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…