It is very logical to state that earning a win in the first game of a playoff series in baseball is quite advantageous. While it is not as much of a mathematical impact over seven games as it is over five games (or this year even three), it is still a big boost to the victor’s cause. Beyond simple math, the other advantage for the winning team is that they have now likely moved past the opposition’s best pitcher in most cases, so the ability to win theoretically becomes easier.
But how big of an advantage has winning Game 1 truly been in recent history?
Every year since 1995, three seven game series, the NLCS, ALCS, and World Series, have been used to determine the best team in baseball among the final four teams. Over that time frame, 75 total series have been played. The team that won Game 1 has an overall record of 53-22. Though the advantage from a Game 1 victory has had a higher success rate in the World Series than the Championship Series, there have only been two seasons in which both pennant winners won the Championship Series after losing Game 1.
Simply put, winning Game 1 does not guarantee victory; however, the odds and momentum certainly do improve for the winning team.
The Braves know that for a fact in their recent playoff history. Though it has not come in a seven game series, in the four playoff rounds the Braves have participated in since 2018, they lost the series when they lost Game 1 and won the series when they were victorious in Game 1. Though Atlanta has not made it this far in quite a while, they have plenty of knowledge of the importance of a Game 1 victory.
The Braves are 5-0 so far this post season, winning in significant fashion due to historic pitching and an offense that has frequently delivered timely extra base hits. It is true that, between the Reds and Marlins, the Braves have faced overall competition that they were supposed to beat. In the NLCS, the Braves will find themselves in a different role as underdogs as they face the Los Angeles Dodgers. The Braves will certainly be facing an upgrade in competition, especially when it comes to Atlanta’s pitchers facing the Dodgers offense. However, though the Dodgers certainly have an extremely talented staff with plenty of depth, the Braves have shown, both in the 2020 regular season and playoffs, they can certainly rise to the occasion against quality arms.
Walker Buehler will take the mound for the Dodgers in Game 1. Through two starts in the 2020 playoffs, Buehler has worked eight innings, allowing three runs, five hits, six walks and has produced 16 strikeouts. While he has been effective, he certainly has not been untouchable. Considering the fact the Braves have faced talents such as Trevor Bauer, Luis Castillo, and Sandy Alcantara over the past two weeks, they should have a plan in place to once again take advantage of opportunities when they emerge.
Of course, comparing the ability of Buehler to the pitchers named above is meant to be a compliment rather than a way to take away from his talent. Now 26, Buehler has already produced a top 3 Rookie of the year campaign in 2018 and a Top-10 Cy Young finish and All-star Selection in 2019. He also has plenty of playoff experience, as over 44 1⁄3 innings, Buehler has produced a 2.84 ERA, 0.95 WHIP, and just 16 walks compared to 60 strikeouts. However, the last time he faced Atlanta, the Braves got the better of Buehler. Over five innings, Buehler allowed seven hits, three walks and five earned runs. The big blow, as seen above, was the Game 3 Grand Slam off the bat of Ronald Acuna Jr. that officially put him on the map as one of MLB’s best stars for the present and future.
The Braves will also feature a familiar Game 1 face in the form of Max Fried. Over 11 innings through two starts this postseason, Fried has allowed 12 hits and four earned runs. However, he has not walked a batter and has produced nine strikeouts. All four of the runs were allowed against the Marlins, who were much better against southpaws than right-handers during the regular season. As Fried has struggled with injuries over the past month, his level of dominance has regressed a bit. However, as his start to begin the playoffs for the Braves versus the Reds and Bauer showed, he is more than capable of delivering a dominant start on this stage.
Outside of his postseason start against Atlanta, Buehler has been quite effective the other two times he has faced the Braves in his career. He is 2-0 with a 2.92 ERA, 12 strikeouts, and .57 WHIP. The Braves have produced a .477 OPS against him in those two starts. Fried has not had as much luck against the Dodgers. Completing just 11 innings in three previous starts versus Los Angeles, Fried has a 6.55 ERA, 1.90 WHIP (thanks to 14 hits and 7 walks), and 16 strikeouts. In terms of familiarity with opposition, Buehler has clearly been the more effective pitcher.
In terms of facing a left-hander, the Dodgers were better than the Braves this season, producing a 113 wRC+ compared to a 101 wRC+ for Atlanta. Both teams produced a wRC+ of 126 against right-handed pitching this season, which was tied for the best in the majors with the New York Mets. Though both offenses seem to be quite similar in terms of their ability to produce, the Dodgers have been a bit better against left-handed pitching.
When it comes to starting pitching, offense, and the bullpen, the simple truth is that the Dodgers have been slightly to significantly better across the board this season compared to the Braves. This is clearly why they are a heavy favorite. However, as has been mentioned by multiple players, both Atlanta’s starting staff and lineup seem to be in a good place, as they are both confident and motivated to take advantage of a chance the Braves have not had in two decades. Though Buehler is a formidable opponent, Atlanta produced a postseason victory over him just two years ago. As a result, though they are underdogs, the Braves certainly have the ability to beat the Dodgers and advance.
A Game 1 victory would certainly be a big boost to that cause if Fried can produce like an ace tonight.
Game Date/Time: Monday, October 12th, 8:08 EST
Location: Globe Life Field, Arlington, Texas
Radio: 680 AM / 93.7 FM The Fan, WNNX 100.5, Braves Radio Network