October is rapidly approaching. As of this publishing, the Braves have eight games remaining. They’re about to embark on their second consecutive postseason, this time presumably better prepared with experience on which to lean.
What we don’t know: The Braves’ opponent. It won’t be the Dodgers, who are close to securing the National League’s No. 1 seed. It won’t be the Nationals, who will be a wild card if they hang onto a spot.
It’ll be the NL Central winner, one of St. Louis, Chicago or Milwaukee. Each possesses their strengths and weaknesses, obviously, and each challenge the Braves in different ways. The Braves will say they don’t have a preference, as they did a year ago, and that’s fine. But let’s be real: They would’ve rather faced Colorado than Los Angeles last year.
This time, the favorable matchup isn’t so black and white. We’ll work backward, from what I deem least likely to most likely:
> The Brewers deserve a world of credit. They lost Christian Yelich, who would’ve gotten my vote for No. 1 MVP, for the season. It would’ve been easy to fold. It was already a disappointing season by their expectations – following up a 96-win season with one that might end Sept. 29.
Milwaukee is 83-70, a game ahead of Chicago, as of Friday morning. It would be a true underdog story if the Brewers even reached the postseason. If they won the Central, all the better. They seem like the easiest matchup on paper, but reality is, if they won their division they would be the hottest team in baseball.
In come the articles about the inspiration Brewers, who didn’t give up when they lost Yelich. Momentum would be on their side. I’m not saying they’d defeat the Braves – I’d still pick Atlanta – but they’re a formidable opponent even without the MVP.
> It feels like the Cubs are heading for a makeover. Manager Joe Maddon’s days might be numbered. There are Kris Bryant trade rumors. Theo Epstein has been under fire. And yet, they’re within four games of first place.
The Cubs are immensely talented and battle-tested. They’ve been where the Braves are trying to go. Despite the cloud hanging over them, they have the pedigree, the padded resume, every team outside L.A. lacks – and actually, the Cubs have seen the pinnacle even the Dodgers haven’t reached.
With that said, their past didn’t help them last year when they lost back-to-back one-game playoffs: a division tiebreaker to the Brewers and the wild-card game to the Rockies. A team that won 95 games didn’t even reach the NL Division Series.
Yu Darvish has rediscovered himself, which helps. But Craig Kimbrel looks like a player who’ll be discussed for his horrific contract more than his performance over the next few years. Paired with Jason Heyward, the Cubs own three of the least desirable contracts in baseball (I’d say sports in general, but John Wall, Kirk Cousins and others are raking in staggering cash).
The Braves should be favored over the Cubs, but Wrigley Field in October is one of the toughest environments imaginable. Chicago isn’t perfect, but it would present an obstacle similar to 2018: A franchise learning its way taking on an experienced big-market team whose expectations revolve strictly around October.
> Earlier in the year, you wouldn’t have thought the Cardinals would be in this conversation. Now they’re not only the most likely opponent, but they’re a real threat in the NL. They might be the third-best team in the league, with a shot at taking out the Braves and Dodgers.
I think Braves-Cardinals would be the most entertaining series. I’d consider it a coin flip right now given how well St. Louis is playing. Jack Flaherty, Max Fried’s buddy who’s been the league’s best starter in the second half, is the best pitcher in the NL Central. He’s been good enough that a Madison Bumgarner-like series can’t be ruled out.
St. Louis, like Wrigley, presents an extremely difficult postseason atmosphere. The Cardinals are an organization also judged on October, even if they haven’t played then recently. They’re almost always a fundamentally secure team. They have a dangerous offense and the best bullpen among NL contenders.
Adam Wainwright – we all know him – is among MLB’s best pitchers at home. Dakota Hudson is a force. Flaherty embodies an up-and-coming ace. The Braves have the clear advantage at the plate, but Paul Goldschmidt, Marcell Ozuna and company are more than enough to give an uncertain rotation and bullpen problems.
So overall, there are pros and cons with each of these teams. The Cardinals, holding a four-game lead as of Friday afternoon, would make for the best series. If you’re a Braves fan just wanting to see your team win a postseason series for the first time since 2001, maybe you’re hoping for the Brewers.
But the MLB postseason is fickle. It’s unpredictable. No one knows this better than the Braves. It’s pick your poison: The Cardinals, Brewers or Cubs. Whomever the opponent is, it’ll be a worthy one.
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