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Key questions for epic Braves-Dodgers Game 7

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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 Tampa Bay 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 hasn’t been announced, 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 for a couple of reasons. The Dodgers deployed Graterol as an opener during practice runs toward the tail end of the regular season. Also, 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 a 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 7s since 2016, including the Astros-Rays game Saturday, the longest a starter has gone was Zack Greinke’s 6⅓ 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 — 15⅔ 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-1 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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World Series Daily: Can Rays seize series lead over Dodgers in Game 5?

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After all the oddities of the MLB regular season and postseason, the 2020 World Series pits baseball’s top two teams against each other. While we’ve grown accustomed to seeing the Dodgers playing for the championship, this is the first Fall Classic for the Rays since 2008 and only the second in franchise history.

Here’s what you need to know for Game 5 on Sunday, including a look at the pitching matchup, predictions, odds, other key numbers and more.

Key links: Viewers guide | Schedule | Playoff Baseball Classic

What’s on tap

World Series Game 5: Tampa Bay Rays (Tyler Glasnow) vs. Los Angeles Dodgers (Clayton Kershaw), 8:08 p.m. ET in Arlington, Texas

ARLINGTON, Texas — Now that the series is tied 2-2, Clayton Kershaw won’t get the chance to pitch the Los Angeles Dodgers to a World Series championship after his team’s Game 4 collapse, but his importance in Game 5 on Sunday can’t be overstated. He’ll need to be the stopper the Dodgers always expect him to be — because all of a sudden, the Rays have grabbed some momentum.

Kershaw has a career 4.68 ERA in the World Series, though he pitched well in Game 1. He’ll take on Tyler Glasnow for a second time in this Series, and the wild and wacky finish to Game 4 will undoubtedly still be fresh on everyone’s mind.

Meanwhile, Glasnow could use some redemption after a Game 1 collapse. He walked six batters in less than five innings pitched and hasn’t completed a full six innings all season. After using their top relievers in Game 4, the Rays will take as many innings as they can get out of Glasnow in Game 5.

In a season that has been unexpectedly defined by a pandemic, followed by labor strife and a shortened, 60-game regular season, the World Series is down to a best-of-three. After the drama of Game 4, what kind of encore do the best two teams in baseball have in store? Stay tuned. — Jesse Rogers


Running World Series odds

Dodgers 66.1%; Rays 33.9%


Game 5 predictions

David Schoenfield: You want a prediction after THAT game? LOL. The Dodgers have been tested many times in the playoffs over the past eight years, but I don’t know if they’ve ever faced a tougher mental test than coming back from maybe the most shocking, heartbreaking playoff defeat since the infamous Pedro game for the Red Sox in the 2003 ALCS. What will happen? I have no idea, but I really, really want Clayton Kershaw to pitch a good game. Rays 5, Dodgers 4.

Dan Mullen: Did you see what happened last night? How is anyone supposed to pick against the Rays after that display of just-won’t-go-away magic? Throw in the fact that, as Dave writes today, the second time around in a postseason series has been the real issue for Clayton Kershaw in October, and I’m going to pick Tampa Bay to take a 3-2 series lead and send Dodgers fans into even more despair heading into another “travel” day. Rays 5, Dodgers 4.

Rogers: Kerhsaw will exorcise his World Series demons once and for all after throwing a solid effort in Game 1. We’ve seen him out-pitch Glasnow once, and he’ll do it again in Game 5, knowing the Dodgers need to get their swagger back after their Game 4 ninth-inning collapse. The Rays got their dramatic win in the series, so it’s the Dodgers’ turn to pull off a close one. Glasnow will be better than he was in Game 1, but Los Angeles wins. Dodgers 5, Rays 4.


Stat of the day

Game 4 was the third walk-off win by a team that trailed entering the bottom of the ninth in the past 15 World Series. The other two? Game 6 in 2011, the “David Freese” game for the Cardinals, and Game 1 in 2015, which ended on an Eric Hosmer sac fly in the bottom of the 14th after Alex Gordon hit a game-tying home run in the ninth. The Rays are the first team to win a nine-inning World Series game in which they trailed entering the bottom of the ninth since the Diamondbacks won Game 7 of the 2001 World Series.


Social media post of the day


Best moment of the MLB playoffs to date

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Brett Phillips’ bloop single is bobbled by Chris Taylor in center, and then Will Smith drops the ball at home, allowing two Rays runs to score and win the game.

