Los Angeles Dodgers (104-58) vs. Arizona Diamondbacks (93-69)
The Los Angeles Dodgers come into the playoffs with a franchise record 104 wins, good for the best record in the majors, despite a stretch at the end of August/beginning of September which saw them lose 15 out of 16 games. The NL West champions are led into the postseason by a pair of NL Cy Young Award front runners. Starting pitcher Clayton Kershaw finished an outstanding campaign with an 18-4 record and a 2.31 Earned Run Average. Despite his regular season success, Kershaw has struggled in the playoffs throughout his career, with an ERA of 4.55 in 14 career playoff starts. For reference, Kershaw’s career regular season ERA currently sits at an unbelievable 2.36. He did spend some time on the disabled list this year with a back ailment that “limited” him to 175 innings pitched throughout 2017. This could actually bode well for the Dodgers during the playoffs, as he should have plenty left in the tank to make a deep run in October. Should the situation arrive where the Dodgers find themselves in an elimination game, Kershaw will likely find himself pitching on short rest or even coming out of the bullpen in relief. Closer Kenley Jansen absolutely dominated during the regular season, recording 41 saves (in 42 tries) and a 1.32 ERA, while striking out over 14 batters per 9 innings. Interestingly enough, according to ESPN’s Cy Young Award predictor, Jansen actually holds a slight edge over Kershaw. Should he win, he would be the first relief pitcher to win the award for the National League’s best pitcher since Eric Gagne won it in 2003 (also for the Dodgers). Rich Hill (12-8, 3.32), Alex Wood (16-3, 2.72), and Yu Darvish (10-12, 3.86) will likely round out the Dodgers starting rotation throughout the series.
To complement their pitching, the Dodgers bring a ton of firepower to the plate. The slugging rookie first baseman Cody Bellinger (39 HRs in only 132 regular season games) has the NL Rookie of the Year award locked down. Stud shortstop Corey Seager struggled throughout September, posting a meager .210/.286/.358 slash line through the last month of the year as he battled elbow inflammation in his throwing arm. However, he did seem to turn things around a bit during the last week of the season, so look for him to be a huge factor in the Dodger’s lineup during the NLDS. Los Angeles also has an MVP candidate in third baseman Justin Turner, who in only 130 games this year hit 21 home runs on his way to a .322/.415/.530 season.
Coming off a win in Wednesday’s National League Wildcard game, the Arizona Diamondbacks face a tough test in the NLDS. Because starting pitcher Zack Greinke couldn’t finish the 4th inning, fellow starter Robbie Ray (the D-Backs #2 starter) was pressed into relief duties. This effectively eliminated the possibility that either of their best starting pitchers would be able to start game 1 of the NLDS against Clayton Kershaw (although because of their shortened appearances, they will likely be available to pitch games 2 and 3). Going against Kershaw is never easy, but doing so with your #3 starter in the first game of a short series makes this challenge even greater. On the bright side, Arizona’s offense looked great Wednesday night as they put up 11 runs on 17 hits. One of the great things about the Wild Card game is that it provides instant momentum headed into the division series. While the Dodgers haven’t played a meaningful game in weeks, the Diamondbacks are hyped up and ready to go.
The Dodgers’ starting pitching is too good for them to lose in a short series to their division rival. LA wins the series handily, but the D-Backs manage to steal one game behind the bats of their sneaky good offense. Expect a high scoring series.
Washington Nationals (97-65) vs. Chicago Cubs (92-70)
Our other NLDS matchup is going to be extremely interesting and fun to watch. Both the Washington Nationals and the Chicago Cubs bring rosters loaded with talent into October, but have some major questions regarding player health and struggling stars that will impact the way this series plays out.
