It’s not too often the MLB playoffs give us exactly the matchup that we all predicted at the start of the season, but here we are with the Los Angeles Dodgers and Atlanta Braves in the National League Championship Series.
The Dodgers, the best team in baseball this season, and the Braves, the NL East champs, seemed like the best two teams in the NL when this started and the bracket has now matched them up with a chance to go to the World Series.
Here’s a twist now that we’re in October: Through two rounds, neither team has lost a postseason game. The Dodgers come in as presumptive World Series favorites with a balanced attack and long list of weapons that’s going to make them hard to beat in seven games. The Braves, meanwhile, have managed shutouts in four of five postseason games thus far — meaning that for any holes we thought existed in their pitching staff, there’s no arguing with the results.
To make this series even more of a treat, it’s loaded with star power, from veterans like Clayton Kershaw and Freddie Freeman to the game’s young emerging superstars like Cody Bellinger and Ronald Acuña Jr. Of course Mookie Betts will be front and center as well, as the engine of the Dodgers offense.
Game 1: Monday, Oct 12, (8:08 p.m. ET) (FOX)
Game 2: Tuesday, Oct. 13, (6:05 p.m. ET) (FS1)
Game 3: Wednesday, Oct. 14, (6:05 p.m. ET) (FS1)
Game 4: Thursday, Oct. 15, (Time TBD) (FOX/FS1)
Game 5*: Friday, Oct. 16, (Time TBD) (FOX/FS1)
Game 6*: Saturday, Oct. 17, (Time TBD) (FOX/FS1)
Game 7*: Sunday, Oct. 18, (Time TBD) (FOX/FS1)
The entire series will be played at Globe Life Field in Arlington, Texas, and for the first time since the pandemic struck, fans will be present. Los Angeles will be the “home team” and bat last in Games 1, 2, 6 and 7.
The Braves and Dodgers did not meet during the regular season due to MLB's limited travel schedule. However, they do have some postseason history, having squared off in October three times previously. The most recent matchup came in 2018, when Los Angeles ousted Atlanta 3-1 in the NLDS. In 2013, the NLDS result was also 3-1 for Los Angeles. Back in 1996, the Braves swept the series 3-0. This will be the first NLCS matchup between these classic franchises.
It says something about the Dodgers in 2020 that Clayton Kershaw isn’t THE star we’re talking about. Sure, he’s important but the star of the show these days is Mookie Betts. After the megatrade and the more-mega-contract extension he signed with the Dodgers, this postseason has him front-and-center. If he can end the string of postseason disappointments for the Dodgers, he’ll be L.A. royalty after one season.
Ronald Acuña Jr. is to the Braves what Betts is to the Dodgers. He makes the whole thing go. He’s almost always the most interesting player on the field and if he’s at his best, he can dominate the series. The Dodgers will have to have an answer for him the same way they did Fernanado Tatis Jr. in the NLDS.
Ian Anderson isn’t a star — not yet at least. But he could become one in front of our eyes. Thrust into a starting role in August after a litany of Braves pitching injuries, the 22-year-old rookie right-hander has become the No. 2 man in Atlanta’s rotation. In the postseason, he’s pitched as well as anyone. In two starts, he hasn’t allowed a run in 11 ⅔ innings and has struck out 17. In a seven-game series with no off days, he may be the key to whether Atlanta can win another series.
Not many teams have the luxury of a reigning MVP who isn’t at the forefront of their team. But the Dodgers aren’t many teams. Cody Bellinger is coming off a ho-hum 60-game season after an absolutely great 2019. He was also great in the NLDS — from his game-saving highlight reel catch to four hits, a homer and five RBIs at the plate. If he’s finding his groove, that is bad news for the Braves. - Mike Oz
Why the Dodgers will win
Clayton Kershaw: The postseason has not been kind to Kershaw, but he's doing his best to change that narrative in 2020. The three-time Cy Young award winner has been very sharp through two starts. In the wild-card series, Kershaw dominated the Brewers by striking out 13 batters over eight scoreless innings in a Game 2 win. In the NLDS, Kershaw limited a previously locked-in Padres lineup to three runs over six innings while striking out six. If this playoff version of Kershaw sticks around, that's big news for L.A.
Role players: Everyone knows about Mookie Betts, Cody Bellinger and the other Dodgers stars. However, success in the postseason is contingent on role players stepping up. That's exactly what's been happening for the Dodgers. In particular, the catching duo of Will Smith and Austin Barnes has been very productive. After Smith's five-hit effort in NLDS Game 3, they've combined to go 9-for-22 with five walks and five RBIs. If it’s not the catcher, the Dodgers have solid veterans like Max Muncy, Joc Pederson, Chris Taylor, Kiké Hernández and A.J. Pollock, who are all capable of changing a game.
Defense: One area the Dodgers have a clear advantage is defense. That figures to be key in a ballpark that is playing large and not allowing many home runs. According to the Fielding Bible's defensive runs saved, the Dodgers ranked second at plus-29, while the Braves were 21st at minus-8. In a playoff series that figures to be tight throughout, securing extra outs with superior defense is huge.
Why the Braves will win
Emerging starters: The Dodgers aren't just a step or two up in competition, they're a 20-story building above the Reds and Marlins offensively. That said, the four shutouts Atlanta has pitched in five postseason games can't be overlooked because we’re clearly seeing the best version of Braves starters Max Fried, Ian Anderson and Kyle Wright. Their execution has been excellent, as they’ve collectively posted a 1.25 October ERA, and their confidence is soaring. They seem fully prepared to take on this challenge.
Bullpen edge: Atlanta's clear advantage is in the bullpen. With Dodgers' closer Kenley Jansen struggling and no other relievers delivering consistent results, the Dodgers can be vulnerable in the late innings. Meanwhile, the Braves have remarkable depth and experience with Mark Melancon, Chris Martin, Shane Greene, A.J. Minter and Will Smith all available to get key outs. If the Braves can keep games close, that's a big edge.
Explosive offense: The Dodgers led MLB with 349 runs scored this season. Did you know the Braves were second with 348 runs scored? Atlanta's lineup is deep and capable of beating opponents many different ways. Leadoff man Ronald Acuña Jr. provides power and speed. Freddie Freeman is among the game's best pure hitters. Marcell Ozuna is mashing home runs left and right. Then you have a balanced second tier featuring Nick Markakis, Ozzie Albies, Adam Duvall, Dansby Swanson, Travis d'Arnaud and Austin Riley. This team is really well put together. - Mark Townsend
Number to know
41 percent: Clayton Kershaw — whose postseason narrative is thoroughly documented — threw only 41 percent fastballs this season, one of the lowest marks in the league for a starting pitcher. The Braves’ all-around terrifying lineup posted MLB’s best batting average (.311) and overall production (.396 weighted on-base average, or wOBA) against fastballs. Kershaw, then, seems at least somewhat well-suited to avoid the hard, straight pitches upon which Atlanta has feasted. He’s leaned on his deadly slider, throwing it nearly as much as the heater in 2020.
The intrigue here could come with two of the Dodgers’ other prominent pitchers. Game 1 starter Walker Buehler and star rookie Dustin May threw fastballs more than 75 percent of the time this season — two of the highest usage rates in MLB. Will they adjust to counter the Braves … or simply hope to overpower them? - Zach Crizer
More from Yahoo Sports: