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Ranking the Los Angeles Dodgers' Ideal First-Round Matchups

Nick Ostiller@@NickOstillerContributor IISeptember 12, 2014

Los Angeles Dodgers' Hanley Ramirez, left, scores past San Francisco Giants catcher Buster Posey in the fifth inning of a baseball game Sunday, July 27, 2014, in San Francisco. Ramirez scored on a triple by Carl Crawford. (AP Photo/Ben Margot)
Ben Margot/Associated Press

The Los Angeles Dodgers control their own destiny as they sit atop the National League West with just more than two weeks remaining in the MLB regular season. While the Boys in Blue get to worry about the San Francisco Giants breathing down their necks, it's never too early for us to take a look at possible first-round matchups that may await Don Mattingly's club come October.

Last season, Los Angeles met the Atlanta Braves in the NLDS and defeated them in four games. With the Braves clawing to avoid being tomahawk-chopped out of postseason contention, the Dodgers may face a new foe assuming they hold on and make the playoffs for a second straight year.

There are six teams that Los Angeles could be pitted against in the first round, each of them presenting their own potential challenges for the Dodgers.

Atlanta Braves

The Dodgers know they can beat the Braves in a playoff series, having done it just last season. That's why Atlanta is the ideal first-round matchup for Los Angeles.

Last year's NLDS was a relatively easy task for the Dodgers. They dominated two of the four games and their third victory came on the strength of Juan Uribe's series-clinching home run late in Game 4.

LOS ANGELES, CA - OCTOBER 06:  Julio Teheran #49 of the Atlanta Braves is pulled in the third inning against the Los Angeles Dodgers during Game Three of the National League Division Series at Dodger Stadium on October 6, 2013 in Los Angeles, California.
Victor Decolongon/Getty Images

Atlanta simply doesn't have the starting pitching to compete with the likes of Clayton Kershaw, Zack Greinke and Hyun-Jin Ryu. The Braves' ace, Julio Teheran, struggled against the Dodgers in the playoffs last year, surrendering six runs in less than three innings.

The matchup hasn't gotten much better for Teheran this year, either. In two starts against Los Angeles, the young right-hander allowed seven runs in 15 innings, good for an 0-2 record.

Overall, the Dodgers took six of seven from the Braves during the regular season. Look for a repeat of last year if this turns out to be a first-round matchup, as Dodgers pitchers will have no problem with an Atlanta offense that ranks in the bottom third of baseball in batting average and OPS.

Pittsburgh Pirates

The Bucs are looking to qualify for back-to-back playoff appearances for the first time since 1991-92. This matchup is another one that the Dodgers should welcome, considering the Pirates' postseason inexperience.

While Pittsburgh's offense is much better than Atlanta's, everyone knows that pitching wins in the postseason. The Pirates' team ERA ranks among the middle of the league and the team has no discernable ace. Veteran Francisco Liriano will likely take the ball opposite Kershaw, followed by Gerrit Cole against Greinke. This scenario just doesn't bode well for Pittsburgh, which currently sits in the second wild-card slot four games behind the Giants.

Jun 1, 2014; Los Angeles, CA, USA; Pittsburgh Pirates center fielder Andrew McCutchen (22) hits a solo home run during the third inning against the Los Angeles Dodgers at Dodger Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Richard Mackson-USA TODAY Sports
USA TODAY Sports

One advantage that the Pirates have going for them in a potential matchup with the Dodgers is confidence. Andrew McCutchen and Co. took it to Los Angeles during the regular season, winning five of seven games. Unfortunately, regular-season numbers only go so far in October—as the Braves know all too well. Atlanta won five of seven from the Dodgers last year before bowing out to them in the first round.

The Pirates own the second-best home record in the National League and the Dodgers have one of the worst home records among playoff contenders. If Pittsburgh is able to steal home-field advantage by winning at Chavez Ravine, the Dodgers may be in for some trouble.

Milwaukee Brewers

The Brewers have been one of the most surprising teams in baseball. They led the NL Central for most of the season before a recent slide put a major dent in what seemed to be likely playoff berth.

They remain in contention, though, 1.5 games behind Pittsburgh for the second wild-card spot. They are also one of three teams to defeat Kershaw this season, and the only one to do so in the last four months.

Mark J. Terrill/Associated Press

Talented leadoff hitter Carlos Gomez and franchise outfielder Ryan Braun each went deep against the soon-to-be Cy Young Award winner back in August. The 3-1 victory helped the Brewers complete a sweep of the Dodgers at Dodger Stadium, one week after taking two of three from them in Milwaukee.

Confidence won't be an issue for the Brew Crew if they meet the Dodgers in Round 1. Neither will power. Milwaukee leads all NL playoff contenders in long balls.

But as in most playoff series, the team with the best pitching usually prevails. Aside from Yovani Gallardo and Kyle Lohse, Milwaukee's staff is young and inexperienced in the heat of postseason battle.

