It’s a bit dramatic to call any single series during a season the defining series of the year, especially when it’s barely June and there’s still nearly 70% of the schedule remaining. Although, for the Braves, this coming weekend could go a long way in improving the current mood within Braves Country. Over the next three days, Atlanta will host the LA Dodgers… and wins over them almost always seem to uplift a disappointed fanbase.
After starting the 2021 season on a 13-2 tear in its first 15 games (quickly pushing them up 4 ½ games in the NL West division), the Dodgers then fell off a cliff and managed to win just 10 of its last 30 since then, including five of its last 10 entering the current weekend. That comfy division lead earned after a couple of weeks of play has now evolved into a third-place standing for the Dodgers as both the Giants and Padres took advantage of the opportunity. Suddenly, like the Yankees earlier this season, the King of the West appears beatable.
But don’t let this recent uncharacteristic stretch by the Dodgers mislead you… this is still a very dangerous team.
Entering Friday’s series opener, LA’s offense (t-1st), starting rotation (t-2nd), and bullpen (t-10th) rank within baseball’s top 10 in FanGraphs WAR, to go with a defense that’s currently among the top-half in DRS (Defensive Runs Saved). They maybe haven’t won as many games lately, but the Dodgers’ roster is still filled with some of the best players in the sport, including a pair of top-30 hitters in the sport (Max Muncy & Chris Taylor), two top-tier starters (Clayton Kershaw & Julio Urias) and a reliever in the midst of a breakout season (Jimmy Nelson).
But fortunately for Atlanta, LA is just as banged up as they are. The Dodgers are currently missing an entire score of pitchers in Brusdar Graterol, Tommy Kahnle, Caleb Ferguson, Tony Gonsolin, Corey Knebel, and Dustin May. And the absence of MVP candidate Corey Seager has probably been felt even more than those six names above. As the Braves are plenty aware, it’s tough to win when you’re forced to routinely start your third- and fourth-string player at a given position.
So can the Braves take advantage of a battered and bruised Dodgers club this weekend? I sure do hope so. Losing two of three against the Nationals in the team’s last series cut yet another nearly 2 ½ percentage points from Atlanta’s playoff odds (24.5% down to 22.2%), according to FanGraphs, currently giving the Braves the worst odds among National League contenders. It’s now or never for this team.
Anyways, here’s a preview of this weekend’s starting pitching matchups…
All times are ET
Game 1: Friday @ 7:20 PM / Bally Sports South
Julio Urias, LHP vs. Ian Anderson, RHP
I mentioned his name above, and though he’s coming off a terrible outing versus the Giants last Saturday, LA’s 24-year-old lefty Julio Urias is in the process of posting a career season. The 6-foot southpaw has found success with his secondaries in 2021 as both his curveball and changeup have held opposing batters to a combined .178 AVG and has generated a 34.9% whiff-rate. The game plan for Atlanta should certainly be to attack Urias’ fastball, a pitch that so far has resulted in 13 of the 17 XBH he’s allowed this season. This is a good opportunity for the Braves’ lineup to improve its results versus the heater, an offering the team currently ranks just 12th against, per FanGraphs Pitch Values.
Atlanta made the right decision to push back Ian Anderson’s start this week as he was originally slated to face Washington in Thursday’s series finale but instead will open the LA series on Friday. Despite a rough go of it last time out against the Mets, an outing that featured two homers by New York’s offense (the first time the 23-year-old righty had allowed multiple long balls in a start since way back on April 10), Anderson has a chance to set the tone for the Braves rotation this weekend with a strong performance in Game 1.
Game 2: Saturday @ 7:15 PM / FOX
Clayton Kershaw, LHP vs. Charlie Morton, RHP
At 33 years young, and with over 2,400 innings on that left arm, Clayton Kershaw is pitching like it’s 2015 as he’s currently tied for the eighth-most WAR (1.8) among all big league starters, and contrary to seasons prior, he’s dominating opposing lineups with just three pitches instead of four. So far in 2021, Kershaw has scrapped his changeup completely (after throwing it just a few times last season), which has coincided with an uptick in his slider usage. The adjustment has paid massive dividends as Kershaw’s slide piece is generating whiffs at a 42.9% clip — his highest rate since 2017. Atlanta has struggled versus the slider this season, so let’s hope the Braves lineup can somehow get Kershaw out of there quickly.
You could perhaps divide the first two months of Charlie Morton’s 2021 season into almost perfect halves. In his first six starts with the Braves, the 37-year-old righty mostly struggled with consistency on his way to a 5.08 ERA. But in his last five outings, he has been sharper, resulting in a 3.09 ERA. It’s those last three starts, though, that really stand out and create confidence, for Morton has allowed just five runs in his last 18 innings (good for a 2.50 ERA) and appears to have found a groove. Going up against an opponent as dangerous as LA, he’ll need to be as good or even better this Saturday night.
Game 3: Sunday @ 1:20 PM / Bally Sports Southeast
Trevor Bauer, RHP vs. Max Fried, LHP
This series definitely won’t disappoint in terms of pitching matchups. The always interesting Trevor Bauer actually hasn’t been his ultra-dominant self recently, allowing a combined five runs — all home runs — in his last two starts to go with only eight strikeouts spanning 12 ⅔ innings against St. Louis and Houston. Of course, that doesn’t mean Bauer’s guaranteed to struggle versus the Braves this coming Sunday. This is still a guy that wields six different pitches and is currently generating whiff-rates above 25% with all of them except for one. Although some red flags, Bauer enters Sunday’s start in Atlanta with a 43.6% hard-hit rate and a 10.5% barrel-rate, both of which are career-highs for him.
It’s so weird seeing a 5+ ERA next to Max Fried’s name. But even worse, after four May outings in which he didn’t allow more than a run in any of them (featuring strong performances against hot teams like the Blue Jays and the Mets), and seemed to be on his way back to 2020’s version of Max Fried, the 27-year-old lefty was roughed up this past Tuesday versus Washington, surrendering five runs in just 3 ⅔ innings. On the bright side, Fried’s peripherals look fine, and if he’s capable of stringing together an entire month’s worth of excellent outings (as he did in May), he should be able to do it again. The Braves really need The Good Fried back this weekend.