The Los Angeles Dodgers took control of the NL West with an amazing 2 1-2-month stretch and could let off the gas over the final weeks.
The Atlanta Braves won the East going away, their commanding lead not at all threatened by a losing record over the final month.
Now, it's time to get serious again.
They meet Thursday night in Game 1 of the NL division series."I don't think we necessarily let up," Dodgers infielder Michael Young said after a workout at Turner Field. "In our situation, we had to get some guys healthy. A couple of guys needed a couple of days off, so we gave it to them. Now we're ready to roll."
Despite having some room for error, the Dodgers are far from healthy going into the playoffs.
Slugger Matt Kemp is out for the postseason with an ankle injury, while outfielder Andre Ethier will likely be limited to pinch-hitting duties because of his own ankle issues. He hasn't played in the field since Sept. 13.
While Ethier took part in the workout, he ruled out any chance of playing in the field."The ankle is getting better every day," he said. "It's not as fast as we want, but it's definitely on the timetable that we knew going in. Every day that it doesn't get more sore and set me back is a good day."
The Dodgers certainly won't get any sympathy from the Braves, who lost seven players to season-ending injuries.
Atlanta was bolstered by unlikely contributors such as Evan Gattis , who made the team as a non-roster player in the spring, hit 21 homers and paced all NL rookies with 65 RBIs. He's expected to bat cleanup against Dodgers ace Clayton Kershaw (16-9, 1.83 ERA) in the series opener.
Gattis is not alone. The Braves playoff roster is filled with guys who no one would've expected just a few months ago. Journeyman Elliot Johnson , acquired off waivers in August, will start at second base. Veteran pitcher Freddy Garcia , purchased from Baltimore late in the season, is set to start Game 4 if the best-of-five series goes that far. Rookie David Hale , who made two September starts after the rosters expanded, made the bullpen as a long reliever."We got a lot of contributions from a lot of guys who, coming into the season, a lot of people didn't expect," catcher Brian McCann said.
There also were some huge disappointments. Three-time All-Star second baseman Dan Uggla hit just .179 and didn't even make the 25-man squad, despite 22 homers. B.J. Upton was demoted to a backup role in the outfield after batting .184 with nine homers and 26 RBIs.
With Kemp out and Ethier hurting, the Dodgers are counting on veterans such as Young, Skip Schumaker and Jerry Hairston to step up. Plus, they have one of the most exciting - and sometimes exasperating - rookies in the game, 22-year-old Yasiel Puig , who batted .319 with 19 homers and 42 RBIs."Matt is a great player," first baseman Adrian Gonzalez said. "But we have a bunch of great players behind him."
Kris Medlen (15-12, 3.11) will start Game 1 for the Braves. He was the loser in last year's wild-card playoff against the St. Louis Cardinals and struggled a bit early this season, but the Braves are confident he can go pitch-for-pitch with Kershaw."Some guys thrive in these situations. Some guys don't," McCann said. "He's definitely one of those guys that the bigger the moment, the more he thrives."
The Braves also discount their shaky performance down the stretch, which cost them home-field advantage throughout the NL playoffs. Atlanta won just 13 of 27 games in September and lost the top seed to St. Louis by a game, which certainly raised the question of whether the team is destined for its eight straight playoff series loss. The Braves haven't won a postseason series since 2001."We clinched the division with a week and a half to go, but we still had home-field advantage we were fighting for," first baseman Freddie Freeman insisted. "We fought all the way to the end of the season. There was no edge taken away. We were competing every day, every game. That's going to help us going in."
Atlanta shrugged off its history of playoff failures, which dates to an unprecedented run of 14 straight division titles from 1991-2005 that resulted in only one World Series championship.
McCann is the only active holdover from the Braves' last division crown. He said this team isn't dwelling on the ones that got away."No one here was even part of it for those 14 years. I just caught the tail end of it that last year," McCann said. "I don't think anybody thinks about that. Once the game starts, it's just us vs. them."
Follow Paul Newberry on Twitter at www.twitter.com/pnewberry1963
|Jerry Hairston Jr.||3||.000||0||0||0||0||0||.000||.000||.000|
|Scott Van Slyke||3||.000||0||0||0||0||1||.000||.000||.000|
|Los Angeles Dodgers|
|September 29, 2013||Matt Kemp||Day-to-Day||Swelling in left ankle bone|
|September 26, 2013||Jerry Hairston Jr.||Day-to-Day||Back|
|September 25, 2013||Andre Ethier||Day-to-Day||Sprained left ankle|
|September 19, 2013||Adrian Gonzalez||Day-to-Day||Quadriceps|
|September 02, 2013||Yasiel Puig||Day-to-Day||Left game - Right knee strain|
|August 04, 2013||Hanley Ramirez||Day-to-Day||Jammed right shoulder|
|September 26, 2013||Brian McCann||Day-to-Day||Right adductor strain|
|September 26, 2013||Jordan Walden||Day-to-Day||Groin|
|September 11, 2013||Paul Maholm||Day-to-Day||Sore left elbow|
|September 10, 2013||Justin Upton||Day-to-Day||Bruised right knee|
|August 29, 2013||Justin Upton||Day-to-Day||Left hand injury|
|August 22, 2013||Jason Heyward||15-Day DL||Fractured right jaw|
ATLANTA (AP) -- Give Clayton Kershaw a 5-0 lead by the fourth inning, and there's not much chance he'll mess things up.
The Los Angeles Dodgers are off to quite a start in the NL division series.
