Considering that Thursday marks the opening of the National League Division Series, it sure seems like we’ve seen a lot of these teams playing high-stakes games already.
The Rockies had their late-season surge, division tiebreaker loss and then their wild-card thriller to eliminate the Cubs. The Brewers won seven straight to catch Chicago in the Central, then took the division crown with a tight win Monday at Wrigley. And the Dodgers scrambled to hang with Colorado before winning the West in Game 163. Meanwhile, the Braves have been kicking back and enjoying the mayhem, having clinched the East almost two weeks ago.
But they’re all on even footing now.
The most important thing of the day: As they embark on their postseason journeys, each of the four teams carries some baggage. The Dodgers’ 30-year championship drought, despite their big market and bigger payroll, has been well-documented, and they’re attempting to become the first NL team to bounce back from a Game 7 World Series loss to win it all the following year. Just as aggravating (maybe more so), the Braves have lost eight straight postseason series, the second-longest streak of all time. (We’re counting wild-card games as “series” here.) In the other series, the Brewers haven’t been to the World Series since 1982, when they were still in the American League, and the Rockies haven’t won it all since — forever.
NLDS Game 1: Colorado Rockies at Milwaukee Brewers
The stakes: The two hottest teams in baseball — Colorado has won 10 of 12, including the exhilarating wild-card win, and Milwaukee has won eight straight and 10 of 11 — try to cool each other off and get a leg up in the series.
If the Rockies win: They could suddenly have a huge edge in this series, thanks in part to what playing a tiebreaker did to the pitching plans. After Game 2 on Friday, they would head home to Colorado either tied or up 2-0 with their two aces, German Marquez and Kyle Freeland, likely slotted for Games 3 and 4 in Denver.
If the Brewers win: This “bullpenning in the postseason” thing could catch on, at least with manager Craig Counsell, whose pen might be the mightiest of all.
One key stat to know: The Rockies were just 2-5 against the Brewers this season, their worst record against any team.
The matchup that matters most: Christian Yelich vs. whomever. You probably have noticed that Yelich is pretty hot. Take your pick: Over the past week, his OPS is 2.126; the past two weeks, it’s 1.677; since Sept. 1, it’s 1.313. Do the Rockies’ pitchers have an answer?
The prediction: Look for a lot of relievers in this game. The Rockies will start with Senzatela, who allowed one run in each of his final three starts but is unlikely to go deep into the game. The Brewers could have started Wade Miley on regular rest, but they instead will go with a bullpen game with Woodruff as the “opener.” As you saw in the wild-card game, the Rockies don’t hit much on the road. If you can get through Nolan Arenado and Trevor Story without any damage, you feel like you can shut down the bottom of the lineup. The Brewers have won eight in a row. Make it nine, as Counsell deftly handles his relievers and a pumped-up home crowd — the most underrated fan base in the majors — cheers the Brewers to a 4-2 victory. — David Schoenfield
NLDS Game 1: Atlanta Braves at Los Angeles Dodgers
The stakes: Many of the young Braves will be getting their first taste of the postseason, so they have to protect against being overwhelmed by the moment. The Dodgers will try to take advantage of their big experience edge.
If the Braves win: They’ll be thrilled to have their opening game behind them and in the win column. They’ll also be bucking the season series. Atlanta lost five of seven to the Dodgers and was outscored 35-18.
If the Dodgers win: They’ll be feeling good about having Clayton Kershaw in reserve to start Game 2 with a chance to take a commanding 2-0 series lead.
One key stat to know: The Braves had the NL’s second-best OPS against left-handed pitching (.780), which comes into play against Ryu and Kershaw. Ozzie Albies (.335 BA, .905 OPS) and Ronald Acuna Jr. (.302, .992) have benefited most from facing lefties.
The matchup that matters most: The Dodgers’ bench vs. the Braves’ bullpen. L.A. has the deepest roster in the postseason and Atlanta may have the shakiest bullpen, so as the game goes on, it will be a challenge for Braves manager Brian Snitker to find favorable matchups.
The prediction: In a bit of a surprise, the Dodgers tabbed Ryu over Kershaw, but Ryu flashed a 1.88 ERA in nine starts after coming off the disabled list in August. Plus, Ryu could go on short rest in Game 4 and Kershaw on regular rest in Game 5 if needed. The Dodgers hit better against right-handed pitching (.458 slugging vs. .409 against lefties), giving Max Muncy and Cody Bellinger the platoon advantage and getting Joc Pederson into the lineup. Foltynewicz had a breakout season and his breaking stuff is absurd, but I like all that lefty power in the L.A. lineup — not to mention Justin Turner and Manny Machado. Dodgers take it 5-2. — David Schoenfield