Will Acuna rake? Could Kershaw pitch? Key questions for epic Braves-Dodgers Game 7

MLB

Because the baseball gods are feeling generous in the 2020 MLB playoffs, we get a second Game 7 this weekend, as the Dodgers and Braves play a win-or-go-home game for the National League pennant and a trip to the World Series against the AL champion Rays.

With so much at stake, we asked senior MLB writers Alden Gonzalez, David Schoenfield and Jeff Passan about the key questions for the Dodgers, Braves and the matchup going into Game 7 on Sunday.

L.A.’s key questions

Who starts for the Dodgers?

That is still unannounced, but it is seemingly down to three choices: Tony Gonsolin, Julio Urias and Brusdar Graterol. The latter would be used as an opener, of course. And it makes sense, given that the Dodgers deployed Graterol as an opener during practice runs towards the tail end of the regular season and that it would be beneficial to ensure that their best reliever — at this moment, at least — faces the best part of the Braves’ lineup. Gonsolin, who would be on normal rest following an 88-pitch start in Game 2, is in line to pitch the majority of the innings. But Julio Urias, who threw a career-high 101 pitches in Game 3, could provide an inning or two as a bridge. — Gonzalez

Does Clayton Kershaw make an appearance?

That is the fascinating question. Kershaw was hanging out in the bullpen for Game 6, just in case an emergency presented itself. In all likelihood, he will also be in the bullpen for Game 7, waiting for a potential call. The Dodgers would like to avoid using him for three reasons: First, they can save him to start Game 1 of the World Series; second, he was scratched from his scheduled start earlier this week because of back spasms; and finally, he hasn’t been great when used out of the bullpen on short rest, the most recent example coming in Game 5 of last year’s NL Division Series. But if the game is close, and Dave Roberts needs an inning or two before getting to his high-leverage relievers, the thought of Kershaw standing in that bullpen might be tempting. Again. — Gonzalez

Can Cody Bellinger find it at the plate?

Bellinger struggled to find consistency with his mechanics throughout the regular season, has four hits and nine strikeouts in 23 at-bats in this series and is batting .238/.333/.476 in the postseason. He has hit some balls hard, but he hasn’t had much to show for it. The Dodgers have had a couple of big first innings in this series, most notably their 11-run output in Game 3, but they haven’t been able to carry that over. In their Game 5 win, they scored three first-inning runs against Max Fried but didn’t do anything else thereafter, putting a lot of pressure on their bullpen and their defense. Both those areas came through, but the Dodgers can’t count on that again. They need more consistent production from their offense. They need Bellinger to be a catalyst again. — Gonzalez

Atlanta’s key questions

How long do the Braves stick with Ian Anderson?

The 22-year-old has just nine career starts — including three scoreless outings in the postseason — but has obviously been impressive, with a 1.31 ERA, one home run in 48 innings and a .154 batting average allowed. His changeup has been his big weapon as batters have hit just .076 against it and he’s not afraid to throw it to right-handers.

Still, it’s a big moment for an inexperienced rookie. This is the 19th Game 7 in an LCS or World Series since 2000 and rookies have started just three times: Walker Buehler in Game 7 of the 2018 NLCS, Daisuke Matsuzaka for the Red Sox in the 2007 ALCS (and he had plenty of big-game experience in Japan) and John Lackey for the Angels in the 2002 World Series. (And if Tony Gonsolin starts for the Dodgers, he’d make No. 4!)

The Dodgers are known for their very patient approach and they worked Anderson for five walks in four innings in his Game 2 start. He escaped without any damage, however, as he allowed just one hit and got out of a bases-loaded jam in the third inning when Will Smith grounded out. Still, even if he’s sailing along, don’t look for him to go deep into the game. Braves manager Brian Snitker still has a strong bullpen and the way the game is managed these days, a quick hook is likely in order no matter who starts.

Of the six Game 7’s since 2016, including the Astros-Rays game on Saturday, the longest a starter has gone was Zack Greinke’s 6 ⅓ innings in Game 7 of last year’s World Series. Only three other times did a starter even make it through five innings — Max Scherzer matched up against Greinke and Charlie Morton twice, in the 2017 ALCS for the Astros and then Saturday against the Astros. So even if Anderson is throwing up more zeroes — 15 ⅔ innings so far in the postseason — don’t be surprised if he’s out of there after four or five innings.

