Wiedmer: Atlanta Braves have what it takes to advance

Wiedmer: Atlanta Braves have what it takes to advance

October 2nd, 2013 by Mark Wiedmer in Sports - Columns

Atlanta Braves catcher Gerald Laird, left, and pitcher Craig Kimbrel (46) celebrate after a baseball game against the Philadelphia Phillies, Sunday, Sept. 29, 2013, in Atlanta. Atlanta won 12-5.

Photo by Associated Press/Times Free Press.

ATLANTA -- Atlanta Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez wasn't drawing on Calculus 5 to explain how you win baseball games in October.

"You've got to find a way to scratch out a run or two against a really tough pitcher," the Braves' third-year skipper said Sunday evening. "And you've got to have your pitcher hold the other guys down as best he can. That's how you win games in the postseason."

The Braves will attempt to beat the stingiest pitcher in the National League this season when they face Los Angeles Dodgers lefty Clayton Kershaw and his 1.83 earned run average Thursday night in the opening game of their best-of-five National League division series.

Kershaw's ERA over his last 10 starts is 1.73, and this will be the first time all season the Braves have faced him.

"He's obviously had a great year," said Atlanta catcher Gerald Laird, who helped win a World Series with St. Louis two years ago and reached the World Series last October with Detroit. "But we've had a good year, too. That's why you play."

Yet hard as this may be to believe, given Kershaw's season-long brilliance everywhere beyond the won-lost record (16-9), he may actually be only the second hottest pitcher at Turner Field on Thursday night.

The Braves' Kris Medlen was named the league's pitcher of the month Monday after going 4-0 with a 1.0 ERA in five starts. He also was the September pitcher of the month in 2012 before falling to St. Louis in the wild-card playoff game.

Said Medlen on Sunday of that dynamic possibly repeating: "I don't expect anything different this time around ... (long pause) ... except a win."

But how much should the Braves Nation expect to win a playoff series, or two, or, dreaming big, the whole shebang for the first time since 1995? Is this a team built at least as much for the postseason as the regular season, as has not always been the case?

Or will this be another red-eyed October for the Big Peach, Atlanta having failed to win a single playoff series in the last 11 years?

"I think we're ready," catcher Brian McCann said a couple of weeks ago. "We've learned a lot the last couple of seasons. We didn't let what happened in September two years ago keep us from reaching the playoffs last year. And we've come back this season even more determined to win our division and avoid the wild-card round."

They certainly accomplished that, finishing with the NL's second best record, a single victory shy of St. Louis's 97 wins. And they beat the Dodgers five times in seven regular-season meetings, sweeping them in a three-game series at Turner Field in mid-May.

"But they were a different team back then," cautioned Braves rookie Evan Gattis. "We won't be facing that team in the playoffs."

Indeed, when Atlanta last played the Dodgers in L.A. in early June, the outrageously gifted rookie Yasiel Puig had just been called up from the Chattanooga Lookouts. So that .319 batting average and those 19 homers he wound up clubbing for the boys in blue hadn't yet begun.

In fact, when the Braves arrived at Dodger Stadium on June 6, L.A. stood 25-33 for the season. The Dodgers finished 92-70, becoming the only team in the majors this season to win 45 road games.

Yet while L.A. has been a far more successful team since the Braves last faced it, the Dodgers also arrive at the postseason with serious health concerns. Both Matt Kemp and Andre Ethier -- their two most consistent hitters -- are expected to be scratched from the roster by Thursday. Hanley Ramirez is battling a sciatic nerve problem in his lower back. Utility players Jerry Hairston (back) and Nick Punto (toe) also are struggling.

Throw in the fact that Dodgers closer Kenley Jansen suffered two losses against the Braves at the Ted back in May, and the Braves would appear to be the favorites.

And for all those folks who believe the Dodgers' three-headed pitching monster of Kershaw, Zack Greinke and Hyun-Jin Ryu erase all other ills, Gonzalez had a final counterpoint: "We've got pretty good pitchers ourselves."

Good enough to win a playoff series for the first time since 2001 in four games.

Contact Mark Wiedmer at mwiedmer@timesfreepress.com