When the National League Division Series begins Friday, these six players will be among the potential difference-makers worth watching …
There are people who believe the only reason the Nationals don’t have at least one World Series title is because they’ve never figured out how to build a bullpen. That’s one storyline that could be buried in the National League Division Series. The acquisition of Ryan Madson, Brandon Kintzler and Doolittle – the latter the closer – turned what was statistically the worst group in the Majors into a group that can boast what no other NL team can. The Nats have the lowest ERA in the seventh, eighth and ninth innings. They saved 26 of their final 29 opportunities and Doolittle had 21 of those saves while racking up a WHIP of 1.00.
Truth is, Game 1 starter Kyle Hendricks could just as easily have been picked, but every time I close my eyes I imagine the Nationals’ Trea Turner dancing off first base and Lester – who has a notorious case of the yips with men on base – throwing the ball away. Lester stutter-stepped through six September starts after spending time on the disabled list with a lat issue and shoulder fatigue and closed it out by allowing one run over 11 innings in his final two starts. He’ll get Gio Gonzalez in Game 2, and with the Nationals holding on to Max Scherzer for Game 3, Lester’s start will be pivotal one way or another. Lester isn’t the only reason for concern when it comes to the Cubs starters or their pitchers in general. According to our friends at five-thirty-eight, their strikeout rent went from third to eighth in the Majors and they fell to 16th in home run rate after being sixth last season. Fastball velocity was, overall, the worst in the Majors.
Lefties, lefties. Everywhere lefties: Clayton Kershaw, Rich Hill, Alex Wood, Tony Cingrani and Tony Watson … the Los Angeles Dodgers have them everywhere in their NL Division Series and Martinez crushes lefty pitching, tuning them up to a .376 average. Martinez was the NL player of the month in September as he tied the league record that Ralph Kiner set in 1949 with 16 homers in the final month of the season. Martinez had a four-homer game against the Dodgers, who have lost their last six games against the Diamondbacks. He’s gonna get paid as a free-agent this off-season and a strong playoff run would only enhance his value.
Daniel Murphy, 2B, Washington Nationals
He’s a career .309 hitter against the Cubs and crushed them during the regular-season with a .360 average, including a .585 average at Wrigley Field. Murphy’s .391 career average at Wrigley is second-best all-time among visiting players with at least 80 at bats. Only Hall of Famer Eddie Murray’s .395 is better. Murphy finished the regular season on a roll, going 12-for-25 (.480) with four extra-base hits in his last seven games. Bryce Harper will hog the spotlight because he’s Bryce Harper and he’s one of a half-dozen folks in Nationals uniform who need to raise their post-season ‘Q’ rating. But Murphy will be the difference-maker.
Robbie Ray, SP, Arizona Diamondbacks
He’s owned the Dodgers this season: 3-0, 2.27 ERA and 1-0 with a 0.96 ERA in three starts at Dodger Stadium, where 37 of his 53 strikeouts against Dodgers hitters were recorded. He’s also 2-2 (1.81) lifetime at Chavez Ravine, so while Diamondbacks manager Torey Lovullo cost himself a shot at maybe using Ray twice in the series by using him in the wild-card game, he still has some flexibility. Plus: if Lovullo’s ballsy enough to use Ray out of a bullpen in a wild-card game, you think he’d blanche at using him creatively in this series? Me neither.
Justin Turner, 3B, Los Angeles Dodgers
Corey Seager’s among the brightest of lights at shortstop, which is right now among the game’s sexiest positions. But his elbow’s sore. Cody Bellinger has had a remarkable rookie season with that stylish, sweet lefty swing. But he scuffled a bit in September and has been worked over by Diamondbacks pitching. The Dodgers as a group had some September wobbles, but Turner quietly continued what he’s done most of the season: hit in the clutch, in close and late situations. He was described by one L.A. writer as the “beating heart” of the Dodgers lineup, and led them with a .945 OPS. Look: the Dodgers will pitch. They always pitch. They need some help from their hitters, and Turner has to be the guy.
• Nationals over Cubs in 4
• Diamondbacks over Dodgers in 5