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Rockies vs. Dodgers preview: Start times, starting pitchers, key players

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This is the most important series of the season

The Rockies are 0.5 game ahead of the Dodgers for first place in the NL West. Tonight, those two teams will begin a crucial three-game series that could very well decide who will win the National League West. Here’s what you need to know.

Pitching matchups

When the Dodgers visited Coors Field last week, they sent Jon Gray, Kyle Freeland, and Tyler Anderson to the mound. It resulted in a less than ideal series loss, with Freeland the only one turning in a good start that led to the Rockies lone victory in the series. Those same three starters will get the ball over the next three nights. The Rockies will need Gray and Anderson to show up for these games. Freeland has the toughest assignment, as it should be. He and Clayton Kershaw will face one another Tuesday night in a bona fide Ace Off.

Like last week’s series, the Rockies will see Kershaw and Buehler, and this time they’ll also face Hyun-Jin Ryu, who has had a good but short season. In the finale on Wednesday, the Rockies will face Walker Buehler. This will be Buehler’s fifth start against the Rockies in 2018, so Rockies hitters should be pretty familiar with him, and he with them.

Monday (8:10 MT): Jon Gray vs. Hyun-Jin Ryu

Tuesday (8:10 MT): Kyle Freeland vs. Clayton Kershaw

Wednesday (8:10 MT): Tyler Anderson vs. Walker Buehler

Key players

Nolan Arenado has picked it up over the past week, just in time to make-up for Trevor Story’s mini-slump. Story is hitting just .192/.250/.462 over the last seven days. The Rockies will need both of their MVP candidates to hit if they want to create distance between them and the Dodgers.

They should receive help from the cavalry, as most of the rest of the offense has been hitting very well lately. Charlie Blackmon has a 173 wRC+ over the last two weeks, and DJ LeMahieu’s wRC+ isn’t far behind at 162. The Rockies may be lucky to start the series with two lefties because it will give Bud Black a reason to sit Carlos González. He’s in the midst of a miserable slump, hitting .162/.184/.270 over his last 38 plate appearances. That amounts to a wRC+ of 1 (not a typo). Matt Holliday should start the first two games of the series against the southpaws.

Of course, that long look includes but does not emphasize the offense the Rockies brought to San Francisco over the past three nights. They were shutout twice, and in the 3-2 win Antonio Senzatela had two of the team’s three RBIs. Obviously, that will not be enough to beat the Dodgers.

The Dodgers have a lot of hot hitters right now. They’ll be the guys the Rockies need to shut down. Yasiel Puig in particular has been on fire lately. The way to get a wRC+ above 300 (not a typo) is to hit .393/.485/.1.071. Chris Taylor, Kiké Hernández, Cody Bellinger, and Max Muncy have also been hot lately. It’s going to be a test for the Rockies’ young starters.

That’s why the bullpen may be a significant factor as well. The Rockies core of reliable relievers has emerged lately. If Scott Oberg, Chris Rusin, Adam Ottavino, or Suenghwan Oh (if he returns) appear before the ninth inning, it means it’s a competitive game.

Scenarios

Let’s start with the extremes. If the Rockies can sweep the Dodgers, they’d be 3.5 games ahead in the NL West with 10 games to go. The final ten games will be three on the road against the Diamondbacks, four at home against the Phillies, and three at home against the Nationals. If the Rockies do sweep, that should mean they’re playing pretty well, and those final 10 games should help the Rockies on their way to their first division title.

If the Rockies get swept, they’d go from 0.5 game ahead in the division to 2.5 back. The Dodgers finish their season with nine division games: three against the Padres at home after the Rockies leave town, and three apiece on the road against the Diamondbacks and Giants. A sweep could mean the end of division hopes.

One of the two teams winning the series 2-1 is more likely. If the Rockies manage winning the series in that fashion, they’d be up 1.5 games. If the Dodgers do, the Rockies will be 0.5 game behind, and we’d more or less be in the same position at the end of the series as the beginning of it.

Prediction

Whoever wins the series, it’ll probably be a result of low scoring games either decided late or due to a lucky bounce in the second inning. But this is the most important series of the season, and the most important series the Rockies have played in September in eight years, so the only sure prediction is that there will be shredded nerves during the games and butterflies before them.