With the baseball gods feeling generous in the 2020 MLB playoffs, we’re getting a second Game 7 this weekend as the Dodgers and Braves have a win-or-go home game for the National League pennant and a trip to the World Series against them play the AL-Champion Tampa Bay Rays.
With so much at stake, we asked senior MLB writers Alden Gonzalez, David Schoenfield and Jeff Passan the key questions for the Dodgers, Braves and the matchup that takes place in Game 7 on Sunday.
7;s key questions
Who starts for the Dodgers?
That wasn’t announced, but there seem to be three options: Tony Gonsolin, Julio Urias, and Brusdar Graterol. The latter would of course be used as the opener, and it makes sense for a number of reasons. The Dodgers used Graterol as an opener during training runs towards the end of the regular season. It would also be beneficial to ensure that your best helper – at least for now – is facing the best part of the Braves lineup. Gonsolin, who would take a normal break after an 88 pitch start in Game 2, is in line to place the majority of the innings. But Julio Urias, who hit a career high of 101 pitches in Game 3, could deliver an innings or two as a bridge. – – Gonzalez
Will Clayton Kershaw appear?
The is the fascinating question. Kershaw was in the bullpen for Game 6, just in case an emergency arose. Most likely he will be in the bullpen for game 7 too, waiting for a possible call. The Dodgers want to avoid him for three reasons: First, they can save him to start Game 1 of the World Series. second, he was scratched from his scheduled start earlier this week with back cramps; and after all, it wasn’t great to be taken out of the bullpen for a short break. The most recent example is from Game 5 of last year’s NL Division Series. But when the game is over and it takes Dave Roberts an innings or two before he gets to his high leverage reliefs, the thought of Kershaw standing in that bullpen might be tempting. Again. – – Gonzalez
Can Cody Bellinger find it on the plate?
Bellinger tried to maintain consistency with his mechanics throughout the regular season, having four hits and nine hits on 23 bats in that series, hitting .238 / .333 / .476 in the postseason. He hit a few balls hard but didn’t have much to show. The Dodgers had some great first innings of the series, particularly their 11-run issue in Game 3, but they couldn’t carry that over. When they won Game 5, they scored three first inning runs against Max Fried but did nothing after that and put great pressure on their bullpen and defense. Both areas came through, but the Dodgers can no longer rely on that. They need a more consistent production of their offense. You need Bellinger to be a catalyst again. – – Gonzalez
Atlanta’s key questions
How long do the Braves stay with Ian Anderson?
The 22-year-old has only got nine career starts – including three goalless posts in the postseason – but was obviously impressive: 1.31 ERA, a home run in 48 innings and a legal batting average of 0.154. His move was his big weapon as the Batters only hit .076 against it and he’s not afraid to throw it to right-handed people.
Still, it’s a big moment for a newbie. This is the 19th Game 7 in an LCS or World Series since 2000, and newbies have only started three times: Walker Buehler in Game 7 of the 2018 NLCS, Daisuke Matsuzaka for the Red Sox in the 2007 ALCS (and he’s had loads of big – Playing experience in Japan) and John Lackey for the Angels in the 2002 World Series. (And if Tony Gonsolin started for the Dodgers, he would do # 4!)
The Dodgers are known for their very patient approach, and they worked Anderson for five walks in four innings when he started Game 2. He escaped without damage, however, as he only allowed one hit and came out of a base-laden traffic jam in the third inning when Will Smith got off. Still, even if he’s sailing with you, don’t look for him to get deep into the game. Brian Snitker, the manager of Braves, still has a strong bullpen, and the way the game is managed these days, a quick hook is probably okay no matter who starts.
Of the six Game 7s since 2016, including Saturday’s Astros Rays game, Zack Greinke’s 6⅓-innings in Game 7 of last year’s World Series was the longest a starter has ever had. Only three more times did a starter even make it through five innings – Max Scherzer met Greinke and Charlie Morton twice, in 2017 in the ALCS for the Astros and then on Saturday against the Astros. Even if Anderson rolls more zeros – 15⅔ innings so far in the postseason – don’t be surprised if he’s gone after four or five innings.
