It is a very quick turnaround for the Washington Nationals, but nobody can really blame them for being so excited to win the Wild Card Game. An organization well-versed in the language of disappointment finally saw the tables turn on Tuesday night. It was a happy flight to Los Angeles instead of a sad goodbye cleaning out lockers. Ultimately, that sad goodbye was probably just delayed for about a week or so because of a date with the National League’s best team, but stranger things can and have happened. The Dodgers were watching and waiting during Tuesday’s win or go home Wild Card Game. They probably expected to be facing the Milwaukee Brewers in a rematch of last year’s NLCS when Josh Hader took the mound. They probably wanted to face the Brewers. Though Milwaukee was the hottest team in baseball over the final three weeks of the season, the Nationals come with heavy artillery in the rotation with Max Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg, and Patrick Corbin. The Brewers would have been cobbling every game together. The Nationals have the type of rotation that can prove deadly in a five-game series. With that being said, the Dodgers are still somewhere around a -225 favorite to swat away the Nats and await the winner of the Cardinals vs. Braves series. Anything short of winning the World Series would be a disappointment again for the Dodgers. The Dodgers have had a payroll over $100 million every year since 2007 and over $200 million six times in the last seven years going off of the 40-man roster at season’s end. The Dodgers ranked first in payroll from 2014-17. This team was and is built to win the World Series. Expensive free agents and escalating salaries for homegrown talent have set the bar extremely high for this franchise. So far, they haven’t reached that bar. This is the seventh straight playoff appearance for the Dodgers. They have won back-to-back NL pennants, but have fallen short against the Astros and Red Sox. This is the most wins that the Dodgers have had in a season in franchise history with 106. Ironically, of the four teams in franchise history that have won at least 100 games, none of them have won the World Series. But all of them have lost it. We’ll see if the 2019 version becomes #5. If we call the Wild Card Game a “round”, then the Nationals just won their first playoff round in franchise history. The Expos lost in the 1981 NLCS, but that was before the divisional series format. The Nationals lost in the NLDS in 2012, 2014, 2016, and 2017. So, we’ll go ahead and give this one to the team and their fans. The Wild Card Game became a thing in 2012. Since that time, the winners in each respective league have combined to go 6-8 in the Division Series. You would think that those teams would be at more of a disadvantage using up a starting pitcher in Game 1, but that hasn’t really been the case, at least not to any extreme. The unfortunate thing for the Nationals is that they used Stephen Strasburg in addition to Max Scherzer in the Wild Card Game. The fortunate thing is that they signed Patrick Corbin this winter and he can pitch Game 1. We’ll see if Anibal Sanchez goes on extra rest in Game 2 on Friday or if Strasburg, who only threw 34 pitches in the WC Game, comes back on three days. While it was more high-octane than a side session, Strasburg could very well be fine for Game 2 with that workload. Once again, I’ve got three keys to this series and here they are:
  1. Nationals Bullpen
In a one-game playoff, you can do what the Nationals did. Dave Martinez made it very clear from the jump. Scherzer would start and Strasburg and Corbin would be available in relief. Daniel Hudson, who got the save, and Sean Doolittle were both on the WC roster. Beyond that, the most trustworthy arms for the Nationals are their starters. In a one-game playoff, that weakness is hard to exploit. In a five-game series, it may rear its ugly head. Guys like Hunter Strickland, Wander Suero, and Fernando Rodney have had their moments, but other guys are undoubtedly going to have to step up. Tanner Rainey has had some flashes. Will Erick Fedde be forced to play a big role? Austin Voth? Can Joe Ross be trusted? The rotation is a real strength for the Nationals here, but the bullpen is as touch-and-go as it gets. The Dodgers bullpen isn’t, but the Dodgers have such tremendous pitching depth that guys like Ross Stripling, Kenta Maeda, and Dustin May are multi-inning weapons in the postseason. Joe Kelly has been hurt, but he rebounded from a slow start to the season. And we all know what Kenley Jansen is capable of doing. The Dodgers can throw out guys like Julio Urias, Dylan Floro, and Caleb Ferguson. They have a lot of options. There will be some underlying pressure for the Nationals to push their starters as far as they possibly can to keep the bullpen from coming into the game. As awesome as the Dodgers lineup can be, the Nationals have enough talent to keep pace. The Dodgers rotation isn’t that far behind Washington’s, especially with how Scherzer has pitched down the stretch. The single biggest advantage in this series is the Dodgers bullpen over the Nationals bullpen. That is a big one when it comes to October baseball.
