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Starting Nine: Why 29-9 (mostly) doesn’t matter as Braves face Marlins in NLDS

Minute Maid Park flipping the script in 2020, young arms take center stage with spot in the NLCS on the line

Wild Card Round - Cincinnati Reds v Atlanta Braves - Game Two
Ronald Acuña Jr. is one of six Braves who had an OPS of .864 or better against the Marlins in the regular season.
Photo by Todd Kirkland/Getty Images

The Marlins, they of the 18 positive COVID-19 tests, a team that looked like it might derail the MLB season before it barely got started, and whose patchwork roster led manager Don Mattingly to say, “Some of the guys I’ve never met before.” That’s who the Braves will be facing as the National League Division Series gets underway Tuesday, an opponent whose very inclusion in this round given where they started screams “2020” more than anything about this wild, wacky postseason.

Oh, and it’s all happening in Houston.

“It is what it is, this is what we got,” Freddie Freeman said. “We’re making the most of it.”

Now that we’ve got the Conversations That Would Have Never Made Sense in 2019 out of the way, let’s dive into nine storylines and stats as Atlanta faces an NL East rival for the third time in the postseason, one in Miami — it’s worth pointing out — that has NEVER dropped a series.

1. Record blowout doesn’t matter, but specter of it does

Forget 29-9, at least some of it. Yes, it was THE moment for the high-scoring offense, which set an NL runs record and surely Adam Duvall has it saved on a cloud somewhere, ready at any time to watch those three bombs he hit that night at Truist Park. But there are aspects from that night that figure to have little bearing on this series ... beyond those involved telling us how little it matters.

“They have kicked our butts a few times,” Marlins closer Brandon Kintzler said. “They’ve beaten us six out of 10, but they’ve [mostly been] competitive games. Obviously, their lineup is great. But we’ve got pitching. They’ve got pitching.”

Jordan Yamamoto, who was responsible for 13 of the runs (12 earned) scored by the Braves, Alex Vesia (four runs in 1 1/3) and Josh A. Smith (four runs in 1 1/3) won’t be on Miami’s roster, and Atlanta starter Tommy Milone, who the Marlins tagged for eight of their nine runs that night, won’t be around either.

Pablo Lopez will. He gave up seven runs in 1 2/3 innings that night and he’ll go opposite Ian Anderson for the Marlins in Game 2, but if you take away his forgettable start that night in Atlanta, he had a miniscule 1.64 ERA vs. the Braves in his other two outings, including five scoreless innings in his last start on Sept. 24.

In fact, if you take that game out of the equation, these teams played each other extremely tight in the regular season. The Braves won five of the other nine games, including the last three, outscoring the Marlins 39-36, with Atlanta slashing .248/.327/.413 for their lowest OPS (.740) against any division rival (and slugged .500 against them even with benefit of that one win). Atlanta’s starting staff held a 4.30 ERA in those other nine matchups, and with their elite bullpen included, pitched to a 2.89 ERA, its top performance in-division. Meanwhile, Miami hit .244/.320/.358, while its starters had a 3.69 ERA — its best vs. any NL East team — though its struggling bullpen drops that figure to 4.22.

That value in the 29-9 rout is not in how it ballooned these teams’ head-to-head stats, skewing their season series, it’s more about what it stands for with a spot in the National League Championship Series on the line.

The Marlins know that even if they can break through for nine runs, even that may not be enough against this lineup. Atlanta’s bats needed 21 innings against the Reds and got nowhere against Trevor Bauer and not much more vs. Luis Castillo, but when they finally woke up against the bullpen, Marcell Ozuna and Duvall showed in the blink of an eye exactly what this offense is capable of. Miami already knows that. They’re well aware, giving up 11 runs in one inning and six in another in that Sept. 9 matchup.

Miami all but silenced the Cubs’ bats, allowing one run in two games, behind some ridiculous starting pitching. But the Braves scored 83 more runs than Chicago and hit 29 more home runs (that’s 54 more runs and 22 more homers if you want to remove the events of that blowout from the equation). They’ve already done plenty of damage against Miami’s bullpen, getting to them for an 8.69 ERA and 12 home runs. Without question it was inflated by hitting the relief corps, and relievers who won’t pitch in this series, for 22 runs on one night.

