NLDS Preview: Kershaw looms large in Dodgers-Braves matchup
The National League East champion Braves will open their Division Series against the NL West champion Dodgers in Atlanta on Thursday. The Braves won the season series 5-2, though all seven games were played before Los Angeles' historic hot streak began in late June, and both teams had losing records in September: 13-14 for Atlanta, 12-15 for L.A. The Braves, who have homefield advantage in the series, had baseball's best home record while the Dodgers had the best road mark.
Player To Watch: Clayton Kershaw, Dodgers LHP
The influence of the game's best starting pitcher is particularly pronounced in a five-game series, and Kershaw, who is scheduled to be on the mound for Games 1 and 5, could get the Dodgers two-thirds of the victories they'll need to reach the NLCS if he wins both of his outings. Though Kershaw hasn't faced Atlanta since 2011, he has mowed through the rest of the NL, leading the Senior Circuit with a 1.83 ERA, 236 innings and a 0.92 WHIP.
Braves outfielder Justin Upton, a former NL West resident with the Diamondbacks, has faced the lefty Cy Young favorite the most, going 3-for-29 for a .103 batting average and .368 OPS. The rest of the Braves' hitters haven't fared much better:11-for-83 combined in their careers for a .133 average, .408 OPS and one home run (by Freddie Freeman, who with one hit and two walks in four plate appearances is the lone bright spot against Kershaw).
Though Atlanta's Game 1 starter, Kris Medlen, is no slouch -- he dominated the Dodgers in two starts this year (one unearned run in 13 2/3 innings) and was the NL's player of the month in September while pitching 36 innings with a 1.00 ERA -- he's clearly the underdog in the projected pitching matchups against Kershaw. The onus will be on the Braves to win every game Kershaw doesn't start.
Atlanta's relievers had a 2.46 ERA this season, essentially tied (with the 2003 Dodgers) for the best such mark since the 1990 A's, and have been excellent at protecting late-inning leads. They were a majors' best 71-5 (.934) when leading after six innings, and the composition of that unit includes a bevy of hard-throwing righthanders --namely, closer Craig Kimbrel and set-up men Jordan Walden and David Carpenter -- who have given righty batters fits. All three have averaged at least 95 miles per hour with their fastball and have held righthanded opponents to a sub-.700 OPS: Kimbrel (.393 OPS against), Carpenter (.506) and Walden (.690). Righthanders Anthony Varvaro and Luis Ayala have also fared well, albeit at lesser velocities.
L.A.'s top two hitters this season, Puig and Ramirez, are righthanded. They've fared exceedingly well against righty pitching this season -- Ramirez has 13 home runs and a 1.001 OPS in 243 such plate appearances while Puig has 13 homers and an .897 OPS in 315 PAs -- which will be put to the test by a barrage of Braves flamethrowers from the right side. (Look for lefty-swinging Adrian Gonzalez to get a steady dose of lefthanded relievers Luis Avilan and Alex Wood.)
Stat To Know: Freeman's post-All Star production
There's a hitter in this series who's been nearly as scorching as Ramirez for the season's final 11 weeks, and that's Freeman, whose .952 OPS on a .335/.408/.544 slash line ranks second only to Ramirez's .970 among players in this series. In addition, Freeman's 14 home runs in 66 games after the All-Star break are the most by any player on either club. He can hit lefthanded pitching, too, albeit with less power (.287/.367/.397 slash line), which is important because the Dodgers are likely to start three lefthanded pitchers: Kershaw twice and Hyun-jin Ryu once.
Roster Snapshot: Dodgers injuries
Centerfielder Matt Kemp has already been ruled out for the playoffs. Outfielder Andre Ethier has batted once since Sept. 13. Ramirez has not played back-to-back games in just as long. Puig exited a game over the weekend after fouling a ball off his foot. Reserves Nick Punto and Jerry Hairston have also been absent recently.
Given this recent spate of injuries, perhaps it's not surprising that Los Angeles hasn't played as well down the stretch. For as good as the Dodgers were from mid-June through the end of August -- at one point winning 42 of 50 games -- they actually finished the season on a sour note by losing 15 of their final 24 games. Ethier may be limited to pinch-hitting in the NLDS, but Puig and Ramirez aren't expected to be slowed much by their ailments, and Los Angeles will need them at their best.
X-factor: Braves bench
In 13 pinch-hit appearances, Evan Gattis was 6-for-10 with four home runs, a double and three walks. That sample size is likely plenty meaningful to opponents who may pitch around El Oso Blanco in key late-game spots. Meanwhile, Reed Johnson was Atlanta's most consistent regular pinch-hitter (11-for-37 with a combined six walks and hit-by-pitches for a .395 OBP), while Jordan Schafer will give the Braves a threat from the left side of the plate.
Those three are the main reason why Atlanta ranked third among NL clubs in pinch-hit production. The Dodgers, meanwhile, were second-worst in that category, and their injuries have only exacerbated the difference between the two. Both Ethier, if he's healthy enough to be effective in that role, and waiver-trade acquisition Michael Young could help the team's depth.
Prediction: Dodgers in 5