NLDS Day One: What We Learned

by Dylan Ackerman

Last night, we got our first taste of real playoff baseball. Not that the one game Wild Card games are not important, but it’s only with the Division Series that teams are guaranteed to face each other multiple times. Last night gave us the first games in which the teams will meet again, so an understanding of what happened in each game becomes especially important. With that, here are the major lessons from game one.

Dodger 6, Braves 1 in Atlanta.

The major takeaway is a confirmation of something any baseball fan already knew: Clayton Kershaw is dominant. His performance for the Dodgers was exactly what the team needed, and the offense was nice enough to give well beyond adequate support to carry the day. The good news for the Dodgers is that this solidifies their advantage in Game 5. Now they just have to make the series go that far.

What this means for the Dodgers: This was the one game Los Angeles was supposed to win. While they may be underdogs in the series as a whole, any game with Kershaw on the hill makes the Dodgers the favorite, putting pressure on them to win game one, even though it shifts to the Braves for the rest of the series. It isn’t much of a reach to say the series really starts with Greinke-Minor in game two. Los Angeles hit Atlanta’s best starter well, and if they can keep the offensive numbers even close to that level, they certainly have a chance in the series. They have to feel especially good after a 6-1 win instead of a 2-1 victory largely dependent on the arm of Kershaw.

For the Braves: Last night’s game can largely be chalked up as a wash. On his best day, Medlen is one of the few pitchers in the game who can go inning for inning with Kershaw (a shutout in his final regular season start speaks for itself), but losing this game is far from a death knell for the series. While Atlanta certainly wishes their number one starter pitched better, a win tonight puts them back in the driver’s seat for the NLCS. Greinke pitched well during the season, but his limited postseason showing has been shaky (1-1 with a 6.48 ERA and 1.62 WHIP for MIL in 2011). If the Braves hit well in game two, their fortunes look good as the series moves west.

The rest of the series: Coming into Game One, Los Angeles and Atlanta matched up well on paper. The Dodgers have the better top three starters, but drop off with number four. In the bullpen, both teams have pitched near perfection, especially down the stretch, but, Kimbrel in the ninth gives the Braves the slight upper hand. On the offensive side of the ball, both teams have nothing short of stacked lineups. Hanley Ramirez, Yasiel Puig, Adrian Gonzalez, and Carl Crawford compare well to Chris Johnson, Justin Upton, Freddie Freeman and Brian McCann. Still, injuries have hurt the Dodgers a bit more, and the Braves come into the series as the deeper team. Especially late in the game, the Braves have more weapons to pull off the bench, an aspect of the playoffs that can be hard to predict but can easily decide close games.

Final prediction: Either Atlanta wins in four or Dodgers win in five, but expect hard-fought and close games throughout.

St. Louis Cardinals 9, Pittsburgh Pirates 1

What we learned: After beating the Reds in four consecutive games to reach the NLDS, the Pirates came into Busch Stadium and got absolutely rolled. The Cardinals demonstrated in full force why they claimed the National League’s best record in its arguably toughest division. Adam Wainwright pitched as expected, and all but one of their starting position players came through with a hit. This game is lot simpler to dissect then the Dodgers-Braves, and spells out a much tougher road for the Pirates than the Braves. Only four hits as a team and a starter who fails to get out of the third inning is rarely a winning mix, and a game one that taxes the bullpen this heavily is an especially bad setup for the next two games.

Looking ahead: Tonight was not a fluke. Even with Allen Craig injured, the Cardinals’ lineup is deadly. Their starting pitching does not particularly drop off after Wainwright either, with 2012 All-Star Lance Lynn pitching game two and 15-game winner Shelby Miller waiting as well. There is also the less measurable but important factor of playoff experience. For the Bucs, only Rusell Martin and AJ Burnett have a significant number of playoff games, something that didn’t seem to help the latter much this afternoon. For the Cardinals, many of their key pieces earned rings in 2011, and a few were even around for the team’s earlier title in 2006. Even for those without hardware, the Cardinals playoff appearance last year means this series brings nothing new. Don’t expect the pressure to get to any of them, and don’t expect the offense to slow down any time soon.

Final Prediction: It’s been great to see the Pirates back in the playoffs, but don’t expect a true fairy tale ending. Cardinals sweep Pittsburgh in 3 games.

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