Freddie Freeman was pleased to see it would be the Dodgers. His team came within one win of beating them in last year’s National League Championship Series, losing in seven games. He was days removed from what might have been the most legendary swing of his baseball life, the go-ahead home run he hit against the Milwaukee Brewers in Game 4 of the National League Division Series on Tuesday. His team had momentum — and a little magic — in tow.
But none of that was the reason Freeman was happy with Thursday’s outcome. He is just happy he gets to be home to watch his son’s game.
“Now I get to watch him play baseball this weekend,” Freeman said Friday. “So my household was rooting for the Dodgers, but now you want to beat the best, and they’re obviously the defending champs.”
On paper, where so much of baseball is played until the first pitch and first twists tear the paper into shreds, the Braves and the Dodgers could not have taken more different routes to this rematch.
The Dodgers won 106 regular season games in the most competitive division in baseball, the winningest team ever not to win a division title. The Braves won 88 games by outlasting the implosion of their NL East counterparts, the first NL team since 2008 to win a division title without winning 90 games.
But the Braves are not out of place in this postseason. They have won their division four straight times. They had a 3-1 series lead on the Dodgers in this same series last year (played at a neutral site), forcing them to use every bit of their roster to sneak by.
And they enter this year’s series with something they didn’t have then: a World Series-tested ace in veteran Charlie Morton. The Dodgers, of course, enter this year’s series with a new World Series-tested ace of their own: Max Scherzer.
Exactly how the pitching matchups will shake out remains to be seen. The Dodgers, who flew to Atlanta later Friday, were waiting to see how Scherzer felt a day after he closed out Game 5 on short rest.
Manager Dave Roberts said the team still expected Scherzer to start Game 1 against Max Fried. Scherzer, who has dealt with some non-arm health nicks and bruises throughout this season, was less certain as of late Thursday night.
If Scherzer isn’t ready for the first game of the series, he probably will start the second, leaving the Dodgers to piece together Game 1 until Scherzer, Walker Buehler and Game 5 long man Julio Urías are rested enough to start.
Atlanta, too, is weighing its options. Manager Brian Snitker said he is considering waiting to throw Morton at Dodger Stadium in Game 3 on Tuesday to allow him extra rest. Morton started Game 4 of the NLDS on short rest Tuesday.
The weapon Atlanta doesn’t have this time is Ronald Acuña Jr., but that’s not new for them. If anything, the loss of their young MVP candidate to a torn ACL in July showed the depth of their roster. It forced General Manager Alex Anthopoulos to piece together production through trade deadline deals that have yielded early postseason star Joc Pederson and power threat Adam Duvall.
One of those deals also got them slugging outfielder Jorge Soler, who tested positive for the coronavirus last week and will be out until he completes his 10-day quarantine. Snitker said he is operating as if the outfielder won’t be available for the entirety of the series, which probably leaves Pederson to take more at-bats than he did when he served as a crucial pinch-hit option against the Brewers. The Dodgers know Pederson — and his weaknesses against left-handed pitching — as well as just about anyone; they drafted him, and he spent the first seven years of his career in Los Angeles.
Atlanta knows the Dodgers pretty well by now, too.
“We’re very familiar with this team and understand how deep they are, how strong they are,” Snitker said. “They’re relentless. … I know offensively, the at-bats they put up are something else. They just keep coming after you.”
But the Dodgers are also without a key piece of last year’s NLCS squad: slugging first baseman Max Muncy. Muncy was unavailable for the NLDS after he dislocated his elbow in a collision at first base during the last week of the season. Team officials have said they wouldn’t expect Muncy to be able to return before the World Series — if he can come back at all.
No one ruled him out amid the joy of champagne-soaked conversations Thursday night, but Muncy was still wearing a massive brace on that arm at batting practice Thursday. The idea that he might somehow be ready for a spot on the NLCS roster seems highly unlikely, which is less debilitating to the Dodgers than it seemed before these playoffs began.
If there is a story of the Dodgers’ NLDS victory, it is the reemergence of left-for-dead former MVP Cody Bellinger, who provided the game-winning hit Thursday night and was as productive throughout the series as he had been for any five-game stretch during what was a brutal, injury-riddled season.
Bellinger doesn’t fully replace Muncy’s power or production, but his reemergence does soften the blow, giving Roberts more options in a lineup that is otherwise heavy on right-handed hitters. Gavin Lux, another lefty, also had some of the team’s most consistently solid at-bats in the NLDS, seemingly playing his way from occasional starter to postseason regular — particularly against Braves right-handers Morton and Ian Anderson.
Those Braves pitchers and the rest of their staff have a better ERA in this postseason than the Dodgers do.
“You can stack up Scherzer, Urías, Buehler against Charlie, Max, and Ian, and they might have more name recognition than our guys, but they’re still, I think, even,” said Freeman, who seems likely to be in the center of everything. He hit .360 with a 1.168 on-base-plus-slugging against Dodgers in last year’s NLCS.