But the Braves are capable of that kind of outburst. Of that, Miami is intimately familiar.

2. The streak is over, but that can’t be enough

A 19-year playoff drought and 10 straight early exits are over, as the Braves finally advanced in the postseason series. Is the pressure off? There’s the caveat that in any previous season the NL East champs wouldn’t have even taken the field until the NLDS, with the expanded format necessitating another full round of games. To a man, the message after bouncing the Reds was that it was just “the first step” for a team with World Series ambitions, and it’s felt like NLCS or bust after failing to break through following the last two division series. “Behind us, it only says NLDS,” Freeman said Monday said at the podium. “That’s where we lost the last couple years. We want to move on past the NLDs. I know we won a series, but this is still just the division series. We got some work to do.” You can make the case that the pressure it’s only elevated in this round given the opponent. Atlanta and its fanbase have already had to endure the rival Nationals being crowned champs last season, but that didn’t come directly at the Braves’ expense. But fall now to the Marlins? Lose to a team that was projected to finish fifth in the division? One whose rebuild was projected to be years behind Atlanta’s? One that traded away MVPs Christian Yelich and Giancarlo Stanton and shipped away Ozuna? That would be a different level of heartbreak the Braves and their fans can’t afford to suffer.

3. Minute Maid Park favoring the h̶i̶t̶t̶e̶r̶s̶ pitchers?

Freeman summed up the bizarre situation of the Houston postseason bubble thusly: “Not used to being in a road city and seeing my whites in my locker.... It’s just weird being on the home side too.” The ballpark is a factor beyond just the strangeness of the Braves calling Minute Maid Park home, and Atlanta hitters haven’t exactly thrived in its confines. Ozuna (1.125), Travis d’Arnaud (.898) and Duvall (.786) are the only players with an OPS higher than .644 and Freeman — who that OPS belongs to — has the most home runs (two) and extra-base hits (four) in 12 games in Houston. Last season, the second most homers in the majors were hit at Minute Maid Park, but this year it resulted in the fewest (52), just one less than 29th-ranked Marlins Park and that despite having hosted three of the top 10 teams in homers this season in the Dodgers, Padres and Angels. Meanwhile, teams combined for a 3.70 ERA in Houston (fourth-best) a year after it was the 10th-highest (4.77). That doesn’t mean we should expect a power drought from the Braves, who ranked second in MLB with 103 HRs, but pitchers have more than held their own and limited damage there this season.

4. Max Fried and Ian Anderson must be tone-setters again

The Braves may have depth issues in their injury-plagued rotation, but it mattered little in the opening round, as Max Fried and Ian Anderson simply dominated the Reds. After Fried’s seven scoreless, Anderson silenced Cincinnati’s bats over six innings to secure the sweep, and while they don’t have to be quite that dominant with Fried in the opener and Anderson to follow, something close will be crucial in a best-of-five with no rest days and questions after Anderson’s turn. The version of Kyle Wright that rattled off three consecutive quality starts could be the one that starts Game 3 ... or they could get the Wright that had an 8.05 in his previous five outings, including two vs. Miami in which he yielded eight earned over seven innings, and Wright will be throwing opposite Sixto Sanchez, who was brilliant vs. the Cubs. That uncertainty is why it’s key that Fried and Anderson do their parts, and why the Braves can’t waste their efforts if they’re anywhere near as impressive as they were vs. Cincinnati.

