The Atlanta Braves may be the least scary 96-win team I’ve ever seen. (Take note, Braves fans: I didn’t say the worst 96-win team; just the least scary.) On some level, I can even empathize with the Washington Nationals, who all season long held firm — perhaps too firm — to the belief they were a better team, until suddenly it was late September and the Braves had gone wire-to-wire in winning the NL East title (including a 13-6 head-to-head edge over Washington) while the Nationals were headed off to the golf course. (Well, technically, they almost went wire-to-wire: The only date on the MLB calendar on which the Braves were not in first place: April 4, three games into the season, when a loss dropped them to 2-1, a game behind the Nationals.)
Still, that nagging feeling about the Braves persists, even as they prepare to meet the Los Angeles Dodgers in the NLDS on Thursday evening.
Check out the probable pitching matchups for the first four games: Clayton Kershaw vs. Kris Medlen in Game 1; Zack Greinke vs. Mike Minor in Game 2; Hyun-jin Ryu vs. Julio Teheran in Game 3; Ricky Nolasco vs. Freddy Garcia in Game 4.
On paper, at least, any objective analysis would have to give the Dodgers significant edges in Games 1, 2 and 4, with Game 3 a toss-up at best. (And that analysis probably wouldn’t change even if the Braves had Tim Hudson, their highest-paid pitcher and a resident of the disabled list since July.)
Likewise, the Braves’ lineup, though full of capable hitters, doesn’t boast anyone as flat-out scary as the Dodgers’ Hanley Ramirez and Yasiel Puig. The Braves’ two highest-paid hitters this year, for example, are second baseman Dan Uggla, who was left off the Division Series roster after hitting .179 with 171 strikeouts in just 448 at-bats, and center fielder B.J. Upton, who made the roster despite a .184 average and a ghastly .557 OPS. (Cheer up, Braves fans: at least you have two more years of Uggla, and four more of Upton.)
But scary doesn’t win ballgames, and it certainly doesn’t win postseason series. What the Braves do better than any other team in baseball, however, is shorten games – and that’s something that does win postseason series. Any game in which the Braves can carry a lead to the sixth or seventh inning feels like a win, permitting closer Craig Kimbrel and his army of set-up men to do the rest.
In fact, in their makeup, the Braves resemble no team more strikingly than the 2010 San Francisco Giants, who similarly lacked a “scary” quality to their rotation (no sub.-3.00 ERAs) and lineup (no 30-homer hitters) and whose biggest asset was its shutdown bullpen (led, of course, by closer Brian Wilson, who now pitches for the Dodgers). Like the Braves, that Giants team was top-heavy with highly paid absentees — their highest-paid pitcher, Barry Zito, was left off the postseason roster, and their highest-paid hitter, Aaron Rowand, was used sparingly.
You probably don’t need to be reminded, of course, that the Giants won the World Series that year. Just sayin’.
Pittsburgh Pirates at St. Louis Cardinals, 5 p.m., TBS
Pirates: Burnett, AJ (10-11, 3.30) | Cardinals: Wainwright (19-9, 2.94)
L.A. Dodgers at Atlanta Braves, 8:30 p.m., TBS
Dodgers: Kershaw (16-9, 1.83) | Braves: Medlen (15-12, 3.11)