For many reasons, the Los Angeles Dodgers entered the National League Division Series against the Atlanta Braves as the odds-on favorite. The Braves finished the regular season with 96 wins, four more than the Dodgers, but they limped into the playoffs. Their starting rotation stumbled towards the finish line. The offense remained all-or-nothing, homer-or-strikeout. But throughout the season, and despite a rash of injuries to key relievers, the Braves’ bullpen remained their strength.
And in the first two games of the NLDS, especially in Atlanta’s Game 2 win on Friday, Braves relievers have shown that they could be a deciding factor in the series. The teams face off again on Sunday night in Los Angeles with two good rookie starters on the mound, Julio Teheran and Hyun-Jin Ryu. If the Braves take a lead behind Teheran, expect a heavy dose of relief arms to support him.
In Game 2, Mike Minor gave the Braves a strong start before leaving with one out in the seventh, a runner on second base and Altanta clinging to a 2-1 lead. Right-hander Luis Ayala, a veteran reliever and former National, surrendered an infield single to pinch-hitter Michael Young. Braves Manager Fredi Gonzalez immediately took the ball back after one batter. Left-hander Luis Avilan induced a rousing, inning-ending double play.
David Carpenter, a hard thrower who was traded from Toronto to Boston in the John Farrell deal and then claimed off waivers by the Braves, suffered a rare miscue and allowed two runs in the eighth. So Gonzalez called on one of the best pitchers in baseball, closer Craig Kimbrel, for a four-out save. Kimbrel walked two in the ninth inning but preserved thre Braves’ 4-3 win.
The Braves’ bullpen, filled with many power arms, led the majors with a 2.46 ERA, a whole run better than the Dodgers’ 3.49 bullpen ERA. That’s a stunning accomplishment considering the losses of standouts Eric O’Flaherty and Jonny Venters, both left-handers who had Tommy John surgery six days apart in May. General Manager Frank Wren and the Braves filled in the blanks with old guys (Ayala and traded for Scott Downs), waiver guys (Carpenter and Anthony Varvaro), a traded player (Jordan Walden) and, of course, baseball’s best closer in Kimbrel. As a whole, the bullpen stranded 23 percent of inherited runners, the second-best rate in baseball behind the Cardinals.
So on Sunday, if the Braves get a lead, expect Gonzalez to lean heavily on the unit that helped get the team this far. And in the postseason, the abilities of a dominant closer like Kimbrel can’t be understated. After having Saturday off, Kimbrel is rested and could be called upon again for a four-out save or more. The Braves were 71-5 during the 2013 regular season when leading after six innings. After eight innings, they were 78-4. Good luck with that, Los Angeles.
8 p.m. on TBS
Julio Teheran (14-8, 3.20 ERA) vs. Hyun-Jin Ryu (14-8, 3.00 ERA)
Ryu normally doesn’t throw bullpen sessions in between starts, but he did before Sunday’s start and with the team’s medical staff watching. The Dodgers insist he’s not hurt, but it has left some people wondering.
The Pittsburgh Pirates and St. Louis Cardinals are knotted at one game each in the other NLDS. They play in Pittsburgh on Sunday at 4:30 p.m. on TBS. Right-hander Joe Kelly (10-5, 2.69 ERA) starts for the Cardinals and left-hander Francisco Liriano (16-8, 3.02 ERA) for the Pirates. The Cardinals are starting three left-handed batters against left-handed killer Liriano, who tossed seven brilliant innings in the NL Wild-Card game.