NLDS 2016: Keys for All 4 NL Teams to Win Game 1
Given the quality of starting pitching in the National League this season, both National League Division Series openers, which will see three of the four teams' aces on the mound, should be high on excitement.
Don’t expect high-scoring affairs. But do expect every ground ball, relay throw and double play to matter.
Such is the case in playoff baseball, where everything is scrutinized. But while every stat will be dissected heading into these games, can you guess what’s most important to each team’s success?
Los Angeles Dodgers
1. Corey Seager needs to play like the NL MVP.
Unquestionably, Corey Seager will be named the NL’s Rookie of the Year after a season in which he hit .308/.365/.512 with 26 homers and 72 RBI. But he is the Los Angeles Dodgers' best player.
And though he won’t win the NL MVP, he needs to play like the MVP for the Dodgers to win. The left-handed-hitting shortstop will need to be the game’s biggest player in its biggest moments.
2. Clayton Kershaw’s shot at playoff redemption needs to start now.
For the past several years, Dodgers ace Clayton Kershaw has been baseball’s best pitcher. Even as he worked back from a herniated disk that kept him out nearly two months, Kershaw was an asset in the team’s playoff chase.
Recently, he looked like his old self, going seven innings in his final two starts of the season, not allowing a run in one of those outings.
But come the playoffs, Kershaw has been unrecognizable. His career playoff ERA is 4.59, though he posted a 2.63 playoff ERA over three games last season. Still, Kershaw has yet to prove he can be the kind of playoff workhorse that his team can ride.
That has to start Friday.
3. Dave Roberts’ Postseason Debut
The returns on first-year Dodgers manager Dave Roberts have been outstanding. The Los Angeles skipper guided his team to an NL West title despite a record number of players being put on the disabled list.
But now Roberts is contending with a different kind of baseball game, one in which his managerial decisions will be dissected. He cannot allow himself to be out-managed by his counterpart, Washington Nationals manager Dusty Baker, who is far more experienced.
1. Max Scherzer needs to be efficient.
In Wednesday night’s NL Wild Card Game, we saw just how critical a starting pitcher is to postseason success. Both the San Francisco Giants' Madison Bumgarner and the New York Mets' Noah Syndergaard were outstanding.
But Bumgarner was the more efficient of the two, as he was able to throw a complete game with just 119 pitches. Syndergaard needed 108 pitches to get through eight innings.
Not only will Nationals ace Max Scherzer need to throw his best in his start against Kershaw, but he’ll also need to be more efficient than he has been over his last two starts. Scherzer needed 98 and 96 pitches in six- and five-inning outings to close out the season.
He is the Nationals' best pitcher, so he needs to remain in the game as long as possible.
2. Daniel Murphy needs to recapture his magic from a season ago.
Nationals second baseman Daniel Murphy (.347/.390/.595), an NL MVP candidate, has been nursing a strained glute.
While it’s still unclear if he will be ready for Friday, Chelsea Janes of the Washington Post reported that both Baker and general manager Mike Rizzo believe Murphy will be ready to go for Game 1 of the NLDS.
If so, the Nationals would benefit from Murphy recapturing his magic of a season ago, when he led his Mets to the World Series, hitting seven combined home runs in the NLDS and NLCS. Murphy was the NLCS MVP after hitting .529/.556/1.294 in the series.
3. Bryce Harper needs to star.
After winning the NL MVP last year by slashing .330/.460/.649 with 42 homers, Nationals outfielder Bryce Harper has had a head-scratching season.
The left-handed-hitting Harper has hit .243/.373/.441 with only 24 homers. Recently, Baker admitted to Tom Verducci of SI.com that Harper has been dealing with a shoulder injury. But for the Nationals to have any success this postseason, they’ll need Harper to star in the middle of the order, especially given that they face the game’s best pitcher, Kershaw, in Game 1.
There will be few scoring opportunities on Friday. Harper needs to be effective in the middle of the order.
1. Jon Lester needs to do what he was signed to do.
When the Chicago Cubs signed left-handed pitcher Jon Lester prior to the 2015 season, it was for him to do one thing above all else: start Game 1 of the NLDS.
While Lester has been outstanding this season (2.44 ERA), his signing will only prove valuable if he’s able to lead Chicago through the playoffs. Lester and potential Game 4 starter John Lackey are the two most experienced postseason players on the roster. Lester pitched in 16 playoff games, starting 14, and posted a 2.85 ERA. He’ll need to be that dominant Friday night.
2. Someone outside of Kris Bryant and Anthony Rizzo needs to emerge.
Cubs first baseman Anthony Rizzo (.292/.385/.544) and third baseman/outfielder Kris Bryant (.292/.385/.554) have been outstanding this year, but the team can’t solely rely on those two players to carry it through October.
Someone else needs to get hot on Friday. Addison Russell could be a candidate to do so. He appeared to take steps in his development after the All-Star break but limped toward the end of the season. He only has four hits since Sept. 20.
3. The Cubs need to score early.
Sure, this is a key for any team. But given that their opponent, the San Francisco Giants, are riding some incredible momentum—they won Wednesday’s NL Wild Card game in thrilling fashion and swept the Dodgers to end the season—it’s important that the Cubs put them in an adverse situation immediately.
San Francisco Giants
1. Johnny Cueto needs to keep up the pace.
Giants starter Johnny Cueto is among the quickest-working starting pitchers in baseball. It’s important that he maintain that pace against a Cubs team that likes to step out of the batter’s box, take a lot of pitches and do whatever it can to make a pitcher uncomfortable.
Maintaining his rhythm, especially if he is throwing strikes, could help Cueto keep Cubs hitters off balance.
2. Bruce Bochy needs to be the better manager.
Most would have a difficult time arguing that Giants manager Bruce Bochy isn’t baseball’s best. In a sport that counts championships, Bochy’s three World Series rings are more than any other active skipper.
Though Cubs manager Joe Maddon is without a ring, he is Bochy’s most challenging adversary. Maddon is an out-of-the-box thinker, unafraid to employ the unorthodox. For an entire four-game series against the Nationals this season, Maddon refused to pitch to Harper—walking him 13 times. On a handful of occasions, Maddon has put a left-handed reliever in left field so that he could use a righty between left-handed batters.
Bochy needs to make sure Maddon’s unorthodox practices don't catch him off guard.
3. The Giants defense needs to be perfect.
Given that Lester is so good, run-scoring opportunities may not be plentiful. As a result, Game 1 of this series figures to be close with two outstanding pitchers starting the game.
The Giants need to be sure not to give away outs, allow runners to advance because of poor defense or commit errors. The Cubs are among the game’s best defensive teams, putting pressure on the Giants to play as just well when they are in the field.
Cutting off balls in the gaps and turning double plays will be critical in a game that figures to be low-scoring.