6 players to watch in NLDS: Giants’ Doval could be playoffs’ nuclear weapon

Pickwise.com's Doug Kralstein joins Follow The Money to tell you to jump on the over for the stunning Walker Buehler 4.5 strikeout prop for NLDS Game 1 vs. the Giants, now or never.

It’s been a rivalry that has created memories good and bad: Bobby Thomson’s “Shot Heard ‘Round The World,” Juan Marichal taking a bat to John Roseboro … and Bryan Stow, a Giants fan beaten critically outside Dodger Stadium in 2011.

Out here in the east, we’re all about Boston Red Sox/New York Yankees but the San Francisco Giants/Los Angeles Dodgers rivalry is every bit its equal and more.

It just happens when most of us are in bed.

Now, for the first time ever, the teams will meet in a playoff series. OK, this is a little nuanced: they did play in the 1889 World Series as the New York Giants and Brooklyn Bridegrooms and it’s all made for some good fun on social media between baseball historians. But remember: baseball didn’t have a post-season format until 1969 and the current format didn’t come into play until after the 1995 players strike.

When the teams played each other in 1951 and 1962 it was in tie-breaker games for the NL pennant. The Giants won three World Series in a span of five years between 2010-14 but they never faced the Dodgers, including that last title year when the Giants won the NL wild-card after finishing second behind the Dodgers, who were eliminated in the NLDS by the St. Louis Cardinals.

Watch the NLDS on Sportsnet starting Friday with Milwaukee vs. Atlanta at 4:30 p.m. ET / 1:30 p.m. PT

And now they meet: the 107-win Giants against the 106-win Dodgers in the best-of-five National League Division Series. Mike Yastrzemski, grandson of Carl, was asked how his memories of watching the Red Sox/Yankees rivalry compared to playing in this one.

“It’s kind of tough because one of them I was a fan, so I feel like I was much more emotionally involved,” said Yastrzemski. “You ride the highs and lows so hard as a fan. As a player, it’s completely different. You have to find a way to stay even-keeled. But both are so fun to be a part of and so intense that it feels every game matters. Those games in early May feel like they’re a September game. So it’s been cool to see both sides of it.”

There’s star power and future Hall of Famers throughout the NL post-season, but here are six well-known, lesser-known (and in one case completely unknown) players who seem poised to play central roles for their teams …

Walker Buehler, Dodgers, SP

Of course, we all saw it and of course, we’re still wondering about it: Max Scherzer’s unusually ineffective start against the St. Louis Cardinals in the Dodgers’ NL wild-card win. The Dodgers are already without Clayton Kershaw, who has been shut down with forearm discomfort, and while there’s no need to call out “code red,” uncertainty is far from a manager’s friend at this time of the year.

Luckily, manager Dave Roberts will have his best starter in Game 1 — Buehler, who followed up five strong starts in the 2020 playoffs by going 16-4 (2.47 ERA) in 2021 and over the 200-innings pitched mark. Buehler might have a sense of unfinished business: his three-inning start on Sept. 5 against San Francisco, his worst of the year, came in a loss that saw the Giants break a tie for first in the NL West and go one game up on the Dodgers. The Giants never relinquished the lead. Much was made of how Buehler’s spin rate had diminished between that start and his previous start against the Giants — which came before MLB’s crackdown on sticky substances — and how Buehler went from throwing 55 per cent four-seam fastballs in one start to a balanced, four-pitch mix.

Whatever … the guess here is this post-season is when the torch gets passed to Buehler for good.

Corbin Burnes, Brewers, SP

In a post-season that has already seen managers brandishing quick hooks on the likes of Scherzer, Gerrit Cole and Nathan Eovaldi, it will be interesting to watch Milwaukee Brewers manager Craig Counsell handle Burnes, Brandon Woodruff and Freddy Peralta, who are the reason the team won the NL Central.

Burnes, who gets the start in Game 1, led the majors in Fielding Independent Pitching (FIP) at 1.63 and strikeout rate (35.6 per cent) as well as ERA and will get the start in Game 1 for a team that lost one of its most reliable high-leverage relievers when Devin Williams broke his hand punching a wall. Williams was 10th in the majors in strikeout rate and formed one of the game’s premier lockdown duos with closer Josh Hader. Both Hader and Counsell have shut down any discussion of Hader going multiple innings, so the pressure will be on Brewers starters to be efficient and remove as much drama as possible from Counsell’s in-game moves.