Snitker said he had no special message for Anderson or his team. “They know what we’re doing. They are very aware that this is Game 7 and they shoot, we’re going to go out there and let them fly. Game 7 is another baseball game. It’s not the fourth and the first Leave me jerk off the first one. 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 the way we are stacked, we like who is pitching. “- – Schönfield
How do the Braves navigate Corey Seager and the heart of the Dodgers lineup?
Seager was the big bat for the Dodgers, hitting the .375 series with five home runs and 11 RBIs. Once Anderson is out there, you’d think the decision would be to make sure a left against Seager … except that four of the five home runs are left-handed, including one from AJ Minter in Game 2 and one from Tyler Matzek in game 5. So maybe it’s not the left-handers who face Seager – remember, a Reliever has to face three thugs unless it’s the end of an inning – and you’re more concerned about Mookie Betts in that Leadership Spot and Justin Turner hit third, so the right-handed are at the top of the line-up.
One thing is certain: everyone is available. No Braves reliever in both games 5 and 6. Chris Martin threw 30 spots in game 6, so he’s the only one who could easily be compromised. Minter threw 42 pitch in Game 5 as a starter but was so dominant with seven strikeouts in three innings that he certainly has an option. The one guy who pointed out high leverage situations we might have Not see is Will Smith. He gave up seven home runs in 16 innings in the regular season and then the big one at Dodgers’ Will Smith in Game 5 and also ran two batters in Game 4. So it’s most likely a combination of Matzek, Minter, Shane Greene, Martin, maybe the side-poor Darren O’Day if it’s a two-out situation, and then Mark Melancon closer. That’s a lot of depth to get through nine innings. – – Schönfield
Will Ronald Acuna Jr. do something?
The Braves hit in the .263 / .333 / .450 series, but Acuna didn’t do much damage, beating .190 with no home runs and two doubles. He hit 34% of the time in the postseason so the swing and miss was an issue throughout the postseason. Needless to say, having him on the base ahead of Freddie Freeman and Marcell Ozuna is a big factor. These two raked. The Braves were the majors ‘best fastball hit team – in fact, they were the majors’ best fastball team in 13 years – but the Dodgers hit Acuna with lots of fastballs in the zone and then broke balls away. – Schonfield
What is the matchup worth seeing?
Freddie Freeman versus Brusdar Graterol. There are only two regulars Graterol hasn’t faced in the NLCS: Acuña and Freeman. It can happen in the first inning. It can happen on the seventh or eighth or ninth. Freeman has seen 28 fastballs going over 98 mph this season. He took 16 for balls, fouled four, flew out three times, swung and missed twice, singed, doubled and grounded
In other words, if Graterol puts a heater in the zone, Freeman is unlikely to be staring at it. And given its propensity to do harm, it’s the kind of faceoff the entire series could swing. – – Passan
Who is a devious, unlikely hero?
Nobody in the NLCS hits the ball as hard as the Dodgers’ Joc Pederson – and the longer 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 over 100 mph – and the other four were at 99 mph, 89.7 mph, 88.3 mph, and 83.5 mph. Pederson was so pedestrian during the regular season that keeping him on the bench seemed an option as a prize hitter seemed an option. Roberts stayed with him against right handed and he not only paid that back by smashing the ball but also making contact. Something of a strike artist throughout his career, Pederson has only hit the NLCS twice. – – Passan
What is a strategic element that could come into play?
Avoid the three batter minimum rule for pitchers by aiming for difficult move matchups that could be third in the inning. Remember: the minimum doesn’t apply when an inning is over, and for a Braves team that had 15 pitchers (!) On their 28-man postseason roster, they can use this to their advantage.
The Dodgers will almost certainly not want to play matchups in the early innings – not when they are vulnerable in later, possibly more important situations – so if AJ Pollock ever has two outs? Burn Darren O’Day. Is Cody Bellinger in the same situation? Burn Grant Dayton or, if it matters enough, Will Smith. Managers must treat every out in a Game 7 as if the season depends on it. With as many pitchers as the Braves, every inning gives them the opportunity to use the final to gain an advantage. – – Passan