2013 NLDS Preview: Los Angeles Dodgers vs. Atlanta Braves

When we last saw the Los Angeles Dodgers, they were doing cannonballs and belly flops into the pool located behind right-center field in Chase Field in Phoenix after they clinched the 2013 National League Western Division championship, putting an exclamation mark on one of the most unlikely and historic turnarounds in baseball history. The Dodgers had good reason to celebrate; but now, they’re in the postseason for the first time since 2009 and while their chances of making their first trip to the World Series since 1988 are good, a September swoon, along with another bite from the injury bug at season’s end has left them with more unanswered questions than answered.

The Dodgers first round opponent in the playoffs is the Atlanta Braves, the 2013 NL Eastern Division champions and a club with as many unanswered questions. Many prognosticators have the Dodgers winning this series, but Atlanta’s power-filled lineup could give the Dodgers fits. Basically, this is a series with neither team figuring to dominate the other. The Braves do hold the regular season edge against the Dodgers, having defeated them five out of the seven times they played them. However, at that time, Hanley Ramirez, Mark Ellis and Carl Crawford were among the walking wounded for the Dodgers, and a guy named Puig was still plugging away at AA-Chattanooga. If the Dodgers want to take a hack at the tomahawk chop, here’s a look at what they’ll need to do to emerge victorious:

Pitching, pitching and more pitching: Based on the numbers, the Dodgers have the upper hand on this one. It could be argued that Clayton Kershaw and Zach Greinke were the best 1-2 starters in baseball this year. Hyun-Jin Ryu had a quality season that should garner him Rookie of the Year votes and Ricky Nolasco finished with an 8-3 record following his trade from the Miami Marlins. However, Ryu and Nolasco weren't great in their last three starts, so they’ll need to be on the top of their games if the Dodgers stand any chance of winning. The Dodgers’ bullpen went through peaks and valleys this season, but they benefited from the arrival of Brian Wilson, who brought World Series experience with him. Kenley Jansen is as close to automatic as a closer as there is in the game.

Stay Healthy: For the Dodgers, this is easier said than done. Matt Kemp is out for the rest of the season and Andre Ethier is doubtful for this series, so the Dodgers will already be without two key bats in their lineup. As long as Don Mattingly can keep Hanley Ramirez and Yasiel Puig in the lineup, the Dodgers should be OK.

Situational Hitting: Simply put, the Dodgers were downright awful in this department. Out of 30 teams, the Dodgers ranked 23, leaving an average of 3.63 runners on base. This will not do. In case you’re curious, the Braves were the third best team, leaving an average of 3.22 runners on base.

Yasiel Puig: Like it or not, Puig is a concern for the Dodgers. Just one swing from his bat could dramatically change a game for the Dodgers. Unfortunately, one mental blunder on the base paths or in the field could have him exchanging psyche service numbers with Bill Buckner. He’s too good to keep out of the lineup, but is he this enigmatic to keep out? Only Mattingly can answer that.

Prediction: If great pitching truly is responsible for winning world championships, then the Dodgers have the edge over the Braves. Kershaw and Greinke have the ability to make any lineup look pedestrian and if Ryu and Nolasco recover from their late season struggles, then the Braves will be scheduling early tee times at the golf course. With their pitching, the Dodgers will need to score early and often to give their rotation a comfortable cushion.

Final Line: Dodgers in four.

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