Well, excuse the San Diego Padres and Philadelphia Phillies for crashing the party.
The 101-win Mets, with a rotation featuring Max Scherzer and Jacob deGrom and their most wins in a regular season since 1986? Gone from these MLB playoffs.
The 101-win Braves, trying to defend their World Series championship with a better, deeper team than last season? Gone in a blitz of Phillies power.
The all-powerful, almighty Dodgers, winners of 111 games, the most in the National League since 1906? Gone in a blitz of blistering Padres fastballs.
The first season with six playoff teams in the National League proved to be as chaotic as a system like this can allow it to be. Maybe you love it. Maybe you loathe it. (Dodgers fans definitely loathe it.) Padres and Phillies fans will take it, though, as their teams meet in the most improbable matchup in National League Championship Series history. That’s not an exaggeration — this is the first NLCS between two teams with fewer than 90 wins. But it’s not lacking in star power, not with Bryce Harper and Aaron Nola and Manny Machado and Juan Soto.
Also of note: The condensed playoff schedule means the best-of-seven series will be played over eight days rather than the usual nine, with an off day after only Game 2. That will put a little added pressure on the pitching staffs and perhaps force the managers to dig a little deeper than usual into their starting rotations.
Ahead of Game 1, David Schoenfield takes a look at each team and our ESPN experts make their picks.
Why they can move on: Their offense took it to the Braves, scoring seven, nine and eight runs in their three victories. In a postseason where generating offense has been difficult to impossible, the Phillies have put together big innings: six runs in the ninth inning to pull out Game 1 of the wild-card series against the St. Louis Cardinals and six runs in the third inning of Game 3 of the division series against the Braves, plus three other three-run innings. Of their six home runs, three have come with runners on base, including three-run homers from Rhys Hoskins and Brandon Marsh against Atlanta. Keep hitting those and you might see more bat slams.
Why they might not: The bullpen is still a work in progress for manager Rob Thomson. Zach Eflin, who didn’t start relieving until September and picked up his first career save late in the season, had first crack at ninth-inning duties and allowed seven hits and four runs in three innings. Luckily, the Phillies’ leads were big enough that it didn’t matter, and he did close out a 2-0 victory over the Cardinals cleanly. But in the clinching game against the Braves, Eflin was the setup guy to Seranthony Dominguez. Meanwhile, Jose Alvarado, who allowed just two home runs in the regular season, has served up two in the postseason.
Who’s hot: In 35 games after returning from the injured list in late August, Bryce Harper hit just .227/.335/.352 with three home runs. But he has three home runs and three doubles in six playoff games, including two blasts of more than 400 feet. A locked-in Harper is a beautiful sight for Phillies fans.
Who’s not: Kyle Schwarber, who led the NL with 46 home runs, is 1-for-20 with eight strikeouts in the postseason, and two of his three walks have been intentional.
How’s the defense? Still bad. Nick Castellanos made a diving catch in right field in the bottom of the ninth to help preserve a 7-6 victory in Game 1 against the Braves, but he and Schwarber remain big liabilities in the outfield corners — Castellanos is in the second percentile in Statcast’s outs above average and Schwarber is in the first. Alec Bohm is a problem at third base, and in the Phils’ only loss so far, Game 2 to the Braves, Hoskins butchered a ground ball that led to a couple of runs.
Final thought: Eliminating the Braves in four games puts the Philadelphia rotation back in order: Zack Wheeler will be ready to start Game 1, Aaron Nola on full rest for Game 2 and then Ranger Suarez for Game 3. But with the possibility of seven games in eight days, that means digging into the No. 4 (Noah Syndergaard) and probably the No. 5 (likely Bailey Falter) starters, which will further stress the thin bullpen. With an off day after Game 2, Wheeler would be lined up to go in Game 5, but Nola wouldn’t be on full rest until Game 7. If the series does go seven, though — the Phillies will like their chances with Nola. — Schoenfield
San Diego Padres
Why they can move on: Postseason success has become more and more about finding the hot bullpen — and manager Bob Melvin might have found it at exactly the right time. Robert Suarez, the 31-year-old rookie who spent his career in Mexico and Japan before signing with the Padres, has tossed six scoreless innings in the postseason, topping out at 101.5 mph. Veteran Luis Garcia has hit 101 mph in the postseason. Tim Hill can be a tough matchup for left-handed hitters. Most importantly, closer Josh Hader has rediscovered his mojo after a few horrific blowups earlier in the season with the Brewers and Padres (including a six-run outing in late August). He has allowed just one hit in 4 1/3 scoreless innings in the postseason and topped out at 100.8 mph. If you’re going to beat the Padres’ bullpen, you better be able to hit some high-octane heat.
