Six players who could have significant impact on NL Wild Card Series

San Diego Padres' Fernando Tatis Jr. (Gregory Bull/AP)

For the Los Angeles Dodgers it might be a good thing that there will be empty stands at Dodger Stadium. A good thing, too, that when the best-of-three National League wild-card series are over the focus of the NL playoffs shifts to a quasi-bubble in Texas — Arlington and Houston — as southern California is turned over to the American League.

If the Dodgers play this right… well, no added pressure from fans in the stands in the first round followed by a trip halfway across the country to play the rest of the post-season in Arlington? I mean, it’s the other side of the NL bracket that will play in Minute Maid Park so there aren’t even any of those sign-stealing memories from post-season games against the Astros.

Planned or not, baseball’s done what it can to help the Dodgers escape post-season ghosts by leaving home-field advantage on the cutting room floor. Given their warped history, it can’t hurt, right?

With all four National League series set to begin Wednesday, these six NL players could have a significant impact on the wild-card round.

BLAIR’S PICKS: Braves over Reds in three games; Marlins over Cubs in three games; Padres over Cardinals in two games; Dodgers over Brewers in two games.

1. Trevor Bauer, RH, Reds

Know how goofy this guy is? Goofy enough to pitch out of the bullpen in a deciding Game 3 after pitching seven innings in Game 1 is my guess. Bauer has been a monster on social media and on the field this season, picking fights with commissioner Rob Manfred and agent Scott Boras and taking advantage of a really weak schedule to rip apart some of the games worst offences.

The Reds have put together one of the most cockeyed 60-game offensive stretches in history: near the top in home runs, near the bottom in runs scored with a lineup whose 7-8-9 hitters had better OPS’ than the top six. The Reds will go as deep as Bauer, Luis Castillo and Sonny Gray take them, and starting pitching is perhaps the only edge they have against a Braves team without Mike Soroka. Bauer led the National League ERA, WHIP and opponents average against whole finishing second in strikeouts but he’s only had one start (an inter-league loss to the White Sox) against a lineup as good as the Braves. A deep post-season run certainly wouldn’t hurt his free-agent value.

2. Mookie Betts, OF, Dodgers

Clayton Kershaw. Talk about the Dodgers and the post-season and it’s always Clayton Kershaw. Or Kenley Jansen. Choking. Spitting out the bit. Whatever. It’s been 32 years since the Dodgers have won a World Series despite all manner of All-Stars and stupendous contracts and management philosophies, including the current strain of thought that owes its roots to the Tampa Bay Rays. It’s the kind of financial and intellectual marriage that should bring rings galore — close to what former Blue Jays general manager J.P. Ricciardi used to call “the perfect union: Moneyball philosophy, Yankees wallet.”

Yet the Dodgers have never been able to get out of their way and that’s one reason Betts was brought in and signed to a 12-year, $365-million contract extension. He’s supposed to make all the bad stuff go away, as if that World Series ring with the Red Sox has some sort of magic power. Note to the Dodgers: Cody Bellinger’s career post-season slash line is bad (.178/.234/.326). So is Corey Seager’s (.203/.275/.331). And Betts? Well, his is .227./.313/.331. Pandemic or not, 60 games or not, Dodgers fans have kind of run out of forgiveness. Betts starts earning his money on Wednesday.

3. Yu Darvish, RH, Cubs

He’s been part of the furniture for so long but he hasn’t been back to the post-season since his 2017 World Series meltdown for the Los Angeles Dodgers against the Houston Astros and, well, we all know a little more about that series and that Astros team, don’t we? Remember Game 3? One swinging strike in 49 pitches for a pitcher who recorded 209 strikeouts during the regular season. The Cubs are the home team for this three-game wild-card series against the Miami Marlins so it would stand to reason that it would be easy to keep a lid on any sign-stealing. (OK, I’ll stop. Promise.)

Darvish gets the ball after posting the second-best ERA and second-most strikeouts per nine innings in the NL. The Cubs bullpen has tried rookie manager David Ross’ patience all season long, which is why only the Cleveland Indians logged more innings out of their starters. The Marlins will run out lots of young velocity and are too young to know they’re supposed to be one of the worst teams in the game. They have a habit of riding young arms to World Series wins. There’s some good post-season DNA there: Darvish needs to snuff it out in either Game 1 or 2.

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4. Fernando Tatis Jr., SS, Padres

Fernandomania 2.0 (ask your father) just kind of stopped in September, didn’t it? The Face of Baseball® hit .208 in the final month of the season with a .311 OBP, the latter figure 109th among qualified hitters. So much for that coronation as NL Most Valuable Player.

He had company: as a group, the Padres ranked 18th in the majors with an 85wRC+ in the final two weeks. Small sample size, etc., but with real health concerns surrounding starters Mike Clevinger and Dinelson Lamet going into a best-of-three wild-card series, Tatis, Jr.’s resurgence would be timely. Developing coat-tails is a necessary next step in the creation of a superstar. Not everybody gets by without them — unless you’re Mike Trout.

5. Marcell Ozuna, DH-OF, Braves

Think back to the 2019 post-season, when one of the storylines was whether Ozuna’s quiet stretch drive as a member of the Cardinals would make Paul Goldschmidt susceptible to being pitched around, after opposing teams walked Goldschmidt 22 times in the final month of the season. Ozuna hit two home runs, drove in five and had an OPS of 1.355 in an NL Division Series win over the Braves; Goldschmidt hit .429 and had a 1.383 OPS. In the NL Championship, the Nationals carved up Ozuna: he was 3-for-16 with eight strikeouts. Goldschmidt? He went 1-for-16 in the series, as the Nationals swept the Cardinals.

This is a better Braves lineup than that Cardinals lineup but Ozuna still occupies a strategic spot: this year, he’s been behind NL MVP candidate Freddie Freeman. When Freeman bats second, as has been the case most of the month? Ozuna’s third. When Freeman was third? Ozuna was cleanup. Like Josh Donaldson in 2019, Ozuna has turned a one-year deal with the Braves into a launching pad for a big, multi-year deal — especially if the designated hitter stays in place in the NL. First in the NL in homers? Third in batting average? Seventh in WAR? The Braves can only hope Ozuna doesn’t disappear this post-season the way J.D. did in 2019.

6. Sixto Sanchez, RH, Marlins

Chaos reigns in 2020 and it might wear a Marlins uniform. Think back to that first week of the season when the Marlins had 18 players test positive for COVID-19 and we all nodded knowingly: “Of course it would be the freaking Marlins. It’s always the freaking Marlins.” I don’t know, folks: in 2003 they won a World Series in Yankee Stadium with 23-year-old Josh Beckett pitching his way to an MVP Award. In 1997, it was 22-year-old Livan Hernandez picking up the Series MVP.

Sanchez is expected to start Game 2, with Sandy Alcantara going in Game 1 and Pablo Lopez in Game 3. Pick one? I’ll take the 22-year-old Sanchez to tie or give the Marlins a series win. The Cubs middle of the order has not been good and Sanchez throws b.b.s and induces loads of ground balls. Embrace the chaos before it embraces you: we’re going fishing.

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