- He's had his struggles in Octobers past and he missed two months this season with an injury, but Clayton Kershaw is still the best pitcher in baseball. Will that be enough to get Los Angeles past Washington and into the NLCS?
Los Angeles won the season series against Washington, 5–1, but injuries have changed the complexions of both teams. Here are Three Strikes on the Nationals-Dodgers NLDS, which starts Friday in the nation's capital.
Game 1: Fri., Oct. 7 in Washington, 5:30 p.m. ET, FS1
Game 2: Sat., Oct. 8 in Washington, 4:00 p.m. ET, FS1
Game 3: Mon., Oct. 10 in Los Angeles, TBD, FS1/MLBN
Game 4 (if necessary): Tues., Oct. 11 in Los Angeles, TBD, FS1
Game 5 (if necessary): Thurs., Oct. 13 in Washington, TBD, FS1
1. Aces Are Wild
Each team’s ace has playoff demons to exorcise, and he’ll get his chance in Game 1 and, potentially, a decisive Game 5. Washington's best pitcher is righty Max Scherzer, a leading candidate to win his second Cy Young Award this season. he was exceptional as a Tiger in the 2012 and '13 postseasons, but he bookended those performances with a pair of clunkers. The six runs he gave up in 2 1/3 innings doomed Detroit to elimination in Game 6 of the 2011 ALCS against Texas; the '14 Tigers didn’t even get that far, being swept by the Orioles in the ALDS in three straight, including a Game 1 in which Scherzer allowed five runs in 7 1/3 innings.
For Los Angeles, three-time Cy Young winner Clayton Kershaw may still be the best pitcher on the planet, but he's been mortal in the postseason. Despite a seven-inning, three-hit, eight-strikeout, one-run win over the Mets in Game 4 of last year’s NLDS, Kershaw holds a career 4.59 ERA in the playoffs. Fortunately, the team that seemed to have his number in October—he has a 7.15 ERA against the Cardinals over his last four playoff starts against him—fell one game short of the dance.
The Dodgers put more players on the disabled list this year—28—than any team since at least 1987, when such records started being kept, but they are getting healthy at the right time. Kershaw pitched 28 innings with a 1.29 ERA, 27 strikeouts and just two walks in his five starts since coming off the disabled list in September, and Rich Hill seemed blister-free in his final regular-season tune-up Friday.
Washington, on the other hand, will likely not have righty Stephen Strasburg available in the NLDS due to a strained flexor mass in his pitching arm. All-Star catcher Wilson Ramos is out until 2017 with last week’s tear of his right ACL, an injury he also incurred in 2012. Bryce Harper, last year's NL MVP, is expected to play, but he has hit just .243 (87 points worse than in ’15), gotten on base at a .373 clip (also 87 points worse) and slugged .441 (108 points worse) while struggling through a right shoulder injury. And ’15 playoff hero Daniel Murphy, who hit .529 and slugged 1.294 with four home runs in the Mets’ four-game NLCS sweep of the Cubs, strained his left glute on Sept. 18 and hasn’t started a game since.
3. Kid Stuff
The Dodgers and Nats were among the older teams in baseball this year—Los Angeles ranked sixth at 28.7; Washington tied for 11th at 28.4—but this series may come down to two of the series' youngest players.
Forget just winning the Rookie of the Year award; Dodgers shortstop Corey Seager has a real case to be the 2016 National League MVP. At 22 years old, put up a season worth 6.1 WAR, fourth-best in the league by a position player. He and the Rockies’ Charlie Blackmon were the only players in the league to finish in the top 10 in both singles and extra-base hits, and even Seager’s defense—not his strongest suit at 6'4"—was above average. But it’s that bat that will do damage for L.A. in October. Seager has few weaknesses: He hits ahead in the count (14% better than league average), even (38% better) and behind (60% better); in high leverage (38% better) and in low (24% better). He hits on the ground (18% better), on a line (15% better) and in the air (85% better); to his pull side (21% better), up the middle (56% better) and to the opposite field (32% better). He’s hit .305 on pitches 94 mph and below, and .333 on pitches 95 mph and above. Seager is likely to give Washington fits.
But Trea Turner may play a similar role for the Nationals. The 23-year-old centerfielder arrived too late to challenge Seager for regular-season award consideration, but his .567 slugging percentage and 33 steals (in 39 attempts) over 39 games have not escaped notice. Those numbers at that age compare favorably with everyone in baseball history short of Shoeless Joe Jackson, in 1911, and Jose Canseco, in 1988. For a Dodgers team that allows the second-lowest ratio of ground balls to fly balls among playoff teams, a player with Turner’s ability to drive the ball and then dash toward home has to be a real concern.