If you were watching Game 4, you just saw it, when Rays journeyman Brett Phillips‘ two-out hit off Dodgers closer Kenley Jansen — Phillips’ first hit since the regular season after Jansen walked Randy Arozarena — in the ninth scored Kevin Kiermaier from second for a 7-7 tie and then, improbably, plated Arozarena as well when catcher Will Smith lost the ball at home plate for a Rays walk-off win. Just like that, the World Series was evened up, making it a best-of-three showdown between L.A. and Tampa Bay.

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Brett Phillips’ bloop single is bobbled by Chris Taylor in center, and then Will Smith drops the ball at home, allowing two Rays runs to score and win the game.


The running MLB playoffs MVP

Randy Arozarena has gone from an unknown outfielder to this October’s breakout star. Going into the playoffs, you might have been asking, “Who is this guy?” But the Rays’ trade for him has been a huge factor in their postseason run. Arozarena is now a living, breathing postseason record book in cleats, having set MLB records for home runs (nine) and total bases (58), and he’s tied for the all-time record for postseason hits (26). What’s more, he has been flashing some leather in the outfield and some sweet celebration dance moves on the field.

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Clayton Kershaw’s real postseason problem? The second start of a series

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The narrative winds itself through every October, the constant that connects each postseason to the previous one for the past eight years, with many of the horrifying twists and turns of a Stephen King novel. Will Clayton Kershaw, the best pitcher of his generation, finally get to celebrate a World Series title with his teammates?

Kershaw is back on the mound for Sunday’s Game 5 with a chance to put the Los Angeles Dodgers back on top after the ultimate gut-punch of a loss Saturday night. He has been effective this postseason, with a 13-strikeout game against the Brewers in the wild-card round and a 2.88 ERA over four starts. His one rough outing was a crucial one, though; in Game 4 of the National League Championship Series, he gave up four runs over five innings as L.A. fell to the brink of elimination before rallying to win the final three games. It is perhaps notable that Kershaw did not pitch in any of those three victories. Walker Buehler is now regarded as the Dodgers’ ace, and Kershaw doesn’t have to win every game, as was expected — unfairly — for so many years. He is still one of the most valuable players on the roster, but the Dodgers have many valuable players.

That doesn’t make a Kershaw start any less full of intrigue, however. I suspect even if you’re not a Dodgers fan, you find yourself pulling for Kershaw this time of year. In his career in the regular season, he’s 175-76 with a 2.43 ERA. In his career in the postseason, he’s 12-12 with a 4.22 ERA. I saw a list similar to the one below on a recent broadcast. Since the advent of the wild card in 1995, Kershaw has the fifth-worst postseason ERA among pitchers with at least 70 innings:

David Price: 4.62
Charles Nagy: 4.46
Al Leiter: 4.38
CC Sabathia: 4.28
Clayton Kershaw: 4.22
Zack Greinke: 4.22

That’s out of 36 pitchers. Mariano Rivera tops the list, with Madison Bumgarner second and Curt Schilling third. What makes the above ranking stand out even more, of course, is the difference between that postseason ERA and the player’s career ERA:

Price: +1.31
Nagy: -0.05
Leiter: +0.58
Sabathia: +0.54
Kershaw: +1.79
Greinke: +0.85

Kershaw has been so dominant in the regular season, which has made his results in the playoffs only more frustrating. On top of that, he is held to an impossible standard. He is expected to duplicate the heroic performances of World Series legends such as Sandy Koufax and Bob Gibson — who cares if they pitched in a different era and had to pitch in only one series per year — or to match an October run like his contemporary and rival Bumgarner had for the Giants in 2014.

Sunday night’s start will be a big test for Kershaw for another key reason: It’s the first time this postseason he’ll make a second start in a series. I had a theory that most of Kershaw’s postseason struggles have come the second time he faced a team in a series. Before putting theory to paper, I checked the numbers. I went back to 2013, the first postseason Kershaw pitched in after he had become the best pitcher in the game.