  1. Flip the Switch
The Dodgers won the NL West by 21 games and it really could have been a lot more than that. Credit to the Diamondbacks for playing out the string. The Dodgers won 41 games by five or more runs. They only lost 12 times in blowout fashion. They followed up a .652 first half with a .657 second half. This sure seems like a team that was engaged at the end of the year. After all, with a 20-game lead and home field advantage locked up, the Dodgers won seven straight to end the season. They played .728 baseball at home with a 59-22 record. This doesn’t seem like a team that needs to flip the switch now that the playoffs are here, but there’s a big difference between blowing teams out in September and the pressure cooker that is the MLB playoffs. The opponents are better. The spots are bigger. The situation is tenser. Again, anything short of the Commissioner’s Trophy is a disappointment. The Nationals, meanwhile, have been playing playoff baseball since the start of June when they entered the month at 24-33. The Nationals were not a .500 team until June 27. They won 93 games. That is a sustained period of success to say the least. They played .657 ball over their last 105 games. The Dodgers played .654 ball for the season. There will be this sentiment that the Dodgers could start slow. They very well could. But I don’t think it will be from months of complacency. This is a team that was remarkably consistent over the course of the season and it doesn’t seem like they do anything other than play well.
  1. What’s the Difference?
The Dodgers had a .338 wOBA. The Nationals had a .336 wOBA. What was the difference? Well, it was the long ball. The Dodgers hit 279 home runs and the Nationals only hit 231. Washington did steal 116 bases to tie for the NL lead, but the glaring discrepancy in home runs is a big deal. The Nationals had a 20.9% K%. The Dodgers had a 21.6% K%. The Dodgers walked in 9.7% of their plate appearances and the Nationals walked in 9.3% of their plate appearances. But, the home runs, man. The Dodgers led the NL in home runs by 23 over the Cubs. When you consider the number of wasted plate appearances by pitchers, the Dodgers could very well have led the league and surpassed the record-setting Twins. Mike Petriello wrote a long piece earlier this week on the importance of hitting home runs in October. Think about it. Pitching is at its best in the playoffs. The teams with the best pitching generally have the most strikeouts. The Astros, Rays, and Dodgers ranked 1, 2, and 3 in K% from their pitchers. The Yankees were 7th, with the Nationals 8th, the Brewers 10th, the Twins 12th, the Cardinals 14th, and the Braves 18th. Manufacturing innings is hard in October. The teams that don’t have elite pitching often have elite defenses. The Cardinals were 3rd in Defensive Runs Saved. The Braves were 11th, but 8th in FanGraphs’s all-encompassing Def metric. Teams like the Twins, who don’t miss a lot of bats and don’t have elite defensive numbers, are likely to struggle. The Dodgers, while being 3rd in K%, were also 1st in Defensive Runs Saved. The Nationals will need to hit home runs in this series and that seems harder for them than it does for the Dodgers. The two lineups are different in that regard and it is the biggest difference. With all that being said, the Dodgers anywhere from -225 to -240 are my pick. Some places will be higher. You probably won’t find a lower line than -225, and I wouldn’t recommend laying it. The Braves or Cardinals will have these same disadvantages against the Dodgers. Quite frankly, a case can be made that the Nationals have the best chance to beat the Dodgers because of the Scherzer-Strasburg-Corbin rotation. Just go ahead and take the Dodgers to win the NL Pennant instead of taking the series prices. Odds are that the Dodgers will be in this range or higher in the NLCS, so a money line rollover isn’t even going to yield a better price. The Dodgers will advance. It’s just a matter of how many games it takes.