The only day of this entire season the Atlanta Braves have not held at least a share of the NL East lead was April 4. That was 3 games into the season and the team has not looked back since then, dominating the division and stretching their lead to an incredible 15 games as the summer winds down – by far the largest division lead in baseball.
Outstanding pitching and timely hitting have been the hallmarks of this 2013 Braves club. Prior to the season, the team was praised for having one of the strongest outfields assembled in recent years after the acquisition of the Upton brothers. However, the outfield has actually been the team’s weak link, with B.J. Upton performing terribly and brother Justin tailing off after a strong first month or two. Even Jason Heyward, supposedly the team’s future in the outfield, has only batted .253 with 37 RBIs thus far. He also left yesterday’s game after being struck in the head with a 90 mile per hour fastball. Initial reports indicate he has a fractured jaw and will miss four-to-six weeks – a huge blow to an already weak outfield.
Instead, Freddie Freeman, Andrelton Simmons, and the rest of the infield have carried the team offensively. Coupled with a strong rotation and perhaps the league’s best closer in Craig Kimbrel, the Braves have been almost unbeatable. That leads one to wonder if any team in the NL is equipped to stop the Braves from rolling through the playoffs and easily capturing the pennant.
In my opinion, there is only one team in the NL that has a chance. That team would of course be the Los Angeles Dodgers. Following the emergence of Yasiel Puig, the team has been the hottest club in the NL, currently leading the NL West by 7.5 games with the car in cruise control at this point. The reason the Dodgers match up so well is because they not only have strong bats, but also a pitching staff that can equal that of the Braves.
Whereas the Pirates and Cardinals have little rotation depth, the Dodgers have Clayton Kershaw, Zach Greinke, and Hyun-Jin Ryu as their top three starters, which is all they will need during the playoffs. The Dodgers rank 3rd in ERA and 10th in quality starts this season, which is important because the Braves rank 2nd in the same categories.
Kershaw and company will be able to shut down the Braves offense that ranks 15th in batting average due to their anemic outfield, leaving them unable to produce runs at will like they have done against NL East competition all year. It is worth mentioning that every team in the NL East not named the Braves has a losing record. By no means does that imply the NL West is the crown jewel of baseball divisions either, but the competition is certainly more formidable than that which the Braves have been facing all season.
Despite the fact that the Dodgers started the season poorly, they have righted the ship due in large part to players becoming healthy and unexpected stars being born. The other NL contenders all have glaring weaknesses (Pirates: no starting pitching, Cardinals: suspect bullpen and starters, and Reds: lack of offense), but the Dodgers show few, if any, signs of vulnerability. If any team in the NL is going to stop the Braves from chopping down the competition on their way to the World Series, it is most certainly the Los Angeles Dodgers.