ARLINGTON, Texas — Get used to this. The Los Angeles Dodgers and Atlanta Braves, who will play a winner-take-all Game 7 on Sunday for the privilege of moving on to the World Series, are bound to be here again. It may not be next year, or the year after, or even the year after that, which illustrates simultaneously the variance of baseball and the excellence inherent in both teams, who are stacked enough to glance three years down the road and still peacock about their chances of success.
This much has been apparent in the National League Championship Series, which hasn’t necessarily been a series for the history books. The Dodgers’ 3-1 victory over the Braves on Saturday at Globe Life Field to even the series was the closest thing this NLCS has offered to a tight game. In each one, though, were glimpses of what makes these teams so good and why return engagements, however difficult they may be, should be expected.
Whether that translates into a Game 7 to remember is impossible to predict. Game 7s are rare gifts to savor, and the fact that baseball is offering its minions two of them in a two-day span should make even the most opener-fearing, strikeout-loathing, analytics-hating buzzkill giddy.
This one will determine the World Series opponent of the Tampa Bay Rays, who evaded a historic collapse in the American League Championship Series and vanquished the Houston Astros in their Game 7 on Saturday night. Whichever team represents the NL, this will be a matchup of master organization-building, of premium player development — a showdown between teams operating in ways that draw envy from around the game.
The Dodgers are here, and will remain in this stratum, for myriad reasons. They draft and develop players better than any organization. They spend more money than anyone. They balance the primal desire to chase championships with the necessary discipline to build sustainability. The Dodgers are everybody’s worst nightmare: smart, talented, rich, patient, hungry.
Even still, the playoffs — and these playoffs in particular, with no days off — demand more than the Dodgers have to walk into Game 7 self-assured. Their starting pitcher is … well, manager Dave Roberts said he’s not sure, which is probably not true, because the moment Game 6 ended the Dodgers knew exactly what they had at their disposal. They could go with Tony Gonsolin, the rookie who got knocked around in Game 2, or with Julio Urias, their Game 3 starter who also could be a fireman in the late innings, or with Brusdar Graterol, their 100 mph-sinkerballing right-hander who would be just as valuable in late innings. Clayton Kershaw, their erstwhile ace, who would be working on two days’ rest? Probably not, but he’ll be in the bullpen, like he was during Game 6, ready to go.
“We are not done,” Dodgers third baseman Justin Turner said. “We still got a lot to accomplish. We got a big one [Sunday]. We are going to get prepared and come in and fight for every pitch and find a way to win a ballgame.”
The Braves are not as fat-pocketed as the Dodgers, and their development pipeline isn’t bursting with quite as much talent, and yet what’s on their big league roster is intimidating. It’s Ronald Acuna Jr. and Ozzie Albies, signed for cheap, decadelong contracts. It’s Cristian Pache roaming center field with the speed, precision and agility of a drone. It’s Mike Soroka, when he returns from his torn Achilles, and it’s Max Fried, and it’s Ian Anderson, who came into these playoffs with six career starts, still hasn’t given up a run in them and will take the ball for Game 7.
“I have 100% confidence in Ian Anderson,” Fried said. “He is as prepared and as smart as they come. You wouldn’t know it was his rookie year by the way he handles himself, his poise and how he conducts his business.”
Anderson’s last win-or-go-home game, he said, was in high school, which for the 22-year-old wasn’t particularly long ago. He exudes calmness and poise, and his Game 2 outing was uncharacteristically short and wild, which is what made him throwing four shutout innings so impressive.
Quick hooks are de rigueur in Game 7s, as Tampa Bay’s Kevin Cash and Houston’s Dusty Baker demonstrated in the ALCS, so Anderson and TBD stamping their names in the history books as the hero of the NLCS may not be in the cards. If modern baseball dogma takes over, and it probably will, the game will be determined by an interconnected group of three: the offenses, the bullpens and the managers.
Roberts and his counterpart, Brian Snitker, are not regarded as the same sort of chess player in the dugout that Tampa Bay’s Kevin Cash is. It’s hard not to see Game 7 on Sunday through that lens, comparing everything each team does with Tampa Bay — the decisions it makes, how it matches up, what a showdown might look like.
Ronald Acuna lines a double down the right-field line scoring Nick Markakis to give the Braves their first run of the game.
The Rays are the Aldi to the Dodgers’ Whole Foods. Take away Los Angeles’ ability to pay large sums of money and the organizations are very similar, which is no surprise, seeing as the person who runs the Dodgers’ baseball operations, Andrew Friedman, previously was in charge in Tampa Bay. The Rays share ideals with the Braves, too, who are seen as an old-school franchise but have made it to Game 7 of the NLCS leaning heavily on just two starting pitchers, which for a time was as Rays as it gets.
Tampa Bay can give itself 24 hours to party before it tries to figure out how its home run-dependent offense will counteract Globe Life playing like a never-ending warehouse. The Rays have scored an unthinkable 72% of their runs this postseason on home runs, and if those do wind up being fewer and farther between, the Rays will need otherworldly pitching against one of arguably the two most dangerous lineups in baseball or to figure out an entirely new offensive strategy on the fly.
Then again, great teams adjust. It’s what the Braves did early in this series when next to nobody gave them a chance against Los Angeles. It’s what the Dodgers did when Atlanta went up 3-1. And it’s what the World Series winner, whether it’s the Rays or Dodgers or Braves, will do next week.
For now, they are just glad they’re here. Because when some jabroni says “Get used to this,” a skeptic can say: Cubs. And it’s true: Starting in 2016, the Cubs were supposed to be at the beginning of a half-decade-long window of supremacy. It never materialized. And in the NL, the San Diego Padres certainly will have something to say about an annual Dodgers-Braves showdown. As will the Steve Cohen-owned New York Mets, who may Xerox the Dodgers’ modus operandi and give it some East Coast flavor.
Until then, we have this Game 7. Whatever the sport, whenever the moment, Game 7 means something more, even if Snitker said he’s going to treat it like any other game. He won’t, because it’s not. It is, Roberts said correctly, “What you live for.” And for the many great matchups to come, the many years these teams are primed to be relevant, right now all they’re living for is to make sure they have a tomorrow.