(SportsNetwork.com) - Winning a division title is a priority on everyballclub's to-do list coming out of Spring Training and both the Los AngelesDodgers and Atlanta Braves accomplished step one of their itinerary.
The Dodgers and Braves will now meet in the best-of-five National LeagueDivision Series, starting with Thursday's Game 1 matchup from Turner Field,where opponents went to perish during the regular season.
Turner Field was a house of horrors for visiting clubs, as the Braves compileda major league best 56-25 (.691) mark there and went 25-10 since late July.
Los Angeles felt the wrath of Turner Field in a three-game sweep from May17-19 and was outscored 16-8 in the series. L.A. managed a 2-5 record againstthe Braves in the regular season.
Atlanta is back in the playoffs for the third time in four years and won itsfirst NL East crown since 2005. A 14-game winning streak and a 20-4 stretchfrom late July through August propelled the Braves, but they lost 13 of thelast 24 games to close out the regular season.
But that's all in the past and now the postseason is on the minds of theplayers.
"At the end of the day, you've got to win ballgames," Braves outfielder JustinUpton said. "That is what the playoffs are all about. Everybody is 0-0. Theyhave to win as many games as you do. That's just the way it is. No matter whoit is, we have to beat the team that is in front of us."
The Braves couldn't pull that off last season after capturing a wild cardberth, falling to the St. Louis Cardinals in a winner-take-all playoff. Itdidn't help that they committed three errors and left-field umpire SamHolbrook made a momentum-killing infield-fly rule in the eighth inning of acrushing 6-3 loss.
Los Angeles, which won the NL West for the first time since 2009, missed theplayoffs in each of the previous three seasons and lost to the PhiladelphiaPhillies in back-to-back NLCS series from 2008-09. The Dodgers and Braveshaven't met in the postseason, though, since Atlanta swept the NLDS back in1996. Braves greats John Smoltz, Greg Maddux and Tom Glavine got the wins tocomplete the three-game sweep.
Atlanta will be missing one of its veteran starting pitchers this postseasonin Tim Hudson, who made 21 starts before an ankle injury on July 24 againstthe New York Mets ended his season. The Braves won't be fretting too muchbecause they have four starters who recorded 10 or more wins in the regularseason, most notably Kris Medlen. Medlen was named the NL's Pitcher of theMonth for September for the second year in a row and went 4-0 in five startsduring the month. He helped the Braves claim home-field advantage in the NLDSand lasted at least seven innings in four September starts.
Medlen gets the nod for Game 1 versus the Dodgers and pitched against theCardinals in last year's wild card game. He knows the lights are a bitbrighter in the playoffs.
"Everything is magnified, one little mistake is a lot bigger in these kinds ofsituations," Medlen said. "You just have to try to not get too ahead ofyourself and live in the moment. It's an unbelievable experience and it was alot of fun last year. Even though we didn't come out on top, it was just agreat experience and I don't expect anything different this time around, otherthan a win."
Medlen went 1-0 in two starts against the Dodgers in the regular season and is3-0 with a 1.23 earned run average in eight career matchups (3 starts) withthem. After Medlen, the Braves can go with Julio Teheran, Mike Minor, PaulMaholm or Alex Wood. Atlanta had the best ERA (3.18) in the majors, just aheadof the second-place Dodgers (3.25).
Getting to closer Craig Kimbrel would be ideal for the Braves, as the hard-throwing right-hander recorded 50 saves this season. Kimbrel's 50 saves weretied with Baltimore's Jim Johnson for the major league lead and alsorepresented the second-highest in team history. Smoltz had 55 back in 2002.Kimbrel is the youngest pitcher in major league history to notch 50 saves.
Not only did the Braves get to the top of the NL East with decent pitching,but they also came through at the plate. They made a deal with the ArizonaDiamondbacks for outfielder Justin Upton and Chris Johnson was added inexchange for Martin Prado, pitcher Randall Delgado and three minor leaguers.Upton opened the season batting .302 with 12 homers and 18 RBI over the first23 games and finished with 27 home runs and 70 runs batted in for the season.Johnson, though, surprised everyone with a team-best .321 average, which wassecond in the NL behind Colorado's Michael Cuddyer.
