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Friday October 18th, 2019 5:51AM

LEADING OFF: Nats-Dodgers and Cards-Braves set for Game 5

By The Associated Press
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A look at what's happening around the majors Wednesday:

NOW OR NEVER

A pair of winner-take-all Game 5s will decide the two NL Division Series.

First, the Atlanta Braves host the St. Louis Cardinals at 5:02 p.m. EDT. Then, it's the Washington Nationals at the Los Angeles Dodgers beginning at 8:37 p.m. The winners meet in the best-of-seven NL Championship Series starting Friday.

ARMS RACE

A star-studded series loaded with outstanding pitchers comes to a dramatic conclusion at Dodger Stadium. Stephen Strasburg starts for the wild-card Washington Nationals against Los Angeles right-hander Walker Buehler.

The league-best Dodgers were 59-22 at home during the regular season, when they drew more than 3 million fans.

"Very confident we're going to come out of this and move on," manager Dave Roberts said Tuesday.

The Dodgers are trying to reach the NLCS for the fourth consecutive year, while the Nationals have never won a playoff series since the franchise moved from Montreal to Washington in 2005. They've been eliminated from the NLDS four times over the past eight years and are 0-3 in Game 5s — all at home.

Each starter already had a fantastic outing to earn a win in the series: Buehler gave up one hit while tossing six scoreless innings in Game 1; Strasburg struck out 10 and allowed one run over six innings in Game 2.

That dropped Strasburg's postseason ERA to 0.64, the lowest for anyone with at least four career starts.

Another thing to keep an eye on: The Dodgers will have three-time Cy Young Award winner Clayton Kershaw available in relief on full rest. Three years ago, when LA eliminated Washington in the NLDS, Kershaw came out of the bullpen in Game 5 to earn the first save of his career.

HAUNTED HISTORY

The other NL Division Series gets settled in Atlanta — not necessarily a good omen for the home team. Over the years, the city has been the place where opponents come to celebrate in October, and St. Louis certainly hopes to continue that trend.

Atlanta has lost nine straight postseason rounds starting with a five-game setback to Arizona in the 2001 NLCS. The Braves are one series loss from equaling an ignominious record set by the Chicago Cubs, who dropped 10 postseason rounds in a row between 1908 and 2003.

"History is history. We're in the moment now. This is a completely different and new team," Atlanta shortstop Dansby Swanson said with a shrug.

The pitching matchup will be a rematch of Game 2, when Atlanta's Mike Foltynewicz outdueled Jack Flaherty of the Cardinals for a 3-0 victory.

Nine visiting teams eliminated the Braves at their previous ballpark, Turner Field — with the Cardinals doing it twice. The move to SunTrust Park in 2017 didn't change Atlanta's fortunes. Last season, the Braves were closed out at home by the Dodgers in Game 4 of the NLDS.

NOT DONE YET

The Rays and Astros prepare for a win-or-go-home Game 5 in their AL Division Series on Thursday night at Houston. Tampa Bay avoided elimination again Tuesday with its second victory in two days over one of baseball's best pitchers, beating Justin Verlander and the Astros 4-1.

Houston star Gerrit Cole is scheduled to pitch Game 5 for the heavily favored AL West champs, who led the majors with 107 wins this season and have one more chance to close out the wild-card Rays. Tyler Glasnow is expected to start for Tampa Bay, and the winner plays the New York Yankees in the AL Championship Series.

"Even after going up two games against this ballclub, I don't think we took anything for granted," Verlander said. "At least I know I didn't. We know how talented these guys were and are. We knew it would be a battle."

HOPING FOR A CHANCE

Injured center fielder Aaron Hicks feels he's ready to return to the Yankees' roster for the AL Championship Series. Hicks, who has a right elbow flexor strain and last played on Aug. 3, is among a group of players at the team's complex in Florida who were not on the Division Series roster.

Hicks said Tuesday he is "definitely ready to go out there and play."

"For sure," he added. "That's really what I'm getting ready for is to get back and play in the playoffs."

New York, which completed a three-game sweep of Minnesota on Monday night, will face Houston or Tampa Bay in Game 1 of the ALCS on Saturday.

Hicks is facing live pitching and throwing to bases.

"I'm pretty much doing everything," he said.

In addition to Hicks, other New York players working out include outfielder Clint Frazier, first baseman Mike Ford, and pitchers Jordan Montgomery and Stephan Tarpley.

"I think all of us are ready to help if called upon," Frazier said.

___

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