Published October 01, 2013
| Sports Network
(SportsNetwork.com) - Winning a division title is a priority on every ballclub's to-do list coming out of Spring Training and both the Los Angeles Dodgers and Atlanta Braves accomplished step one of their itinerary.
The Dodgers and Braves will now meet in the best-of-five National League Division Series, starting with Thursday's Game 1 matchup from Turner Field, where opponents went to perish during the regular season.
Turner Field was a house of horrors for visiting clubs, as the Braves compiled a major league best 56-25 (.691) mark there and went 25-10 since late July.
Los Angeles felt the wrath of Turner Field in a three-game sweep from May 17-19 and was outscored 16-8 in the series. L.A. managed a 2-5 record against the Braves in the regular season.
Atlanta is back in the playoffs for the third time in four years and won its first NL East crown since 2005. A 14-game winning streak and a 20-4 stretch from late July through August propelled the Braves, but they lost 13 of the last 24 games to close out the regular season.
But that's all in the past and now the postseason is on the minds of the players.
"At the end of the day, you've got to win ballgames," Braves outfielder Justin Upton said. "That is what the playoffs are all about. Everybody is 0-0. They have to win as many games as you do. That's just the way it is. No matter who it is, we have to beat the team that is in front of us."
The Braves couldn't pull that off last season after capturing a wild card berth, falling to the St. Louis Cardinals in a winner-take-all playoff. It didn't help that they committed three errors and left-field umpire Sam Holbrook made a momentum-killing infield-fly rule in the eighth inning of a crushing 6-3 loss.
Los Angeles, which won the NL West for the first time since 2009, missed the playoffs in each of the previous three seasons and lost to the Philadelphia Phillies in back-to-back NLCS series from 2008-09. The Dodgers and Braves haven't met in the postseason, though, since Atlanta swept the NLDS back in 1996. Braves greats John Smoltz, Greg Maddux and Tom Glavine got the wins to complete the three-game sweep.
Atlanta will be missing one of its veteran starting pitchers this postseason in Tim Hudson, who made 21 starts before an ankle injury on July 24 against the New York Mets ended his season. The Braves won't be fretting too much because they have four starters who recorded 10 or more wins in the regular season, most notably Kris Medlen. Medlen was named the NL's Pitcher of the Month for September for the second year in a row and went 4-0 in five starts during the month. He helped the Braves claim home-field advantage in the NLDS and lasted at least seven innings in four September starts.
Medlen gets the nod for Game 1 versus the Dodgers and pitched against the Cardinals in last year's wild card game. He knows the lights are a bit brighter in the playoffs.
"Everything is magnified, one little mistake is a lot bigger in these kinds of situations," Medlen said. "You just have to try to not get too ahead of yourself and live in the moment. It's an unbelievable experience and it was a lot of fun last year. Even though we didn't come out on top, it was just a great experience and I don't expect anything different this time around, other than a win."
Medlen went 1-0 in two starts against the Dodgers in the regular season and is 3-0 with a 1.23 earned run average in eight career matchups (3 starts) with them. After Medlen, the Braves can go with Julio Teheran, Mike Minor, Paul Maholm or Alex Wood. Atlanta had the best ERA (3.18) in the majors, just ahead of the second-place Dodgers (3.25).
Getting to closer Craig Kimbrel would be ideal for the Braves, as the hard- throwing right-hander recorded 50 saves this season. Kimbrel's 50 saves were tied with Baltimore's Jim Johnson for the major league lead and also represented the second-highest in team history. Smoltz had 55 back in 2002. Kimbrel is the youngest pitcher in major league history to notch 50 saves.
Not only did the Braves get to the top of the NL East with decent pitching, but they also came through at the plate. They made a deal with the Arizona Diamondbacks for outfielder Justin Upton and Chris Johnson was added in exchange for Martin Prado, pitcher Randall Delgado and three minor leaguers. Upton opened the season batting .302 with 12 homers and 18 RBI over the first 23 games and finished with 27 home runs and 70 runs batted in for the season. Johnson, though, surprised everyone with a team-best .321 average, which was second in the NL behind Colorado's Michael Cuddyer.
