Because the baseball gods feel generous in the MLB playoffs in 2020, we get another game of 7 this weekend as the Dodgers and Braves play a win-or-go-home game for the National League pennant and a trip to the World Series against AL champions Tampa Bay Rays.
With so much at stake, we asked senior MLB writers Alden Gonzalez, David Schoenfield and Jeff Passan about the key issues for the Dodgers, Braves and matchup that go into Game 7 on Sunday.
7;s key issue
Who starts for the Dodgers?
It has not been announced, but it is apparently down to three choices: Tony Gonsolin, Julio Urias and Brusdar Graterol. The latter would obviously be used as an opener, and that makes sense for a few reasons. Dodgers deployed Graterol as an opener during training runs toward the tail of the regular season. It would also be helpful to ensure that their best reliever – at least for the moment – faces the best part of the Braves’ lineup. Gonsolin, who would be in normal rest after an 88-pitch start in Game 2, is in line to throw the majority of innings. But Julio Urias, who threw a career-high 101 places in Game 3, could provide an inning or two like a bridge. – Gonzalez
Does Clayton Kershaw look like?
To is the fascinating question. Kershaw hung out in the bullpen for Game 6, just in case of an emergency. In all likelihood, he will also be in the bullpen for Game 7, waiting for a potential call. The Dodgers want to avoid using him for three reasons: First, they can save him from starting Game 1 of the World Series; second, he was scratched from his scheduled start earlier in the week due to back cramps; and finally, he has not been great when used out of the bullpen at short rest, the latest example to come in Game 5 of last year’s NL Division Series. But if the game is close and Dave Roberts needs an inning or two before he gets to his high-performing reliefs, the thought of Kershaw standing in that bullpen can be tempting. Again. – Gonzalez
Can Cody Bellinger find it on the record?
Bellinger struggled to find consistency with his mechanics through the regular season, having four hits and nine strikes in 23 at-bats in this series and hitting .238 / .333 / .476 in the record season. He has hit some balls hard, but he has not had much to show for it. The Dodgers have had a couple of great first innings in this series, especially their 11-run output in Game 3, but they have not been able to transfer it. In their Game 5 victory, they scored the first three-inning races against Max Fried, but did nothing else thereafter, putting great pressure on their bullpen and their defense. Both of those areas came through, but the Dodgers can’t trust it again. They need more consistent production from their offense. They need Bellinger to be a catalyst again. – Gonzalez
Atlanta’s key issues
How long will the Braves stick with Ian Anderson?
The 22-year-old has only nine career starts – including three pointless excursions in the mail season – but has obviously been impressive with a 1.31 ERA, a 48-innings home run and a allowed stroke average of .154. His switch has been his big weapon since smash has just hit 0.076 against it and he is not afraid to throw it to right-handers.
Still, it’s a big moment for a rookie. This is the 19th game 7 in an LCS or World Series since 2000, and rookies have started only three times: Walker Buehler in Game 7 of the 2018 NLCS, Daisuke Matsuzaka of the Red Sox in the 2007 ALCS (and he had plenty of great gaming experience) in Japan) and John Lackey for the Angels in the 2002 World Series. (And if Tony Gonsolin starts for the Dodgers, he would do No. 4!)
The Dodgers are known for their very patient approach, and they beat Anderson five times in four innings in his Game 2 start. However, he escaped unharmed as he only allowed one hit and came out of a base-controlled jam in the third inning when Will Smith knocked the ground out. Even if he sails together, do not look for him to go deep into the game. Braves manager Brian Snitker still has a strong bullpen, and the way the game is managed these days is probably a quick hook in order, no matter who starts it.
Of the six Game 7s since 2016, including the Astros-Rays game on Saturday, the longest start that had gone was Zack Greinke’s 6 Series innings in Game 7 of last year’s World Series. Only three other times did a starter even come through five innings – Max Scherzer matched up against Greinke and Charlie Morton twice in ALCS 2017 for the Astros and then Saturday against the Astros. So even if Anderson throws up several zeros – 15⅔ innings so far in the mail season – don’t be surprised if he’s out there after four or five innings.
