LOS ANGELES — No matter which opponent emerged from the seven-game AL Championship Series, the Los Angeles Dodgers could watch from home knowing they're sitting pretty.
On Saturday night, they found out who they'll play in the World Series — the Houston Astros are heading out West to face them.
The Dodgers earned a four-day break through their quick resolution of the NLCS, which ended Thursday in Chicago with Los Angeles' seventh win in eight playoff games. The extended breaks between their two brief playoff series have allowed the 104-win Dodgers to keep their starting rotation in order and on full rest, and to give plenty of recovery time to their dominant bullpen.
"It's crucial, not only in setting the rotation," Dodgers manager Dave Roberts said Saturday before the Astros beat the New York Yankees 4-0 in Game 7. "Knowing what goes into the (playoffs), to come back home and reset mentally and physically has been a huge benefit to us."
It might even be enough time for All-Star shortstop Corey Seager to return from the back injury that kept him out of the NLCS. Roberts said he is "very optimistic" Seager will be available for Game 1 of the World Series on Tuesday night, but the Dodgers are unlikely to make their final decision for a few days.
"I know Corey doesn't want to be denied," Roberts said.
The benefits of the Dodgers' major league-best regular season have echoed deep into October, where they're the first team to get home-field advantage in the World Series due to their superior record since baseball dropped the All-Star Game result as the determining factor.
The Dodgers opened both of their NL playoff series at home, and they've made only two round-trip plane flights this month, spending just a handful of nights away from home. They finished off both opponents on the road and hurried back to LA, playing only one game over the minimum necessary to reach the World Series and largely staying healthy, outside of Seager's injury.
"We're in good shape," Roberts said. "And fortunately, with the length of that (last) series, we didn't have to overuse our guys, and give our guys in the 'pen some recovery. On the position players side, everyone seems to be doing well."
Los Angeles also cruised into the post-season, essentially wrapping up its fifth straight NL West title in mid-September and comfortably holding off Cleveland for the majors' best record, even though the Dodgers weren't aggressively going for that goal.
Meanwhile, all three of their playoff opponents have faced the Dodgers on weary legs after being stretched to the limit.
Arizona reached the NLDS only after winning a draining wild-card game against Colorado two days earlier, which meant Diamondbacks ace Zack Greinke couldn't face LA until Game 3.
After sweeping Arizona, Los Angeles had four days off before the arrival of the Cubs, who narrowly survived an exhausting five-game NLDS with Washington. They made a 10-hour flight to the West Coast — complete with an unplanned layover in Albuquerque — with a depleted pitching staff, and the Dodgers promptly took charge of the series.
The Dodgers outscored the Cubs 28-8 overall, and Chicago couldn't score a run except on homers — one of the Los Angeles pitching staff's few weaknesses. The Dodgers' bullpen has been indomitable, posting an 0.94 playoff ERA and striking out 32 batters in 28 2/3 innings, even setting a post-season record during Game 5 at Chicago with the bullpen's 23rd consecutive scoreless inning.
Los Angeles routed Chicago even without Seager, who stayed home to rest his back. If he can return for the World Series, he adds yet another dimension to a lineup that has proven extraordinarily resourceful all season.
Seager might even be the Dodgers' logical designated hitter in the AL ballpark to rest his back, Roberts said.
"If he can swing the bat and isn't compromised physically, then that makes sense," Roberts said.
After winning the NL Rookie of the Year award in 2016, Seager led the Dodgers with 159 hits during the regular season, batting .295 with 22 homers and 77 RBIs. He went 3 for 11 with four walks and two RBIs in the division series, batting second in the lineup in all three games.
But Seager tweaked his back during a slide in Game 3 of the NL Division Series against Arizona, and Los Angeles left him off the NLCS roster in favour of Charlie Culberson, who had only 15 plate appearances for the Dodgers in the regular season while spending most of the year in Triple-A Oklahoma City, unable to crack LA's deep lineup.
Culberson improbably came through with several big plays against the Cubs, going 5 for 11 and playing strong defence.
Chris Taylor also played shortstop at Wrigley Field, and the versatile co-MVP of the NLCS made big plays of his own.
"That's not an easy thing to do, to replace Corey," Roberts said. "We're hopeful that he'll be back for Game 1, but if it doesn't go as we expect, then to have those two guys to fill in is something."
Culberson seems certain to make the Dodgers' World Series roster as insurance against another injury for Seager. If Seager is healthy, the odd position player out could be veteran outfielder Curtis Granderson, who has struggled mightily in the playoffs, going 1 for 15 with eight strikeouts.
"With Curtis, we've just got to look into the matchups and see if it makes sense," Roberts said. "We're going to go with whoever makes sense on that particular night."
More AP baseball: https://apnews.com/tag/MLBbaseball