Kershaw struck out 12 during seven dominant innings, Adrian Gonzalez hit a two-run homer and the Dodgers beat the Atlanta Braves 6-1 in Game 1 on Thursday night.
The big-money Dodgers haven't won a World Series championship since 1988 - by far their longest dry spell since the franchise moved from Brooklyn to Southern California in 1958.
In an interesting twist, Kershaw was born the same year as that most recent title. If the ace left-hander keeps pitching the way he did in his first postseason win, the Dodgers might have a chance to go all the way again.
"This one definitely has special meaning to me," Kershaw said.
For the bumbling Braves, it was another dose of October misery.
"When you have an opposing pitcher on the mound who is as good as Kershaw, there's not a lot of room for error," said Atlanta starter Kris Medlen , knocked out in the fifth. "I had a lot of error tonight."
Game 2 in the best-of-five series is Friday night in Atlanta, with Zack Greinke (15-4) starting for the Dodgers against Mike Minor (13-9).
Kershaw, who had a 1.83 ERA during the regular season, limited the Braves to Chris Johnson 's run-scoring single with two outs in the fourth. That just seemed to make the pitcher mad - he struck out Andrelton Simmons to end Atlanta's only serious threat, and the next five Braves hitters for good measure.
Appropriately, Kershaw finished up by striking out the side in the seventh, matching his season high for Ks. He allowed just three hits.
"He's the best pitcher in baseball," Gonzalez said, "and he showed it tonight."
Atlanta struck out 15 times in all.
Even though slugger Matt Kemp is out for the playoffs and Andre Ethier is hobbling with an injured ankle, the Dodgers had no trouble piling up runs against Medlen, who came into the playoffs riding a five-game winning streak.
He gave up nine hits and five runs in four-plus innings, finally getting the hook when he plunked Yasiel Puig with a pitch right between the shoulder blades.
Of course, Medlen would've fared better if he'd gotten any help from the guys behind him.
The Braves played some truly atrocious defense, though they were not charged with an error.
In the second, rookie left fielder Evan Gattis flopped to the ground in an attempt to catch a sinking liner, only to look very much like the converted catcher he is. The ball hit by A.J. Ellis rolled all the way to the wall for an RBI double, putting the Dodgers ahead 2-0 on a play that an outfielder with even a modest amount of experience probably would've grabbed fairly easily.
"I thought there was a couple plays that we could have made," Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez said. "I think that the guys were just a little amped up."
Adrian Gonzalez began to put it out of reach in the third, driving a pitch over the center-field wall for his first postseason homer, a two-run shot that made it 4-0 as a sense of doom fell over a Turner Field crowd that had been so raucous in the first when Medlen struck out the side.
Not that Atlanta fans haven't seen this all before.
The Braves are perhaps best known for winning only one World Series ring during a historic run of 14 straight division titles. Now, they're already in the hole as they try to snap a streak of losing seven straight postseason series since 2001.
At least they're not done yet.
After losing to St. Louis in a one-and-done wild-card game last season, which was marred by a disputed infield-fly call, the Braves have a chance to bounce back this time.
In addition to Gattis' stumbling attempt at a catch, second baseman Elliot Johnson bobbled Carl Crawford 's grounder leading off the third, a play that was generously ruled a hit by the official scorer. Medlen retired the next two hitters, but Gonzalez drove the next pitch over the wall, with Jason Heyward making a futile leap that left him hanging from the top.
Heyward, who was moved from right field to center as part of an outfield reshuffling, had his own problems. Twice, he overthrew the cutoff man on throws to the plate, allowing runners to advance. Just to add to Atlanta's outfield woes, Justin Upton wasn't even close on a sliding attempt when Ellis doubled down the right-field line in the fourth.
He wound up scoring on Mark Ellis ' two-out single, stretching the lead to 5-0.
Kershaw struggled with command of his fastball, but worked more off his breaking pitches and made it look easy against the free-swinging Braves.
"Strikeouts just kind of happen," he said. "It's not something I'm trying to do. I'm just trying to get outs as fast as possible."
Gattis, one of Atlanta's most pleasant surprises during the regular season, had a miserable night in his postseason debut. He ended the second by somehow getting doubled off first on a lazy fly to short right field.
Dan Uggla watched it all from the dugout. The three-time All-Star was left off the Braves' playoff roster after a dismal season in which he batted just .179 with a franchise-record 171 strikeouts.
Uggla wasn't the only big-money flop for the Braves, who had to juggle their outfield because of B.J. Upton's season-long slump. After signing a five-year, $75.25 million deal during the offseason, he batted just .184 and was finally benched late in the year. Merely a backup in the playoffs, he took a called third strike as a pinch-hitter in the fifth and walked slowly toward the dugout to a chorus of boos.
"It just got away from us," Braves catcher Brian McCann said.
NOTES: The Dodgers put Ethier on their 25-man roster even though he can likely only be used as a pinch-hitter because of an ankle injury. He came up in that role in the eighth, batting for Kershaw and grounding out to first base. ... After Medlen struck out the first three hitters of the game, Los Angeles didn't have another 1-2-3 inning until the seventh against Braves rookie Alex Wood . ... Skip Schumaker started in center field for the Dodgers and drove in the first run with a sacrifice fly in the second. ... Brian Wilson and Kenley Jansen finished up with one scoreless inning apiece. Jansen struck out the side in the ninth.
Follow Paul Newberry on Twitter at www.twitter.com/pnewberry1963