ARLINGTON, Texas (AP) — Those Baby Braves that faced the Los Angeles Dodgers in the playoffs two years ago have grown up a little bit, and have even won a couple of postseason series.
The Dodgers have been here before, in the NL Championship Series for the fourth time in five years and settling in at the new AL ballpark where last week they won their NL Division series and would like to stay for the World Series.
Atlanta is in its first NLCS since 2001 and, like Los Angeles, has won all five games so far this postseason.
“We’re really, really strong. 2018, I think we were just excited to make it, we completely flipped the script of our record from 72-90 to 90-72 in a year, so were just thrilled,” said Braves first baseman Freddie Freeman, maybe the favorite for this season’s NL MVP. “This is a completely different story. … We like our chances. We’ve been playing really well.”
Game 1 of the best-of-seven NLCS is Monday night. It is a matchup of the highest-scoring teams in the majors during the regular season, with fans in the stands for the first time in this pandemic-affected season.
After 118 homers in 60 regular-season games, the Dodgers have only two in the playoffs. They’ve hit one in the spacious new Texas Rangers’ ballpark where they swept the San Diego Padres in the NL Division Series there last week, but scored 23 in those three games.
“We’re not a one-track offense. We can score runs in a ton of different ways,” Dodgers third baseman Justin Turner said. “And if the ball happens to go over the fence, we’ll take that too.”
Los Angeles won the 2018 NLDS over Atlanta in four games on way to its second consecutive World Series, though the Dodgers are still more than three decades removed from their last title in 1988. That was part of 10 consecutive postseason series losses before the Braves swept Cincinnati and Miami this year.
“When we faced them the last time, I said afterwards we we weren’t as strong as they were. We’ve made a lot of progress in that regard,” manager Brian Snitker said. “We’re a stronger team than we were two years ago, our offense, just the total, the bullpen. And what we’ve seen out of the young starters is pretty good, too.”
While young 20-something standouts Ronald Acuña Jr. and Ozzie Albies have now been part of three consecutive NL East titles, Braves pitchers — a staff with rookie starters Ian Anderson and Kyle Wright — have thrown four shutouts in these playoffs.
“There’s a lot of young athleticism on both sides,” Dodgers manager Dave Roberts said. “It’s going to be a fun series.”
FANS IN THE STANDS
While the general public will be allowed to attend games, it will be far from a full house at the $1.2 billion stadium with a retractable roof for the NLCS and the World Series. There will still be no fans for the AL Championship Series games in San Diego.
There were about 11,500 tickets available, sold in groups of four with each of those pods separated by at least six feet. That is about 28% of the 40,518 capacity. That allotment sold out for Game 1 and three other NLCS games so far, as well as every World Series game.
“I think it’s a step back towards the normalcy, where people have the right to be free and make a choice to go out and do what they want to do,” Dodgers reliever Blake Treinen said. “It’s not fun playing baseball without fans. … We welcome it, we are excited for it.”
Both teams plan to go with the same Games 1 and 2 starters they used in the wild-card round and the NLDS.
Walker Bueher, troublesome finger blister and all, will start the opener for the Dodgers and lefty Clayton Kershaw, pitching near his home, goes in Game 2. While Buehler (0-0, 3.38 ERA) has been limited to eight innings in two starts, the right-hander has 16 strikeouts. Three-time NL Cy Young Award winner Kershaw (2-0, 1.93) struck out 13 in eight scoreless innings in the series clincher against Milwaukee.
Lefty Max Fried (0-0, 3.27) goes in Game 1 for Atlanta, before rookie right-hander Anderson (2-0, 0.00), who has 17 strikeouts over 11 2-3 scoreless innings.
Wright is set to go for the Braves in Game 3, while Roberts is keeping his “optionality” for Games 3-5.
AT THE TOP
Mookie Betts, who turned 28 during the NLDS and is signed for another 12 seasons after his February trade, is at the top of the Dodgers lineup only two years after being on the winning Boston Red Sox against them in the World Series.
Leading off for the Braves is 22-year-old center fielder Acuña.
“They both impact the game in every aspect, in the box, in the field, on the bases. They’re both energizing players that players gravitate towards, fans gravitate towards,” Roberts said.
Betts and Acuña both get on base and have pop in their bats. Betts is batting .368 in the playoffs after hitting 16 homers in 55 games during the regular season, and Acuña went deep 14 times in 46 games and had 38 walks for a .406 on-base percentage.
“Kind of shows where our game’s going, compared to what leadoff hitters used to look like,” Snitker said. “Now you look at two guys like that. The skill sets are unbelievable. They’re guys that can beat you with their legs, they can beat you on defense, and obviously the impact that they can have offensively.”
DODGER FOR A MINUTE
California-born Braves catcher Travis d’Arnaud was with the Dodgers for less than a week and played in one game for them in May 2019, after he was released from the New York Mets, and before his contract was purchased by the Tampa Bay Rays.
“I don’t like seeing him in the four hole against us for this next week, but really happy for him,” Roberts said.
After hitting .321 with nine homers for the Braves in the regular season, where he went as a free agent last offseason, d’Arnaud is hitting .421 with two homers in the playoffs, and with hits in every game.
Braves third base coach Ron Washington was manager of the Texas Rangers from 2007-14, including their only World Series appearances in 2010 and 2011. … Snitker’s 31-year-old son, Troy, is a hitting coach for the Astros, who are in the AL Championship Series. “It’s a really neat thing to have going on in our family,” the elder Snitker said.