Braves center fielder Jason Heyward, right, is congratulated by teammate Evan Gattis during a recent game. Heyward, Gattis and the rest of the Braves’ hitters will have their work cut out for them against a tough Dodgers pitching staff. (Reuters)
ATLANTA — The extra benefit of avoiding the Los Angeles Dodgers in the National League Division Series was left unsaid in the Braves’ talk about trying to finish with the best record in the NL and getting home field throughout the playoffs.
The Dodgers, though, are who Atlanta will have to face after the Braves finished behind the St. Louis Cardinals for the best record, but at least they do have home field for the best-of-5 series beginning Thursday.
The Braves swept a three-game series from the Dodgers at Turner Field in mid-May — when it appeared manager Don Mattingly was on the verge of being fired — and split four games in Los Angeles a month later.
“It will all boil down to pitching,” Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez said.
That, however, is where the Dodgers are the most feared, especially in the starting rotation.
“They’ve got (Clayton) Kershaw, (Zack) Grienke and (Hyun-Jin) Ryu. That’s pretty good,” Gonzalez said.
But Gonzalez quickly added, “We’ve been pretty good pitching ourselves.”
Kris Medlen, who won his last five decisions to finish 15-12 with a 3.11 ERA, will start the opener for the Braves.
“Kershaw is good, but I’m not sure he’s pitching any better than Medlen right now,” said Braves backup catcher Gerald Laird, who played in the World Series the past two seasons while with St. Louis and then Detroit.
Medlen, who grew up outside Los Angeles, has faced the Dodgers twice this year and hasn’t given up an earned run. He worked 13 2/3 while getting a win and a no-decision, giving up just seven hits.
“The key will be treating it as just another game and not getting two keyed up,” said Medlen, who lost the NL wild-card game last year to the Cardinals. “I’ve had success against the Dodgers so far.”
The Braves, who finished 96-66, led the NL East for all except one day and had the best record in the majors most of the season. They were 13-14 in September, though, and even cooled off at home.
Atlanta led the majors with a 56-25 home record, but went 7-7 the final month.
The Dodgers recovered from a miserable start, ran off one of the best 50-game stretches in baseball history and won the National League West in a walkover, all without ever really being at full strength.
So why would you expect them to be now?
Outfielder Matt Kemp was ruled out for the postseason Sunday afternoon with swelling in the talus bone in his left ankle. The problem in a weight-bearing bone makes Kemp vulnerable to a fracture.
At the same time, outfielder Andre Ethier was still in Arizona rehabbing an ankle injury of his own. His status for the postseason remains undetermined, leaving a large vacancy in center field as the Dodgers head to Atlanta.
“Obviously if we don’t have Matt and we don’t have Andre, we’re not full strength and you’re not as good as you can be,” Mattingly said. “But we’re still good enough to win.
“To be honest with you, without saying it in a bad way — we’ve played all year long without Matt. We went 42-8 without Matt. We’re capable of winning. We’re not going to roll over and act like something is wrong now.”
The Braves took five of seven games from the Dodgers during the regular season — but all seven games were played before the Dodgers turned their season around beginning on June 22. The Dodgers went 42-8 starting on that date and won 62 of their final 90 games during the regular season.
“They’re a good club,” Mattingly said. “We had trouble with them this year. But I’ve always felt in a short series anything can happen. We’re going to have Kersh (Clayton Kershaw) and Zack (Greinke) going the first two days — anything can happen.”
Indeed that 1-2 punch at the front of the Dodgers rotation makes them postseason favorites in the eyes of many analysts.
Kershaw just finished one of the most dominant seasons any pitcher has had in the past 45 seasons. Since the mound was raised in 1969, only one pitcher can match Kershaw’s numbers this season — a 1.83 ERA, 0.92 WHIP (both of which led the majors) and a .195 batting average against. That was Pedro Martinez in 2000, when he had a 1.74 ERA, 0.74 WHIP and held opposing batters to a .167 average.
“Honestly, it’s still about the pitching,” Mattingly said, assessing the postseason. “You throw Kersh and Greinke out there, you pretty much like your chances.”