At one point this season, you could have made the argument that the Los Angeles Dodgers were the best team in baseball. The same goes for the Atlanta Braves.
The Braves were in first place in the NL East pretty much the entire season, carving a lead big enough for them to go 13-14 in September and not have to worry. In fact, there was only one day — the third day of the season — that the Braves weren't in first place.
The Dodgers were horrible to start the season, sitting in last place with their enormous payroll. But then they went 42-12 in July and August and ran away with the NL West. The Dodgers didn't have a great record in September either, but they easily won their division.
Both teams have shown they can dominate, which makes their NLDS series, starting Thursday night in Atlanta, all the more interesting. It wouldn't be surprising to see a five-game battle, nor would it be surprising to see a quick sweep. These are two very good and very dangerous teams. The question is, who's got the killer instinct in October?
Game 1: Thursday at 8:37 p.m. ET in Atlanta (TV coverage on TBS).
Game 2: Friday at 6:07 p.m. ET in Atlanta (TBS).
Game 3: Sunday at 8:07 p.m. ET in Los Angeles (TBS).
Game 4*: Monday, time TBA, in Los Angeles (TBS or MLB Network).
Game 5*: Wednesday, time TBA, in Atlanta (TBS).
Game 1: Clayton Kershaw (16-9, 1.83 ERA) vs. Kris Medlen (15-12, 3.11 ERA)
Game 2: Zack Greinke (15-4, 2.63 ERA) vs. Mike Minor (13-9, 3.21 ERA)
Game 3: Julio Teherán (14-8, 3.20 ERA) vs. Hyun-Jin Ryu (14-8, 3.00 ERA)
Game 4: Freddy García (4-7, 4.37 ERA) vs. Ricky Nolasco (13-11, 3.70 ERA)
Game 5: Kershaw vs. Medlen
The Dodgers have the most formidable 1-2 punch at the top of their rotation in the NL playoffs (and, really, all the postseason, though Detroit homers might argue that). Kershaw and Greinke are able to mow down the opposition. They showed us often in the second half. We know how good Cy Young-to-be Kershaw has been all season, but Greinke had a 1.85 ERA in the second half. If they're on, they're going to be tough for Atlanta to beat. Even at home. Atlanta counters with a talented crop of young pitchers plus one old vet in Freddy Garcia. Medlen, Minor and Teheran are good, but not Kershaw-Greinke good.
The Braves won the series 5-2 in 2013, but the two teams haven't played since June 9, so you can pretty much toss that record out the window. It's about as meaningful to this series as Dan Uggla's batting average.
THREE KEYS FOR THE DODGERS
• Eliminate Atlanta's home-field advantage. The Braves have a .494 winning percentage on the road compared to .691 at home. If the Dodgers can win in Atlanta, it would tip the scales greatly in their favor. The Dodgers were almost as good on the road (.556) as they were at home (.580).
• Hanley Ramirez. If he's hot, the Dodgers usually win. The Dodgers are 51-26 when he starts, and in those wins he's hit .360/.416/.709 with 48 RBIs. In Dodgers losses, he has just nine RBIs.
• Don't make errors. Defense is one area where the Braves are much better than the Dodgers. The Dodgers need to limit their mistakes. They had the six-most errors in baseball in 2013.
THREE KEYS FOR THE BRAVES
• Win on the road. Technically, the Braves can win all their home games and advance to the NLCS, but they'd be less stressed if they can steal a game in L.A. Sorry for repeating ourselves, but the Braves were 40-41 on the road this season. Overcoming those regular-season road woes could be huge for Atlanta.
• Get ahead and stay ahead. If the Dodgers have to try to comeback against the Braves bullpen, the game is in Atlanta's favor. The Braves bullpen is the best in baseball, and one of the best in recent years. Atlanta's bullpen ERA is 2.46 and closer Craig Kimbrel (above) is the toughest in the league.
• Jason Heyward. Heyward has had a rough season, even before his injury. He's back now and if he's hitting, he could be a huge boost for Atlanta. He's hitting .254 for the season, but in Braves wins he's hitting .284 with 31 RBIs. In Braves losses, he's hitting .192 with 7 RBIs.
FIVE IMPORTANT NUMBERS
.103 — Justin Upton's career batting average against Clayton Kershaw. Upton, having played in the NL West previously, has faced Kershaw more than any of his teammates.
17-3 — The Dodgers record when Hanley Ramirez homers.
1.00 — Kris Medlen's ERA in five September starts. Greinke and Kershaw aren't the only pitchers who have been spectacular lately. Medlen can hang.
.335/.408/.544 — Freddie Freeman's batting line in the second half. He and Yasiel Puig are linked this season because of their race for an All-Star Game spot, but Freeman's second-half numbers are significantly better than Puig's.
9-20 — The Dodgers' postseason record since winning the World Series in 1988. However, they did sweep their last two NLDS series, in 2008 and 2009.