Braves vs. Dodgers keeps getting spicier. Will we get NLCS round 3?

Braves center fielder Adam Duvall, center, reacts after hitting a single during the fourth inning against the Los Angeles Dodgers in game 3 at the National League Championship Series at Dodger Stadium, Tuesday October 19, 2021, in Los Angeles, Ca.  Curtis Compton / curtis.compton@ajc.com

Credit: Curtis Compton

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Braves center fielder Adam Duvall, center, reacts after hitting a single during the fourth inning against the Los Angeles Dodgers in game 3 at the National League Championship Series at Dodger Stadium, Tuesday October 19, 2021, in Los Angeles, Ca. Curtis Compton / curtis.compton@ajc.com

Credit: Curtis Compton

They’re both enduring turbulence on their routes, but it wouldn’t surprise anyone if the National League Championship Series featured the Braves against the Dodgers for the third consecutive year.

This weekend at Truist Park was another reminder that these two franchises, while not where they want to be in the present moment, are the NL’s upper class. An MLB season lacks urgency and drama in June, yet when the Braves and Dodgers cross paths, it feels a bit more important.

“It’s two good teams going at it,” Braves manager Brian Snitker said. “It is fun. It doesn’t matter if it’s here or in L.A., it’s going to be a packed house and energy in the air. Two good teams, games that can teeter on one little thing. It is fun. Just this whole week coming into it, I was looking forward to it. The competition, the games we were going to play. They mean something and we’re trying to get to where we want to go. That’s why we do this. It’s a lot of fun.”

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Rivalries require some combination of criteria: the teams have history against each other, the “other” team is a blockade to the sport’s ultimate prize, and the teams have traded blows (lopsided rivalries don’t carry the same juice, college sports excluded). The Braves and Dodgers, two of baseball’s biggest brands and long-standing entities, certainly fit that mold.

The Braves and Dodgers had met in the postseason once before 2013, with the former sweeping the latter in the 1996 National League Division Series. The teams have encountered each other in four postseasons since 2013, a Braves defeat that provided the infamous image of Craig Kimbrel standing frustrated in the bullpen at Dodger Stadium.

These teams have since met in three of the past four Octobers. In 2018, the upstart Braves – surprise division winners – simply couldn’t keep pace with the NL’s mightiest club, losing in four games. In 2020, the Braves and Dodgers played the NLCS in Arlington, MLB’s Texas bubble, as the shortened pandemic season reached its conclusion.

On the precipice of ending their postseason woes, the Braves cratered, squandering a 3-1 series lead as the Dodgers went on to win the World Series.

“It’s one of those things where we realized, where we want to get to, they’re probably going to be in our way,” starter Ian Anderson told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

Last October, the Braves avenged their defeat, building a 3-1 lead and protecting it in a six-game NLCS win. The Braves walked off the first two games at Truist Park; their future center fielder was in attendance.

“The crowd was crazy and the atmosphere was crazy,” said Michael Harris, the Braves’ rookie phenom and an Atlanta area native. “It’s always a very intense series between us. I’m just glad to be playing this time instead of watching. ... It’s a very important series for our fans and us as well.”

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Braves starting pitcher Ian Anderson delivers during the first inning against a Los Angeles Dodgers batter at Truist Park Friday, June 24, 2022, in Atlanta. (Jason Getz / Jason.Getz@ajc.com)

Credit: Jason Getz / Jason.Getz@ajc.com

Braves starting pitcher Ian Anderson delivers during the first inning against a Los Angeles Dodgers batter at Truist Park Friday, June 24, 2022, in Atlanta. (Jason Getz / Jason.Getz@ajc.com)

Credit: Jason Getz / Jason.Getz@ajc.com

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Braves starting pitcher Ian Anderson delivers during the first inning against a Los Angeles Dodgers batter at Truist Park Friday, June 24, 2022, in Atlanta. (Jason Getz / Jason.Getz@ajc.com)

Credit: Jason Getz / Jason.Getz@ajc.com

Credit: Jason Getz / Jason.Getz@ajc.com

After foiling the Dodgers, the Braves defeated the Astros to win the World Series. Five of the last six World Series winners eliminated the Dodgers (the other year was the Dodgers winning it themselves). Los Angeles, loaded with the cash and prospects to perpetually support its All-Star foundation, has long been the class of baseball.

The Braves, in sustaining success and delivering a knockout punch last postseason, have vaulted themselves into the same tier. As such, each time these teams take the field against each other, it gets a little more intense.

“I would say (it’s a rivalry),” Anderson said. “I think it’s built itself into that. … The last two years were super intense. And we came out on top one year, they came out on top the other. So that in itself builds up to make these games meaning that much more.”

