Before the Cardinals' hot September gave them the best record in the National League, many fans, reporters and analysts anticipated the Dodgers and Braves playing for the pennant and a trip to the World Series. Instead, these two clubs will be playing for a spot in the NLCS. This series features the two best pitching staffs in MLB based on ERA. Atlanta led the majors with a 3.18 mark, with the Dodgers ranking second at 3.25. However, each team compiled those numbers due to separate strengths.
Game One: Thursday, 10/03 in Atlanta, 8:37 p.m. ET. Clayton Kershaw vs. Kris Medlen
Game Two: Friday, 10/04 in Atlanta, 6:07 p.m. ET. Mike Minor vs. Zack Greinke
Game Three: Sunday, 10/06 in Los Angeles, TBA. Julio Teheran vs Hyun-Jin Ryu
Game Four (if necessary): Monday, 10/07 in Los Angeles, TBA. Freddy Garcia vs. Ricky Nolasco
Game Five (if necessary): Wednesday, 10/09 in Atlanta, TBA.
Starting Pitching: Dodgers starters had the best ERA in baseball at 3.13. With likely NL Cy Young Award winner (and possible MVP) Kershaw leading the way, that shouldn't be a surprise. The left-hander led the NL with a 1.83 ERA, 232 strikeouts and an 0.92 WHIP, while ranking second with a .195 opponents' batting average. Though the Braves are typically known for strong starting pitching, no one in their rotation comes close to those numbers. Medlen, who led Atlanta with a 3.11 ERA and 15 wins, will oppose Kershaw in Game 1 (and possibly Game 5).
Minor was Atlanta's best starter for much of the season, eventually leading the team with 181 strikeouts and 204.1 innings pitched. On any other team, Greinke would be the No. 1 starter. Despite suffering a broken collarbone early in the season, he still finished with a 15-4 record and 2.63 ERA. Rookies Teheran and Ryu both warrant strong NL Rookie of the Year consideration, though will likely finish behind Jose Fernandez and Yasiel Puig in voting. But the Braves having to start Garcia in Game 4 indicates that injuries have ravaged the team's depth. Meanwhile, the Dodgers have stockpiled starting pitching all year long and have the advantage of starting Nolasco because of that.
Bullpen: Here's where the Braves have the pitching advantage. While the Dodgers began the season under the delusion that Brandon League could be their closer before eventually giving the job to Kenley Jansen, Atlanta has no question about who gets the ball in the ninth inning. Craig Kimbrel led the NL with 50 saves, while compiling a 1.21 ERA, 0.88 WHIP and .166 opponents' batting average. He struck out 98 batters in 67 innings. There's Kimbrel, then everyone else when it comes to MLB closers.
Yet where Atlanta really has it over the Dodgers is with their bullpen depth. Luis Avilan and Jordan Walden are excellent setup relievers, but the Braves can bring in plenty of other arms in later innings such as David Carpenter, Scott Downs, Anthony Varvaro, Luis Ayala and Alex Wood. That should lessen the burden on the starters to pitch deep into ballgames and also allow Fredi Gonzalez to utilize his relievers for the most favorable matchup. Don Mattingly doesn't have quite the same luxury, though late-season acquistions Carlos Marmol, Brian Wilson and Edinson Volquez provide more weapons to go with J.P. Howell, Paco Rodriguez and J.P. Howell.
Lineup: While the Braves grabbed headlines for keeping Dan Uggla off their NLDS roster, it's the Dodgers who will have more notable names missing from their lineup in this series. Matt Kemp is shut down for the postseason, while Andre Ethier will be limited to pinch-hitting duty, both due to ankle injuries. Meanwhile, Yasiel Puig ended the regular season on a cold note, batting .214 in September, though he did still slug six homers with 11 RBI.
Jason Heyward returned from a broken jaw shortly before the end of the regular season. That ensures the Braves will have their best batting order for the postseason, which has Heyward leading off. Brian McCann is dealing with a groin strain that surely contributed to him hitting .170 with a .554 OPS in September. He and B.J. Upton have to be concerns going into this series. But Freddie Freeman, Justin Upton, Andrelton Simmons and Chris Johnson hitting well, the Braves might be able to cover for those shortcomings.
Bench: Kemp's injury forces the Dodgers to tap into their outfielder depth with whomever starts in center field (probably Skip Schumaker). Mattingly has other utility players to use, such as Nick Punto and Jerry Hairston Jr., but will they make any sort of impact? Though Elliot Johnson has to start for Atlanta at second base in Uggla's absence, they still have infield depth with Paul Janish. Jordan Schafer and Reed Johnson give Gonzalez some late-inning versatility and defense, if needed. But the Braves have the biggest potential difference-maker in Evan Gattis. Either he becomes a power pinch-hitting threat off the bench, or he covers for McCann at catcher and still keeps a strong bat in the lineup.
Overall: The Dodgers are the glamour team of the NL and carry plenty of expectations with all the money spent and star players acquired over the past year. But for all that star power, the lineup has lacked depth all season and that could be the difference in this series with Kemp and Ethier hurting. However, the Dodgers have a huge advantage with Kershaw and Greinke at the top of their rotation. If the Braves can't defeat — or at least endure — one of those aces in the first two games in Atlanta, this could be a very short series.