The Hitters and Pitchers To Watch During the NLCS

Most of the breathless hype will be thrown by way of the American League Championship Series. And there are plenty of legitimate reasons for that, with the historic number of combined wins between the 108-win Boston Red Sox and the 103-win, defending champion Houston Astros at the top of the list. (Although, can we be real for a second? The AL was incredibly top heavy this season with some historically terrible teams to beat up on. Winning 100 games is still impressive, but you should win that many if you played five teams that lost between 95 and 115 games.)

But the National League Championship Series might be a lot more fun. Both the defending NL champion Los Angeles Dodgers and the NL Central-winning Milwaukee Brewers can rake, providing major tests for their pitching staffs. That said, each team also possess some talents in the bullpen, making for some heavily scrutinized late inning managing for both Dave Roberts and Craig Counsell.

Picking one hitter and one pitcher to pay close attention to is honestly a fool’s errand – one this Scribe will gladly take. Here are the four guys that we may be talking a good bit about, for better or worse.

Christian Yelich

The Brewers have won 11 straight games to not only win the NL Central, but to take home field advantage through the Senior Circuit side of the postseason bracket. Much of this has been on the bat of the ‘Bonds-ian’ like tear of possible NL MVP Christian Yelich. (Somewhere in the Marlins’ “home office” in the British Virgin Islands, Derek Jeter is still telling himself that it was good to trade him out of town.)

In reading this, it’s time to dust off those not-so-accurate stories of how poorly Clayton Kershaw pitches in the playoffs because Yelich has done quite well against the future Hall of Fame pitcher. The Brewers’ left fielder hit .667 in six at-bats against Kershaw this season with four hits (two home runs and a double). Yet Yelich has feasted well off of all Los Angeles’ pitching that the Brew Crew has seen in 2018 with thirteen hits, a .433 batting average, .837 SLG and 1.267 OPS.

Yelich’s amazing season has been well-chronicled elsewhere, but with a few days rest after sweeping the Colorado Rockies, will that bat still be as potent against the defending NL champions? Odds are that it will be, so don’t be shocked if the likely MVP goes off again.

Gio Gonzalez

Apparently, all he needed to do to find his old form was to get out of Nationals Park. While Gonzalez’s full season numbers show a steep decline from his near All-Star campaign a year ago, his first five starts for Wisconsin’s squad confirmed how sneaky good the trade deadline deal was.

Gonzalez posted a 3-0 record, a 2.13 ERA, a .157 opposing batting average and a very pretty .95 WHIP. In fact, his advanced metrics have improved across the board since the trade, giving Milwaukee’s starting staff a much-needed shot in the arm in its pennant chase.

The veteran gets the Game 1 nod, but he hasn’t faced the Dodgers this season. As a pitcher who wants players chasing low and away, Gonzalez will prefer to have chess matches with Justin Turner, Yasiel Puig, Max Muncy and the revived Matt Kemp. Good luck with that, homie.

Manny Machado

The moment many have been waiting for came to fruition during the Dodgers’ Game 4 Division Series clincher over the Atlanta Braves.

So now that it’s happened, you’d expect that to carry over into a tough series against the NL’s top team, right? Well, maybe.

As this postseason’s free agent fixation, Machado could be pressing twice as hard as anyone else. Not only is he trying to show and prove in a walk year – and he had an incredible season with Baltimore before the trade to L.A. – but he’s also getting his first serious playoff burn in six years. The Dodgers present what could be his best shot at playing in a World Series, even if he bolts for the cash in another destination.

Machado has had good games against the Brew Crew since coming to California, including drawing six walks to go along with a .313 batting average and ten hits. He’s even done well against the aforementioned Gonzalez when both were back east with Baltimore and Washington. Yet, if Machado can’t completely sort himself out against Milwaukee’s unspectacular starters, the bullpen will make the next week a nightmare for the pending free agent.

Walker Buehler

Buehler may not be the Dodgers’ ace, per se, but he has been the team’s top hurler all season with Kershaw’s multiple disabled list stints and his own excellence in 2018. Hyun-Jin Ryu, Rich Hill and Kershaw round out the Dodgers’ playoff rotation, but Los Angeles’ best chance to get back to the World Series could rest on the 24-year-old rookie.

In Game 3 of the NLDS against Atlanta, Buehler gave the Dodgers five innings of the good, the bad and the ugly: seven strikeouts and just two hits, but three walks and five earned runs. Those strikeouts versus hits look great until you realize that one hit was Ronald Acuna Jr.’s grand slam that helped the Braves keep the series alive for another night. The Braves had a deeper than expected offense this season, but the Brewers right now are on another wavelength. Can Buehler let the ball dance around the strike zone against Milwaukee’s powerful lineup? The top of the Brewers’ batting order – Lorenzo Cain, Yelich, Ryan Braun and Jesus Aguilar – is a hell of a second exam for a rookie pitcher, one that he’ll have to take at least twice in what should be a long series.

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