NLDS preview: Dodgers face difficult challenge against Nationals aces

Mark Townsend
Yahoo Sports Contributor

In an MLB season dominated by offense, the Los Angeles Dodgers and Washington Nationals are poised to provide a change of pace in the National League Division Series.

The starting rotations will be front and center, as the Dodgers trio of Clayton Kershaw, Hyun-Jin Ryu and Walker Buehler faces off against the one NL team that can match them ace-for-ace. The Nationals come to town with Stephen Strasburg, Max Scherzer and Patrick Corbin determined to shatter L.A.’s World Series dreams and lead Washington to its first ever victory in a postseason series.

Don’t get us wrong. These offenses can hold their own, too. The Dodgers and Nationals finished the regular season ranked fifth and sixth in runs scored. Los Angeles did it with the long ball, finishing with a National League record 279 home runs. Washington did it with speed and balance. Their 116 stolen bases were third in MLB and their .265 team batting average ranked sixth.

But it all comes back around to the aces. The Dodgers (3.11) and Nationals (3.53) rotations ranked one and two in MLB in ERA and are both are top 10 in virtually every notable category.

The Nationals come in on the heels of a thrilling wild-card game win against the Milwaukee Brewers. The victory required the usage of two of Washington’s three aces. Max Scherzer got the start and tossed five innings of three-run ball. Stephen Strasburg tossed three innings of scoreless relief. Patrick Corbin will start Game 1, but this might put Washington in a slight jam if Strasburg can’t bounce back in time to start Game 2 on Friday.

As for the Dodgers, they will come in rested. Such is the advantage of finishing the season with an NL-best 106 wins. But they have the added pressure brought on by past postseason disappointments. The Dodgers have made six straight postseasons appearances, many of which they were considered to be the team to beat. And each time, they’ve fallen disappointingly short. Their road to redemption begins now, but it won’t be easy.

Schedule

Game 1: Thursday, Oct.3, in Los Angeles, 8:37 p.m. ET (TBS)
Game 2: Friday, Oct. 4, in Los Angeles, 9:37 p.m. ET (TBS)
Game 3: Sunday, Oct. 6, in Washington, 7:45 p.m. ET (TBS)
Game 4*: Monday, Oct. 7, in Washington, 6:40 p.m. ET (TBS)
Game 5*: Wednesday, Oct. 9, in Los Angeles, 8:37 p.m. (TBS)
* if necessary

Previously

The Dodgers edged the Nationals in the regular season series, taking four of seven games. The teams split a four-game series in Washington back in May, before the Dodgers won two of three at home in late July. Worth nothing, the Nationals went 37-20 from that point forward. The Dodgers will be facing a much more confident team this time around. Los Angeles also won the most recent postseason matchup between these franchises, winning three games to two in the 2016 NLDS.

Washington Nationals starting pitcher Patrick Corbin was arguably the best signing in free agency last winter. (AP Photo/John Bazemore)

Pitching matchups

Game 1: Patrick Corbin (14-7, 3.25) vs. Walker Buehler (14-4, 3.26)
Game 2: Stephen Strasburg (18-6, 3.32) vs. Clayton Kershaw (16-5, 3.03)
Game 3: Hyun-Jin Ryu (14-5, 2.32) vs. TBD
Game 4*: Rich Hill (4-1, 2.45) vs. TBD
Game 5*: TBD vs. TBD

With all three aces at his disposal, Dodgers manager Dave Roberts has settled on Buehler as his Game 1 starter. That significant because it would seemingly line him up to start potential Game 5. The 25-year-old right-hander has posted a 2.60 ERA over his career at Dodger Stadium, which is one run better than his career road ERA. Roberts hasn’t determined his Game 2. That will come down to Clayton Kershaw or Hyun-Jin Ryu.

Moments like this are exactly why the Nationals signed Patrick Corbin to six-year, $140 million deal in December. With Scherzer and Strasburg not available in Game 1, the Nationals still have a better than fighting chance with the veteran left-hander toiling. Through the first year of his deal, Corbin has looked like one of the best signings of the offseason. He’s helped take a really good rotation to another level. Strasburg will ready to move in Game 2. It’s assumed Scherzer will be ready for Game 3.

Los Angeles Dodgers closer Kenley Jansen has had an up and down season. (AP Photo/Ben Margot)

Dodgers keys to victory

• The Dodgers need their closer back. Kenley Jansen just posted a career-worst ERA of (3.71) — with ERAs of 5.63 and 5.00 in July and August respectively — and had a career-high eight blown saves during the regular season. While September brought more encouraging results — he finished with a 3.18 ERA, six saves and no home runs allowed — it's clear Jansen is still searching for answers. Those have to come sooner than later.

• It’s Cody Bellinger’s time to shine. The NL MVP candidate will be the key in the Dodgers lineup this postseason, particularly with Max Muncy, Justin Turner, Corey Seager and A.J. Pollock all seemingly coming in at less than 100 percent. Even with their great depth, those are players L.A. needs to have producing in order to operate at max efficiency. If they aren’t producing, then the pressure really shifts to Bellinger.

Nationals keys to victory

• Beyond the Scherzer-Strasburg-Corbin trio, manager Davey Martinez's only true reliable options are late-inning relievers Sean Doolittle and Daniel Hudson. That's a concern for Washington, because as good as the big three are, it seems inevitable they'll still need to get outs from bridge relievers around the sixth or seventh innings. If they can survive those innings while getting into the vulnerable portion of L.A.'s bullpen, the Nationals will be in good shape.

• Juan Soto’s thrilling go-ahead three-run single in the wild-card game was a season-defining moment that could also be a blueprint for success against the Dodgers. No, not every hit will be mishandled like Brewers right fielder Trent Grisham mishandled that one. But the Nationals were ready take to advantage on Tuesday, and should look to be aggressive at every turn against the Dodgers. Speed is the one area they have a clear advantage. They should use it to keep the pressure on L.A.

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