Cincinnati Reds (82-63) vs. Atlanta Braves (86-57)
Regular season: Atlanta won four of the seven games.
Craig Kimbrel (19 saves, 0.00 ERA, 11.96 K/9 since All-Star break; Reds' players batting .280/.419/520 with 2 HR in 25 career AB vs. Kimbrel)
Freddie Freeman (.298/.366/.500, 10 HR since All-Star break; .303/.352/.485 with 2 HR in 66 career AB vs. current Reds)
Justin Upton (.263/.348/.463, 8 HR since All-Star break; .240/.329/429 with 5 HR in 129 career AB vs. current Reds)
Homer Bailey (5-2, 2.62 ERA, 9.04 K/9 since All-Star break; Braves' players batting .252/.330/320 with 1 HR and 23 K in 103 career AB vs. Bailey)
Zack Cozart (.300/.337/.400, 3 HR since All-Star break; .315/.327/.611 with 3 HR in 54 career AB vs. current Braves)
Shin-Soo Choo (.298/.426/.480, 7 HR, 6 SB since All-Star break; .356/.457/.559 with 3 HR in 59 career AB vs. current Braves)
Series hinges on...
Strength of schedule.
I'm not trying to discount or completely write off how well the Braves have played in the second half—or, at least, how well they were playing before traveling to Philadelphia last weekend. They have gone 32-16 since the All-Star break, and unless I'm mistaken, all 48 of those games came against MLB teams made up of players being paid to play professional baseball.
Winning two out of every three games played over a two-month period is no small feat.
But we have to point out that—unless Cleveland steals a spot in the AL—the Braves will enter the postseason having played just seven of their final 67 games against playoff teams while holding at least a 10-game lead in the NL East on every single day since July 30.
At a certain point, you have to at least wonder whether or not a team can flip the switch to playoff mode after nearly two months of essentially going through the motions. To some extent, it has to work to Cincinnati's advantage that they've spent the entire second half of the season fighting for a playoff spot against playoff teams, right?
And in conjunction with that concern, what exactly is optimal production from the Braves? Who is the ace of the staff? Who are they expecting to come up with a great hit in the clutch? By default, we can come up with answers, but is Freeman anywhere near as valuable as Joey Votto? Would you really rather have Mike Minor or Julio Teheran on the mound than Mat Latos or Homer Bailey?
Kimbrel is an incredible closer, but there's a reason we've been tossing his name around in the NL Cy Young and MVP debates in lieu of literally anyone else from the team with the best record in the NL.
Even if both teams play up to their full potential, I like the Reds by a considerable margin. Having to burn Latos in the wild card game could come back to bite them, but Bailey, Tony Cingrani and Bronson Arroyo are, at worst, capable of keeping the series alive long enough to get a quality start from Latos.
I think this series goes the full five games and that the fatigued team that emerges will fall victim to the Dodgers in the NLCS, but I'm taking Cincinnati.
Despite our former vitriol over Dusty Baker's refusal to put someone else in the No. 2 spot in the order, Cozart has led the Reds in batting average since the All-Star break and is heating up just in time to face a team against which he has very solid career numbers.
It would be ironic justice to have him get the series-winning hit after several months of questioning whether the Reds could even make the playoffs with him in the top half of the order every night.