|Dodger Stadium hosts the first two games of a 2017 NLDS|
For my prediction in this National League Division Series to come true, that is going to have to come to an end. I am picking the Arizona Diamondbacks to top the NL West Division rival Los Angeles Dodgers in what some might consider an upset.
I say "some", because knowledgeable baseball fans who have been following these teams know that, despite the Dodgers finishing with a better overall record, the Dbacks have actually been the better team for some time.
Guided by second-year skipper Dave Roberts, the Dodgers finished with an MLB-best record of 104-58. That was 11 games better than Torey Lovullo and his Diamondbacks, who had to settle for the top NL Wildcard position.
But as late as August 25, that Dodgers lead had ballooned up to 21.5 games. Over the next month, LA collapsed, losing 20 of their next 25 games. The Dodgers did ultimately recover their equilibrium at the end, winning 10 of their final dozen.
The Dbacks, meanwhile, were nearly polar opposites. They won 20 of 25 between August 21 and September 16 to take complete command of a Wildcard playoff berth.
In that NL Wildcard Game, held on Wednesday night, Arizona blitzed out to an early 6-0 lead over the division-rival Colorado Rockies. The Diamondbacks ultimately powered their way to an 11-8 victory in the slugfest that many had predicted.
The Dodgers offensive attack is led by two of the top young players in the game today in second-year shortstop Corey Seager and rookie first baseman Cody Bellinger.
Seager, was the 2016 NL Rookie of the Year. He also won a Silver Slugger a year ago, and has been an NL All-Star in each of his first two big league seasons. This year he slashed .295/.375/.479 with 22 homers, 77 RBI, and 85 runs scored.
Bellinger is the odds-on favorite to follow him in winning those ROY honors. He slashed .267/.352/.581 after his late-April promotion. The 22-year old slammed 39 homers, drove in 97 runs, and scored 87 times. He logged 37 games in left field, but just four of those came after June.
Third baseman Justin Turner was a first-time NL All-Star this year at age 32. He slashed .322/.415/.530 with 21 homers in just 130 games.
The Dodgers attack also features 26-year old right fielder Yasiel Puig, who enjoyed the best season of his five-year career. The Cuban native belted 28 home runs, second on the club to Bellinger.
Catcher Yasmani Grandal and left fielder Chris Taylor add pop, each surpassing the 20-homer mark this year. And the strong veteran presence of Chase Utley, Curtis Granderson, Andre Ethier, and Logan Forsythe should prove valuable in a tough series.
On the mound, Roberts will send the best pitcher on the planet out to the mound in the opener. Clayton Kershaw missed the entire month of August, and was a bit inconsistent in a half-dozen starts during the month of September.
Kershaw will be followed to the mound by 37-year old righty Rich Hill for Game Two, and then trade deadline acquisition Yu Darvish toes the rubber for Game Three in Arizona.
Roberts has also announced that lefty Alex Wood will start Game Four. There had been consideration to using him as a weapon out of the bullpen, bringing the ace Kershaw back on short rest.
"Obviously logic says that any pitcher that's used to a routine and going on regular rest is probably stronger, and has a better chance of success," said Roberts in a press conference published by the LA Times. "I just think that with the guys that we have in our clubhouse, the guys who can take the ball, in this case Alex Wood, for us it's a no-brainer."
Lovullo will matchup 25-year old righty Taijuan Walker, a big trade acquisition last November, against Kershaw. The Dbacks manager has yet to announce who will take the mound on Saturday.
With his top two starters, Zack Greinke and Robbie Ray, both logging multiple innings in the Wildcard Game, it could be either right-hander Zack Godley or lefty Patrick Corbin getting the Game Two nod. However, Ray threw just 34 pitches on Wednesday, and he could end up being the choice as well.
The Arizona lineup is led by first baseman Paul Goldschmidt, who slashed .297/.404/.563 with 36 homers, 120 RBI, 117 runs scored, and 18 steals. The NL MVP runner-up in both 2013 and 2015, the 5x NL All-Star should be a strong contender for those honors once again.
The Dbacks received a huge lineup boost at the trade deadline with the acquisition of right fielder J.D. Martinez from the Detroit Tigers. In 62 games with Arizona, Martinez slashed .302/.366/.741, banging 29 homers and driving in 65 runs in that time.
Slugging third baseman Jake Lamb banged 30 homers and knocked in 105 runs. Center fielder A.J. Pollock slugged 14 homers while scoring 73 times and swiping 20 bases in just 112 games. He is one of the most underrated players in the game today.
To some extent last year, but especially in this current postseason, the importance of effective arms out of the bullpen has revealed itself to be more important than ever. Both teams have a variety of such weapons from which to choose.
Lovullo will have righties Jimmie Sherfy, David Hernandez, Archie Bradley, closer Fernando Rodney, and possibly Godley ready out of his bullpen. From the left side he can call on the trio of Andrew Chafin, Jorge De La Rosa, and possibly Corbin.
Roberts will likely lean heavily on right-hander Brandon Morrow, and has one of the best closers in the game available in Kenley Jansen. Starter Kenta Maeda is likely to be used out of the pen from the right side as well.
From the left side it's likely to be a pair of Tony's, Cingrani and Watson, seeing most of the action, though starter Alex Wood could also be called upon.
This was not at all an easy call for me. I don't like making gut calls, and this is purely a gut call in what I see as a tight series.
But the Diamondbacks took 11 of the 19 games between the two squad this season. That includes a late August sweep at Chase Field, and then an early September sweep at Dodger Stadium. They are in no way intimidate by the champions of their division. The addition of Martinez, particularly in giving Arizona a righty hitter against tough lefty Dodgers pitching, has proven an equilizer.
I am calling it Dbacks in four games. I think they find a way to steal one of the first two, though beating Kershaw in the opener will be a tall order. Then I see them easily capable of sweeping in front of their home fans out in the desert.