Six players to watch in the NLCS between Dodgers, Braves

Los Angeles Dodgers' Mookie Betts celebrates as he runs the bases on a two-run home run during the fourth inning against the San Francisco Giants in Game 4 of a baseball National League Division Series, Tuesday, Oct. 12, 2021, in Los Angeles. (Marcio Jose Sanchez/AP)

The most memorable event in Alex Anthopoulos’ tenure as Toronto Blue Jays general manager was the 2015 American League East title.

But the most important lesson occurred in 2014, when in his 12th year as general manager, he punted on the team at the trade deadline, despite the Blue Jays being just 1.5 games back of the division-leading Baltimore Orioles and the organization’s public statements in spring training that the money would be available if the team was in it at the deadline.

This, of course, was after some worried players started talking about a salary-deferral scheme in spring training in order to lure free agent Ervin Santana.

It was also, well, kind of a lie.

“I didn’t plan well when it came to saving payroll,” Anthopoulos told Kevin Barker and I this week. “Our only acquisition was Danny Valencia. It was a miserable last two months, and I told myself I didn’t want to go through that, again.

“Billy Beane said if you are near .500 and believe in your club, it’s right to add. That (2014) team made me realize the impact you can have on your clubhouse.”

It was also the last time that Anthopoulos worked for a team that didn’t make the post-season. Saturday night, he will be in his suite at Truist Park in Atlanta as the Braves take on the Los Angeles Dodgers in the first game of the best-of-seven National League Championship Series.

Anthopoulos left the Blue Jays following the 2015 season, spent two years going to the playoffs with the Dodgers as vice-president of baseball operations and has gone back to the post-season in each of his four seasons as Braves GM. Last year, the Braves led the Dodgers 3-1 only to let the series slip away.

Once the playoffs begin, there’s little a GM can do except, as long-time Major League executive and current Dodgers studio analyst Ned Colletti said, make sure the TV doesn’t catch you saying or reacting to something during a moment of tension in the game. There are some practical things – setting the roster, which Anthopoulos said sometimes involves being part of “role playing” discussions with simulated scenarios. The heavy lifting on the part of the GM has been done, and in Anthopoulos’ case, it was quite the load with in-season additions of the likes of Joc Pederson, Jorge Soler, Adam Duvall and Eddie Rosario keeping alive a team that lost Ronald Acuna Jr., to injury and Marcell Ozuna to administrative leave resulting from his arrest for domestic violence.

“If it was me, I would have punted,” said Braves studio analyst Jeff Francoeur. “Everything had kind of gone so well for three years. But I know Alex looked at things like run differential … and you had to believe it was going to turn.”

It certainly did. And now Anthopoulos – older and likely wiser - finds himself back in the post-season, in an NLCS in which these six players figure to find themselves playing significant roles one way or another.

Los Angeles Dodgers' Cody Bellinger gestures after hitting an RBI-single against the San Francisco Giants during the ninth inning of Game 5 of a baseball National League Division Series. (Jed Jacobsohn/AP)


Cody Bellinger, Dodgers, 1B/OF

Come on, we’re all suckers for a redemption story, right?

After a shocking fall from grace exacerbated by injuries to just about every part of his body that has anything to do with his swing, Bellinger scratched out four hits in the NLDS win over the San Francisco Giants, including the go-ahead run in Game 5. Four hits isn’t a lot to get excited about – it’s a good game for Mookie Betts, right? But considering how the Giants pitchers beat him up in the regular season (2-for-53) it was a pleasing and perhaps surprising development.

More importantly, with Max Muncy sidelined, Bellinger’s left-handed bat helps maintain balance in Roberts’ lineup. Coupled with the emergence of the lefty-swinging Gavin Lux in the outfield, Roberts could find himself still having a matchup-defying lineup.

Los Angeles Dodgers' Mookie Betts singles during the first inning of the team's baseball game against the Los Angeles Angels on Friday, Aug. 6, 2021, in Los Angeles. (Marcio Jose Sanchez/AP)


Mookie Betts, Dodgers, RF

Those soft post-season performances of his stint with the Boston Red Sox are long forgotten. Betts, 20-for-88 (.227) with one home run in 21 playoff games with the Red Sox, is 32-for-95 (.337) with 11 extra-base hits in a Dodgers uniform and is a beast when it’s do-or-die, hitting .542 in six elimination games with the Dodgers.

Nobody in baseball history has had a better run over six elimination games and no Dodgers player has ever had four hits in a winner-take-all game as Betts did in Game 5 of the NLDS. Two of those hits came of Logan Webb changeups, a pitch that has been largely unhittable. He also had a steal and is now 8-for-8 in that category since joining the Dodgers.

There are terrific players in both series, but Betts might be the one true superstar. He looks as if he’s finally comfortable after battling a hip injury. Bad news for the Braves and whoever’s next.

