The Atlanta Braves and Los Angeles Dodgers face off in one of the more interesting divisional series of this postseason. The Braves led the NL East nearly wire to wire, easily beating out the favored Washington Nationals, while the Dodgers went on one of the most historic worst-to-first runs in the history of the sport.
As they prepare to meet in Atlanta on Thursday, let’s highlight the most important players and matchups.
Braves’ X factor: Kris Medlen
Medlen is a very good pitcher who has been handed a nearly impossible task — outduel the great Clayton Kershaw at least once and possibly twice. Medlen wasn’t quite able to repeat the wonderful 2012 run that saw the Braves win all 12 of the starts he made after moving from the bullpen, but he still had a solid 2013 and really turned it on down the stretch, putting up a 49/11 K/BB ratio and a 1.37 ERA over his final nine games.
Kershaw will make it difficult on the Atlanta offense, so Medlen’s ability to keep pace is among the most important stories of the series.
Dodgers’ X factor: Yasiel Puig
Like it would be anybody else. With Matt Kemp out for the season and Andre Ethier slowed by an ankle injury that has kept him out since Sept. 13, the Dodgers’ offense has taken some big hits, and Puig needs to be the man to stem the tide.
Puig slumped to end the season, hitting just .214/.333/.452 in September, but some of that can be chalked up to the inevitable regression of his BABIP from the unbelievable heights it had been during the summer. The good news is that he kept his walk rate at more than 10 percent for a second month in a row and maintained power, so Puig not only has a chance to bounce back with the bat, he has an opportunity to show those who are convinced that his mental errors will cost the team in the playoffs what he has learned during his whirlwind rookie season.
Braves’ key reliever: Alex Wood
Many Atlanta fans were disappointed when it was announced that Wood would be returning to the bullpen for the playoffs, especially with the prospect of the ancient Freddy Garcia perhaps starting Game 4 instead. The rookie lefty with the funky delivery had made 10 late-season starts for Atlanta and was a revelation, striking out 49 in 53 innings. Now, he’ll be in the bullpen, helping to give Fredi Gonzalez an intriguing weapon to help an effective yet relatively little-known cast of relievers — guys such as Luis Avilan, David Carpenter, and Anthony Varvaro — get the game to the sensational Craig Kimbrel.
Dodgers’ key reliever: Brian Wilson
Yes, that Brian Wilson, the ex-Giants closer known nearly as well for his beard and his look-at-me stunts as he is for helping lead San Francisco to the 2010 title. Wilson missed just about all of the Giants’ 2012 run to the World Series after blowing out his elbow in April, and didn’t even make his Dodgers debut this season until Aug. 22. Since the end of 2011, he has just 15 2/3 innings under his belt.
However, Wilson has allowed only one earned run in 18 games as a Dodger, as he works to regain some of his lost velocity and improve his cutter location. And with usual setup men Ronald Belisario (who recently endured a run of 52 batters during which he recorded only one strikeout) and Paco Rodriguez (six walks and three homers in 6 1/3 September innings) struggling at the end of a long season, it might be up to Wilson to be the bridge between a solid rotation and an excellent young closer in Kenley Jansen.
Without Ethier, the Dodgers’ lineup likely will be heavy on righty hitters, with Gonzalez and Carl Crawford the only lefties certain to play. (Skip Schumaker might, but more on him below.) That means that that the Braves will be sure to have a steady diet of lefties ready for Gonzalez in the late innings. Along with Wood, Avilan will get a lot of that work. Avilan allowed just 15 hits and seven walks in 114 plate appearances against lefties this year, good for a paltry .144/.219/.163 line. Gonzalez, it should be noted, doesn’t actually have a terrible split against fellow southpaws, and whether he can take advantage of that skill — or not — will go a long way toward determining the outcome of this series.
Braves’ key bench player: Jordan Schafer
The Braves were supposed to have put together one of the most talented outfields in baseball this year, pairing newcomer brothers B.J. and Justin Upton with returning star Jason Heyward. It didn’t happen; B.J. Upton was a tremendous bust (.184/.268/.289) and Heyward missed time with a broken jaw.
Instead, catcher Evan Gattis has been seeing most of the time in left field, but he’s a enormous defensive liability, as well as having hit just .224/.262/.425 since Aug. 1. That means that Schafer might play a big role in the series, not only to replace Gattis on defense, but to add speed off the bench (22 steals) and exploit some of his own huge platoon splits. Schafer is no star, and he absolutely cannot hit lefties, but he can help out Atlanta in a lot of little ways.
Dodgers’ key bench player: Dee Gordon
Due to the health uncertainty in the outfield, the Dodgers aren’t likely to set their NLDS roster until the last possible moment. But what does seem certain is that their bench will have a lot of guys who offer positional flexibility (Jerry Hairston Jr.), good defense (Nick Punto), and a nice reputation (Michael Young) — i.e., no one all that exciting.
If Gordon sneaks his way on to the roster, he offers Don Mattingly elite-level speed, and while Gordon isn’t a major league quality player either at the plate or in the field, Cincinnati’s Billy Hamilton has shown us all just how dangerous speed can be when used correctly. The latest reports on Ethier indicate that if he makes the roster, he’ll be restricted to pinch-hitting only, meaning Gordon should have plenty of opportunity to pinch-run for Ethier and make some noise.
Key stat: Atlanta’s 22.6 percent team strikeout rate
The Braves have a whole lot of swing-and-miss in them, whiffing more than all but two other teams in baseball. Even when you remove the anchor of pitchers batting and just look at regular hitters, they still strike out more than 26 other teams. That’s because in a league with an average of 19 percent, Atlanta has four hitters at 25 percent or higher: Justin Upton, Schafer, B.J. Upton and Dan Uggla, with the latter two over a whopping 30 percent. Pair that with a Dodgers staff that led the National League in strikeout percentage, and you have a recipe for an excessive amount of strike-three calls.
With Kemp out and Ethier slowed, the Dodgers suddenly find themselves without a center fielder. More than likely, utilityman Schumaker is going to fill the role, with the main argument apparently being “he started in center for the 2011 Cardinals during the World Series and they won a ring,” which ignores the fact that he managed just two singles in the series.
Schumaker offers little power or speed to go with a large platoon split, and most defensive metrics rate him poorly. Instead, Don Mattingly might be better served by living with the adventure that is Puig in center field in order to start Van Slyke — who isn’t much of an outfielder either, but at least showed good power in limited play this year — in right field. Against lefties, such as Mike Minor in Game 2, it’s an absolute must.
Prediction: Dodgers in five
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