5 keys for Braves against Marlins in NLDS

Credit: Atlanta Braves

Braves infielder Austin Riley discusses what he’s learned from Freddie Freeman’s approach to hitting ahead of NLDS meeting with Marlins.

Credit: Atlanta Braves

Whichever franchise advances will experience heights neither has reached in almost two decades. The Braves last played in the National League Championship Series in 2001; the Marlins in 2003. The Braves will be heavily favored, and understandably so, but MLB’s postseason is often littered with the unexpected.

Here are five keys to the Braves ensuring they’re the team eventually taking on the Dodgers or Padres for the National League pennant:

1. Don’t give the Marlins any hope

Over the past two years, the Braves haven’t been more tested or experienced than their postseason opponent. That somewhat changed against the Reds, though several of their players still had ample playoff experience. The Marlins are mostly a young team — not even as proven as the 2018 Braves — with no postseason experience to lean on.

This is where the Braves should have an edge. They’ve played in three postseason series in the past three years. They finally got the monkey off their back last week, winning their first playoff series in 19 years. It doesn’t hurt that they’ve dominated the Marlins in recent seasons, although Miami hung tight with a 4-6 head-to-head record in 2020.

The Braves should have almost every advantage. They’re more talented, possessing more high-end players and better depth, and more experienced. They can win games in a variety of ways, while the Marlins’ formula for an upset is clear: Keep it low-scoring, grind out at-bats and win it with a key hit or two.

The Braves have played the “nobody believes in us” card for the past two-plus seasons, but that won’t be the case this time. Unlike the Reds series, few will pick the Marlins to stun the Braves. This is the first time that manager Brian Snitker’s team will be heavy favorites in a postseason series.

One slip up could give Miami an opening. The margin for error in these playoff games, as the Braves know, is quite small. They need to keep the mental edge. Game 1 will be paramount to that end — teams who take the first game of the NLDS go on to win over 70% of the time.

2. More of the same from Max Fried and Ian Anderson

The Braves need Fried and Anderson to pitch similarly as they did against the Reds, when the duo produced 13 scoreless innings. It’s unfair to ask both to toss shutouts again, but anything close would be welcomed — perhaps even necessary.

ExploreBraves-Marlins NLDS game times

Kyle Wright will start Game 3, but if the series extends beyond that, the Braves’ rotation situation is murky. The easiest way for the Braves to take the series is winning Fried’s and Anderson’s outings. Obvious? Yes, but if the Marlins take one of the first two, they’ll have momentum toward an upset, which goes back to point No. 1.

With the rest of the rotation a question, the Braves can’t afford to squander a Fried or Anderson start.

3. Get into the Marlins’ bullpen

The Braves' bullpen will hold its own if a starter is forced out early. There’s enough evidence to feel confident there. The Marlins don’t have the same luxury: Miami relievers posted a -1.4 fWAR, the second-worst mark in baseball. Miami had a 5.50 bullpen ERA, fifth worst in MLB.

Miami’s bullpen also surrendered 1.64 homers per nine innings, which was the fourth-highest rate in baseball and a number that could loom large in this series. The Braves were second in the majors with 103 home runs.

That said, like the Braves, the Marlins are undefeated when leading after seven innings. Their cause was helped by an abundance of seven-inning doubleheaders, in which Miami went 10-4 despite only outscoring opponents 50-49. Almost one-third of Miami’s wins (31) came in doubleheaders, which were required after the team’s COVID-19 outbreak delayed its season.

Sandy Alcantara is expected to start Game 1 for the Marlins, with Pablo Lopez and Sixto Sanchez following in whichever order. It’s an impressive trio of blossoming young pitchers who know what to expect from the Braves’ offense.

The Braves have gotten the best of a couple of those starters. They were stifled by Sanchez earlier in the season, shut out over six innings, but chased him after just three frames in their last meeting.

Lopez got the best of the Braves in two of three meetings, but in the start the Braves won, they scored seven runs off Lopez in only 1-1/3 innings. In the other two starts, Lopez allowed two runs over six innings and none over five.

“I’ve really liked that guy from the first time I saw him,” Braves manager Brian Snitker said of Lopez after his Aug. 14 outing, when he allowed two runs over six innings. “He’s got a live arm. He commands his pitches well. It’s quick. That balls gets on you. That change-up is really good. He’s a nice looking pitcher. I love his delivery. He doesn’t panic, stays in himself, and the stuff is live.”

The Braves didn’t face Alcantara this season. They last opposed the right-hander Aug. 22, 2019, when Alcantara allowed one unearned run on three hits over seven innings. This season, Alcantara had a 3.00 ERA across seven starts. He pitched six or more innings in six of those appearances.

Braves designated hitter Marcell Ozuna stops on the base path to celebrate hitting a two-run homer during the 8th inning of Game 2 of the National League wild card playoff series against the Cincinnati Reds Thursday, Oct 1, 2020, at Truist Park in Atlanta. (Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@ajc.com)
Braves designated hitter Marcell Ozuna stops on the base path to celebrate hitting a two-run homer during the 8th inning of Game 2 of the National League wild card playoff series against the Cincinnati Reds Thursday, Oct 1, 2020, at Truist Park in Atlanta. (Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@ajc.com)

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

4. Flip the power switch

Two players, specifically: Marcell Ozuna and Adam Duvall were instrumental to the Braves’ offensive success in the regular season. The team was thrilled to see them break out in the eighth inning of Game 2 against the Reds, when both hit two-run homers to pad the team’s lead, but they were nonfactors prior.

Ozuna against the Reds before his homer: 0-for-8 with five strikeouts while leaving six on base. Duvall before his: 0-for-7 with six strikeouts, a walk and six stranded on base.

Both players showed during the 2019 NLDS that they can produce under postseason pressure. The Braves need them to do so against familiar Marlins pitching, because two runs in 21 innings will be too difficult to overcome this time.

The Marlins cannot keep up with the Braves in a slugfest. Even one of Ozuna or Duvall catching fire could be the difference in the series.

5. Situational baseball

The Braves were better than the Reds, but their offense was a letdown even considering the pitchers they opposed. The Braves went 1-for-14 with runners in scoring position across those two games. The only hit was Freddie Freeman’s game-winner in the 13th inning of Game 1.

Cincinnati’s offense was equally pitiful (1-for-13 with runners in scoring position), so that allowed the Braves to do just enough to take the series. The Marlins’ bats won’t threaten with the long ball like the Reds did, but their pesky style will make them more dangerous with runners at second and third.

Just like in the Reds series, timely hitting applies here. The Braves probably won’t overcome such offensive faults this time around. They need to take advantage of the opportunities they get against Marlins pitching.

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