Snitker said he had no particular message for Anderson or his team. “They know what we’re doing. They’re very aware that this is game 7, and shoot, we go out there and let her fly. A game 7 is another baseball game. It’s not fourth-and-1 and let me come down first. It’s a baseball game and you have to treat it as such. It’s game 7, it’s going to be fun, we like how we’re stacked, we like who’s throwing. “- Schoenfield
How do the Braves navigate through Corey Seager and the heart of the Dodgers lineup?
Seager has been the big bat for the Dodgers and hit .375 with five home runs and 11 RBIs in the series. When Anderson is out there, you might think the decision would be to make sure a lefty is in to meet Seager … except four of the five home runs have come from left-handed, including an off AJ Minter in Game 2 and one of Tyler Matzek in Game 5. So maybe it’s not the left-handers facing Seager – remember, a relief should face three strokes unless it’s the end of an inning – and you worry more about Mookie Betts in the lead spot and Justin Turner hit third place, so it is the right-handers who are at the top of the lineup.
One thing for sure: Everyone is available. No Braves reliever threw in both games 5 and 6. Chris Martin threw 30 spots in Game 6, so he’s the only one who might be a little compromised. Minter threw 42 lanes in Game 5 as a starter, but was so dominant with seven strikeouts in three innings that he certainly has the opportunity. The one guy that we have put high-speed situations that we might does not see is Will Smith. He gave up seven home runs in 16 innings in the regular season and then the big one to Dodgers Will Smith in Game 5 and also went two strokes in Game 4. So most likely it’s a combination of Matzek, Minter, Shane Greene, Martin, maybe side- arms Darren O’Day if it’s a two-out situation and then closer to Mark Melancon. There is plenty of depth to get through nine innings. – Schoenfield
Will Ronald Acuna Jr. do something?
Braves hits .263 / .333 / .450 in the series, but Acuna has not done much damage and hits .190 without a home run and two doubles. He has knocked out 34% of the time in the post season, so swing-and-miss has been an issue throughout the post season. Needless to say, having him at the base ahead of Freddie Freeman and Marcell Ozuna is a big factor. These two have been scrubbing. The Braves were the best fastball hit team in the majors – in fact, they were the best fastball team in the majors for 13 years – but the Dodgers have beaten Acuna with a lot of fastballs up in the zone and then knocked balls away. – Schoenfield
Matchup wild cards
What is matchup worth setting to see?
Freddie Freeman Vs. Brusdar Graterol. There are only two regulars that Graterol has not encountered in NLCS: Acuña and Freeman. It can happen in the first place. It can happen in the seventh or eighth or ninth. Freeman has seen 28 fastballs this season at 98 mph-plus. He took 16 for balls, discarded four, flew out three times, swung and missed twice, singled, doubled and grounded out
In other words, if Graterol puts a heater in the zone, Freeman will probably not stare at it. And given his propensity to hurt, it’s the kind of faceoff that could swing the entire series. – Passan
Who is a lurking, unlikely hero?
No one in the NLCS hits the ball as hard as the Dodgers’ Joc Pederson – and the further Anderson goes, the more likely he is to stay in the game. Pederson has put the ball in play 14 times in the NLCS. Ten of them have been more than 100 mph – and the other four were at 99 mph, 89.7 mph, 88.3 mph and 83.5 mph. Pederson was then a pedestrian in the regular season and kept him on the bench as a knife hitter seemed like an option. Roberts has stuck with him against right-handers and he has repaid it not only by crushing the ball but also contacts. Pederson, who throughout his career has been something of a strike artist, has struck out twice in the NLCS. – Passan
What is a strategic element that can come into play?
Work around the minimum rule with three batters for pitcher by aiming for heavy platoon matchups that may be the third out of the inning. Remember: The minimum does not apply when an inning is over, and for a Braves team that carried 15 pitchers (!) On its 28-man post-season, it can utilize it to its advantage.
The Dodgers will almost certainly not want to play matchups in the early innings – not if it’s bound to leave them prone in later, potentially more important situations – so if AJ Pollock ever has two outs? Burn Darren O’Day. If Cody Bellinger is in the same situation? Burn Grant Dayton or, if important enough, Will Smith. Leaders must treat each one out in a game 7 as if the season depends on it, and with as many pitchers as the Braves have, each inning gives them an opportunity to use the final out to gain an advantage. – Passan