All bets are off in NLDS underlined with intrigue
Series could swing either way depending on health, pitching and momentum
Maybe you think the Dodgers, what with that ridiculous rotation fronted by Clayton Kershaw and a summer surge for the ages under their belt, are the favorite here.
But it's not that simple.
Maybe you think the Braves, having led the National League East for all but one day (way back in early April) and amassed the best home record in the game, are the favorite here.
But it's not that simple, either.
There is nothing simple about this NL Division Series between the Dodgers and Braves. Both of these clubs have put together extended stretches this season in which they've looked absolutely untouchable. And the truth is, both of them are capable of going into a funk in which they look absolutely lost.
That's what makes this best-of-five set, which begins at 8:30 p.m. Thursday at Atlanta's Turner Field (coverage on TBS), so compelling and, yes, so unpredictable.
On the one hand, you can't possibly bet against that Dodgers rotation, can you?
Game 1 starter Kershaw is the undisputed favorite for the NL Cy Young Award, which would be his second such honor. He's led the NL in ERA and in WHIP for three straight years now (the only other guys in history to lead their league in ERA three years in a row are Lefty Grove, Greg Maddux and Roger Clemens), but Kershaw's 1.83 ERA and 0.915 WHIP this season put him in another stratosphere.
The Game 2 starter will be Zack Greinke (15-4, 2.63 ERA). You've heard of him, right? The dude broke his collarbone fighting Carlos Quentin in April and still recovered in time to post an adjusted ERA 35 percent better than the league average.
And in Games 3 and 4, the Dodgers have the luxury of going with lefty Hyun-Jin Ryu (14-8, 3.00 ERA) and right-hander Ricky Nolasco (8-3, 3.52 ERA since coming over from Miami).
Jeez, will there even be a Game 4?
But wait, let's not oversimplify things. The Braves make this quite a bit more complicated than people are giving them credit for, even if they don't have the household names of their playoff rotations of old. Their 3.51 starters' ERA was the sixth best in baseball this season, despite losing Tim Hudson to a gruesome injury and experiencing regression from Paul Maholm. Mike Minor, at 25, took a huge step forward (13-9, 3.21 ERA), and 22-year-old Julio Teheran (14-8, 3.20 ERA) established himself as one of the more electric young arms in the game.
Certainly, this is a Braves team without an established ace, and it wasn't too long ago that there was talk of Game 1 starter Kris Medlen being moved to the bullpen. But to focus on those facts is to ignore what Medlen did down the stretch. In his last six September starts, he was 5-0 with just four earned runs and no home runs allowed in 43 innings. Medlen looked like the guy who stormed into the rotation in the second half of 2012.
And when you factor in the undeniable force that is the back end of the Braves' bullpen, anchored by Craig Kimbrel (the newly anointed Best Closer in the Game, now that Mariano Rivera has bowed out), perhaps the pitching equation isn't nearly as lopsided as some might assume.
Then again, the Braves have some warts of their own -- and those warts might reveal themselves in the pulse of the postseason.
No. 1 on the list, of course, is strikeouts. Even in an era in which strikeouts are accepted as par for the course like never before, the Braves' 4.43 plate-appearances-per-strikeout mark is alarming. The worry is that a Braves club reliant on the home run (they hit one every 30.06 at-bats, the fifth-best mark in baseball this season) is a little too reliant on the long ball for this environment and this particular series (the Dodgers allowed the fourth-fewest home runs in the NL and ranked second in strikeouts). And the Braves are coming off a month of September in which they averaged a pretty pedestrian 3.70 runs per game.
But what about the Dodgers? They didn't exactly scorch the earth in September, either. They averaged 3.78 runs, and that's partially attributable to their continued struggle to keep all their stars on the field at the same time.
That was pretty much the theme of the season for the Dodgers: When they were healthy, they were unstoppable. When they weren't, they were sometimes unwatchable.
So are the Dodgers healthy now? The question is most applicable to shortstop Hanley Ramirez, who has been an every-other-day player in recent weeks. That was fine when the Dodgers were playing out the string with the NL West in hand, but will Hanley (.345/.402/.638), whose offense is vital to the middle of the order, be ready to reassert himself in the daily grind?
We know for sure Matt Kemp is out, but the Dodgers, as Don Mattingly is quick to point out, went on their 42-8 run without him. What we don't really know is what Andre Ethier's role will be, as he's been out since Sept. 22 with an ankle injury. Nor, for that matter, do we know what to make of Yasiel Puig as he enters his first October after cooling off in September.
The Dodgers, then, offer their fair share of mystery, no matter how sturdy their rotation situation might seem. And the Braves, relying on a largely unproven postseason rotation, are a bit mysterious, regardless of how much power potential is in those bats.
To best illustrate what we're dealing with here, look no further than the team records the last two months: The Braves went 20-7 in August, then 13-14 in September. The Dodgers went 23-6 in August, then 12-15 in September.
Point is, you don't know quite what you're going to get from either of these clubs in any given stretch. I could very easily see either one of them going on a scorch-the-earth run if health permits and the bats are booming. I could just as easily see either one of them flaming out in a hurry.
Tough call, interesting matchup. I'll chicken out and say it'll go five games. And with the thought of Kershaw pitching twice, I'll take the Dodgers.