The Braves enter their National League division series against the Dodgers as underdogs according to most pundits, despite having the better record and home-field advantage in the best-of-five series. Here are five keys for the Braves to win a postseason series for the first time since 2001.
Heyward supplies spark: The Braves lineup thrived after Heyward was moved into the leadoff role in late July, going 18-4 in 22 games beginning the day after he was moved to the No. 1 spot. He hit .357 with 11 extra-base hits, 24 runs and 15 RBIs in those 22 games before getting hit in the face by a 90-mph fastball that fractured his jaw in two places.
The Braves went 13-13 while he was on the DL, and since he returned Sept. 20 they are 6-2 in his eight starts. For the season, Heyward hit .322 with a .403 OBP and .551 slugging percentage in 118 at-bats from the leadoff spot, while nine other Braves hit a combined .226 in 563 leadoff at-bats.
Bullpen stays dominant: The Braves have the game’s premier closer, Craig Kimbrel, and a bullpen that finished with a 2.46 ERA, tied for the best since the 1990 Athletics (2.35). But the Braves showed signs of fatigue in September from left-handers Luis Avilan and Scott Downs, prompting the move of rookie lefty Alex Wood to the ‘pen for the playoffs.
Downs gave up 13 hits and five runs in three total innings of 10 September appearances, allowing a .619 opponents’ average in that span while facing mostly left-handed hitters.
Time off before the division series could help assure Avilan is back in form. He allowed no earned runs and a .106 batting average in 35 appearances May 24-Aug. 15, then five earned runs and a .265 average in his next 16 appearances.
Kimbrel took the loss in Game 3 of a four-game division series vs. San Francisco as a rookie in 2010. He was perfect in three other appearances in that series and one inning of last year’s Wild Card loss to St. Louis, his only postseason appearance since he became a full-time closer in 2011. Kimbrel led the majors with 50 saves this season and had a 0.67 ERA in his last 54 games, with 77 strikeouts in 53-2/3 innings and 40 saves in 41 opportunities.
Medlen keeps it going: The Braves lost veteran Tim Hudson to a broken ankle on July 24, and since then Kris Medlen is 9-1 with a 2.04 ERA in 11 starts, including 5-0 with a 0.84 ERA in his past six. He was NL Pitcher of the Month for September and the Braves need him to keep it up when he faces Clayton Kershaw in Game 1.
Medlen could get two starts against Kershaw if the series goes five. Kershaw is a lock to win his second Cy Young Award in three years after going 16-9 and leading the league’s starters in ERA (1.83), strikeouts (232 in 236 innings) and WHIP (0.915). The left-hander went 10-4 with a 1.57 ERA in last 16 starts, with 114 strikeouts and 19 walks.
Kershaw has no decisions and a 2.45 ERA in four starts against the Braves and last faced them in 2011. Medlen, a Los Angeles-area native, is 3-0 with a 1.23 ERA in eight games (three starts) against the Dodgers, including 1-0 with no earned runs allowed in two starts this season (seven hits in 13-2/3 innings).
Another starter ascends: Medlen appears ready for the Kershaw challenge, but the Braves need at least one other starter at his best in the series. The Dodgers’ 3.13 starters’ ERA was easily the majors’ best, and they’ll start Zack Greinke (15-4, 2.63) in Game 2 and Hyun-Jin Ryu (14-8, 3.00 ERA) in Game 3.
Braves lefty Mike Minor, set for Game 2, was 2-4 with a 4.30 ERA in his last 1o starts, after going 11-5 with a 2.75 ERA in his first 22. Game 3 starter Julio Teheran was 5-3 with a 3.88 ERA in his last eight starts, after going 9-5 with a 2.38 ERA in 19 starts from April 23 through Aug. 6.
Teheran toggled between strong and mediocre in his last eight starts, giving up one or no earned runs in three and four earned runs in four. The Braves need him at his best against Ryu before a loud, large Dodger Stadium crowd in Game 3.
Solid defense all series: The Braves won 20 games in September 2012, but saw their postseason hopes come unraveled in the Wild Card game against St. Louis largely because of a three-run inning following a Chipper Jones throwing error on a potential double-play grounder.
Led by shortstop Andrelton Simmons, the Braves have been a good defensive team this season. But a few notable exceptions proved costly for a team that ended up only one win away from having the NL’s best record. They must avoid giving the Dodgers any extra outs, since scoring runs against the Dodgers’ top three starters could be difficult.