Wiedmer: Braves need home field in playoffs

Wiedmer: Braves need home field in playoffs

September 5th, 2013 by Mark Wiedmer in Sports - Columns

ATLANTA - Atlanta Braves president John Schuerholz hasn't lasted 45 years in major league baseball without knowing when to say as little as possible.

So when asked Wednesday afternoon how important it was for the Braves to own home field advantage for the National League playoffs, he replied, "I think it's important for everybody. It's an asset of value. But you can win without it."

You can, and Atlanta has twice reached the World Series by winning an NLCS without home field advantage -- 1991 and 1995.

But these Braves aren't looking much like those Braves away from Turner Field. While both the 1991 (46-35) and 1995 squads (46-26) won at least 11 more road games than they lost, this current bunch stands 34-34 heading into Friday's contest at Philadelphia.

Moreover, against the quartet of teams almost certain to join them in the NL playoffs -- Cincinnati, Los Angeles, Pittsburgh and St. Louis -- Atlanta stands a combined 6-9 on the road compared to a robust 11-2 at Turner Field.

"We've clearly been better at home this season," said pitcher Mike Minor, referring to the Braves' major league-best 51-20 home record, despite Wednesday's 5-2 loss to New York.

"I think some of the reasons are always there. You sleep in your own bed. You know the field better. You're more comfortable in your own stadium in front of your own fans. But it's also been one of those years. For whatever reason, everything's just fallen right for us at home this season."

Minor will get the start Friday night at Philly. Now 13-5 with an outstanding 3.08 ERA on the season, he could easily become the Braves' Game 1 starter in the Division Series. That's also where the importance of the home field could immediately come into play for Atlanta.

The Braves entered Wednesday with a slender two-game lead over the Dodgers for the best record in the NL. Home field for the World Series is already decided because the American League won the All-Star Game. But even as Atlanta continues to own the best overall record in baseball (85-54), that lead has shrunk significantly in recent weeks as the Dodgers have gone a preposterous 36-8 since the All-Star break.

So despite winning 7 of 9 on the homestand just ended, the Braves gained no ground on Dodger Blue, which has likewise won seven of its last nine, its last two Ws coming on the road heading into Wednesday night's game at Colorado.

"We know the Dodgers are playing well," said Atlanta infielder Elliot Johnson. "We also know we want the No. 1 seed. That's the goal right now. And if we expect to get it and the home field advantage that goes with it we need to play better than the Dodgers the rest of the way. We really need to keep winning."

But what if they don't? What happens then? And if the Braves ultimately wind up facing the Dodgers in the NLCS without the home field edge in the best-of-seven playoff format, can they still win?

First of all, Atlanta can beat anybody. Home or away. They were 2-1 at Cincinnati this year, and 2-2 at LA. Unfortunately, they were also 1-3 at both Pittsburgh and St. Louis.

But the Reds were also the only team among the Cards, Pirates, Dodgers and Reds to take a game off the Braves at Turner Field. Cincy was 2-2 at the Ted. Atlanta swept three-game home series against the other three.

All of which means that if the Braves finish outside the top spot in the best-record department, the Dodgers would host the wildcard winner with the Braves theoretically hosting the Central winner, assuming they wind up with a better overall record than that team.

As it stands now, that would pit them against the Pirates, with the Cards-Reds wildcard winner traveling to LA for the start of the best-of-five division series.

Given the Dodgers' stretch run, none of this may matter. LA has the definite look of a World Series winner, blessed with pitching (its collective 3.21 ERA trails only the Pirates' 3.17 and the Braves' 3.18) and hitting (its .267 batting average trails only the Cards' .268).

Yes, Atlanta has far more homers (159 to 111) and runs scored (604 to 566), but much of that was accomplished before the irrepressible rookie Yasiel Puig brought his .351 batting average and 14 homers to the big leagues. Given that -- plus the fact Atlanta last faced LA on June 9, which was six days after Puig reached the majors -- the Braves' best chance to reach their first World Series since 1999 would appear to be to finish with the best regular-season mark in the National League.

Or as Schuerholz noted, "There's no denying we have a dramatically better record at home. And I do think that when you believe you can succeed in a particular environment, you usually do."

Email Mark Wiedmer at mwiedmer@timesfreepress.com