintzler notched 12 saves with a 2.22 ERA as the closer, but he’ll need contributions from James Hoyt, Brad Boxberger and Richard Bleier to patch together enough clean innings to win the series. Offensively, the Marlins are paced by young Miguel Rojas, who hit .304 with a .392 OBP, and Brian Anderson, who led the team with 11 HR’s and 38 RBIs. The Marlins have found ways to stay in games, and will attempt to confound the pundits who underestimated them all season by advancing to their third World Series berth in franchise history.

San Diego (4) hosts St. Louis (5)

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San Diego’s Fernando Tatis Jr. has only played 143 games in the majors but is already recognized as one of the most talented and electrifying players in the game. In less than a full season the 21-year old has already blasted 39 home runs while compiling a .301 average and helping to lead the Padres to their first postseason appearance since 2006.

The Padres broke a long postseason drought by finishing 37-23, the third best record in MLB, and their first season above .500 since 2010. The last time the Padres were in the playoffs was 2006, and the team is still searching for its first ever championship. General Manager AJ Preller made big splashes at the trade deadline, acquiring arguably the best pitcher traded in Mike Clevinger, who came over from Cleveland and went a combined 3-2, 3.02. Unfortunately, Preller’s prize may end up missing at least the first round of the playoffs with an elbow injury, but both the team and the pitcher are optimistic he can take the ball soon. Given that co-ace Dinelson Lamet (3-1, 2.09) is also nursing elbow pain, the Padres may enter the series against St. Louis without their top two pitchers. Attempting to step up into the breach will be Zach Davies (7-4, 2.73) and Chris Paddack, who regressed from an excellent rookie season in 2019 by going 4-5 with a 4.73 ERA. Preller also invested heavily in his bullpen, but ace closer RHP Kirby Yates is out for the year, and no other Padre reliever amassed more than the four saves Drew Pomeranz and trade deadlione acquisition Trevor Rosenthal notched. They will count on getting contributions from multiple sources to close out games, and hope the offense can provide enough thunder to create those leads to protect. San Diego was third in runs, fourth in HR’s, and led the majors with 55 steals in 2020, paced by 21-year-old shortstop Fernando Tatis Jr. Tatis hit .277 with 17 HR’s and 45 RBI’s, and added 11 steals to go with his solid play at short. Manny Machado and Wil Myers combined to hit 31 HR’s with 87 RBI’s, and both exceeded .950 OPS, providing the Padres with consistent punch in the middle of the order. Second baseman Jake Cronenworth hit .285 with an .831 OPS, and is a front runner for the NL Rookie of the Year Award, which hasn’t gone to a Padre since 1987, when catcher Benito Santiago was the recipient.

The Cardinals will endeavor to overcome a largely punchless lineup to best the Friars. St. Louis finished 28th in runs scored and dead last in the majors in home runs, with no Cardinal batter smashing more than the seven hit by Tyler O’Neill and Brad Miller. First baseman Paul Goldschmidt hit .304 with a .417 OBP, but only knocked in 21 runs in 2020. Franchise stalwart Yadier Molina remains behind the plate for the Cards, and he’ll hope to be catching lots of scoreless innings from his pitchers, whom he helped guide to the 9th best ERA in baseball. Rookie Kwang Hyun Kim (3-0, 1.62) will get the call for the Redbirds in the opener, followed by the venerable 39 year-old Adam Wainwright (5-3, 3.15) in Game 2. Ace Jack Flaherty (4-3, 4.91) is coming off a down year following his breakthrough 2019 campaign and is scheduled for Game 3 if it’s necessary. Like the Padres, St. Louis doesn’t have a closer who gathered more than four saves, but they’ll rely upon southpaws Genesis Cabrera, Tyler Webb and Andrew Miller to help Giovanny Gallegos end rallies.

Predictions:

Wild Card Series:
Los Angeles over Milwaukee
San Diego over St. Louis
Chicago over Miami
Cincinnati over Atlanta

NL Division Series:
San Diego over Los Angeles
Chicago over Cincinnati

NL Championship Series:
San Diego over Chicago

World Series:
San Diego over Minnesota

This writer predicted this World Series matchup prior to the season, and I’m sticking to my guns. This playoff system figures to be the most challenging ever contested given the circumstances, so enjoy the drama as it unfolds.

About J.A. Schwartz

J.A. Schwartz is a reporter and columnist for the Martinez Tribune. He's also a licensed professional in the health care field when he's not opining on the world of sports and culture for the benefit of our readers.

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