Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez led Atlanta to its first NL East title since 2005 and will look to bring the program its first World Series championship since 1995, but first the Braves need to get past the Dodgers in the NLDS. (Reuters)
ATLANTA — Because the Braves squandered the National League’s best record by treading water in September and were overtaken by St. Louis on the final weekend, the Cardinals face the wild-card winner in a division series while the Braves get the West champion Dodgers and their aces, Clayton Kershaw and Zack Greinke.
Pundits nationwide have spent the last few days talking about how the media-darling Dodgers are favored against the Braves, waxing on how Atlanta won a mediocre division and doesn’t have the pitching to match the Dodgers or an offense that’s either consistent or fundamentally sound.
Just don’t expect the Braves to buy into the storyline.
“There’s no underdog anything,” said Kris Medlen, who will start today’s series opener against Kershaw, an overwhelming favorite to win his second Cy Young Award in three seasons. “We have a good team and we think we can beat anybody, whether it’s Kershaw or whoever. Whoever it is, we think we’re going to win. That’s pretty much the bottom line.
“Whether or not we get the publicity we should get, it’s just not important to us. We don’t need someone to tell us that we’re going to win or lose. It’s played on the field.”
The East Division champion Braves (96-66) will face the West champion Dodgers (92-70) in a best-of-five series with Games 1 and 2 at Turner Field today and Friday. Games 3 and Game 4 (if necessary) would be Sunday and Monday in Los Angeles, and a potential Game 5 would be played in Atlanta on Oct. 9 (Wednesday).
The Central champion Cardinals (97-65) play Pittsburgh in the other division series, which starts today in St. Louis.
The Braves have the better record and beat the Dodgers in five of seven games, albeit early in the season before the Dodgers caught fire. Also, few people seem to realize the Dodgers struggled even more (12-15) in September than did Atlanta (13-14).
The Dodgers also announced Sunday night that center fielder Matt Kemp will miss the postseason because of swelling in a bone in his left ankle. Kemp, who missed nearly two months after injuring the ankle on July 21, left the clubhouse on crutches after the Dodgers lost to Colorado 2-1 in Sunday’s regular-season finale.
That hasn’t stopped prognosticators from favoring Los Angeles over a team with baseball’s best bullpen and five hitters with 20 or more home runs. including MVP candidate Freddie Freeman (.319, 23 homers, 103 RBIs).
“We get no love from anyone,” veteran Braves backup catcher Gerald Laird said. “It’s better that way though.”
By now, the Braves are used to being dismissed, or at least underestimated.
“Nobody’s picked us all year anyway,” third baseman Chris Johnson said. “Nobody picked us to win the division; it was the Nationals’ year. So we’ve already been through stuff like that and we’re fine like that. And I don’t really think it matters whether you have the (NL’s) best record or not.
“People talk about, ‘You’ve got to play the Dodgers, you’ve got to beat Kershaw.’ We’ve got to beat Kershaw if we’re going to win the World Series anyway. And if we don’t win the World Series, then it’s a bust anyway. I don’t see a problem.”
After finally clinching their first division title since 2005 last week, the Braves won three of four games in their season-ending series against Philadelphia, including a 12-5 win Sunday. They split their final 16 games and scored one or no runs in six of those games.
The Braves finished one game behind the Cardinals, who went 19-8 in September and finished on a six-game winning streak. If the Braves had finished with the same record as St. Louis, the Braves would have been the top seed (and drawn a division series matchup against the wild-card winner) by virtue of a 4-3 record against the Cardinals.
Instead, it’s the top-seeded Cardinals who’ll face a division-series opponent that will have used one of its best pitchers in Tuesday’s Wild Card game, while Braves will face the Dodgers and starters Kershaw (16-9, 1.83 ERA), Greinke (15-4, 2.63) and left-hander Hyun-Jin Ryu (14-8, 3.00) in the first three games.
The Braves are expected to follow Medlen (15-12, 3.11) with Mike Minor (13-9, 3.21) and Julio Teheran (14-8, 3.20), with a fourth starter to be determined between veterans Freddy Garcia (1-2, 1.65) and Paul Maholm (10-11, 4.11). The Dodgers could go with Ricky Nolasco (8-3, 3.56) as their fourth starter, assuming they don’t bring Kershaw back on short rest.
Despite a lackluster September, the Braves say they’re confident entering the postseason. Even if most are picking against them.
“That’s fine,” said Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez. “I like our pitching staff. I like our bullpen in a series where you get days off. I like our lineup. We can come back from a deficit because we’ve got the power. And for the most part, we catch the baseball. We play good, solid defense.”
Braves hitters led the NL in homers (180) and finished fourth in runs. Braves pitchers led the league in ERA (3.18) ahead of the Dodgers (3.25). The Braves’ 2.46 bullpen ERA was the lowest in the majors since 2003.
“I feel like we have a great team,” Medlen said. “We’ve been consistent the entire year. How could we not be confident going into a series, which is what we’ve won the entire year. We just win series, we win series, we win series. So that’s what it comes down to now. We’re a confident bunch. I think it’s pretty self-explanatory. We think we’re going to win.”