The best-of-five National League Division Series starts this week in Atlanta, where the Braves owned the best home record in the league and maintained command of the NL East for the entire season. The Dodgers, who were the league's best road team, relied on a surreal summer surge to rise from the cellar to the penthouse in the NL West. The Braves won five of the seven head-to-head matchups, including a May sweep in Atlanta. However, all of those games were played prior to June 22, the date the Dodgers decided to win 42 of their next 50 games.
Before the series kicks off on Thursday, let's take a look at how these two teams from opposite coasts stack up against each other:
The Dodgers boast arguably the best one-two punch in all of baseball. Cy Young favorite Clayton Kershaw will start Game 1 for Los Angeles following his third straight season leading the big leagues in earned run average (1.83). The last pitcher to accomplish that feat was Greg Maddux from 1993-1995. Meanwhile, No. 2 starter Zack Greinke (15-4, 2.63 ERA) would be an ace on most other teams, while Korean rookie Hyun-Jin Ryu was just one out away from giving Los Angeles the first trio of starters with ERAs below 3.00 since 1988.
As for the Braves, their Game 1 starter Kris Medlen was recently named Pitcher of the Month after going 4-0 with a 1.00 ERA over 36 innings in September. Suffice it to say he's getting hot at the right time. Following Medlen will be Mike Minor, a dependable lefty who amassed 181 strikeouts but lost all five of his September starts. Game 3 will be a matchup of rookie pitchers Ryu and Julio Teherán. The Colombian native came on strong in the second half of the season to finish with a 3.20 ERA. Making his playoff debut at what promises to be a raucous Dodger Stadium will be the biggest test of his young career.
After taking over the closer job from Brandon League in mid-June, Kenley Jansen has been an elite ninth-inning option for Dodgers manager Don Mattingly. He compiled 28 saves in 32 chances, but one of those he blew came against Atlanta.
His counterpart on the Braves, Craig Kimbrel, is quite simply the best closer in baseball. Kimbrel's whopping 50 saves and minuscule 1.21 ERA should be evidence enough to the Dodgers that they don't want to fall behind late -- that, and the fact that Atlanta possessed baseball's best bullpen ERA at 2.46. Relief pitching will be key in this series. For the Dodgers, it's up to guys like Ronald Belisario, Paco Rodriguez and Brian Wilson to keep pace with the consistently effective Braves relief corps headed by David Carpenter (1.78 ERA) and Luis Avilan (1.52 ERA).
The right side of the infield pits the Dodgers' Adrian Gonzalez and Mark Ellis against the Braves' Freddie Freeman and Dan Uggla -- err, Elliot Johnson. That's right -- Uggla, who hit 22 home runs during the regular season, will not be participating in the NLDS due to his horrendous .179 batting average, the lowest among players with at least 400 at-bats. So while Freeman had a slightly better regular season than Gonzalez, although both first basemen reached 20 home runs and 100 runs batted in, any manager would rather trot out a veteran like Ellis over a journeyman like Johnson at second.
Moving over to the left side of the infield, we see veterans Juan Uribe and Hanley Ramirez for the Dodgers versus Chris Johnson and rookie Andrelton Simmons for Atlanta. Uribe just had his best regular season in Dodger blue and has played in pressure-packed games before with the champion San Francisco Giants in 2010. Shortstop Ramirez has been one of the most potent offensive forces in the land since he became a fixture in the lineup in early June, but Thursday's Game 1 will be his first taste of postseason atmosphere.
For the Braves, Chris Johnson has done a spectacular job filling the void left by Chipper Jones at third base, finishing second in the NL with a .321 batting average. Simmons is arguably the best defensive shortstop in the game and has some pop to boot. His 17 home runs were the third-most by big league shortstops.
If we're including catchers as part of the infield, the Dodgers' A.J. Ellis threw out the highest percentage of would-be base-stealers (minimum 75 games played). The Braves' Brian McCann was near the bottom of that list but belted 20 home runs and maintained a respectable .256 batting average, whereas Ellis' average continued to drop as the season progressed before settling at .238 with 10 home runs.
For Dodgers fans, their yearlong speculation was confirmed a few days ago: Matt Kemp really is made out of glass. Los Angeles announced its franchise center fielder is going to miss the postseason due to complications in his sprained ankle. To make matters worse, Andre Ethier is dealing with ankle issues of his own and may be relegated to pinch-hitting duties in the first round.
Fortunately, for the Dodgers, there is still Yasiel Puig and Carl Crawford. However, Puig, who hit his first career grand slam against Atlanta in June, batted only .214 in September. This means that Skip Schumaker is the likely candidate to play center field for the Dodgers in this series. Although he has postseason experience with the St. Louis Cardinals, he is no Andre Ethier and the Dodgers' offense simply isn't as dangerous if he is forced to start.
The Braves have outfield issues of their own. Aside from the bright spot in Justin Upton and his 27 dingers, there isn't much to write home about. Justin's older brother B.J. has been a huge disappointment. His .184 average will likely keep him on the bench in favor of slugger Evan Gattis. Although Gattis cranked 21 home runs without batting gloves, he is a defensive liability in the outfield. Jason Heyward has also regressed this season, hitting 13 fewer home runs than he did a year ago while struggling through the traumatic experience of getting hit in the face by a pitch and breaking his jaw.
It's no secret that the postseason is all about pitching, pitching and more pitching. Both teams have lively arms, but one of the biggest factors in the series will be the tendency of Braves batters to strike out. Atlanta players struck out 1,384 times during the regular season, third-most in the majors and most out of all the playoff teams. Chris Johnson struck out nearly once every five plate appearances, Justin Upton once every four and B.J. Upton once every three. That's a lot of whiffs and window shopping. Couple that with the fact that Dodger pitchers struck out more batters (1,292) than any other NL playoff team and it's clear to see how the Braves might be in for some trouble. With all of that said, the only thing left to do is let the games begin.
Prediction: Dodgers in five
Nick Ostiller was born and raised in Los Angeles and currently lives in Santa Clara. He is the editor-in-chief at The Santa Clara and contributes content for Sidelines. He has also worked for Outlook Newspapers and KNBC. Follow him on Twitter @nicko229.
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