The Los Angeles Dodgers' bid to end a string of agonizing playoff losses and capture their first World Series title in 32 years is going to hinge on ace Clayton Kershaw being at his best.
The 32-year-old Texan has been pegged as one of the greatest pitchers of his generation, but a bust in the playoffs.
Kershaw answered his critics on Thursday night with a superb performance in the Dodgers' wild card series clinching win over the Milwaukee Brewers, striking out a career playoff high 13 batters in a 3-0 shutout victory.
It is that kind of repeat gem that the top-seeded Dodgers are going to need from Kershaw if they are beat the explosive San Diego Padres in the National League Divisional series on neutral turf in Arlington, Texas.
"I am hopeful that some of the things that I have done -- because I have kind of been beat up in the past -- has helped me. Has prepared me to maintain what I've got going right now," Kershaw said.
"There's a lot of different things that have contributed to (my success)... I'm pretty confident that it will stay for a while."
The Padres enter the best-of-five division series between the two best teams in the National League during the regular season after knocking off the St. Louis Cardinals in three games, while the Dodgers disposed of the Brewers in just two games.
Because of the Covid-19 pandemic, MLB changed the format for 2020, switching to an abbreviated 60-game season followed by an expanded 16-team playoffs.
Organizers announced earlier this week they are allowing some 11,500 fans to attend NLCS and World Series games at Globe Life Field, the new home of the Texas Rangers.
The Dodgers have been eliminated by the team that won the World Series each of the past four years.
- Sign-stealing scandal -
For the third time in four years, the Dodgers headed into the postseason boasting the best regular season record in the National League and armed with high hopes of winning a first Fall Classic since 1988.
But the championship has remained elusive, compounded by a series of agonizing losses, like in 2019 when they lost 7-3 at home to the Washington Nationals after blowing a 3-1 lead heading into the eighth inning.
That game was notable for another in a series of disappointing outings for pitcher Kershaw and it added to his reputation as being a regular season marvel but a postseason choker.
The Padres are in the National League Divisional Series for the first time since they last reached the playoffs in 2006.
They haven't played in the MLB quarter-finals since advancing to the World Series in 1998. They're one of six major league franchises yet to win a World Series.
The other NLDS series features the sixth-seeded Miami Marlins battling the second-seeded Atlanta Braves.
In the American League, the top-seeded Tampa Bay Rays face the New York Yankees with the first game Monday in San Diego, and the Houston Astros square off against the Oakland A's at Dodger Stadium on Tuesday.
The Astros were found guilty of cheating in a sign-stealing scandal that tarnished their World Series victory from three years ago.
A's pitcher Mike Fiers will be going against his old Houston team. Fiers is the whistleblower who exposed the Astros cheating scheme used to beat the Dodgers in seven games.
Runners up to Washington last year, Houston swept the Minnesota Twins in two games in the wild card series.