B.J. Upton joined forces with his brother and had a disappointing first season with Atlanta, as he batted .184 with nine home runs and 26 RBI. Perhaps the Braves would have posted more than 100 wins had Upton and Dan Uggla been more disciplined at the plate. Uggla hit .179 with 22 homers and 55 RBI. Freddie Freeman, though, led the Braves with 109 RBI and hit safely in 21 of the last 24 games of the regular season. Freeman was the first Brave to post a 100-RBI season since 2007, when Jeff Francoeur and Chipper Jones achieved the feat.
Jason Heyward, Brian McCann, Evan Gattis and Andrelton Simmons are other major contributors to the Braves. McCann and Gattis were two of five players with at least 20 homers this season for Atlanta, which led the National League with 181 home runs. Heyward, meanwhile, is back in action after a pitch broke his jaw in late August, forcing him to miss several weeks.
The Dodgers were the talk of baseball with a second-half surge that saw them go 42-8 and take control of the NL West. They were a season-worst 12 games under .500 and miles away from the division lead, but ended the regular season with a 62-28 record for their 12th NL West title since 1969.
At one point it appeared manager Don Mattingly was on his way out for his inability to get L.A.'s high payroll on the right path. It was then that both the pitching staff and bats came to life and now Mattingly is a frontrunner for NL Manager of the Year.
Mattingly will be without oft-injured outfielder Matt Kemp for the postseason after an MRI revealed swelling in the major weight-bearing bone of his left ankle. Kemp wasn't much of a contributor this season because of various ailments and is supposed to stay off the ankle for at least a month.
Outfielder Andre Ethier is also dealing with a balky left ankle and may have to settle for being a pinch-hitter in the NLDS. Ethier has not played in the field since Sept. 13 and was tied for fourth on the team with 12 homers.
"If you don't have Andre and you don't have Matt, you're not as good as you could be," Mattingly said. "But we're still good enough to win."
The Dodgers are good enough to win if Adrian Gonzalez, young Cuban phenom Yasiel Puig, Hanley Ramirez and Juan Uribe stay consistent at the plate. Gonzalez led the Dodgers in batting average (.293), hits (171), home runs (22), runs batted in (100) and reached the 100-RBI mark for the sixth time in his career. Puig busted out on the scene by hitting four home runs in his first five games, a club record, and was named NL Player of the Month and NL Rookie of the Month for June. All eyes will be on Puig now that Kemp is gone for a Dodgers club that was sixth in the majors with a .264 average.
Ramirez struggled to stay healthy this season and appears to be ready for the stretch run. Ramirez had a lower back issue and batted .345 with 20 homers and 57 RBI in 86 games. He is very important to the Dodgers' lineup and arguably the most consistent when healthy.
Speaking of consistency, Dodgers left-handed ace Clayton Kershaw is ready to take it up a notch this postseason. The 2011 NL Cy Young Award recipient led the major leagues with a minuscule 1.83 ERA and was 6-2 with a 1.61 ERA in his last nine starts and finished 16-9 with an NL-best 232 strikeouts.
"He's had a great year. Command and stuff, he puts them both together. And there's some deception," Rockies manager Walt Weiss said of Kershaw after facing him this past weekend. "He's the complete package, and he's left-handed on top of it. He's as good as there is in our league."
Zack Greinke, Hyun-Jin Ryu and Ricky Nolasco should follow Kershaw in the Dodgers' rotation this postseason. Kershaw, who has no record and a 2.45 ERA in four career starts against Atlanta, will oppose Medlen on the mound in Game 1 of this best-of-five series and knows how tough the Braves will be.
"They've been the best team in the National League all year until today," Kershaw said Sunday. "They are kind of balanced all the way around. They have guys having big years offensively and guys that are throwing the ball well right now. It should be a good challenge for us."
This series has two of the best rotations the majors have to offer and some of the toughest outs at the plate. Atlanta would enjoy nothing more than to head to Chavez Ravine with a 2-0 lead and the same goes for the Dodgers.
PREDICTION: BRAVES in FIVE