NLDS preview: Can the Diamondbacks derail the Dodgers' World Series dreams?

Big League Stew

For the Los Angeles Dodgers, the postseason is a lot like a video game and their only goal is to win the whole dang thing. Three levels stand between L.A. and the ultimate prize. And the first one, well, it’s not what they’d have chosen.

The Dodgers’ quest starts here with the Arizona Diamondbacks. And nobody in baseball beat the Dodgers more times this season than the Arizona Diamondbacks.

These two NL West foes find themselves in the National League Division Series after very different paths. The Dodgers had the best record in baseball and will have home-field advantage as long as they’re playing. The D-backs won a crazy wild-card game Wednesday night and will have an uphill climb as long as they’re playing.

For now, though, all that matters is the three, four or five games. It’s a battle of two deep lineups, two good pitching staffs and one team that’s shuffling up after the wild-card game and the other that’s waiting for the next stage in its conquest to begin. The Dodgers have everything to lose here, since anything other than a World Series appearance will be another disappointment. The D-backs, meanwhile, they’ve outpaced expectations all year and they’ll tell you there’s no reason to stop now.

Game 1: Friday, Oct.6, in Los Angeles, 10:31 p.m. ET (TBS)
Game 2: Saturday, Oct. 7, in Los Angeles, 9:08 p.m. ET (TBS)
Game 3: Monday, Oct. 9, in Arizona, TBA (TBS)
Game 4*: Tuesday, Oct. 10, in Arizona, TBA (TBS)
Game 5*: Thursday, Oct. 12, in Los Angeles, TBA (TBS)

The Diamondbacks won the season series 11-8 thanks in large part to a pair of sweeps to end the season series. The teams played seven games in April, splitting a four-game series in Los Angeles before Arizona took two of three at home.  The Dodgers then swept a three-game series at home beginning on July 4. That series was capped by a four-run ninth-inning rally against Fernando Rodney. The Dodgers won two of three in Arizona in mid-August, right before the Diamondbacks caught fire. In the final two series, Arizona outscored the Dodgers 40-13.

Former teammates Clayton Kershaw and Zack Greinke aren’t likely to face each other in the NLDS, but both will be factors. (AP)
Former teammates Clayton Kershaw and Zack Greinke aren’t likely to face each other in the NLDS, but both will be factors. (AP)

Game 1: Taijuan Walker (9-9, 3.49) vs. Clayton Kershaw (18-4, 2.31)
Game 2: TBA vs. Rich Hill (12-8, 3.32)
Game 3: Yu Darvish (10-12, 3.86) vs. TBA
Game 4*: Alex Wood (16-3, 272) vs. TBA
Game 5*: TBA

Thanks to a wild NL wild-card game, the Diamondbacks rotation set up won’t be ideal. After Zack Greinke’s abbreviated start, Robbie Ray was called on to throw two-plus innings of relief. That means Ray should be bumped back to Game 2, though Arizona has yet to make anything official there. Greinke would likely slot in for Game 3. That left Walker as the best bet for Game 1. Zack Godley would be next in line for a starter if and when Arizona needs one.

Dodgers manager Dave Roberts has insisted they won’t go to Clayton Kershaw on short rest, regardless of the circumstances. That will be tested if the Dodgers enter Game 4 facing elimination, but we expect Roberts to hold steady. That he went to Rich Hill over Yu Darvish in Game 2 might be the biggest takeaway here. That would open the possibility of Hill being available for Game 5, whereas Darvish will definitely be limited to one start. Alex Wood, a 16-game winner this season, will be under pressure if he does indeed start Game 4. Either he’ll be pitching for the season, or to preserve Kershaw for the NLCS.

The D-backs just need to maintain their late-season success against the Dodgers. (AP)
The D-backs just need to maintain their late-season success against the Dodgers. (AP)

Pounce on Dodgers middle relievers: Like the NL wild-card game, this series could be decided by the bullpens. In that regard, the Dodgers appear to have the advantage based on raw data. In fact, their bullpen led the N.L in ERA (3.38), WHIP (1.15), FIP (3.55) and K/BB (3.48.). But that doesn’t mean they haven’t shown some vulnerability. The Dodgers bullpen, in particular their middle relievers, played a big part in their late season slump, where they lost 16 of 17 games. With Kenley Jansen waiting in the ninth, this is the one area where Arizona could do some damage.

Is Taijuan Walker ready for prime time?: He better be. The 25-year-old right-hander will get the ball for Arizona in Game 1 and will be tasked with setting the tone. Beyond Greinke and Ray, Walker has the best stuff in Arizona’s rotation. He has plenty of upside too, but this will be the biggest challenge of his career to date. In three starts against the Dodgers this season, he posted a 3.24 ERA. That should give him confidence, but he also averaged less than six innings per outing. If he manages to best that here, Arizona manager Torey Lovullo will be very pleased.

Be the Diamondbacks: Listen, this Arizona squad is really good. It won 93 games during the regular season. It outslugged the Rockies in the NL wild-card game. Oh, and it crushed the Dodgeres repeatedly when it mattered most to them in the standings, winning six straight against Los Angeles in September. The D-backs don’t have to change anything. We know they won’t be intimidated. They just have to keep playing good baseball.

Corey Seager, who isn’t 100 percent healthy, is one of the Dodgers’ question marks. (Getty Images)
Corey Seager, who isn’t 100 percent healthy, is one of the Dodgers’ question marks. (Getty Images)

Win Game 1: This might seem obvious, but that doesn’t make it any less true. The Dodgers won’t have a bigger advantage going into a game during the postseason. That’s because the Diamondbacks were forced to use their top two starters — Zack Greinke and Robbie Ray — just to get through the NL wild-card game. While Arizona is likely to be down those two starters, the Dodgers are countering with the best pitcher in baseball, Clayton Kershaw. Reportedly healthy and as fresh as the Dodgers could hope for, Kershaw and the Dodgers will have no excuses.

Get the offense clicking: The Dodgers is deep and formidable, but it hardly looked that way in September. Cody Bellinger went through some struggles, which is expected for a rookie. Corey Seager is less than 100 percent and may require offseason elbow surgery. Breakout star Chris Taylor faltered, hitting just .218 over the final month. Yasiel Puig was inconsistent. Curtis Granderson was non-existent. You get the picture. It wasn’t good, but it’ll have to improve quickly against Arizona. The Diamondbacks are going to score runs regardless of the competition, and the Dodgers will be forced to keep up.

Silence the supporting cast: The Diamondbacks offense runs through MVP candidate Paul Goldschmidt and recent addition J.D. Martinez. You just assume they’re going to do damage regardless of the matchup, and that’s not likely to change here. For the Dodgers to survive, they’d be well served to limit the production around those two big bats. That means shutting down players like Jake Lamb, David Peralta and Ketel Marte. It won’t be easy, but it figures to be necessary.

• 57 — The Dodgers win total at home this season. That was five more than the next closest team, which happened to be the Diamondbacks.

• 29 — J.D. Martinez’s home run total in 62 games with Arizona.

• 53 — The number of Dodgers Robbie Ray struck out in five starts against them this season. He was 3-0 in those starts with a 2.27 ERA.

• 5.15 — The Dodgers team ERA in 19 matchups against the Diamondbacks this season.

• $21,857,000 — The salary of Adrian Gonzalez, who will not be on the Dodgers NLDS roster.

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