To preview each postseason series, we’ll be giving you three questions to be answered. So here, for the NL West champion Los Angeles Dodgers versus the NL wild-card winning Washington Nationals, are your three defining questions:
1. How will the Nationals use their pitchers against the Dodgers’ lineup?
The Nationals have arguably the best rotation trio in the NL—Max Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg and Patrick Corbin—but if those three are ineffective or cannot go deep enough in games, it’s going to be difficult for them to contain the Dodgers’ bats. Consider this: Only the Orioles had a worse bullpen ERA than the Nationals this season; the Yankees and Astros are the only two playoff teams that scored more runs off relievers than the Dodgers this season.
Washington, then, has two plausible options to limit the Dodgers on offense:
1) Ride Scherzer, Strasburg and Corbin as long as possible, before turning to a limited cast of reliable relief options: Daniel Hudson (322 ERA+), Sean Doolittle (113 ERA+), Fernando Rodney (114 ERA+), Tanner Rainey (118 ERA+). This can work if the Nats get the absolute best from these four and if rookie starter Austin Voth (140 ERA+) can be used effectively as a middle-man reliever behind fourth starter Annibal Sanchez (119 ERA+). Turning to Voth, who’s been great in his 23 innings since rejoining the big-league squad in early September, could be crucial should Corbin, Strasburg or Scherzer struggle, too.
2) Follow a playbook similar last year's Red Sox and piggyback starters while using others in relief. The Nats did this in their wild-card game win over the Brewers by turning to Strasburg for three innings after Scherzer pitched five. The problem with this approach is that starters typically don't get their usual rest. It made sense in the wild-card game because of its winner-take-all stakes. Manager Dave Martinez might be less inclined to burn two elite starters for one game in a best of five series.
2. Which version of Cody Bellinger will we see? Can L.A. win without him?
The second part of the question is easier to answer than the first one: Yes. Seven of the Dodgers’ eight starting position players posted an OPS+ of at least 100. Then, they can insert David Freese into the lineup against a lefthanded starter (expect to see him in Game 1 vs. Corbin), call on Matt Beaty to pinch-hit and have utilityman Chris Taylor as the ideal half of a double switch (he, too, could be starting against a lefty). After missing almost all of last year because of Tommy John surgery and battling injuries for the first part of this season, Corey Seager is playing at a high level again. He slashed .291/.322/.616 with seven home runs over 23 games in September. Joc Pederson (36 HR) and Max Muncy (35 HR) both can provide enough pop even if Bellinger struggles.
However, to answer the first part, concerns about whether Bellinger can perform in the playoffs are silly. Yes, he’s struggled in his first two playoffs (.562 OPS in six postseason series), but he’s not the same player he was the last two years. Even if you just compare him to his rookie campaign and overlook his 2018 sophomore slump, the improvements are dramatic.
3. Can the Nats win a postseason series?
The Nationals finally won an elimination game. But, winning a one-game playoff is clearly different than outlasting an opponent in a best-of-five series. It’s been well documented that Washington has yet to win a division series.
However, this Nats team is different than those previous clubs. This is the first year the Nats made the playoffs but didn’t win the division, and it comes after they were written off by many in late May when they fell 12 games below .500. They lost superstar Bryce Harper in free agency, and have filled the void with dynamic young outfielders Juan Soto (4.7 bWAR) and Victor Robles (4.1 bWAR). They invested in their starting pitching by adding Corbin this winter and continued to add veteran hitters to bolster their depth and complement their youth. And, of course, they have the most underappreciated star in today’s game manning the hot corner, Anthony Rendon (6.7 bWAR).
My postseason bold prediction was Washington upsetting the Dodgers in the NLDS because all the reasons this team is different makes it better. There’s a different energy around these Nats. Likewise, the Dodgers are attempting to return to the World Series for the third straight season, something no team has done since the 1998-2001 Yankees. And, they are looking to be the first team since the 1923 Yankees to return to the World Series after losing in the previous two Fall Classics. (The Yankees won the ‘23 World Series.) Of course, the Dodgers can fall short of reaching the World Series again and still beat the Nats in the NLDS.
But, there’s a lot going right for the Nationals right now. In October, sometimes that’s all you need.