ATLANTA — With his Cincinnati Reds preparing to face the Atlanta Braves in a National League wild-card playoff series, Trevor Bauer was asked Monday to compare the challenges of pitching to Freddie Freeman and Marcell Ozuna, both of them NL MVP candidates.
The 29-year-old right-hander just shrugged. And then, at least verbally, he threw his first pitch two full days before the best-of-three series was to begin.
It was high and tight.
"I don't know," said Bauer, who led the NL in ERA this season at 1.73. "They're all tough outs. We can talk about that after we win the series."
Freeman, Ozuna, Ronald Acuña Jr. and others have given the Braves, the three-time reigning NL East Division champions, one of the most powerful lineups in Major League Baseball this year.
Bauer, Luis Castillo and Sonny Gray form a powerful rotation to challenge the Atlanta bats in a series that will be played at Truist Park starting Wednesday.
"What a great matchup," Reds manager David Bell said Tuesday. "I can speak for our guys. Clearly we know what we're up against and we know what we're facing."
The Braves have established themselves again as rulers of the East, but they have lost a record-tying 10 consecutive postseason appearances since their most recent series win in 2001. Cincinnati, the NL's No. 7 seed, is in the playoffs for the first time since 2013.
Freeman was listening — and grinning — as Bauer made his prediction for a series win.
"I like it. It's fun," the veteran first baseman said Tuesday. "If anybody didn't think they would win the series on either side, they shouldn't be here. It's all in fun. We're all having a good time. We're just excited to play tomorrow."
Freeman is especially excited to be healthy for the postseason. An elbow injury hurt his swing in last year's NL Division Series against St. Louis, which the Cardinals won by routing the Braves in Game 5.
After recovering from a serious case of COVID-19 that left him battling high temperatures and sidelined for part of the preseason summer camp, Freeman hit .341 with 13 homers and 53 RBIs during the 60-game regular season.
After manager Brian Snitker moved Freeman to the No. 2 spot in the lineup, behind Acuña and ahead of Ozuna, the offense gained momentum. The Braves scored 348 runs, only one behind the Los Angeles Dodgers for the most in the majors. They also finished second to the Dodgers with 103 home runs.
"This offense from top to bottom, it's just incredibly tough to navigate," Freeman said. "They're going to have to be on their A-game with each single pitch to each hitter, because each hitter can take you deep and we can beat you in so many different ways."
The Reds ranked seventh in the majors with their 3.84 ERA.
Bauer is a Cy Young Award candidate after leading the NL in not only ERA but with shutouts (two) and opponents' batting average (.159). He ranked second in strikeouts and was named the NL pitcher of the month for September, when he had a 1.29 ERA in five starts.
Pitching on three days of rest, Bauer beat the Milwaukee Brewers 6-1 last week in a key game for the Reds' wild-card surge.
The Reds ranked last in MLB with their .212 batting average, but they were seventh with 90 homers, only 13 fewer than the Braves.
"We haven't hit a lot of singles," Bell said. "We've hit for power and hit homers."
The Braves' big question is their makeshift rotation, which lost ace Mike Soroka to a torn Achilles' tendon and had to find other options when Mike Foltynewicz and Sean Newcomb were unable to hold down their spots.
In the opener, Bauer will face left-hander Max Fried (7-0, 2.25), who has appeared in a combined eight postseason games the past two years, with all of those appearances out of the bullpen. The Braves were relieved when Fried threw off the mound without problems Sunday after turning his ankle in his most recent start.
Snitker said Acuña, who was scratched from Sunday's regular-season finale because of irritation in his left wrist, also is "fine." Right-hander Chris Martin (groin) is expected to be available in relief.
Both managers were waiting until Wednesday to announce rosters and starting lineups. The Braves may add third baseman Pablo Sandoval to their bench; he was recalled before Sunday's game against the Boston Red Sox.
Atlanta's regular third baseman, Austin Riley, sat out the final two regular-season games with a sore quadriceps. Snitker said Riley would start but added: "I don't know that he'll be completely 100%."