B.J. Upton joined forces with his brother and had a disappointing first seasonwith Atlanta, as he batted .184 with nine home runs and 26 RBI. Perhaps theBraves would have posted more than 100 wins had Upton and Dan Uggla been moredisciplined at the plate. Uggla hit .179 with 22 homers and 55 RBI. FreddieFreeman, though, led the Braves with 109 RBI and hit safely in 21 of the last24 games of the regular season. Freeman was the first Brave to post a 100-RBIseason since 2007, when Jeff Francoeur and Chipper Jones achieved the feat.
Jason Heyward, Brian McCann, Evan Gattis and Andrelton Simmons are other majorcontributors to the Braves. McCann and Gattis were two of five players with atleast 20 homers this season for Atlanta, which led the National League with181 home runs. Heyward, meanwhile, is back in action after a pitch broke hisjaw in late August, forcing him to miss several weeks.
The Dodgers were the talk of baseball with a second-half surge that saw themgo 42-8 and take control of the NL West. They were a season-worst 12 gamesunder .500 and miles away from the division lead, but ended the regular seasonwith a 62-28 record for their 12th NL West title since 1969.
At one point it appeared manager Don Mattingly was on his way out for hisinability to get L.A.'s high payroll on the right path. It was then that boththe pitching staff and bats came to life and now Mattingly is a frontrunnerfor NL Manager of the Year.
Mattingly will be without oft-injured outfielder Matt Kemp for the postseasonafter an MRI revealed swelling in the major weight-bearing bone of his leftankle. Kemp wasn't much of a contributor this season because of variousailments and is supposed to stay off the ankle for at least a month.
Outfielder Andre Ethier is also dealing with a balky left ankle and may haveto settle for being a pinch-hitter in the NLDS. Ethier has not played in thefield since Sept. 13 and was tied for fourth on the team with 12 homers.
"If you don't have Andre and you don't have Matt, you're not as good as youcould be," Mattingly said. "But we're still good enough to win."
The Dodgers are good enough to win if Adrian Gonzalez, young Cuban phenomYasiel Puig, Hanley Ramirez and Juan Uribe stay consistent at the plate.Gonzalez led the Dodgers in batting average (.293), hits (171), home runs(22), runs batted in (100) and reached the 100-RBI mark for the sixth time inhis career. Puig busted out on the scene by hitting four home runs in hisfirst five games, a club record, and was named NL Player of the Month and NLRookie of the Month for June. All eyes will be on Puig now that Kemp is gonefor a Dodgers club that was sixth in the majors with a .264 average.
Ramirez struggled to stay healthy this season and appears to be ready for thestretch run. Ramirez had a lower back issue and batted .345 with 20 homers and57 RBI in 86 games. He is very important to the Dodgers' lineup and arguablythe most consistent when healthy.
Speaking of consistency, Dodgers left-handed ace Clayton Kershaw is ready totake it up a notch this postseason. The 2011 NL Cy Young Award recipient ledthe major leagues with a minuscule 1.83 ERA and was 6-2 with a 1.61 ERA in hislast nine starts and finished 16-9 with an NL-best 232 strikeouts.
"He's had a great year. Command and stuff, he puts them both together. Andthere's some deception," Rockies manager Walt Weiss said of Kershaw afterfacing him this past weekend. "He's the complete package, and he's left-handedon top of it. He's as good as there is in our league."
Zack Greinke, Hyun-Jin Ryu and Ricky Nolasco should follow Kershaw in theDodgers' rotation this postseason. Kershaw, who has no record and a 2.45 ERAin four career starts against Atlanta, will oppose Medlen on the mound inGame 1 of this best-of-five series and knows how tough the Braves will be.
"They've been the best team in the National League all year until today,"Kershaw said Sunday. "They are kind of balanced all the way around. They haveguys having big years offensively and guys that are throwing the ball wellright now. It should be a good challenge for us."
This series has two of the best rotations the majors have to offer and some ofthe toughest outs at the plate. Atlanta would enjoy nothing more than to headto Chavez Ravine with a 2-0 lead and the same goes for the Dodgers.