A wild National League ending resulted in two Game 163s, but then a lightning-fast division round. The Brewers continued their current 11-game winning streak in shutting down the offensive-minded Rockies in three games, while the veteran Dodgers dropped the upstart young Braves in four games in the other series. Now, Milwaukee and Los Angeles fight for the right to play one of two 100-win teams: either the defending champion Astros or the 108-win Red Sox. Either way, it will be tough, but these teams need to get the NL pennant first.
Lineup: The Brewers have turned it on of late, with the key cog in their lineup behind NL MVP favorite Christian Yelich. Yelich made a late run for the Triple Crown in a weak National League statistically, finishing with a great 1.000 OPS. During the playoffs, he continued his hot streak with a three-for-four day against the Cubs and a home run in Game 1 versus the Rockies before cooling off. At the top of the lineup with him, Lorenzo Cain, whom GM David Stearns acquired on the same January day, always gets on base. And following them, Jesus Aguilar went 35-108 on the power numbers. Aguilar came out of nowhere after three short years with the Indians to be an All-Star this year.
At the top of the Dodgers’ lineup, power is abound, with Joc Pederson, Justin Turner, and Max Muncy each slugging over .500. Muncy was a revelation on the level of Aguilar, and “Mad Max” hit 35 bombs to go along with two more in the playoffs.
The loss of former Rookie of the Year Corey Seager at shortstop was tough, but dealing for Manny Machado at the deadline gave the Dodgers a star rental at that position. He and Muncy are the only two players to hit for two homers in the postseason so far. Only the Yankees, who broke a single-season record, hit more home runs than LA this season.
Meanwhile, the Brewers also made some deals at the trade deadline, for proven 3B Mike Moustakas and 2B Jonathan Schoop, who has struggled. But the rest of the lineup has been solid during the playoffs, with Travis Shaw and Moustakas coming in clutch, the Moose with a walk-off single in Game 1 of the NLDS.
The Dodgers have a lot of power all throughout the lineup, with Cody Bellinger and Yasiel Puig batting 7th and 8th, respectively in Game 4, and Kike Hernandez, who had a .976 OPS in the last two months of the season. The Brewers have consistency up and down their lineup, while anyone on the Dodgers can change the game with one swing.
Rotation: The Dodgers have some of the best arms in the game, led foremost by three-time Cy Young winner Clayton Kershaw. Kershaw exorcized his playoff demons last Friday, pitching eight shutout innings on just 85 pitches, lowering his career postseason ERA to 4.05 from 4.50. It was a different type of performance, with just three strikeouts, but also just three runners allowed. Hyun-Jin Ryu also pitched seven shutout innings a day earlier for the rotation second in the league in starters’ ERA during the regular season. Off the strength of his NLDS performance and hoping to use him the maximum possible, the Dodgers will likely start Kershaw, then Ryu, followed by rookie Walker Buehler, with a brilliant 0.96 WHIP on the season and Rich Hill (3.66 ERA in 2018).
On the other side of the diamond, Jhoulys Chacin heads an unsung rotation that is not being asked to do too much in these playoffs. Chacin, along with Wade Miley and Brandon Woodruff, who started Game 1 as a “bullpen game,” all had shorts starts of five or fewer innings in the NLDS. Manager Craig Counsell announced Thursday that Gio Gonzalez, who didn’t pitch in the NLDS but was 3-0 in the regular season, will start Game 1, followed by Miley and Chacin. It’s an interesting ploy, but Counsell is all about that. And we do know that all Brewers starts will be short in order to turn over the game to the lockdown bullpen. The Dodgers have the better starters, and let’s see who manages them better.
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Bullpen: As we have seen in recent playoffs, it is often the bullpens that decide the biggest games. These teams both have solid ones, lead on each side by fireballing lefty Josh Hader for the Brew Crew and big Kenley Jansen for the Dodgers. Hader was a first-time All-Star this season, and he has a knack for striking out big hitters in big spots with his big fastball. Hader struck out an absurd 15.8 batters per nine innings this season, best of relievers in the league. Along with Hader, Jeremy Jeffress was also an All-Star, and the only Brewer pitcher to allow runs in the NLDS. Corey Knebel improved in the second half after struggling following his All-Star year last year, and Joakim Soria, Corbin Burnes, and Freddy Peralta will likely round out a bullpen that had an ERA of just 1.72 in their last 28 games.
For the Dodgers, Kenley Jansen has not been the Jansen of old, raising his ERA almost two runs from last year to 3.01 and three times lower than his astounding 15.57 K/BB last year. But the rest of the bullpen has been solid, and it will probably benefit from the addition of Ross Stripling, who was a very good starter this year if he’s added to the roster. Pedro Baez and Josh Fields both pitched very well during the season and into the playoffs. Alex Wood is the only Dodger reliever to allow a run during these playoffs, on a home run by Freddie Freeman that wound up winning Game 3. Both of these bullpens have been good in the playoffs, but the Brewers have a game-changer in Hader.
Bench: In the National League especially, the bench can come up big in pinch-hitting spots. At this point, it’s not entirely clear who will be the options off the bench for either team. The Dodgers have a stacked outfield, with All-Star Matt Kemp and utility man Chris Taylor likely coming off the bench. Both had above-average seasons, and Taylor hit a bomb in the NLDS, hoping to follow up on his MVP performance last year in the NLCS. Brian Dozier and David Freese give veteran experience as well for the Dodgers. Austin Barnes is a catching option. On the Brewers side, it’s uncertain whether Jonathan Schoop will grace the roster after a rough season, but Curtis Granderson and Hernan Perez can pinch-hit for the pitcher. 38-year-old journeyman catcher Erik Kratz had a great NLDS. The Dodgers, though, have the experience important in big moments.
Managers: Both Dave Roberts and Craig Counsell are young managers, at 46 and 48, respectively. Counsell has been very quick to bring in his bullpen, while Roberts has let his starters go longer than he did in last year’s playoffs. Counsell is an unconventional manager, and we’ll see if that plays out here in the NLCS. Roberts’ experience gives him an advantage, but Counsell has managed a young team to the best record in the NL.
The Pick: This is the Dodgers’ third straight NLCS, so they have the experience. Meanwhile, the Brewers are coming in hot on an 11-game winning streak. The Milwaukee home crowd has been a huge help in the playoffs, and it will continue that way. Expect Clayton Kershaw to continue his good postseason to silence the doubters, and the Brewers to use the bullpen early. The Dodgers’ starters will slow down Christian Yelich and Co. for a while, but their lineup is too lethal. The bullpen is where pennants are won nowadays, and Craig Counsell isn’t afraid to throw his beast of a reliever in Josh Hader two innings. Watch for the Brewers to win a game or two in the late-going and ride the home crowd to the World Series, on the back of former Royals Mike Moustakas and Lorenzo Cain, setting up a matchup with, in my prediction, the defending champion Astros.
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