The National League playoff are set and the Los Angeles Dodgers are headed east to take on the Atlanta Braves in the NLDS opening round series, starting Thursday at Turner Field in Atlanta. A late push by the St. Louis Cardinals gave the Redbirds the top overall seed and forced the Braves/Dodgers series. After Thursday and Friday games in Atlanta the series will head west to Los Angeles for games next Sunday and Monday at Dodger Stadium.
The Braves dominated the season series, winning five of seven games, although the majority of the games were played prior to the Dodgers epic run of strong play that vaulted them into first place. Here are the three biggest keys to victory for the Dodgers:
Kershaw and Greinke: The Dodgers have the best one-two starting combination of all the National League playoff teams. This season Clayton Kershaw but up numbers that a haven’t been accomplished by a Dodgers left-handed starter since Sandy Koufax. He’s the odds on favorite to win the Cy Young and will start the series opener in Atlanta. Due to quirks in the scheduling the Braves haven’t faced the Dodgers ace in three seasons, missing his turn in the rotation each of the past two seasons. The lack of familiarity that many of the Braves hitters have toward Kershaw is a potential big factor. Since the opening round series is only five games and opening game victory is vital for the Dodgers. If they can jump on Kris Medlen early and take the series lead they’ll be in good shape moving forward. The added benefit of having Zack Greinke go in the second game gives the Dodgers strong odds to wrest home field advantage away from the Braves. The Dodgers right-hander was as dominant as Kershaw after the All-Star break with a 1.85 ERA and an opponent’s batting average of .214.
Restrict the Long Ball: The Atlanta Braves lead the National League in home runs and have several players in the lineup capable to quickly impacting a close game. They don’t have a high team batting average but are adept at using the long ball to change games in an instant. The key for the Dodgers pitching staff is to keep the ball on the ground, do not walk anyone, and restrict the long ball. The first two games of the series shape up well with Kershaw and Greinke. The two starters gave up just 24 total home runs this season in 67 combined starts.
Don’t try to come from behind: The Braves, due to dominant closer Craig Kimbrel and a group of solid setup men, have the best bullpen ERA in all of baseball. Much like the great Mariano Rivera led Yankee teams the Braves rarely give up leads late, making it vitally important to get an early lead. Kimbrel notched just the 11th fifty save season in baseball history this year, doing so with an incredible 1.21 ERA. The closer blew just four saves and struck out 98 batters in just 67 innings pitched. He has good command and an array of devastating strikeout pitches.