The Atlanta Braves lead the Dodgers by a half-game. The Braves have six games remaining, the Dodgers five. The Braves have one fewer loss. Barring a final-week wobble by L.A. – or a collapse by both the Cubs and the Brewers – the Braves and the Dodgers will meet in the Division Series. At issue is where.
As we speak, Games 1, 2 and 5 (if necessary) would be at SunTrust Park. Neither has a particularly demanding final week. The Braves play the Mets, who were eliminated long ago, and the Phillies, who just sank to .500 by losing in Colorado on Monday and appear to be past caring. The Dodgers have two more games in Arizona, which is doing in the West as Philly did in the East, and then three at San Francisco, which has a worse record than the Mets.
In this case, a tie goes to the Dodgers. They won five of seven against the Braves. The local club would have to finish ahead of L.A. to open the postseason at home, but here we ask: Would the Braves be better off starting on the road?
With five regular-season home games remaining, the Braves were 38-38 at STP. They won the next five, which is how they clinched the East with eight days to spare, but over the fullness of a six-month season they haven’t been any great shakes in Cobb County. Away from Cobb, they’re 45-30, which is the best home record among NL teams and third-best – behind the Red Sox and Astros – in baseball. The Braves secured the division title at home, but they’re division winners because of their road work.
The NLDS is best-of-five. If you split the first two on the road, you have a chance to finish it at home. That’s how it worked when the Braves and Dodgers met in 2013, you’ll recall.
Clayton Kershaw won Game 1 at Turner Field. Mike Minor, in his finest hour as a Brave, bested Zack Greinke in Game 2. The Dodgers took Game 3 on a night when Julio Teheran didn’t last three innings. The Braves were very close to sending it back to Atlanta – Kershaw was deployed on short rest, and the journeyman Freddy Garcia outpitched him – but Fredi Gonzalez let Craig Kimbrel, the best closer in the business, watch the eighth inning from the bullpen as David Carpenter yielded the series-winning home to Juan Uribe. Not that we around here remember stuff like that.
Home field in the postseason is sometimes a big deal – ask the Minnesota Twins, who won two World Series, the second against the Braves, while going 0-6 on the road – but often not. (That vague enough for you?) The consensus is that it matters only if it comes down to a winner-take-all game, in which case you’d prefer having the last at-bat. But the Dodgers got Game 7 of last year’s World Series at home and lost. The Indians got Game 7 in 2016 at home and lost. And goodness knows we Atlantans can cite grim chapter and verse on this, too.
From 2000 through 2004, the Braves were eliminated at Turner Field every cursed October. Over the final three of those years, the elimination came in Game 5 of an NLDS, the latter two after the Braves won a breathless Game 4 on the road. The aggregate score of those five elimination games was 30-8. The Braves never led in any of them. (They were also closed out here in 1997 and 1998 NLCS. They never led in those elimination games, either.)
What do those in those in the baseball industry say, without fail, of October? All together now: “It’s a crapshoot.” (Billy Beane from “Moneyball”: “My (stuff) doesn’t work in the postseason.”) Even those in the sabermetric set have been forced to concede that there’s no secret sauce for picking playoff winners. This is baseball. Weird stuff can/does happen.
Baseball Prospectus simulations assign the Dodgers an 18.8 percent chance of winning the World Series. That’s significantly better than the Red Sox (10.9 percent) and almost as good as the Astros (19.9 percent). The Braves, you might be surprised to learn, are fourth at 12 percent, which puts them ahead of both the Red Sox, who have won 106 games, and the Cubs (10 percent), who should finish with the NL’s best record. That tells us how much weight we should place on the home field: According to BP, neither team that stands hold that presumed advantage in their respective leagues should be favored to reach the Fall Classic.
The Dodgers have gotten it going. They’ve won 10 of 12, and their sweep of the Rockies last week probably decided the West. (Colorado trails by 1-1/2 games with six days to go.) They would be a formidable opponent in any ballpark. But they are not unbeatable. Eight days ago, they weren’t even in first place in their division.
For all the Dodgers’ assets – we stipulate that Corey Seager, their best everyday player, hasn’t played since April – the feeling persists that they’re not quite as good as they should be. (The great Sam Miller of ESPN expressed that sentiment expertly here.) The Braves, on the other hand, are way better than anybody figured they’d be. They’re so far ahead of schedule the schedule has been shredded.
Anything they do from here on is gravy. I don’t think it matters one whit where and when they play. If I were a team that’s expected to win something this year – the Dodgers or the Cubs, say – they’re the last bunch I’d want to see coming.
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