AnalysisNL West

Eight Questions the Dodgers Face Heading Into the 2021 NLCS

Thanks to a ninth-inning run scoring hit from Cody Bellinger and a generous swinging strike three call from first base umpire Gabe Morales, the Los Angeles Dodgers survived an electric five-game NLDS against the San Francisco Giants and moved on to face the Atlanta Braves in the NLCS tonight.

Before the Dodgers take on the Braves, I recommend you read fellow Diamond Digest writer James Darschewski‘s recap of the Dodgers-Giants NLDS here. Due to the current MLB playoff format, since the Dodgers were a wildcard team this year, they don’t have home-field advantage until a potential World Series berth. So despite 18 more regular season wins this year, the Dodgers fly east to face the Braves in Atlanta for games one and two.

As the series gets underway tonight, here are eight questions the Dodgers are faced with.

1. Is Max Muncy Going To Make An Appearance In This Series?

As of this moment, Max Muncy is not on the Dodgers’ 26-man NLCS roster. However, if Muncy’s elbow injury improves, he could be added to the roster to replace a position player. A position player would have to be injured for Muncy to return, but the Dodgers could easily fluff up an injury to one of its bench players should Muncy’s injury heal later on this series. One candidate for a “phantom injury” would probably be Steven Souza Jr. as he doesn’t provide much in terms of defense and is mostly just a power bat off the bench.

The Dodgers feel the loss of their 2021 regular season leader leader in home runs, RBIs, and OPS, and would love to see him back for this series at some point if he is able.

2. How Will Tony Gonsolin Be Used Throughout This Series?

Will Tony Gonsolin start a game in this series? Is he going to be a long relief option coming out of the bullpen during opener games? With the Dodgers starting Corey Knebel for game one tonight, it would seem as though Gonsolin could see a bulk of the middle innings, unless Dave Roberts decides to mix-and-match bullpen arms throughout the game. I think Gonsolin will make a bulk appearance tonight because it doesn’t make much sense to burn the bullpen in game one of a series.

3. Will the Two Turners Turn It Around Offensively?

Trea Turner and Justin Turner have been pretty unproductive so far this postseason, having a combined batting average of .140 in 50 at bats. They have only hit in one run each so far and both of their on-base percentages have been below .200 for the playoffs. If the Dodgers want to beat the Braves, then the bat of the regular season batting champion and the bat of the Dodgers’ playoff franchise leader in hits, home runs, and runs batted in need to wake up in a hurry.

4. Can Cody Bellinger Build On His Momentum?

After an abysmal offensive showing in the 2021 regular season, Bellinger’s bat seems to have awakened in the playoffs. Heading into the NLCS, Bellinger is sporting a .294 batting average and a .368 on-base percentage in 17 at bats. With the top half of the Dodger lineup struggling in the last series, Bellinger’s bat will be needed if those top-of-the-order hitters continue to struggle against the Braves.

5. How Will the Dodgers Defend Against “Joctober” And the Rest Of the Atlanta Offense?

Although former Dodger Joc Pederson only got seven at bats during the NLDS with Atlanta, he made the most of his limited role, getting three hits and smacking two home runs. With his NLDS production and past postseason power, he is getting the start tonight in right field against his former team. Although Atlanta is without Jorge Soler for at least a few games while he traverses COVID protocols, Marcell Ozuna because he landed himself on administrative leave due to charges of family violence battery and simple assault, and Ronald Acuña Jr. who was lost for the year in July with a torn ACL in his right knee, they have enough skilled position players to challenge the Dodgers. Freddie Freeman, Ozzie Albies, and Austin Riley to name a few, have been productive in the regular season and carry their production into the playoffs. It shouldn’t be overlooked that this Braves team was able to be productive against a tough pitching team in the Brewers during the NLDS. It should be interesting to see how the Dodgers fare against a team hungry to avenge their loss in last year’s NLCS.

6. How Will Dodgers Hitters Fare Against Familiar Arms?

Although Braves hitters are familiar with this Dodgers team, Dodgers hitters are very familiar with the Braves games one, two, and three starters. The Dodgers faced off against Max Fried and Ian Anderson twice in last years NLCS and Charlie Morton in the World Series when he was with Tampa Bay last year and in 2017 when he was with the Houston Astros. Fried has a career 2.40 ERA in 15 innings against the Dodgers in the playoffs, Anderson has a 2.57 ERA in seven innings, and Morton has a 3.77 ERA in 14.1 innings. Overall, the Dodgers have seen these pitchers appear in 11 games against them over the last few postseasons, so their pitch mixes shouldn’t be too foreign for most of the Dodger lineup.

7. Is Kenley Jansen Built To Last This October?

Since August 20, Kenley Jansen has been one of the best relief pitchers in the league, only giving up one run in 23.2 innings pitched including three appearances in the playoffs, which is good for a 0.38 ERA over that stretch. More impressive than that is that he hasn’t walked a batter since September 21, and since that appearance, he has pitched in eight games and has struck out 17 of 29 batters faced, including eight of his last 10 batters faced. This tells me that he is mechanically sound right now, his pitch mixing is smart, and his stuff is working well. Although he isn’t the Kenley Jansen of old, who would blow by batters with dominate cutter after dominate cutter, he has evolved into a smart and effective three-pitch closer. After a tough last couple of years by his standards, it seems that Kenley has the stuff and the smarts to dominate deep into October this year.

8. Will We See Some Postseason Magic From Albert Pujols?

Since being released by the Angels and signing with the Dodgers earlier this season, Pujols has had a resurgent season, hitting a slash line of a .254 AVG / .460 SLG / .759 OPS in 85 games. He hit 12 home runs and drove in 38 RBIs in his new limited role as a bench player. In his age-41 season, he has at least one last shot with the Dodgers to add a third championship ring to his already illustrious hall-of-fame career. Can Albert improve on his 19 career postseason home runs and 54 runs batted in before the postseason is over? Starting tonight’s game at first base, Albert will be given the opportunity to provide some magic at the plate.

Jonathan Hoffman

Jonathan Hoffman is a graduate student at Northwestern University Medill School of Journalism. He's a lifelong Dodgers fan from Los Angeles who grew up in a family full of Phillies fans. Follow on Twitter/X and Instagram @JHoff100 if you also obsess over Clayton Kershaw and sports uniforms.

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