Braves vs. Dodgers: An NLDS rematch years in the making

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Mike Foltynewicz will start for the Braves and Hyun-Jin Ryu will start for the Dodgers in Game 1 of the National League Division Series (NLDS) Thursday in Los Angeles. (Video by Leo Willingham)

When the Braves and Dodgers glance into the opposition’s dugout for Game 1 of the National League Division Series, they’ll see somewhat of a reflection.

The rivals aren’t so different. There’s a payroll discrepancy. They’re certainly on dissimilar timelines. One has been here plenty, the other’s presence might’ve surprised even themselves.

In 2013, the Dodgers eliminated the Braves in four games. The Juan Uribe homer looms within Braves fans’ memories to this day. It was the last time their team played postseason baseball before embarking on the blow-it-up rebuild.

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While the Braves were funneling prospects, trimming payroll and looking toward a new ballpark, the Dodgers fought their own demons. They couldn’t win the National League pennant despite winning their division each year. Clayton Kershaw was superman in the regular season but fell under scrutiny when it mattered most. The team spending the most had yet to yield the ultimate benefit, stricken by postseason heartbreak reminiscent of the 1990s Braves.

Fast forward to October 2017. Just over a year ago, the Braves experienced humiliation that would persist through most of the offseason. The rebuild’s architects were jettisoned. A manager who thought he was canned sat idle. A franchise once a poster child for class and winning was smeared by one of baseball’s most elaborate prospect-snatching scandals.

Meanwhile, the Dodgers cruised through the NL bracket and claimed their first pennant since 1988. Their World Series opponent, the Astros, were assembled by the same means of the present-day Braves. They bottomed out for several seasons, collecting a myriad of young talent with the flexibility to acquire a high-priced veteran like Justin Verlander.

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The Dodgers saw the series slip away, with deadline acquisition Yu Darvish imploding in Game 7 – at Chavez Ravine – as Houston celebrated their championship.

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1995: N.L. East champs defeated the wild-card Rockies in 4 games Braves won their only World Series in Atlanta over the Cleveland Indians 1996: Atlanta swept the Dodgers to advance to the Championship Series The Braves reached the World Series, losing to the Yankees in 6 games 1997: Atlanta, winners of 101 regular season games, swept the Astros Atlanta lost to the Florida Marlins in 6 games in NLCS 1998: Braves won their only game of season at Wrigley Field in sweep of Chicago Cubs The Padres defeated the

Months later, Alex Anthopoulos left the Dodgers’ front office to become the new Braves general manager. He was tasked with cleaning up the organization’s reputation, but he also inherited a treasure chest of talent accumulated during the lost years.

Anthopoulos worked his L.A. connections to shed the Braves of Matt Kemp and acquire utilityman Charlie Culberson from the Dodgers. Kemp had a hot start but tailed off in his return to California, while Culberson proved one of the Braves most valuable players.

He’ll likely fill in for the ailing Dansby Swanson in this season’s NLDS, just as he subbed for shortstop Corey Seager in last year’s postseason. The Dodgers were loaded with versatile players, where injuries wouldn’t derail them – hence six consecutive NL West titles. Their talent pipeline remained deep despite several higher-profile deals.

The same rang true in 2018, when two of the Dodgers’ more dangerous players were just minor leaguers. Oakland released Max Muncy in March 2017, and he hammered 35 home runs for these Dodgers. Walker Buehler, once a risky first-round pick who needed Tommy John surgery, looks like the next L.A. ace. He held Colorado scoreless over 6-2/3 innings in the NL West tiebreaker.

The Braves are being constructed in the same image. They’ll have the financial flexibility beginning this winter. Their best players are under team control for the foreseeable future, outside veteran Nick Markakis. Culberson already proved how important it is to have a renaissance man. Braves fans were familiar with the concept from the Martin Prado days.

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Only two Braves remain from the 2013 series, Freddie Freeman and Julio Teheran. Ronald Acuna and Ozzie Albies were roughly 15 or 16 years old. A lot has changed for Braves, and as such, they won’t have the desperation of their opponent.

The Braves are playing with house money. If they’re swept, so be it. This season has exceeded all modest expectations. Their youth is bursting with promise, and there are still seemingly endless arms to sort through as foundational pieces or assets. If there is any available individual the Braves desire, be it trade or free agency, they have the means to get him.

 

In Los Angeles, pressure has mounted on manager Dave Roberts. They’re at risk of over a half-decade of postseason failure, which points fingers at the front office who’s overseen it all. Losing to the upstart Braves – a series in which they’re a notable favorite – would be a blow, perhaps costing Roberts and/or others their jobs.

For a series not devoid of compelling plots, that might be the most fascinating dynamic. How the sense of urgency affects the series. The Braves have played stress-free all year, unbeknownst to the significance of what they achieved. The Dodgers’ season has been a letdown by their standards, requiring a last-minute surge to make the postseason.

Two separate paths. Two separate timelines. But it’s led them each back to where they were not too long ago. This best-of-five series will be played for the right to continue a journey, be it just starting or six years in.

Either the Braves take another surprising step in their ahead-of-schedule reboot, or the Dodgers draw a step closer to avenging the agony of Octobers past. However it develops, it might be just the first of many future meetings between two of baseball’s cherished clubs.