The Washington National’s starting rotation is anchored by perennial Cy Young Award candidate Max Scherzer (16-6,2.51). Scherzer put together another fantastic season, but there is some concern about his health as he exited his final start of the regular season early with a hamstring injury. Manager Dusty Baker has indicated that the injury isn’t all that serious, but the Nationals will likely opt not to start their ace in Game 1 to get him an extra few days to get healthy. Luckily for the Nationals, they have another solid Game 1 option in Stephen Strasburg (15-4, 2.52). Strasburg put up very similar numbers to Scherzer this, so there shouldn’t be a huge drop off here. Gio Gonzalez (15-9, 2.96) and Tanner Roark (13-11, 4.67) will make up the rest of the National’s rotation.
The Nationals have a potent lineup, led by their best hitter, Bryce Harper. There is some concern over Harper, however, as he only played in the last 4 games of September after hyperextending his knee back in August. That injury caused him to miss 42 games, so he may still be trying to shake off the rust as postseason play begins. Joining Harper in the Nationals’ lineup is MVP candidate Anthony Rendon, second baseman Daniel Murphy (who has some history hitting against the Cubs in the postseason after putting up a .569 average, 4 home runs, and 6 RBIs in the 2015 NLCS as a member of the New York Mets), and first baseman Ryan Zimmerman.
The Chicago Cubs enter the playoffs after an up and down season. Inconsistent pitching and streaky hitting were the storylines of the first half, as the Cubs flirted with a .500 record for the better part of the first half. Going into the All-Star Break, the Cubs found themselves 2 games under .500 and 4.5 games back from the NL Central leading Milwaukee Brewers. However, they came out of the break hot, winning 14 out of the first 17 games of the second half to grab the lead in the division, which they did not relinquish for the rest of the season. Chicago finished the regular season as the hottest team in the National League, finishing with a 20-10 record in the final 30 games. They will look to carry this momentum into October as they begin their title defense as reigning World Series Champions.
Entering the first round of the playoffs, the Cubs have major questions regarding their starting pitching. Jon Lester, normally the model of consistency, had several bad (REALLY bad) outings this year. Most notably, in his last start of the first half against the Pittsburgh Pirates, Lester gave up 10 runs (although only 4 were earned) in less than an inning pitched, the first time in his career that he failed to make it out of the 1st inning. By most indicators, this is the worst season of Lester’s long career. However given his track record of proven postseason performance, I would not at all be surprised if he left that behind and dominated during the playoffs. Fellow starter Jake Arrieta is also a major question, as he has been recovering from a hamstring injury that occurred in early September. Initially thought to be just a cramp, the injury required a short stint on the DL and has clearly impacted his performance in his starts since returning. Because of the nagging injury Arrieta will not be making his 2017 postseason debut until game 4 of the division series (if game 4 is necessary). Kyle Hendricks (2.19 ERA since recovering from a hand injury that occurred in June), will be the game 1 starter for the Cubs. Lester, Jose Quintana, and Arrieta will start games 2, 3, and 4, respectively. Manager Joe Maddon will rely heavily on relief pitchers Mike Montgomery, Carl Edwards Jr., Brian Duensing, and closer Wade Davis once the game gets handed over to the bullpen.
After scoring more runs than any other team in baseball throughout the second half, the Cubs will look to continue their offensive success throughout October. Kris Bryant, Anthony Rizzo, Ian Happ, Javier Baez, Kyle Schwarber, and Willson Contreras all hit 20+ home runs this year, so I expect the long ball to be a huge factor in how this series plays out for Chicago. If the Cubs can get the bats going early and the pitching staff early leads, they will be extremely tough to beat.
The ‘X-factor’ of this game could very well be Cub’s catcher Willson Contreras. A dangerous bat like his out of the catcher spot is an extremely valuable asset to have in the playoffs. His defense will also be of vital importance, as the Nationals will likely be looking to deploy their running game against the Cubs (particularly when Jon Lester and Jake Arrieta are on the mound, as both have a history of poor running game control) as they did earlier in the season. National’s speedster Trea Turner, who swiped 46 bags during the regular season, should be particularly active on the base paths. Contreras’ cannon of a throwing arm will likely make them think twice about stealing, but will be tested early by National’s baserunners.
Chicago’s bats stay hot and they slug their way through a tough series, winning 3-2 and advancing to the National League Championship Series for the third consecutive season.