ARLINGTON, Texas - 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.”
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.”
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.
For the first time since spring training shut in mid-March because of the virus, fans will permitted back in the ballpark. They will be allowed into Globe Life Field in Arlington, Texas, when the Dodgers and Braves meet in Game 1 of the NL Championship Series.
About 11,500 tickets were available, sold in groups of four with each of those pods separated by at least six feet. That’s about 28% of the 40,518 capacity at the new $1.2 billion home of the Texas Rangers.
There aren’t any fans inside Petco Park in San Diego for the ALCS between Houston and Tampa Bay.
“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.”
Atlanta Braves (35-25, first in the NL East) vs. Los Angeles Dodgers (43-17, first in the NL West)
Arlington, Texas; Monday, 8:08 p.m. EDT
PITCHING PROBABLES: Atlanta: Max Fried (7-0, 2.25 ERA in regular season) Los Angeles: Walker Buehler (1-0, 3.44 ERA in regular season)
LINE: Dodgers favored by 1 1/2 runs; over/under is 8 runs
BOTTOM LINE: Los Angeles will host Atlanta in Game 1 of the NLCS.
The Dodgers are 21-9 in home games. Los Angeles has a team batting average of .258 this postseason, Mookie Betts has lead them with an average of .368, including five extra base hits and four RBIs.
The Braves have gone 16-14 away from home. Atlanta has a team slugging percentage of .404 this postseason, Travis d’Arnaud leads them with a mark of .842, including four extra base hits and seven RBIs.
REGULAR SEASON TOP PERFORMERS: Corey Seager leads the Dodgers with 41 RBIs and is batting .307.
Marcell Ozuna leads the Braves with 76 hits and is batting .333.
LAST 10 GAMES: Dodgers: 8-2, .276 batting average, 3.14 ERA, outscored opponents by 34 runsBraves: 6-4, .264 batting average, 3.46 ERA, outscored opponents by 16 runs
INJURIES: Dodgers: Jimmy Nelson: (back), Caleb Ferguson: (left elbow).
Braves: Jeremy Walker: (shoulder), Mike Soroka: (achilles), Phil Pfeifer: (elbow).