by Paul West
With the Washington Nationals having pulled off a thrilling comeback in the Wild Card game, the National League Divisional Playoffs are underway. The 106-win Los Angeles Dodgers are the clear favorites in the field, but they’ve got their work cut out for them.
Atlanta Braves (97-65) vs. St. Louis Cardinals (91-71)
The Saint Louis Cardinals pulled away from the red-hot Milwaukee Brewers at the end of the season, winning the NL Central on the strength of one of the best starting rotations in the National League and timely hits from up and down a lineup which mostly underachieved this season. Second in the league in ERA and first in saves, the Cards’ pitching staff is led by 23-year-old Jack Flaherty, a bona-fide ace who struck out 231 with a .97 WHIP in just under 200 innings. Converted starter Carlos Martinez had 24 saves after Jordan Hicks was lost to injury, and the Cards sport both a rotation and bullpen that have been their primary strengths. Despite their disappointing seasons, the Cards also have dangerous bats–led by former MVP candidate Paul Goldschmidt, slugger Marcell Ozuna, and shortstop Paul DeJong. Veterans Yadier Molina and Dexter Fowler are the types of hitters who can come up big in big moments, and switch-hitting rookie Tommy Edman is an x-factor with power and speed at third base. As for the Braves, they won the NL East by only four games but were in full control of the division for most of the year. They’re an explosive team that’s near the top of the NL in many offensive and pitching categories; and they’re led by the dynamic Ronald Acuna Jr., who was the third player to reach 40 homers at age 21 or younger and only fell short of a 40/40 season due to a late-season hip ailment. Bringer-of-rain Josh Donaldson is still one of the game’s best two-way third basemen at age 33, though he’s also dealt with a hip injury of late; and on the other corner of the infield, Freddie Freeman can be similarly described. He’s also dealing with a bone spur in his right elbow, which could be the Braves’ biggest problem of all as it’s hampering the production of their middle-order anchor. Atlanta has decent, balanced–but not dominant–starting pitching, led by Max Fried, Mike Soroka, and former Cy Young winner Dallas Keuchel; and how far they go might come down to whether their starters heat up enough to keep their explosive offense in striking distance.
Who wins? The Cardinals’ experience and pitching will give them the edge over the young and somewhat ailing Braves. Cardinals in five.
Los Angeles Dodgers (106-56) vs. Washington Nationals (93-69)
The Dodgers steamrolled their way to 106 wins, despite having key players injured for stretches and tying the Nationals’ league lead in blown saves with 29. Nevertheless, they ended the season leading the NL in both starters’ ERA and bullpen ERA (a statistic which would doubtlessly surprise many Dodgers fans). They have the likely MVP in Cody Bellinger, whose power, speed, defense, and throwing arm might make him the most complete player in the NL; they have a top CY Young candidate in Hyun-Jin Ryu, who’s not even at the top of their rotation; they have Clayton Kershaw, who’s literally one of the best lefties of all time and is still only 31 (despite battling back issues for part of the summer); and they have an offense full of household names and roleplayers who collectively lead the league in too many categories to list in short order. They also have Justin Turner, who isn’t top-billed among their star-studded roster but is arguably one of the team’s greatest x-factors. This is a complete, balanced, athletic team with pitching, hitting, power, defense, and a resurgent bullpen, and they might be the best bet to win it all this year. The Washington Nationals began the year dreadfully, but rebounded in spectacular fashion during the summer months and held on to win the top Wild Card position. They then pulled off a thrilling comeback in the eighth inning of their first playoff game, scoring three off of Josh Hader and the Brewers to advance to the divisional round. Ace Max Scherzer gave up two early homers in the Wild Card game before righting the ship; he’ll have to get off to a better start against a Dodgers lineup that might not let him hang around long after a similarly rough opening. The Nats’ bullpen makes the Dodgers’ pen look outright steady, sporting the highest bullpen ERA of any postseason team ever; previously reliable closer Sean Doolittle has struggled all season (as have most bullpens and previously reliable closers, to be fair), and he’ll have to find a way to regain his former dominance against a lineup that seems to strike late more often than early. MVP candidate Anthony Rendon is one of the game’s best players; but roleplayers like slugger Juan Soto, speedster Trea Turner, and veterans Kurt Suzuki and Asdrubal Cabrera will have to step up if they expect to keep things interesting against the NL’s best.
Who wins? The Dodgers are well designed to exploit the Nationals’ weaknesses, and outside of Scherzer, the Nats haven’t got the pitching to neutralize the Dodgers’ stacked lineup. They might steal a game, but their odds of advancing are thing. Dodgers in four.
Bracket sleeper: The Cardinals. Their offense has fallen short of expectations this season, but they still have a lineup full of threats–and if they heat up enough to give that pitching staff some wiggle room, the Cardinals could make a deep run.
The best player you might not have heard of: Tommy Edman. He’s a solid defender at the hot corner, he’s got power from both sides of the plate, and he hit .304 with 11 homers, 17 doubles, 15 steals, and 7 triples in 326 at bats. He can hit at the top of bottom of the order, and he’s not afraid of the big moment.
Who wins the National League pennant? The Dodgers. All told, they’ve got too much firepower and just enough pitching–despite their occasionally dodgy (pardon the pun) bullpen–to make it out of the pack.