In one of the most thrilling finishes to a Wild Card game, the Washington Nationals defeated the Milwaukee Brewers on Tuesday night. That victory finally exorcised the nightmare that elimination games have been for the Nats over the last decade. Now their sights are set on the best team in the National League, the Dodgers.
At a Glance:
- Game 1: Thursday, October 3, 8:37 PM EST in Los Angeles
- Game 2: Friday, October 4, 9:37 PM EST in Los Angeles
- Game 3: Sunday, October 6, time TBD in Washington
- Game 4 (if necessary): Monday, October 7, time TBD in Washington
- Game 5 (if necessary): Wednesday, October 9, time TBD in Los Angeles
|Batting (wRC+)||111 (1st in NL)||103 (3rd in NL)||Dodgers|
|Fielding (DRS)||136 (1st)||-2 (12th)||Dodgers|
|Starting Pitching (FIP-)||81 (1st)||82 (2nd)||Dodgers|
|Bullpen (FIP-)||93 (3rd)||109 (14th)||Dodgers|
This five-game series sets up a clash between the top two starting rotations in the senior circuit. The Dodgers starters posted a park- and league-adjusted FIP 19% better than league average, and the Nationals were just a point right behind them. But in a short series, the quality of the top of the rotation is paramount, and these two teams are very top-heavy.
Led by Cy Young hopeful Hyun-Jin Ryu, young ace Walker Buehler, and the venerable Clayton Kershaw, the Dodgers have been afforded the luxury of setting their playoff rotation a week ago. Based on their usage over the last week of the regular season, Kershaw is lined up to start Game 1 with Buehler and Ryu following. Should there be a Game 4, Rich Hill would likely get the call in an abbreviated start. He recently returned from a knee injury and is likely only able to go three or four innings at the most, setting up a piggyback start with Ross Stripling, Dustin May, or Julio Urías.
The perception that the postseason pressure is too much for Kershaw has been overstated and played out. He’s posted a 93 FIP- across 152 postseason innings in his career, but he is a bit of an odd choice to lead this playoff rotation. He was fairly inconsistent this year with a decent first half (3.60 FIP) followed by a rough end to the season (4.97 FIP in September). Ryu looked like he was going to run away with the Cy Young award but also struggled to keep his early season momentum going late. He posted a 5.20 FIP in August but got things back on track in September with a 2.66 FIP in four starts. Buehler has actually been the Dodgers’ most consistent starter and would likely be receiving more Cy Young buzz if it weren’t for his Korean rotation-mate.
Because the Nationals spent their top two starters in their Wild Card win, their rotation for this Division Series is a little harder to nail down. Patrick Corbin will almost certainly get the start in Game 1. Stephen Strasburg threw just 34 pitches in the game last night, so it’s possible he’ll be ready to go again on Friday on short rest. That would give Max Scherzer a full four days of rest before being called on for Game 3 on Sunday. The other option would be to insert Aníbal Sánchez on Friday to give Strasburg extra rest, but that means the top two pitchers in their rotation would get just one start apiece in the series. The most likely scenario sees Corbin and Strasburg getting two starts with Scherzer ready to come out of the bullpen in a potential Game 5.
Whatever the order, there’s no question the Nationals envisioned utilizing this rotation in a short playoff series when they signed Corbin to a massive contract this past offseason. He’s followed up his breakout season last year with a campaign almost as superb. For Strasburg, the concern over diminishing fastball velocity wasn’t able to derail his year, his first completely healthy season since 2014. Instead, injuries are the lingering concern over the oldest member of this trio, Scherzer. The three runs he allowed off two home runs last night won’t quiet the doubts that have surfaced since he missed time with shoulder and back injuries earlier this season.
While these two rotations can match each other pound-for-pound, what happens after the starters exit will likely make the difference in this series. The Nationals won’t have the luxury of using the all-hands-on-deck approach they used in the Wild Card game. They’ll need to call on their relievers at some point, and that does not bode well for them. As a group, their bullpen posted the second-worst FIP- in the National League, 9% below league average, but also the second-worst ERA of any bullpen in the majors, besting only the Orioles. On Tuesday night, it was Daniel Hudson closing out the win in the ninth inning rather than Sean Doolittle. The former has been pretty good (3.53 FIP) since coming over in a midseason trade from Toronto while the latter really struggled in August before being sidelined with a knee injury for a few weeks.
The Nationals Wild Card roster featured just five relievers: Hudson, Doolittle, Fernando Rodney, Hunter Strickland, and Tanner Rainey. They’ll add a few more for the Division Series, but it seems like those five are trusted the most by Nationals manager Dave Martinez.
With a shaky bullpen and runs at a premium, the Nationals may have to rely on more late-inning heroics from Juan Soto and Anthony Rendon. Those two combined to post 11.8 WAR this year, almost as good as the 12.6 WAR posted by the Dodgers’ two best position players, Cody Bellinger and Max Muncy. On paper, these two lineups look evenly matched. The Nationals’ projected starting lineup posted a combined 25 WAR while the Dodgers’ starting eight was wort 26.6. But where the Dodgers hold an edge is with their depth. They have a number of players on their bench that they can plug in at various positions without a significant drop in performance.
The Dodgers are the clear favorite to advance to the National League Championship Series, but it won’t be easy. This series will likely boil down to which pitching staff can be better over a five-game stretch. Expect low-scoring games and drama-filled late innings.