Atlanta Braves starting pitcher Max Fried (54) works against the Philadelphia Phillies in the first inning of a baseball game Wednesday, Sept. 29, 2021, in Atlanta. (John Bazemore/AP)


Max Fried, Braves, SP

I mean, he’s been the best starter in the majors in the second half and will make two starts in this series, including Saturday’s Game 1 on regular rest – a nice bonus for any team at this time of the season.

Fried posted a 1.74 ERA after the all-star break, turning in quality starts in 13 of his 14 games, and he tossed six shutout innings with nine strikeouts against the Milwaukee Brewers in Game 2 of the NLDS.

Fried, who had mixed results in a pair of starts against the Dodgers in last year’s post-season, credits a more efficient approach: those nine strikeouts were a rarity, as it was only the second time in this hot streak in which he recorded more than seven strikeouts. Wouldn’t you know it? The only time was a Sept. 1 game … against the Dodgers.

Fried says simply that he “stopped trying to throw the perfect pitch,” and found a new comfort zone with his slider. The Dodgers are a different offensive animal than the Brewers, but Fried had more swing-and-miss in his game in the NLDS. If nothing else, it suggests a guy who is hugely comfortable.

Atlanta Braves relief pitcher Tyler Matzek (68) works against the Milwaukee Brewers during the seventh inning of Game 3 of a baseball National League Division Series, Monday, Oct. 11, 2021, in Atlanta. (John Bazemore/AP)


Tyler Matzek, Braves, RP

Funny thing about three of the four remaining teams in the post-season – except for the Dodgers’ deep relief core, they’ve all had or are experiencing significant bullpen issues.

The Braves are no different. Their closer Will Smith is, arguably, one of the least-fancied post-season closers in recent memory, someone whose appearance in a game sends Braves Twitter into meltdown. There’s nothing to suggest Smith doesn’t have manager Brian Snitker’s trust, but the guess here is even with the increased use of starters in off-day relief roles, leverage situations are going to lead him to Matzek, whose stranded baserunners rate was the best in the majors and who since the beginning of the 2020 season has simply been one of the most effective lefty relievers in the game.

“He doesn’t get caught up in situations,” Snitker said of Matzek, who came close to retiring because of the “yips” and rekindled his career in independent baseball. “It’s been his M.O. since he’s been here.”

Austin-Riley

Atlanta Braves' Austin Riley rounds the bases after a run home against the Los Angeles Dodgers during the ninth inning in Game 1 of a baseball National League Championship Series Monday, Oct. 12, 2020, in Arlington, Texas. (Tony Gutierrez/AP)


Austin Riley, Braves, 3B

It was friend Mike Petriello of MLB.com who detailed the manner in which the Braves went from a team that never employed the shift to becoming a frequent user.

From 2017 through to this April, only two teams shifted less often than the Braves and in 2019-2020, no team shifted less. Since May 1, only two other clubs shifted more than Atlanta.

The improvement, particularly against right-handed hitters, was pronounced. And the case can be made based on defensive metrics that Riley profited from the move as much as anybody, if not more so. Riley had already arrived offensively: among players 24 and under, his 52 multi-hit games were just four behind the Blue Jays’ Bo Bichette for tops in the majors.

What makes him intriguing in this series – given the way the Dodgers like to roll out pitchers – is that Riley has some pretty pronounced reverse splits.

Los Angeles Dodgers relief pitcher Julio Urias (7) throws during the first inning of a baseball game against the Milwaukee Brewers Saturday, Oct. 2, 2021, in Los Angeles. (Ashley Landis/AP)


Julio Urias, Dodgers, SP

The Dodgers have become part of the post-season furniture. We’ll just have to deal with it. And Julio Urias has become something of a sublime presence in recent years: flat bill, white goggles and a knack of always seeming to be in the game or throwing in the bullpen. All. The. Time.

TBS’s Brian Anderson referred to Urias as being a “show pony” in Game 5 of the NLDS, when despite his status as MLB’s only 20-game winner, he bought in to a cockeyed plan to let Corey Freakin’ Knebel start and relegate Urias to a bulk role.

That wasn’t an insult: Urias is the kind of guy who likes the lights turned up brighter. But he’s also a team guy. In fact, he might be the perfect post-season pitcher.

“If he said: ‘No, I want it … he was going to get (the start),’” Dodgers pitching coach Mark Prior told The Athletic.

Still just 25, Urias has a 0.839 WHIP in 20 career post-season games, covering 47 2/3 innings. He closed out Game 7 against the Braves last season and finished off Game 6 of the World Series. If there’s a need, he’s your guy with a curve that was the ninth-most valuable pitch in run prevention statistics. His seven wins are tied with Madison Bumgarner for most by a pitcher 25 years or younger.

If you want a darkhorse series MVP candidate, Urias is your guy.

BLAIR’S PICK: Dodgers in six games.

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