First game in a series: 102⅔ IP, 78 H, 44 R, 42 ER, 23 BB, 118 SO, 14 HR, 3.15 ERA
Subsequent appearances: 65⅓ IP, 55 H, 37 R, 34 ER, 16 BB, 72 SO, 11 HR, 5.44 ERA

So the theory holds. Kershaw’s major issues mostly have come the second time around. One thing I’ve heard people say is Kershaw has been pushed hard in the postseason, pitching on three days’ rest at times earlier in this run, plus making several relief appearances along the way. That’s true; he was pushed hard by Don Mattingly and then Dave Roberts. The trouble with that theory is Kershaw actually pitched well on short rest. He has made four starts on three days’ rest, all in Game 4 of a division series and his second start of a series:

2013 NLDS vs. Braves: 6 IP, 0 ER, 6 SO
2014 NLDS vs. Cardinals: 6 IP, 3 ER, 9 SO
2015 NLDS vs. Mets: 7 IP, 1 ER, 8 SO
2016 NLDS vs. Nationals: 6.2 IP, 5 ER, 11 SO

That’s a 3.16 ERA, and even the game against the Nationals is a little misleading. He left in the seventh inning with two outs and the bases loaded, but the bullpen allowed all three runners to score. That was the year he came on to get the final two outs in Game 5 for the save. He then started Game 2 of the NLCS on two days of rest (or four days of rest after his Game 4 start). You know what? He pitched seven scoreless innings against the Cubs. It was his second start of the series, in Game 6, when the Cubs knocked him around for two home runs and five runs in five innings.

So it doesn’t really hold that short rest has hurt Kershaw. Now, sure, maybe there’s a cumulative effect here. Maybe he was gassed by the time he faced the Cubs in Game 6. I keep wondering if seeing Kershaw a second time in short order helps opponents. Part of the mystery of facing Kershaw is he doesn’t look like any other pitcher with that hesitation and his windup and the over-top delivery. Maybe the familiarity of seeing him again a few days later helps — similar to how offensive numbers jump the third time through the order (part of that is pitcher fatigue, but part of that is hitters have seen the pitcher for two at-bats already).

I went back to the 2015 postseason and checked the numbers on starters for their first start in a series and then their second start. This gave a list of 80 pitchers (and 81 second starts, as Corey Kluber started three times in the 2016 World Series).

First start: 444⅓ IP, 344 H, 160 R, 153 ER, 148 BB, 454 SO, 51 HR, 3.12 ERA
Second start: 399⅓ IP, 338 H, 181 R, 168 ER, 138 BB, 434 SO, 61 HR, 3.79 ERA

So, yes, pitchers don’t fare as well the second time in a series. Their average innings pitched goes from 5.6 to 4.9. Their home runs per nine innings goes from 1.03 to 1.37. Their ERA rises 0.67 runs — but Kershaw’s ERA rises 2.29 runs.

It should be noted that Kershaw hasn’t pitched as badly as his ERA suggests. Compare his second-start numbers to the other 81 starts per nine innings:

Kershaw: 7.6 H, 2.2 BB, 9.9 SO, 1.52 HR, 5.44 ERA
Others: 7.6 H, 3.1 BB, 9.8 SO, 1.37 HR, 3.79 ERA

His raw numbers are basically the same as the control group — except the ERA. For whatever reason, his runs in the postseason too often come in crooked numbers or one bad inning.

Anyway, the Dodgers know this. Roberts won’t allow him to go too long, and the Dodgers have plenty of arms in the bullpen. In his four starts this postseason, Kershaw has thrown 93, 87, 87 and 78 pitches. He’ll be pitching on four days of rest. He gave up only two hits in six innings in the Game 1 victory over the Rays. All the signs point to another good start. I hope so.

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In Pictures: Khabib Nurmagomedov, the undefeated MMA champion

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MMA world lightweight champion Khabib Nurmagomedov announced his shock retirement from the sport on Saturday after revealing he promised his mother his clash with Justin Gaethje would be his last fight.

The Russian, who won by a second-round technical knockout, was fighting for the first time since the death of his father Abdulmanap, who was also his coach, in July.

“I’m the UFC undisputed, undefeated champion with a 13-0 record (in UFC), and 29-0 in all of my pro MMA career,” he said after his win in Abu Dhabi.

“Today I want to say this is my last fight. No way am I coming here without my father.

“When UFC comes to me about Justin I spoke with my mother for three days. She didn’t want me to fight without father and I said this is my last fight – and I have given her my word.

“Thank you, coach, thank you, guys. Today is my last fight in the UFC.”

Abdulmanap Nurmagomedov, 57, passed away after COVID-19 related complications in the summer.

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