Through the first two months of the 2013 baseball season, it didn’t look like the Los Angeles Dodgers would be in this position. On June 1, the club was 23-31, sitting in last place and 7.5 games out of the lead in the National League West. Now, L.A. is starting the playoffs as the favorites to represent the NL in the World Series.
On Thursday, they’ll visit the Atlanta Braves in Game One of the NL Divisional Series. It’s the Dodgers’ first playoff series since 2009 when they lost to the Philadelphia Phillies in the NLCS.
No team has played as well as Los Angeles did over the final two-thirds of the season. From June to August, they turned a 7.5-game deficit into an 11.5-game lead.
The Braves' path to the postseason is much like that of the Dodgers. Unlike Los Angeles, Atlanta led their division for much of the year. Still, both clubs were able to coast for the entirety of the last month. A month ago, the NL East champs were 15 games up on the second-place Washington Nationals. From that moment on, the Braves had a losing record. L.A. went 12-16 in the final month.
"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."
Both teams have formidable lineups, but reached the playoffs on the strength of their pitching. Atlanta ended the year with an MLB best 3.18 ERA. Los Angeles was right behind them at 3.25.
The Braves have the best relief pitching in the Majors. Three members of Atlanta’s bullpen made at least 56 appearances with an ERA below 2.00. Closer Craig Kimbrel led the way with a 1.21 ERA, 50 saves and over 13 strikeouts per nine innings.
Kimbrel might be a serious Cy Young contender if it weren’t for the Dodgers top starter. Clayton Kershaw leads the best rotation in baseball with an incredible 1.83 ERA in 236 innings. The 25-year-old will get the start in Game One, making his sixth ever postseason appearance. He struggled in his first two years during the playoffs, pitching to a 5.87 ERA in 15.1 innings.
"Four years in the big leagues, you learn a lot," Kershaw said. "Every time out, you learn something new. You tack that on for four years, I feel like I'm definitely prepared."
Kris Medlen gets the call for the Braves, following up a 15-win season. He's had a lot of success against the Dodgers, allowing Los Angeles’ batters to hit just .217 average.
Two the Dodgers most consistent hitters in recent years won’t be in the lineup on Thursday. An ankle injury will keep Matt Kemp off the field until 2014. Andre Ethier is on the NLDS roster, but will only be used as a pinch-hitter because of a leg injury.
L.A. and Atlanta will each carry 11 pitchers and 14 position players in the best-of-five series. Game Two is set for Friday night.
Start Time: 8:37 p.m. ET
Betting Odds: Los Angeles-140, Atlanta+130
TV Channel: TBS
Live Stream: Postseason.TV
Prediction: Los Angeles 3, Atlanta 1