Los Angeles Dodgers vs. Atlanta Braves: Keys to Each Team Winning NLDS Game 1

Ben Berkon@benberkonContributor IOctober 3, 2013

Los Angeles Dodgers vs. Atlanta Braves: Keys to Each Team Winning NLDS Game 1

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    The NLDS showdown between the Atlanta Braves (96-66) and Los Angeles Dodgers (92-70) will be a worthy battle. The Braves owned the National League’s best record for most of the season, only to be recently ousted by the St. Louis Cardinals (97-65).

    On the other end of the spectrum, there’s the Dodgers. Up until the All-Star break, the Dodgers appeared to be an overpaid and underachieving squad, posting a mere 47-47 record. But they came roaring back in the second half, owning an incredible 45-23 record.

    With both teams possessing some of the league’s best talent, Game 1 is certainly up for grabs. Even with Clayton Kershaw kicking off the playoffs for the Dodgers, the Braves could still find ways to best the league’s finest starter.

    Read on to see the keys to each team winning Game 1 of the NLDS on Thursday night.


    All statistics from Baseball-Reference.com and FanGraphs.com.

Dodgers Key: Yasiel Puig Breaking His Slump

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    Yasiel Puig was the toast of town when he made his rookie debut in June. In his first 107 plate appearances, he posted a .436 batting average, park-adjusted 236 wRC+ and seven home runs.

    But the Cuban import finally fell back down to earth in the latter part of the year. He hit a mere .214 in September, casting doubt as to whether he could be depended on in the playoffs. 

    Even though the Dodgers also boast the likes of Adrian Gonzalez, Hanley Ramirez and Andre Ethier, the team still needs Puig to be a spark plug. If the 22-year-old can channel his early-season form, the Braves will have their hands full.

Braves Key: Kris Medlen Keeping Up with Clayton Kershaw

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    The fate of Game 1 for the Braves is in the hands of 27-year-old Kris Medlen. He hasn't quite been as dominant as his 2012 self (a 1.57 ERA and a park-adjusted 256 ERA+), but he has still proven to be a top rotation option.

    And as he told ESPN, he's ready to face the Dodgers' star-studded lineup:

    The Dodgers are a great team, big-name players, but we had to play against them during the regular season and we played pretty well. All the attention, I mean, we're not running for prom king. We're ready to play this series and play this team.

    Over 197 innings this season, the right-hander has posted a 3.11 ERA (versus a 124 ERA+), 1.22 WHIP and 3.34 strikeout-to-walk ratio. Medlen has also enjoyed success against the Dodgers in 2013, owning a .154/.254/.192 line against them.

    Matching Clayton Kershaw is a difficult feat for any pitcher to achieve. But considering the hurler posted a 2.38 ERA (versus a 2.86 FIP), 1.02 WHIP and 4.73 strikeout-to-walk ratio in the second half, perhaps he and the Braves actually stand a chance.

Dodgers Key: Clayton Kershaw Pitching Like Clayton Kershaw

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    It goes without saying that Clayton Kershaw is the definition of an ace. He posted a 1.83 ERA (versus a park-adjusted 194 ERA+), 0.91 WHIP and 4.46 strikeout-to-walk ratio during the regular season. He led the league in ERA (1.83), shutouts (two), strikeouts (232), ERA+ (194) and WHIP (0.92).

    And while it might seem impossible, the 25-year-old was even better in the second half. He pitched to the tune of a 1.59 ERA (versus a 2.20 FIP), 0.92 WHIP and 5.47 strikeout-to-walk ratio after the All-Star break. 

    Kershaw doesn’t need to do anything out of body in Game 1—he just needs to be himself. And if he is, there’s little the Braves can do to win.

Braves Key: Elliot Johnson Proving His Place

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    When the Braves claimed Elliot Johnson off waivers from the Kansas City Royals on August 21, it seemed like a pure depth move. But after posting a respectable .261 batting average, park-adjusted 85 OPS+ and eight stolen bases, he quickly emerged as a cult hero in Atlanta. 

    Obviously impressed by his good play, the Braves decided to leave Dan Uggla off their NLDS roster in favor of using Johnson as a starter, per ESPN.com. Considering Uggla has posted double-digit home run seasons since his 2006 debut, the decision was a surprising one.

    If the Braves lose Game 1—and eventually the series—critics will likely peg the team’s decision to leave Uggla off the roster as the culprit. Given that, the pressure is on Johnson to produce enough to earn his spot in the lineup.

The Battle of the Closers

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    Between the Braves and the Dodgers, the teams boast two of the best closers in baseball. 

    Craig Kimbrel has been borderline unhittable since debuting in 2010. The Braves closer owns a career 1.39 ERA (versus a park-adjusted 282 ERA+), 0.90 WHIP and 4.65 strikeout-to-walk ratio. The 25-year-old has also led the league in saves for the past three seasons, accumulating 138 total over that span.

    Like Kimbrel, Kenley Jansen has also been a difficult pitcher to hit. Since his 2010 debut, Jansen owns a 2.10 ERA (versus 177 ERA+), 0.92 WHIP and 4.28 strikeout-to-walk ratio. The 26-year-old has also been particularly dominant in 2013, posting a 1.88 ERA (versus a 190 ERA+), 0.86 WHIP and 6.17 strikeout-to-walk ratio with 28 saves.

    Considering Kimbrel and Jansen rarely blow a lead, it will be interesting to watch either one attempt a save in Game 1.