5. Sandy Alcantara, Sixto Sanchez and some depth

Just like the Braves, it was the Marlins’ young arms that powered them into this round and if there’s an overwhelming message the NL East is sending in this series, it’s that there are plenty of high-end pitchers that are going to be around for years go to come. Against the Cubs, Sandy Alcantara gave up one run over 6 2/3, then Sanchez followed five scoreless and, unlike the Braves — who had to cover six innings in Game 1’s marathon and eight innings in all in the first round — Miami didn’t need to go deep into its bullpen in Chicago, using just six pitchers in two games. That was a bonus considering Marlins have the worst relief corps in the postseason with a minus-1.4 fWAR (29th) and only the Red Sox (49) and Tigers (43) gave up more home runs than their 42. Mattingly may not be able to match the Braves’ bullpen, but he does have depth Atlanta doesn’t in the rotation with Lopez, who hasn’t pitched in 12 days getting the Game 2 start, while Trevor Rogers, Braxton Garrett and Nick Neidert are among those that could start or throw multiple innings in relief appearances. That’s the only area in which the Marlins have a discernible edge over the Braves, and it figures to become a crucial element if the series stretches past Game 3, when Miami can lean on depth while the Braves are put in a position where they could go to a bullpen game or Fried is forced to start on short rest.

6. Fried on short rest of go to the bullpen if series is extended?

Speaking of that bullpen game, it feels like a worst-case scenario if Snitker goes that rout as opposed to using Fried again, especially if we’re talking about an elimination game. Ideally, Fried, Anderson and Wright are able to log enough innings to minimize that stress in Games 1-3 and end the series in short order. But if any can’t get deep into the game, how Snitker uses a bullpen and what it means given the lack of reliable starting options figures to be the biggest challenge he’s facing in this series. Sure, Josh Tomlin can log multiple innings and pick up for a start gone bad, but if they opt to piece together Game 4, he would appear to feature prominently in the makeup that day as well as the only true long man available. Or, as Snitker said he could go to a different relieve each inning out of the bullpen “and feel good about all nine we put out there.” But if the series does go beyond Game 3, is trying to cobble something together better than Fried pitching on three-of four-days rest? The left-hander has pitched once in his career on three-days rest (tossing six scoreless innings in 2019) and has gone on four-days rest in 23 starts with a 4.00 ERA. If this series goes the distance, it would be stunning to not see Fried get the ball twice, whether it’s in Game 4 or 5.

7. Lineup ready to Mix It Up

Freeman has tortured Marlins pitching throughout his career with the fourth most home runs (32) of any player against them, and despite playing just 44 games vs. the East rival, Ronald Acuña Jr. is just outside the top 25 with 17 and has the 10th-best OPS (1.079) with a minimum of 100 plate appearances. But they’re not even the among the Braves three best hitters against Miami this season. Ozzie Albies posted a 1.262 OPS with two home runs in 21 at-bats; Dansby Swanson had a 1.221 OPS, two home runs and three doubles and Duvall hit five homers against them in racking up a 1.201 OPS. Not to be outdone, Ozuna has hit three home runs against his former team this season with a .978 OPS. The Braves offense is loaded, and their top hitters have done major damage against the Marlins that stretches beyond the 29-9 game with six players with an OPS of .864 or better. Trot out the cliches that the postseason is a different animal and that great pitching beats out great hitting, but familiarity matters, and Atlanta’s best hitters are familiar with feasting on Miami pitching.

8. It’s (RISPy) business time

To put it mildly, the Braves offense was horrendous with runners in scoring position against the Reds, going 1-for-14 in those two games, with Freeman’s walk-off in Game 2 accounting for the only Atlanta hit. No team had a harder time scoring a runner from third with less than two outs than the Braves in the regular season at 36.6 percent — that despite the third-most chances in the majors (142) — and they went 0-for-2 in that situation vs. Cincinnati, with Ozuna popping out and Travis d’Arnaud striking out when Acuña reached third with one out in the sixth inning in Game 1. In the regular season, only the Dodgers scored more runs than the Braves — one more to be exact — but if runs are again at a premium in this round and converting a runner at third is going to be paramount. While it’s one of the few gripes about this Braves offense, we’ve already seen how key it can be in the postseason.

9. Prediction

The Marlins have been a fantastic story, and their advancing this far has to be thorn in MLB’s side considering the headache their rash of positive COVID tests caused the league. But chaos ends here. Even if Fried and Anderson can’t replicate their Wild Card Series performances the Braves just have too much offensive firepower to think Miami can keep it close enough to win three times in five days. The end of the last round may have been Atlanta’s offense coming alive and that should keep this series short enough to limit exposing the lack of rotational depth at Snitker’s disposal. Braves in four games.

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