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Jayson Stark talks Kershaw, elite bullpens, and his World Series pick

Amber Searls / USA TODAY Sports

Jayson Stark is a former national baseball columnist who has covered the sport for nearly 40 years. He spoke with theScore on the eve of the postseason:

The Washington Nationals looked terrific this season, cruising to the division title. Is this the year the Nats get past the National League Division Series?

I am going to say yes. I think this is the year the Nationals are finally going to play in a World Series, which is something no team from Washington has done since 1933, by the way. The Nationals, I think, are the most talented team in the National League, and they're the team with the fewest holes now that they've repaired that bullpen.

But I have to admit, I'm nervous about that prediction; for one thing, I'm the one who made it, so they're automatically doomed. If you've followed my postseason predictions over the year, you know my middle name is not Nostradamus. For another thing, they drew the Cubs, and it feels like the Cubs are really feeding off the idea that they're somehow a massive underdog this October, so that's ominous.

Finally, does anybody know what the Nationals are going to get out of Max Scherzer and Bryce Harper? I don't care what Scherzer's MRI showed; a power pitcher with a hamstring issue just isn't the same guy. Can they win this series if Scherzer doesn't start twice? I would say no.

I saw Harper in person last week. This is a guy in serious need of some Rustoleum. He went 3-for-18 after he came back, with no extra-base hits, and never drove a single ball the way he can. The Nationals have a lot to be concerned about, which means that Stark the Prognosticator has a lot to be concerned about.

The Nationals are feeling the pressure to win the title, but they're not the only ones. Which team is feeling the most heat?

It would have to be the Dodgers, doesn't it? The Nationals are a close second, but ... the Dodgers won 104 games, man. They're the classic World-Series-or-bust kind of team, and that's a bad place to be. They're the fifth team in the wild-card era to win 104 games, and only one of the previous four won a World Series - the 1998 Yankees.

And then there's the way the Dodgers finished the season - 23 losses in their last 38 games. And I recognize in some ways that was meaningless; they were 21 games ahead when all that started, so they definitely had their foot off the gas pedal. But I think that stretch removed that aura of invincibility they had for four-and-a-half months - especially when it applies to teams they could face.

They went 0-6 against the Diamondbacks in that stretch, and have actually lost the last eight games they've played against them. And they got swept by the Rockies in a four-game series in L.A. during that stretch. I feel like the Dodgers' areas of weakness did get exposed - specifically, the bottom of their lineup and pretty much the entire bullpen aside from Kenley Jansen.

Would it surprise anybody if the Dodgers didn't make it out of the first round? And just so you know, the last team to win 104 or more games and not win a round in October? The 1993 Braves.

Which wild-card team has the best chance of reaching the World Series?

I love the Diamondbacks, but if I were in the American League, playing the Yankees would terrify me for one reason: that bullpen!

If you fall behind against that team, you're going to lose. It's pretty much that simple. If that bullpen pitches the last four innings, how many balls are you even going to put in play? Two? Three? They have six relievers averaging at least 11.5 strikeouts per nine innings.

Which team has the most complete roster heading into the playoffs?

That's the easiest question yet. It's the Indians. Best rotation in the league, best bullpen in the league, one of the deepest, most interchangeable lineups in the league, they catch the ball all over the field, and they have the best manager in the game, I think, in Terry Francona.

If you asked me for the Indians' biggest worry, I bet all I could come up with is October. Crazy stuff happens in short series all the time, so I guess it could happen to them. But the Indians are the best team in the sport. They got to Game 7 of the World Series last year and they're better this year. This should be their year.

The Indians have the best bullpen in the playoffs, for sure - but is there a team that comes close?

If the Yankees win the wild-card game, how about that battle of the bullpens we would see in a Yankees-Indians ALDS?

The Yankees' bullpen wins the swing-and-miss competition, but the Indians have so much depth and so many different looks. It feels like they have the right guy for every possible situation. And one thing to keep in mind is, they're fresher. They pitched the fewest innings of any bullpen in the league, and they threw 50 fewer innings than the Yankees' bullpen.

In October, the freshest bullpen is often the best bullpen, but in this case, it's pretty much a coin flip. I don't know who I'd take.

The Dodgers' hopes rest on the left shoulder of ace Clayton Kershaw. Given his spotty postseason history, should L.A. fans be concerned?

I would actually be more worried about his health than his history. When he came back, his last five starts, the league hit .306 against him, slugged almost .500 against him, and had an OPS over .800. And if you watch those starts, he hit the wall regularly in the fifth or sixth inning. I worry about pitchers with bad backs, and Clayton Kershaw is no exception.

If you look at the Dodgers' rotation, It's hard to count on a lot of innings from any of their guys. And then I mentioned their bullpen earlier - if their bullpen other than Jansen has to pitch a ton of innings, I think they get exposed.

Has he been Mr. October? Obviously not. He has a 4.50 postseason ERA, and that's shocking. But let's break that down, because I've seen a lot of those starts. Let's throw out 2008 and 2009; he wasn't Clayton Kershaw yet. From 2013 on, the opponent average against Kershaw in the postseason is .220. The opponent OPS is .604. He has 93 strikeouts in 72 1/3 innings.

Most of his meltdowns have come against one team: The St. Louis Cardinals. He has a 7.00 ERA in the four starts against the Cardinals; the ERA against everybody else is barely over 3.00. So one of these years, Clayton Kershaw is going to have one of those Madison Bumgarner-type Octobers, I'm convinced of it. I'm just not sure if he's healthy enough to do that this year.

Lastly, let's hear your World Series prediction.

I love the Indians, and I already said I'm picking the Nationals to get there in the National League. So I'm going with the Indians over the Nationals in six. One more curse bites the dust, man!

(Photos courtesy: Action Images)

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