Why they might not: You need to hit home runs to win in the postseason. So far, the Padres — who ranked just 12th in the NL in home runs in the regular season — have done that, hitting nine in seven games. But some of those have come from surprising sources, mostly notably three from Trent Grisham — a batter who hit .184 in the regular season. Juan Soto, who hit just six home runs in 52 games with the Padres, continues to search for his power stroke.
Who’s hot: Joe Musgrove and his ears. Red hot, to be precise. Musgrove made the All-Star team after a dominant first half in which he allowed a .205 average and .595 OPS, before batters hit .254 with a .758 OPS against him in the second half. He dominated the Mets with one hit — and one ear check — over seven scoreless innings in the wild-card series and then held the Dodgers to two runs in six innings in the division series.
Who’s not: The Padres’ rotation thins out after Yu Darvish, Musgrove and Blake Snell. Mike Clevinger drew the ball against the Dodgers in Game 1 and got knocked out in the third inning — this after a 6.52 ERA in September. Sean Manaea might get the next opportunity to start over Clevinger and then Melvin might have to rely heavily on his bullpen. Nick Martinez, a part-time starter during the season, can go multiple innings and might play a key role in the middle games of this series.
How’s the defense? Manny Machado has had an excellent postseason with a couple of home runs and vacuum cleaner defense at third base. Ha-Seong Kim is an underrated shortstop, and Grisham is arguably the best center fielder in the majors right now (99th percentile in outs above average). The big liability is Soto, who is a terrible right fielder — bad reads, below-average speed and seemingly indifferent to playing well out there. He does have a decent arm, but the defensive metrics (first percentile in outs above average) support the eye test. The Padres hope the ball doesn’t find him in key moments.
Final thought: The Padres’ master plan to dethrone the Dodgers didn’t materialize in the regular season — the Dodgers not only beat them by 22 games but won all six series. But the Padres won the one that counts the most and will now actually get home-field advantage in the NLCS over the Phillies. If the fans bring the same energy and noise they brought against the Dodgers, that’s a small factor in their favor. The bullpen is clicking on all cylinders and the top three starters are pitching well. This series could come down to pitching depth, and the Padres have the advantage there over the Phillies. — Schoenfield
Who will win?
Padres (7 votes), Phillies (5)
Tristan Cockcroft: Phillies in 6
The one thing we’ll all be talking about during this series: Either Austin Nola taking brother Aaron deep in his first at-bat in Game 2, or whether the Padres would’ve ultimately won had Fernando Tatis Jr. been available this postseason.
Bradford Doolittle: Phillies in 6
MVP: J.T. Realmuto
The one thing we’ll all be talking about: How Phillies president of baseball operations Dave Dombrowski did it again, assembling a pennant winner with a big payroll and a roster that was incomplete but could flex its star power at the right time.
Alden Gonzalez: Padres in 6
The one thing we’ll all be talking about: How San Diego might really, truly be a baseball town.
Eric Karabell: Phillies in 6
The one thing we’ll all be talking about: Harper 1, Machado 0.
Tim Keown: Padres in 7
The one thing we’ll all be talking about: The improbable convergence of talent and cohesiveness that appeared almost out of nowhere and carried the Padres to the World Series.
Tim Kurkjian: Padres in 7
The one thing we’ll all be talking about: How the Padres — who, in early August, were supposed to be an offensive machine — won with great pitching.
Joon Lee: Padres in 7
The one thing we’ll all be talking about: The Padres’ roster depth, overcoming the suspension of Tatis Jr., and showing that getting aggressive at the trade deadline can be the difference between a wild-card exit and making the World Series.
Kiley McDaniel: Phillies in 7
The one thing we’ll all be talking about: The Dombrowski formula works again — and the 76ers/Eagles are good, too!
Buster Olney: Padres in 6
The one thing we’ll all be talking about: How owner Peter Seidler hoisted the Padres into the echelon of elite teams through his desire to win, giving the OK to expend resources to get Melvin, as well as players like Machado, Soto, Musgrove, Darvish and Hader — to name a few. Seidler changed the trajectory of the franchise.
Jeff Passan: Padres in 7
The one thing we’ll all be talking about: The last time the Padres made a World Series, nearly a quarter-century ago, where they were promptly swept by the Yankees. For this team to go all-in and make it to the Fall Classic, even without Tatis Jr., is not just a phenomenal outcome for this season but a portent of a great future.
Jesse Rogers: Phillies in 6
The one thing we’ll all be talking about: The Phillies’ starting staff — it’s as good as it comes, and even with some question marks in Philadelphia’s bullpen, the Padres won’t score much in the series.
Schoenfield: Padres in 6
The one thing we’ll all be talking about: The Padres’ bullpen. Luis Garcia, Suarez and Hader were each throwing 100 mph laser beams against the Dodgers. If the Padres are leading after six, those three will take it home.
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