COMMENTARY | The Atlanta Braves missed out on getting home-field advantage by a single game this season.
The first round of the playoffs is only a best-of-five series, so it is very important to notch a win in Game 1. To do so, Atlanta will have to contend with presumptive Cy Young Award winner Clayton Kershaw. The Braves took the season series 5-2, but somehow managed to avoid Kershaw in all seven games. The Dodgers' ace has a lifetime 2.40 ERA against the Braves in four career starts, but has never notched a decision in any of his outings.
In order for the Braves to jump out to an early 1-0 series lead, manager Fredi Gonzalez must first pencil the right players into the right spots in the lineup.
1. Jason Heyward, CF
Heyward is the only option for the Braves at the top of the order. After failing in their experiments with B.J. Upton and Andrelton Simmons batting leadoff, Atlanta found a reliable table-setter in Heyward.
The 24-year-old hit .254 for the season, but he mashed a .322 average when hitting No. 1 in the order. His .403 on-base percentage was also 73 points higher when hitting leadoff than anywhere else in the lineup.
Unfortunately, Heyward has his work cut out for him in Game 1. Lifetime against Kershaw, Heyward is 0-for-4 with four strikeouts.
2. Justin Upton, RF
Upton ended his season by going 5-for-10 with a home run and three RBIs over his final two games. Atlanta will need to hope Upton remains hot in Game 1 because he has not had the best luck against Kershaw. The last time Upton saw the Dodgers' lefty was in 2011. Upton did go 3-for-11 against him that year, but that was the sequel to a 0-for-18 start to his career.
Upton seems to have found a permanent home in the two-hole, so there is no reason to believe Gonzalez would move him now. If he did, Simmons or Johnson would be an interesting roll of the dice at No. 2 in the opening game.
3. Freddie Freeman, 1B
As most would assume, the Braves' MVP candidate has the best numbers against the Dodgers' ace. Freeman is 1-for-2 in his career against Kershaw, with that one being a 379-foot blast to right field. After that, the southpaw wisely walked Atlanta's All-Star first baseman on his next two plate appearances.
4. Evan Gattis, LF
Atlanta's slugging rookie has never faced Kershaw in his career, but Gattis has been very tough on lefties this season, with 20 percent of his hits leaving the yard. He ended the year on a hot note, going 4-for-9 with a home run and two RBIs in his final two games.
5. Chris Johnson, 3B
Johnson is an unremarkable 1-for-12 with five strikeouts against Kershaw in his career, but, of course, all of those at-bats came before his renaissance year of 2013. Johnson shortened his stroke and changed his approach at the plate this season and the results were the No. 2-ranked batting average in the National League (.321).
Johnson hit .348 against the Dodgers this season, and manager Fredi Gonzalez will surely want to use him to break up the left-handed sticks of Freeman and McCann. Johnson showed his readiness to face Kershaw when he went yard against Philadelphia Phillies similarly tough lefty Cliff Lee in the penultimate game of the regular season.
6. Brian McCann, C
In 175 career at-bats against the Dodgers, McCann has somehow managed to avoid Kershaw every time. McCann hit only .231 against southpaws this season, which is why Gonzalez should choose to move him down in the order in Game 1.
7. Andrelton Simmons
Aside from his Gold-Glove defense this season, Simmons added more pop to his bat than many were expecting. The 24-year-old hit 17 homers for Atlanta this year, which was the most by any Atlanta shortstop since Jeff Blauser also hit 17 bombs during the 1997 season.
Simmons has never faced Kershaw is his career, but hit .308 against the Dodgers in 2013. The playoffs are the time when under-the-radar guys can step into the spotlight in a big way, and Simmons seems like the exact type of player who can make a name for himself in October.
8. Elliot Johnson
Johnson has never faced Kershaw in his career, but the Braves' midseason acquisition is hitting .224 against lefties this season, which is 78 points higher than Uggla. Johnson also gives the Braves a stolen-base threat at the bottom of the order. The speedy second baseman stole eight bags in just 32 games for Atlanta, which remarkably still ranked him No. 3 on the team at year's end.
I would love to give Dan Uggla the start and see if the batting averages resetting back to zero would help him start fresh, but not with Kershaw on the hill. In his career, Uggla is 1-for-12 with six strikeouts against the Dodgers' lefty.
Bench vs. Kershaw
Reed Johnson -- 1-for-3
B.J. Upton -- 0-for-0
Jordan Schafer -- 0-for-3 with three strikeouts
Paul Janish -- 2-for-11 with zero strikeouts
Gerald Laird -- 1-for-2
Dan Uggla -- 1-for-12 with six strikeouts.
Anthony Schreiber is a freelance sportswriter who has been following the Atlanta Braves for over 20 years. He has penned articles for a variety of online publications and magazines.
- Sports & Recreation
- Atlanta Braves
- Justin Upton
- Fredi Gonzalez
- Jason Heyward
- Los Angeles Dodgers