Snitker said he had no special message for Anderson or his team. “They know what we’re doing. They’re very aware that this is Game 7, and shoot, we’ll go out there and let her fly. A Game 7 is another baseball game. It’s not fourth and one and let me get the first down. It’s a baseball game and you have to treat it as such. It’s Game 7, it’s going to be fun, we like how we’re stacked up, we like who’s pitching.” — Schoenfield

How do the Braves navigate through Corey Seager and the heart of the Dodgers lineup?

Seager has been the big bat for the Dodgers, hitting .375 with five home runs and 11 RBIs in the series. Once Anderson is out of there, you might think the decision would be to make sure a lefty is in there to face Seager … except four of the five home runs have come off left-handers, including one off A.J. Minter in Game 2 and one off Tyler Matzek in Game 5. So maybe it’s not the left-handers who face Seager — remember, a reliever has to face three batters, unless it’s the end of an inning — and you worry more about Mookie Betts in the leadoff spot and Justin Turner hitting third, so it’s the right-handers who face the top of the lineup.

One thing for sure: Everybody is available. No Braves reliever pitched in both Games 5 and 6. Chris Martin did throw 30 pitches in Game 6, so he’s the only who might be slightly compromised. Minter threw 42 pitches in Game 5 as the starter, but was so dominant with seven strikeouts in three innings that he’s certainly on option. The one guy who has been pitching high-leverage situations who we might not see is Will Smith, who gave up seven home runs in 16 innings in the regular season and then the big one to the Dodgers’ Will Smith in Game 5 and also walked two batters in Game 4. So most likely it’s some combination of Matzek, Minter, Shane Greene, Martin, perhaps side-armer Darren O’Day if it’s a two-out situation and then closer Mark Melancon. That’s plenty of depth to get through nine innings. – Schoenfield

Will Ronald Acuna Jr. do anything?

The Braves are hitting .263/.333/.450 in the series, but Acuna hasn’t done much damage, hitting .190 with no home runs and two doubles. He has struck out 34% of the time in the postseason, so the swing-and-miss has been a problem the entire postseason. Needless to say, having him on base in front of Freddie Freeman and Marcell Ozuna is a big factor. Those two have been raking. The Braves were the best fastball-hitting team in the majors — in fact, they were the best fastball team in the majors in 13 years — but the Dodgers have been beating Acuna with a lot of fastballs up in the zone and then breaking balls away. — Schoenfield

Matchup wild cards

What’s the matchup worth tuning in to see?

Freddie Freeman vs. Brusdar Graterol. There are only two regulars Graterol hasn’t faced in the NLCS: Acuña and Freeman. It may happen in the first inning. It may happen in the seventh or eighth or ninth. Freeman has seen 28 fastballs this season at 98 mph-plus. He took 16 for balls, fouled off four, flew out three times, swung and missed twice, singled, doubled and grounded out

In other words, if Graterol puts a heater in the zone, Freeman is not likely to stare at it. And considering his propensity to do damage, it’s the sort of face-off that could swing the entire series. — Passan

Who’s a sneaky, unlikely hero?

Nobody in the NLCS is hitting the ball as hard as the Dodgers’ Joc Pederson — and the longer Anderson goes, the likelier he is to remain in the game. Pederson has put the ball in play 14 times in the NLCS. Ten of them have been at greater than 100 mph — and the other four were at 99 mph, 89.7 mph, 88.3 mph and 83.5 mph. Pederson was so pedestrian during the regular season, keeping him on the bench as a pinch hitter seemed like an option. Roberts has stuck with him against right-handers, and he has repaid that not only by smashing the ball but making contact. Pederson, who throughout his career has been something of a strikeout artist, has punched out just twice in the NLCS. — Passan

What’s a strategic element that could come into play?

Work around the three-batter-minimum rule for pitchers by aiming for heavy platoon matchups that could be the third out of the inning. Remember: The minimum does not apply when an inning is over, and for a Braves team that carried 15 pitchers (!) on its 28-man postseason roster, it can leverage that to its advantage.

The Dodgers almost certainly are not going to want to play matchups in the early innings — not if it’s bound to leave them prone in later, potentially more important situations — so if ever A.J. Pollock is up with two outs? Burn Darren O’Day. If Cody Bellinger is in the same situation? Burn Grant Dayton or, if it’s important enough, Will Smith. Managers must treat every out in a Game 7 as if the season depends on it, and with as many pitchers as the Braves have, each inning presents them an opportunity to use the final out to gain an advantage. — Passan

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