In the blink of an eye, October has arrived.
On Thursday night, the Los Angeles Dodgers will play their first playoff game in four years, facing the Atlanta Braves as the two talented National League foes begin their NL division series at Atlanta’s Turner Field.
While the Dodgers are ecstatic to have won the NL West and made the postseason, their ultimate goal is to win a World Series. They will be challenged immediately by a tough opponent in the Braves.
Although their regular-season matchups came in the first half of the season during the Dodgers’ rough stretch, the Braves owned the teams’ season series with a three-game sweep of the Dodgers in Atlanta and then splitting a four-game series at Dodger Stadium shortly after the call-up of Yasiel Puig in June.
On paper, both teams are evenly matched. They have tremendous power in their lineups and also have a pair of pitchers who can carry them through the series.
As fans keep a close eye on the clock in eager anticipation of Game 1 of the NLDS, here’s a look at what the Dodgers need to do in order to win and advance to the NLCS.
The Dodgers and the Braves had nearly the same success in hitting with runners in scoring position this season—Los Angeles batted .251 and Atlanta hit .252—while their pitchers managed such scenarios with varying success.
While no pitcher is pristine when a runner is two bases or less from scoring, the Dodgers' top three starters performed significantly better (8.39 ERA) with runners in scoring position than the Braves' (10.23 ERA).
Don Mattingly needs to exploit this discrepancy by getting runners in scoring position early and often, which fits right into his tendency to call for sacrifice bunts, particularly with the lower half of the order.
The Braves have a tremendous core of starters in Kris Medlen, Mike Minor, and Julio Teheran, and the former two dominated the Dodgers earlier this season. Medlen shut down the Blue Crew in two outings and Minor only allowed three runs in 12 innings over his two outings against L.A.
While those outings were in the initial months of the regular season when the Dodgers were struggling to put runs on the board, the Braves' starters nevertheless showed the Dodgers just how effective they can be in those two series.
Therefore, it's important that the Dodgers get runners in scoring position to put pressure on the Braves' starting pitchers, especially because Atlanta has home-field advantage.
Anchored by clutch closer Craig Kimbrel, the Braves have a lights-out bullpen, which will play a huge role in the outcome of the series.
The Dodgers have some encouraging regular-season statistics in their favor, including a team batting average (.266) and on-base percentage (.327) when trailing that rank second and first, respectively, in the National League.
On the other hand, the Braves don't hit nearly as well as the Dodgers when the scoreboard isn't in their favor (.233 BA [12th, NL] .296 OBP [10th, NL]).
Nonetheless, it's important that the Dodgers put runs on the board early in the game and make the Braves' starters work.
As promising as the Dodgers when-trailing averages are, there's another statistic that further urges the Boys in Blue to take an early lead in the NLDS: runs scored past the sixth inning.
This season, the Dodgers scored significantly less runs than the Braves (LAD: 195 [11th, NL], ATL: 217 [2nd, NL]) in the seventh inning or later, during which the Blue Crew will mainly face the Braves' bullpen.
Moreover, the Braves' starters are statistically better when pitching in the innings beyond the sixth.
While it's important that the Dodgers score early in their NLDS matchups against the Braves, it will need to be done with patience.
Patience at the plate will be an integral component to the Dodgers' success in the NLDS, particularly in Game 1, when they face Kris Medlen, who shut out the Dodgers in his two regular-season games against them this season.
While the 27-year-old righty fares well when he's ahead in the count (.218 BA 2.48 ERA), he crumbles when behind in the count, allowing a colossal .367 opponent batting average and 5.09 earned run average when the count isn't in his favor.
If the Dodgers are able to work the count and not only tack runs the board but drive Medlen's pitch count up, they'll force Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez to go to his bullpen earlier than he'd like to in Game 1, and could change the dynamics of the series.
Thus, it's important that the Dodgers keep patient at the plate and force Medlen to throw pitches in the strike zone.
Although they shouldn't take good pitches in the name of working the count, the Dodgers are one of the best-hitting teams in the NL (3rd: .218 BA) when they're behind in the count, which gives them the luxury to get deep in the count.
On the year, the Dodgers who best abided by this practice were veterans Andre Ethier, Adrian Gonzalez, A.J. Ellis, Mark Ellis, and Carl Crawford.
With power hitters like Justin Upton, Freddie Freeman, and Dan Uggla in the lineup, the Braves have enough bat power to hit their way to a World Series title, as backed by their NL-leading 181 home runs (LAD: 138 HR).
However, they also had the most strikeouts in the NL this year (1384; LAD: 1146 [12th]), which is good news for the Dodgers, who had the second-most defensive strikeouts in the NL (1292; ATL: 1232 [7th]) and will have the NL strikeout leader Clayton Kershaw taking the mound in Game 1.
This is another clear-cut advantage that the Dodgers need to employ in order to win the division series.
On a basic level, the Dodgers and Braves will utilize two different offensive strategies to win the series. The Dodgers will use an amalgamation of power hitting and small ball, and the Braves will predominantly try to blast the Blue Crew out of the water with power hitting.
The Dodgers pitching staff can use this to its advantage by keeping the Braves on their toes with a bevy of well-located off-speed pitches.
That won't be a hard task to carry out from the likes of Kershaw and Greinke, who have nasty curveballs, and Ryu, who has perfected his changeup this season.
One of the most compelling storylines to follow in the NLDS will be the performance of the Dodgers' rookie outfield Yasiel Puig.
The 22-year-old Cuban phenom, dubbed the "Wild Horse" by the Dodgers' legendary announcer Vin Scully, can either make the Dodgers' NLDS series with his electric skillset or break it with his unharnessed energy.
Puig was a timely spark plug for the Dodgers when he was called up the majors in June and is a big reason the Blue Crew was able to turn the season around.
However, as Newton's law has taught us, every action has an equal and opposite and reaction, and in Puig's case, his bottomless energy is accompanied by costly mistakes, particularly on the bases.
In a five-game series, Puig's influence is much more concentrated, which not only increases his potential for heroism but also for catastrophe.
In order for the Dodgers to pull off the NLDS, manager Don Mattingly and Puig's teammates must ingrain in his head the importance of every play.
Foolish errors like missing a cut-off man and allowing a runner to advance to an extra base and unnecessarily trying to stretch a double to a triple with no outs will have serious ramifications and will likely have a decisive influence on the outcome of the series.
Game 1 is a tossup with Clayton Kershaw the best pitcher in the NL and Kris Medlen having the heavy-hitting Braves behind him as they face off in Atlanta.
The Dodgers will have momentum and morale on their side if they win Game 1, but it's not the most important game in the series. Without home-field advantage, Game 2 is logistically the most important for the Dodgers.
Even if the Dodgers lose Game 1, they won't be down in the series heading back to Los Angeles if they win Game 2.
A Game 1 win for Los Angeles would provide momentum heading into its two-game home stretch and would increase the likelihood of the Dodgers closing out the series at Dodger Stadium.
Moreover, although Game 3 starter Hyun-Jin Ryu tends to pitch significantly better at home than he does on the road, he seems to also feed off the Dodgers' momentum.
In 17 starts following a Dodgers' win, Ryu's record was 9-3 with a 2.67 earned run average this season. However, in his 13 starts coming after a Dodgers' loss, the South Korean southpaw was 5-5 with a 3.42 earned run average.
The Dodgers' No. 1 and 2 starters—Kershaw and Zack Greinke—surprisingly pitch significantly better coming off of Los Angeles losses. Seven of Kershaw's nine losses and all four of Greinke's losses have come following Dodgers' wins.