2021 NLDS: 3 key players for Braves against Brewers

Braves shortstop Dansby Swanson (7) hits an RBI triple to score Atlanta Braves catcher Travis d'Arnaud (16) in the 4th inning Thursday, Sept. 30, 2021, at Truist Park in Atlanta. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)
Caption
Braves shortstop Dansby Swanson (7) hits an RBI triple to score Atlanta Braves catcher Travis d'Arnaud (16) in the 4th inning Thursday, Sept. 30, 2021, at Truist Park in Atlanta. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

The Braves (88-73) open the best-of-five National League Division Series in Milwaukee on Friday, where they’ll oppose the Brewers (95-67).

Playoff bracket

Three key players for the Braves to upset the Brewers and advance to the NL Championship Series for the second consecutive October:

Shortstop Dansby Swanson

Swanson’s career has been inconsistent, but one consistent aspect of it has been his propensity for producing in important spots. The Braves should expect first baseman Freddie Freeman, second baseman Ozzie Albies and third baseman Austin Riley to be difference makers. They know outfielders Jorge Soler and Adam Duvall can change the game with one swing.

But Swanson is a wild card. He just finished the best season of his career, launching 27 home runs and knocking in 88 runs. His September was a flop before he caught fire late, going 8-for-19 (.421) with two doubles, a homer and five RBIs in the Braves’ last six games that mattered. Swanson had two hits, including an RBI double, in the NL East-clinching win over the Phillies.

The Braves will need the bottom of their lineup to feed the top against the Brewers’ elite pitching. Swanson’s performance is pivotal from that standpoint.

Closer Will Smith

Some fans reading this have shuttered. This one is obvious: The Braves need their closer to close. The Brewers are a well-rounded, fundamentally sound team led by their pitching. If the Braves advance, it probably won’t involved multiple blow-out wins. They’ll have to finish tight contests.

That’s where Smith comes in, obviously. He appeared in 12 games over September, converting eight of 10 save chances. Only five of his appearances were clean innings, including a perfect ninth in the East-securing victory.

While the bottom-line numbers read well, Smith isn’t a lock-down closer. He’s managed traffic in a high number of appearances, even during the crucial September stretch. Smith needs to avoid walks – he walked the bases loaded against the Padres Sept. 26 and walked two in his next appearance. He’s done a better job keeping the ball inside the park recently, giving up one homer in September. His team can’t afford any miscues from here on out.

Caption
Braves starting pitcher Ian Anderson (36) delivers a pitch against Philadelphia Phillies in the first inning Thursday, Sept. 30, 2021, at Truist Park in Atlanta. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Braves starting pitcher Ian Anderson (36) delivers a pitch against Philadelphia Phillies in the first inning Thursday, Sept. 30, 2021, at Truist Park in Atlanta. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)
Caption
Braves starting pitcher Ian Anderson (36) delivers a pitch against Philadelphia Phillies in the first inning Thursday, Sept. 30, 2021, at Truist Park in Atlanta. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Starter Ian Anderson

The Braves know what to expect from Charlie Morton and Max Fried, who will start the first two games, respectively. Anderson is less certain, though a stellar Game 3 start from the 23-year-old could swing the series.

Anderson has a 3.62 ERA in six starts since returning from a six-week absence due to shoulder inflammation. He had an up-and-down September but finished strong, allowing three runs on five hits over his last two starts (13 innings, 2.08 ERA). The youngster logged seven and six innings, respectively, in his last two starts, showing he’s further distanced from the injury.

The October stage won’t be a concern for Anderson, who had a superb postseason debut a year ago. Anderson had a 0.96 ERA over four playoff starts, helping the Braves come within a few innings of a World Series berth. He’s only been a major leaguer for roughly 14 months, but Anderson has now started an NLCS Game 7 and division-clinching victory for the Braves.

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