Dave McCullough previews the Los Angeles Dodgers vs Washington Nationals NLDS in anticipation of what will surely be a wild ride to the NLCS.
Game One: Dodgers won 4-3 Game Four: (If necessary) Monday, Oct. 11: Washington (TBD) at Los Angeles (TBD), TBD (FS1) Game Five: (If necessary) Wednesday, Oct. 13: Los Angeles at Washington, TBD (FS1)
2016 National League Division Series
Los Angeles Dodgers (91-71) vs Washington Nationals (95-67)
Game One: Dodgers won 4-3
Game Four: (If necessary) Monday, Oct. 11: Washington (TBD) at Los Angeles (TBD), TBD (FS1)
Game Five: (If necessary) Wednesday, Oct. 13: Los Angeles at Washington, TBD (FS1)
The NL East division champs have known for weeks that they’d be facing off with the NL West division champions. The Dodgers took five of the six regular season contests, with Los Angeles sweeping Washington in late June at home, and taking two of three when visiting the nation’s capital in the middle of July. However, Stephen Strasburg – on the disabled list and unavailable in this series – started one of those games, while Max Scherzer and Rich Hill started none of them. Past performance rarely guarantees future success, and this series is unlikely to be any different.
Dusty Baker’s first season at the helm in Washington resulted in a cruise to the division title and a playoff berth. The venerable skipper was brought in because of the Nationals’ inability to make the playoffs last season, so he has cleared the first hurdle. However, Baker’s track record of success stops in the postseason – he has just one World Series appearance on his resume. The Nationals are clearly aiming for more than just a division crown, but they’ll need to defeat the Dodgers first.
Meanwhile, the Dodgers overcame the loss of the best pitcher in baseball, Clayton Kershaw, for 75 days in the middle of the season to win the NL West handily. LA was plagued by injuries and disappointing performances all season, but managed to stay afloat thanks to the metronomic contributions of first baseman Adrian Gonzalez and the likely Rookie of the Year winner Corey Seager’s breakout season.
The Pitching Matchups
Game 1: Clayton Kershaw (12-4, 1.69) vs. Max Scherzer (20-7, 2.96)
Kershaw features three pitches (fastball, slider, curve), but each is among the best in the game. His control is phenomenal: in 149 innings, he walked only 11 batters. Combined with his 172 strikeouts, that yields a ridiculous ratio K/BB of over 15, which would lead the league if he had pitched a few more innings.
Scherzer offers more excellence on the hill. His fastball and slider both create more swings and misses than average, as does the cutter he occasionally tosses into the mix. We can expect plenty of strikeouts, given his 11.2 K/9.
Game 2: Rich Hill (3-2, 1.83) vs. Tanner Roark (16-10, 2.83)
Hill relies upon two pitches: a not-so-fastball which averages about 91 mph, and big, sweeping curve with almost 10 inches of horizontal break. He throws an occasional change or slider, but the curveball is bread and butter. When it’s working, watch out! Hill’s weakness is injury: he started only 19 games all season, and only 4 in the past month. The status of a recurring blister on his pitching hand will be a frequent topic of conversation in the LA dugout.
Roark brings five pitches to the mound, throwing them with roughly equal frequency. His two-seam fastball breaks sharply inward to right-handed batters, but his most effective pitch may be the slider, which induces groundouts by the dozen. He needs those grounders, since he strikes out only 7.4 per nine innings and gives up plenty of baserunners (WHIP 1.17).
Game Three: Kenta Maeda (16-11, 3.48) vs. Gio Gonzalez (11-11, 4.57)
Maeda does best with his two-seam fastball and changeup, both of which generate weak contact and plenty of groundballs. His fastball touches 92 mph on a good day, but there is plenty of separation between it and his 73-mph curve. Although he led the Dodgers with 16 wins, his ERA (3.48) and ERA+ (112) suggest that the Nationals may put up some runs when he takes the mound.
Unfortunately for the Nats, Gonzalez is not great shakes, either. His ERA (4.57) is more than a run higher than Maeda’s; so high, in fact, that he ranks below the league average. The good news is that his curve and change are pretty effective, leading to lots of poor contact; the bad news is that his fastballs, both four-seam and two-seam, are not.
The prospect that this series goes five games – and provides fans with two Kershaw v. Scherzer matchups – is tantalizing. These are two of the best pitchers in the game right now, with Kershaw possibly holding a slight edge, but this is the type of pitchers’ duel that makes October baseball so much fun. Rich Hill and his blister will attempt to dazzle the Nats in game two, while Roark will get his first postseason start.
MVP candidates Bryce Harper, Daniel Murphy, and Anthony Rendon provide the thump for the Nationals offense. Murphy’s .390 on-base percentage and league-leading 47 doubles provide Harper and Rendon with lots of opportunities to drive him home. The Nats right fielder, Harper, has slacked off his astounding performance from last season due, in part, to some injuries. Over the last month, he put up an anemic .194/.314/.292 line at the plate, so the team will have to hope that he can turn it around in the postseason. The Nationals lineup features six hitters who stroked at least 20 homers this season.
The Dodgers have power, too: four of their hitters smacked more than 20 home runs – third baseman Justin Turner and catcher Yasmani Grandal leading with the way with 27 each, followed by Seager (26) and center fielder Joc Pederson (25); Gonzalez added another 18. Despite these big hits, the Dodgers scored only 725 runs on the season, barely above league average; they can blame the park effect of Dodger Stadium for depressing their offensive output.
What To Watch For
The Dodgers might have a slight edge on the mound, but the Nats might own a similarly-small advantage at the plate. Whoever can win the Kershaw-Scherzer matchups will win the series – the aces who may clash twice need to bring their A games, and if either corrals the opposing offense, it could prove decisive in a short five-game series.