As the baseball gods are feeling generous in the 2020 MLB playoffs, this weekend we will have a second game 7, 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 champion Tampa Bay Rays.
With so much at stake, we asked MLB senior writers Alden Gonzalez, David Schoenfield and Jeff Passan key questions for the Dodgers, Braves and the matchup going into Game 7 on Sunday.
The key questions of L.A.
Who starts for the Dodgers?
Clayton Kershaw making an appearance?
That is the fascinating question. Kershaw was in the bull ring for Game 6, in case an emergency arose. In all likelihood, he will also be in the bullpen for Game 7, awaiting a potential call. The Dodgers would like to avoid using it for three reasons: first, they can save it to start Race 1 of the World Series; second, he was scratched from his scheduled start earlier this week due to back spasms; and finally, it wasn’t great when it was used outside the bullpen during the short rest, the most recent example to come in game 5 of last year’s NL Division series. But if the game is close and Dave Roberts needs an innings or two before he gets to his high-leveraged relievers, the thought of Kershaw standing in that bullpen might be tempting. Yet. – Gonzalez
Bellinger has struggled to find consistency with his mechanics during the regular season, has four hits and nine strikeouts in 23 at-bats in this series and is hitting .238 / .333 / .476 in the postseason. He hit some balls hard, but didn’t have much to prove. The Dodgers have had a couple of great first innings in this series, most notably their 11-run outing in Game 3, but have been unable to carry it through. In the win in Game 5, they scored three points for the first inning against Max Fried, but have done nothing else thereafter, putting a lot of pressure on their bullpen and defense. Both of these areas have passed, but the Dodgers can no longer count on that. They need more coherent production from their crime. They need Bellinger to be a catalyst again. – Gonzalez
Atlanta’s key questions
How long are the Braves staying with Ian Anderson?
The 22-year-old has only nine career beginnings – including three goalless strikes in the postseason – but he was obviously impressive, with an ERA of 1.31, a home run in 48 innings and an allowed batting average of 0.154. His shifter has been his big weapon as hitters only hit .076 against it and he’s not afraid to throw it to right-handers.
However, it is a great time for a beginner. This is the nineteenth game 7 in an LCS or World Series since 2000, and rookies have only started three times: Walker Buehler in NLCS 2018 Game 7, Daisuke Matsuzaka for the Red Sox in ALCS 2007 (and had a lot of important gaming experience in Japan) and John Lackey for the Angels in the 2002 World Series. (And if Tony Gonsolin starts for the Dodgers, would do number 4!)
The Dodgers are known for their very patient approach and worked with Anderson for five walks in four innings at the start of his game 2. He escaped without any damage, however, as he conceded only one hit and came out of a loaded jam of bases in the third inning when Will Smith went ashore. However, even if he’s browsing, don’t look for him to go deep into the game. Braves manager Brian Snitker still has a strong bullpen and the way the game is handled these days, a quick hook is likely to be in order no matter who starts.
Of the six Game 7 games since 2016, including Saturday’s Astros-Rays game, the longest a starter has passed was Zack Greinke’s 6th inning in Game 7 of last year’s World Series. Only three more times has a starter made it through five innings: Max Scherzer faced Greinke and Charlie Morton twice, in ALCS 2017 for the Astros and then on Saturday against the Astros. So even though Anderson is throwing more zeros – 15 innings so far in the postseason – don’t be surprised if he’s out of there after four or five innings.
Snitker said he has no special messages for Anderson or his team. “They know what we’re doing. They are well aware that this is game 7, and let’s shoot, we’ll go out there and let it fly. A game 7 is another baseball game. It’s not fourth and 1 and let me get first. It’s a baseball game and you have to treat it like one. Game 7 is going to be fun, we like how we are aligned, we like who throws. ” – Schoenfield
How do the Braves navigate through Corey Seager and the heart of the Dodgers lineup?
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Seager was the big bat for the Dodgers, hitting .375 with five home runs and 11 RBI in the series. Once Anderson gets out of there, you might think the decision would be to make sure a southpaw takes on Seager … except that four of the five home runs came from lefties, including one from A.J. Minter in Game 2 and one Tyler Matzek in Game 5. So maybe lefties aren’t facing Seager – remember, a rescuer faces three hitters, unless it’s the end of an inning – and you worry more Mookie Betts in first place and Justin Turner third, so it is the right-handers who face the top of the formation.
One thing is certain: everyone is available. No Braves reliever pitched in either Game 5 or Game 6. Chris Martin made 30 shots in Game 6, so he’s the only one who could be slightly compromised. Minter threw 42 shots in Game 5 as a starter, but was so dominant with seven strikeouts in three innings that he is certainly an option. The only one that launched high leverage situations that we could not see is Will Smith. He gave up seven home runs in 16 innings in the regular season and then the most important one to Will Smith of the Dodgers in Game 5 and also faced two hitters in Game 4. So most likely a combination of Matzek, Minter, Shane Greene, Martin, maybe side-armer Darren O’Day if it’s a two-out situation and then closer Mark Melancon. That’s a lot of depth to get through nine innings. – Schoenfield
Will Ronald Acuna Jr. do anything?
The Braves are hitting .263 / .333 / .450 in the series, but Acuna didn’t do much damage, hitting .190 with no home runs and two doubles. It hit 34% of the time in the postseason, so swing-and-miss was a problem for the entire postseason. Needless to say, having it based on the front Freddie Freeman and Marcell Ozuna are an important factor. Those two are raking. The Braves were the best fastball team in the majors – in fact, they were the best fastball team in the majors in 13 years – but the Dodgers beat Acuna with a lot of fastball in the area and then broke balls away. – Schoenfield
What’s the comparison worth tuning in to see?
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Freddie Freeman vs. Brusdar Graterol. There are only two regulars that Graterol didn’t address in the NLCS: Acuña and Freeman. It can happen in the first inning. It can happen in the seventh or eighth or ninth. Freeman has seen 28 fastballs this season at over 98 mph. He took 16 balls, took four, flew out three times, swung and missed twice, picked, doubled and grounded
In other words, if Graterol puts a stove in the area, Freeman is unlikely to stare at it. And considering his penchant for doing damage, it’s the kind of face-off that could affect the entire series. – Passan
Who is a sneaky, 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 into play 14 times in the NLCS. Ten of them were at over 100mph – and the other four were at 99mph, 89.7mph, 88.3mph and 83.5mph. Pederson has been so pedestrian during the regular season, keeping him on the bench as a pinch hitter seemed like an option. Roberts stayed with him against right-handers, and he paid off not just by smashing the ball but by making contact. Pederson, who has been something of a strikeout artist his entire career, has only been out twice in the NLCS. – Passan
What is a strategic element that could come into play?
Get around the three-hitters minimum rule for pitchers by aiming for heavy platoon clashes that could be third out of the inning. Remember: the minimum doesn’t apply when an inning is over, and for a team of Braves who have carried 15 pitchers (!) To their 28-man post-season roster, they can use that to their advantage.
The Dodgers almost certainly won’t want to play matchups in the early innings, not if it’s meant to leave them prone to later, potentially more important situations, so if ever A.J. Does Pollock have two eliminations? Burn Darren O’Day. What if Cody Bellinger is in the same situation? Burn Grant Dayton or, if that’s important enough, Will Smith. Coaches must treat each outing in Game 7 as if the season depended on it, and with as many pitchers as the Braves have, each inning offers them the opportunity to use the final exit to gain an advantage. – Passan