St. Louis Cardinals

The team that Milwaukee is now trying to chase in the NL Central possesses heaps of postseason experience. The St. Louis Cardinals have been one of the most consistently successful teams in baseball for the better part of a decade.

St. Louis was the final resting place for the 2013 Dodgers, who saw their season end amid a sea of red in the NLCS. The Cardinals would go on to lose in the World Series to the Boston Red Sox.

While the Cardinals have dealt with a variety of injuries this season, they once again find themselves in first place due to a tenacity and chemistry that has become synonymous with the franchise.

LOS ANGELES, CA - OCTOBER 14:  Adam Wainwright #50 of the St. Louis Cardinals pitches in the first inning against the Los Angeles Dodgers in Game Three of the National League Championship Series at Dodger Stadium on October 14, 2013 in Los Angeles, Califo
Jeff Gross/Getty Images

For those looking for a more tangible reason behind their success, it starts with Adam Wainwright. With their talented right-hander, the Cardinals are one of the few National League teams—along with the Dodgers—to possess a bona fide ace. Wainwright is 17-9 with a 2.62 ERA. The Redbirds also possess a respectable No. 2 in Lance Lynn, whose numbers are just a shade behind Wainwright's.

While the Dodgers must respect the Cardinals' postseason potential, the rest of St. Louis' rotation is nowhere near as strong as it was last year. NLCS MVP Michael Wacha just returned from a long stint on the disabled list and Joe Kelly, a key contributor during the 2013 playoffs, was traded away. The Cardinals' offense has also regressed from last year.

The Dodgers took four of seven from St. Louis during the regular season.

San Francisco Giants

Despite playing in the same division, the Dodgers and Giants could be on a collision course for a first-round matchup due to the new playoff format.

The winner of the wild-card game will play the team with the best record in the National League, divisional cohabitation notwithstanding.

San Francisco has been the hottest team in baseball, having won 12 of its last 15 contests to grasp the first wild-card spot in the NL. The Giants reeled off a similar late-season push in 2012 en route to a World Series title.

LOS ANGELES, CA - MAY 11:  (L-R) Buster Posey #28, Santiago Casilla #46, Pablo Sandoval #48 and Joaquin Arias #13 of the San Francisco Giants laugh on the mound with a 4-2 lead during the eighth inning against the Los Angeles Dodgers at Dodger Stadium on
Harry How/Getty Images

The Giants won it all in 2010 and 2012 on the strength of their pitching, but missed the playoffs in 2011 and 2013. If the recent history repeats itself, San Francisco is primed for another deep run in the playoffs because 2014 is an even-numbered year.

It's why the Dodgers should not want to face their divisional rivals in the first round.

First, Los Angeles will attempt to put a halt to the Giants' nine-game home winning streak this weekend as the two teams face off in a very crucial series that doubles as a potential NLDS matchup.

While the Dodgers starting rotation is arguably the best in baseball, their bullpen is very mediocre. Relief pitching is nearly just as important as starting pitching in the postseason, and it's one of Los Angeles' glaring weaknesses.

The Giants, on the other hand, boast a top-five relief corps. Left-handers Jeremy Affeldt and Javier Lopez each have sub-3.00 ERAs while right-handers Jean Machi and closer Santiago Casilla possess sub-2.00 ERAs.

When the going gets tough in the postseason, it doesn't get much better than what San Francisco trots out of the bullpen. The Dodgers' bullpen has been inconsistent all season long, which will put even more pressure on their starters to go deep into October games.

Washington Nationals

Jae C. Hong/Associated Press

The least ideal first-round matchup for the Dodgers is a series against the Washington Nationals.

One of the most balanced teams in baseball, Washington is built for a deep postseason run and will likely be the first NL team to clinch a postseason berth. Pitching is the quintessential weapon in October, and the Nationals' staff can easily go toe-to-toe with Los Angeles. Their starters' ERA and bullpen ERA are both among the top five in baseball.

Stephen Strasburg and Jordan Zimmerman form a lethal 1-2 punch atop a rotation that just doesn't quit. Back-end starters Doug Fister and Tanner Roark both have ERAs below 3.00. The only starter for Washington with an ERA above that threshold is lefty Gio Gonzalez (3.78).

The Nats' lineup is also very capable. Infielders Anthony Rendon and Ian Desmond have experienced breakout years at the plate, while phenom Bryce Harper is heating up at the perfect time. Jayson Werth and Adam LaRoche offer invaluable veteran poise and leadership.

Washington recently took two of three from the Dodgers in Los Angeles, and did the same back in D.C. four months ago.

The two teams are battling for the best record in the league, so the most likely way for them to meet in the NLDS would be if the Dodgers stumble and end up as the wild-card winner.

All stats courtesy of ESPN.com unless otherwise noted.

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