Burnes’ last start of the year was wobbly — he gave up his seventh homer of the year, and his 34th walk before leaving — but perhaps more telling is his previous worst outing, which came on July 30: four innings, nine hits and five earned runs. The opponent? The Atlanta Braves.

Camilo Doval, Giants, RP

Secret weapon? He could be the post-season’s nuclear weapon. The National League reliever of the month was called up in early September, striking out 20 over 14.1 scoreless innings and picking up three saves after closer Jake McGee went on the IL with an oblique strain. Doval, a 24-year-old right-hander who hit 104.5 miles per hour earlier this year at triple-A and has overhauled a wipe-out slider, spent all of 2020 at the Giants’ alternate site.

Described by manager Gabe Kapler in a recent interview as “somewhat matchup agnostic … if he’s throwing strikes,” Doval was up and down three times this season before finally sticking in the majors. Fun fact: there isn’t a player in the post-season with a hit off Doval. In fact, only seven players remaining in the playoffs have had plate appearances against him. They’re a combined 0-for-9, with only the Dodgers’ Will Smith reaching base on a walk.

The Giants bullpen was already deep: they are the first team in baseball history to have six relievers throw 50 innings post ERA’s under 3.00.

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Freddie Freeman, Braves, 1B

The Brewers are a tough nut for right-handed hitters to crack — only the Giants and Dodgers had lower wOBA (weighted on-base average) against righties during the regular season — so Freeman’s left-handed bat could be even more important than usual.

He’s had relative success against the Brewers (hitting .450 in 55 at-bats) and still hasn’t resolved his contractual status ahead of free agency. He’s part of the furniture in Atlanta; a strong post-season might even tighten the screws more on general manager Alex Anthopoulos to get a new deal. He had a blazing seven games in last season’s NL Championship Series loss to the Dodgers and rebounded from a poor start. It’s easy to close your eyes and see Freeman facing one of the Brewers’ power righties in a key situation.

Trea Turner, Dodgers, CF

Roberts had the perfect description for Turner, who he has both managed and managed against: “Trea creates tension.” The NL batting champion, who also led the NL in stolen bases, hits, batting average against lefty pitching (.392) and total bases, joined the team at the trade deadline in the Scherzer deal.

He ended the regular season on a career-best 19-game hitting streak, hitting .405 over that time with seven homers, 18 RBIs and 19 runs scored and finished the year with a defensive value that placed him in front of more ballyhooed candidates for the NL most valuable player award – no small feat considered he’s played second base in 50 games for the Dodgers, 20 more than he played in 2016 with the Washington Nationals, the last time he manned the spot.

Turner is among the game’s most remarkable all-around athletes, and it will be fun to watch him write himself all over the most anticipated post-season series in some time.

LaMonte Wade Jr., Giants, OF

The Giants are a classic sum of their parts team — they set a club record for homers without anybody hitting 30, settling instead for a major league record 17 players with five or more — and while you’ll hear a great deal about renaissance men such as Buster Posey and Brandon Crawford and how this might be a last kick at the can, in truth the story of the 2021 Giants was written by dudes such as Yastrzemski and “Late Night” LaMonte, who had six game-tying or winning hits in the ninth inning, the most by any player in a season in MLB history.

Wade had 13 game-winning RBIs and slugged .669 with men on base, the best among hitters with a minimum of 100 at-bats. The Dodgers run out right-handed gas after right-handed gas and given Kris Bryant and Evan Longoria’s issues against righties — and the absence of fellow lefty swinger Brandon Belt — Wade and Yastrzemki’s left-handed bats will be key. If it’s late and close, the game usually finds Wade, who was acquired last February in a deal for minor league pitcher Shaun Anderson.

Giants Sudbury-born president of baseball operations Farhan Zaidi, clearly took notes when he was a Dodgers executive and saw the likes of wild-card hero Chris Taylor and Justin Turner blossom once plucked out of other organizations.

Blair’s pick

Giants def. Dodgers in five; Brewers def. Braves in five.

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