NLCS Preview: Dodgers-Brewers

Two teams with contrasting histories meet in the National League Championship Series. The Los Angeles Dodgers make their 13th appearance in the NLCS since this round of play started in 1969. This year is their third straight NLCS and their sixth straight year in the playoffs. That’s to say nothing of a rich pre-1969 history in both Los Angeles and Brooklyn. Milwaukee is making its third appearance in the NLCS, their first postseason appearance since 2011 and didn’t exist prior to 1969. Here’s a few thoughts on the series that starts Friday night in Miller Park (8 PM ET, FS1)…

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*Both teams have deep lineups. The Brewers are led by presumptive MVP, rightfielder Christian Yelich, but there’s a lot behind him. In the Division Series, the Rockies pitched around Yelich and walked him six times. But Mike Moustakas delivered with some key hits, Jesus Aguilar hit a big home run in Game 3 and Milwaukee found an unlikely hero—catcher Erik Kratz had five hits in the three games, all significant and would have been Division Series MVP if that award existed (as it should).

Los Angeles is no less deep. An already-talented lineup got a boost during the season from the emergence of Max Muncy and the arrival of Manny Machado at the trade deadline. Each hit big home runs in the Division Series win over Atlanta. Justin Turner is one of the game’s most consistent hitters and performed well against the Braves. By the time you rip through names like Yasmani Grandal, Yasiel Puig, Cody Bellinger, Chris Taylor and Matt Kemp, you see there’s no weak spot in this lineup and that includes the first couple pinch-hitters off the bench.

With both teams having plenty of bats, none with any sort of track record for October implosion, the focus rightly shifts to the pitching staffs. Here’s where the contrasts start to develop and nuance starts to come in.

*Los Angeles relies on a Core Four starting rotation. Clayton Kershaw has had his issues in the postseason, but this year was not one of them. He threw eight shutout innings in a brilliant Game 2 win against the Braves. Hyun-Jin Ryu threw seven shutout innings in the first game. Rich Hill brings his sweeping curveball and a veteran steadiness. Walker Buehler, the talented young righthander, was knocked around early in LA’s one postseason loss—but on the flip side, he was brilliant in the one-game NL West tiebreaker against Colorado that won this team the division. Dodger fans can feel good about their starter in any game of this series.

*Milwaukee fans can feel good about anyone that manager Craig Counsell summons in relief. In the Division Series preview post, it was noted that any of eight different arms could come out of the bullpen. The trio of Josh Hader, Corey Knebel and Jeremy Jeffress are the best. But no matter who gets the call, the Brewers have the security of knowing they aren’t reliant on any one pitcher to deliver for them.

If we shift to each staff’s relative weaknesses, the Brewer rotation and the Dodger bullpen, each team still has reason to be cautiously optimistic…

*Milwaukee has gotten some clutch starts from Gio Gonzalez down the stretch, as he’s finally looked a little more like the arm that used to be a Cy Young contender in Washington. Wade Miley was excellent against Colorado and though Jhoulys Chacin doesn’t have the historical track record you’d like to see from a #1 starter at this point, he does seem to be in the middle of a magic ride.

*Los Angeles’ bullpen nearly cost the team their season at points in August and September, but there were no such hiccups once the playoffs started. Dodger relievers worked 10 2/3 innings against the Braves and only gave up one run.

It all looks pretty even on paper. The numerous variables are highlighted by this question…

*Will Clayton Kershaw have another performance like he did in last year’s Game 5 of the World Series, when his offense scored twelve runs and lost the game that likely decided the championship? To be fair, Kershaw is no David Price, the October disaster we’ll look at in tomorrow’s ALCS post. Kershaw has had multiple quality moments in big games. But there’s been a surprising number of complete meltdowns for an ace of this caliber. If he’s no David Price, nor is he a Madison Bumgarner or Jon Lester when it comes to the October stage.

To me, it comes down to whether Milwaukee pitchers challenge Los Angeles hitters. That can be a daunting thought—the Dodgers hit eight home runs in the four NLDS games against Atlanta alone and led the NL in home runs in spite of playing in one of baseball’s few pitchers’ parks. But an even bigger stat from the Division Series is that Los Angeles worked 27 walks. Milwaukee can give up solo home runs and win. They won’t, if the blasts come with a couple guys on base.

The betting market is on Los Angeles here, with the Dodgers a comfortable, albeit not overwhelming (-160) favorite. I’m not quite as bullish on LA’s chances, but I still have to lean their way in this series.

As important as bullpens are in the playoffs, this is still a time of year when starting pitchers need to deliver you 2-3 wins. Emptying the bullpen gets harder in a longer series and as you get deeper in the playoffs. Counsell has no other choice, but I don’t think it will be enough. In a hard-fought six-game series that will feel emotionally like seven, Los Angeles wins their second straight NL pennant.