And that’s before factoring in the numerous recent subplots such as Freddie Freeman signing with Los Angeles, Kimbrel becoming the Dodgers’ closer, Kenley Jansen becoming the Braves’ closer and Alex Anthopoulos being a former Dodgers executive, among other storylines.

“It’s just the competitiveness, the expectations are high in both places,” Anderson said. “I think that’s a key part to building winning teams. And there are some differences, obviously, but the players play hard and they have good players. That’s the big thing.”

Freeman’s emotional return to Truist Park was the headline of the weekend. He was honored for his accomplishments over 12 years with the franchise, crying before the game and during the on-field ceremony in which he received his ring – the one he earned by upending his current employer.

As much as Freeman loves the Braves, as unfortunate as he feels his departure was, he’s on the other side of this rivalry now. Freeman and the Braves will be competing for Octobers to come.

“It was very cool (to see Freeman’s reception Friday night),” Dodgers starter Clayton Kershaw told The AJC. “He’s obviously been a big contributor for our team. And I hope we’re not second fiddle. It’s a pretty special team over here, too. I think whenever he gets comfortable over here, he’ll really enjoy it. It was a good night for him (Friday).”

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Los Angeles Dodgers first baseman Freddie Freeman, right, talk with Atlanta Braves first baseman Matt Olson after Olson hit a single during the ninth inning at Truist Park Friday, June 24, 2022, in Atlanta. (Jason Getz / Jason.Getz@ajc.com)

Credit: Jason Getz / Jason.Getz@ajc.com

Los Angeles Dodgers first baseman Freddie Freeman, right, talk with Atlanta Braves first baseman Matt Olson after Olson hit a single during the ninth inning at Truist Park Friday, June 24, 2022, in Atlanta. (Jason Getz / Jason.Getz@ajc.com)

Credit: Jason Getz / Jason.Getz@ajc.com

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Los Angeles Dodgers first baseman Freddie Freeman, right, talk with Atlanta Braves first baseman Matt Olson after Olson hit a single during the ninth inning at Truist Park Friday, June 24, 2022, in Atlanta. (Jason Getz / Jason.Getz@ajc.com)

Credit: Jason Getz / Jason.Getz@ajc.com

Credit: Jason Getz / Jason.Getz@ajc.com

As for the Braves-Dodgers budding rivalry, Kershaw took a different viewpoint: “The rivalry thing doesn’t matter. Everyone thought the Giants were our rivals, the Padres were our rivals. At the end of the day, just win the division. That’s all we care about. So we’ll beat whoever we have to.”

Jansen got his return to Los Angeles out of the way in April. Like Freeman, he spent 12 years with the organization that developed him as a minor leaguer. The Braves inked Jansen to a one-year deal in spring training not long after Freeman joined the Dodgers, only adding more logs onto the teams’ fire.

“I’ll consider (the Dodgers) family forever; of course, when I face them, I have to take care of business,” Jansen said. “(Recent years have) created a rivalry now. Back-to-back years they’ve played in the NLCS, potentially three years in a row. So it’s fun. Now I’m on the other side. I want to do the same thing I did when I was on the other side to the opposite team.”

This season hasn’t gone smoothly for either franchise. The Braves underperformed in April and May before surging in June. Still, the team is down important contributors Ozzie Albies, Tyler Matzek and Eddie Rosario, and more importantly, it’s looking up at the revamped Mets.

The Dodgers, meanwhile, are being pushed by the Padres – whose pitching has kept them afloat despite the absences of Manny Machado and Fernando Tatis (who hasn’t yet played) – and they’ve been struck by the injury bug.

Ace Walker Buehler is out for months. Former MVP Mookie Betts is out with broken ribs. Reliever Blake Treinen doesn’t have a timeline for his return. Daniel Hudson, perhaps the team’s top reliever, tore his ACL Friday and is out for the season. Starter Andrew Heaney is sidelined again. Hard-thrower Dustin May is expected back later this season but he’s a wild card. While they’ll presumably get healthier, the Dodgers seem vulnerable.

It does mean the Dodgers need a busier trade deadline more than the Braves, though much can change before Aug. 2. Expect both teams to be uber active. They are also competing in the game within the game, seeing who best supplements their roster with external reinforcements.

The Mets and Padres, as talented as they are, are relying on their best players returning from injury and maintaining that health. The Cardinals and Brewers deserve mention, both fundamentally sound clubs who are battling for the NL Central title.

But while it’s not all rosy for the Braves and Dodgers, they should still be the favorites until proven otherwise. No one would be surprised if there’s an NLCS round 3 between these clubs. If there is, it’d be the most interesting of them all.

“I think it’d be awesome,” Jansen said. “I think it would be awesome to experience that and hopefully it will happen.”