3 keys to Braves defeating Reds in wild card series

Credit: Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com

Credit: Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com

The Braves and Reds begin their best-of-three wild card series Wednesday at Truist Park. And something will have to give.

Both teams are enduring postseason droughts. The Braves, as readers are probably well aware, haven’t won a postseason series since 2001. They’ve lost 10 consecutive postseason series, including losing in the NLDS in the past two seasons.

The Reds, meanwhile, haven’t won a postseason series since 1995, when the Braves ended their run with a sweep in the NLDS. Cincinnati has lost four straight postseason series, including three since 2010. This is their first postseason berth since 2013, when they lost the wild card game against the Pirates.

Here are three keys to the Braves being the team that ends its misery:

1. Braves offense vs. Reds starters

This will be the central storyline. The Reds were a sexy preseason pick largely because Trevor Bauer, Luis Castillo and Sonny Gray headline their rotation. Bauer and Castillo, at least, will face a Braves offense that scored 348 runs and slugged 103 homers, both second most in the majors.

Bauer, specifically, has been sensational. He led the NL with a 1.73 ERA in 11 games, striking out 100 in 73 innings. He’s the likely NL Cy Young winner and will start Game 1 against Braves southpaw Max Fried.

It’s worth noting the Braves' offense will be the best group Bauer has faced. He opposed only one top-19 offense in the White Sox (he allowed two runs in seven innings). The Cubs, who were 20th in runs scored, were shut out against him in 7-2/3 innings. Bauer’s other nine starts came against the Tigers, Brewers, Royals and Pirates, all of whom were bottom seven offenses.

Castillo had a 3.21 ERA in 12 starts, striking out 89 in 70 innings. He broke out in 2019 when he struck out 226 hitters in 190-2/3 frames, earning his first All-Star appearance. Gray has a 3.70 ERA in 56 innings (11 starts) and has been revitalized during his two seasons in Cincinnati.

Bauer, Castillo, and potentially Gray will face a lineup that’s struck out 573 times, third most in the majors.

The Braves offense is at least well-tested against elite pitching. It’s faced Gerrit Cole, Jacob deGrom, Tyler Glasnow, Aaron Nola, Zack Wheeler, Sixto Sanchez, Max Scherzer and Patrick Corbin, among others.

In fact, the Braves were responsible for Cole’s worst outing, tagging him for five runs in five innings. They did the same to Scherzer, scoring six runs in 5-1/3 innings. They once scored five runs off Corbin, four off Nola in 2-2/3 and four off Sanchez in three innings. That might not mean much this week, but it’s evidence they’ve hit top-tier pitching.

If the Braves can get to the Reds bullpen, they should fare well. Cincinnati relievers have a 4.53 ERA – 17th in the majors – and notably give up 1.54 homers per nine innings, MLB’s sixth-worst rate.

Bottom line: The Reds boast an All-Star rotation, but the Braves' offense presents quite the challenge, too. How quickly the Braves can get into the Reds' bullpen might determine the series.

2. Braves starters vs. Reds offense

The Reds are not a good offensive club, and it’s fair to say their lineup has underachieved. They’re 27th in runs scored (243), 24th in on-base percentage (.312) and 30th in average (.212). They’ve overcome those deficiencies with their starting pitching and homers, where they rank seventh with 90 long balls and have scored over 61% of their runs via homers.

Fried has been a power neutralizer this season. Before giving up two homers in his last start – when he left after one inning with an ankle injury – Fried went 55-2/3 innings this season without allowing a home run, the longest streak in the majors.

The southpaw will be making his first postseason start against Bauer, though he impressed in a bullpen role last season. If Fried is fully healthy after enduring back and ankle issues this month, he should be up for the challenge against Bauer.

Ian Anderson and Kyle Wright are different stories. Anderson is expected to start Game 2, which will not only be his first postseason start but only his seventh MLB outing overall. He’s been a godsend since arriving in late August, earning a 1.95 ERA with 41 strikeouts against 14 walks.

He’s given up only one home run, which came to Luke Voit in his first start against the Yankees. He’s pitched 27 consecutive frames without surrendering a homer. It’s important that trend continues here.

It’s seemingly clicked for Wright, who’s rebounded from a poor start to finally look like the pitcher many believed he’d become. He allowed two runs, striking out 10 and walking four, over his final two outings (13 innings) against the Mets and Red Sox.

Wright has been more homer-prone than Fried and Anderson. He’s given up seven in 38 innings, including five in his past four outings since returning from a stint at the alternate training site. Wright would likely be the Braves' starter in a winner-take-all Game 3, where he could match up against fellow Vanderbilt product Gray.

The Braves' rotation is currently better than its collective 5.51 ERA. The Reds have the advantage here, but if Anderson and Wright can continue their recent work, it would give the Braves' offense a chance.

3. Timely hitting

Last October’s Game 5 shellacking overshadowed the rest of the series, but the Braves were a clutch hit away from avoiding that winner-take-all against the Cardinals. Be it a best of three, five or seven, one hit can make the difference.

The Braves went 0-for-9 with runners in scoring position in Game 4, when they lost a late lead and fell in extras. They went 1-for-11 with runners in scoring position in Game 1, which they also lost by one run. In the first four games, the Braves went a horrific 4-for-38 with runners at second and/or third.

First baseman Freddie Freeman is healthy this time around. Marcell Ozuna hasn’t cooled off, homering in Sunday’s finale and finishing with the NL lead in home runs and RBIs. Ozzie Albies has been outstanding since returning from a wrist injury. Travis d’Arnaud has been one of baseball’s best offensive catchers.

Dansby Swanson and Adam Duvall, a former Red, showed they can perform on the postseason stage last year. The Braves don’t sound concerned about the wrist irritation Ronald Acuna experienced Sunday, and he should be good for Game 1.

Offensively, the Braves seem to be in good shape. Without the benefit of foresight, if they’re held below their averages, the Reds starters should deserve the bulk of credit. But timely hitting is a key in any close series, and whatever the result of this set, those will be the moments teams look back on.