The Braves will chalk it up as just another series. Manager Brian Snitker’s day-to-day mantra spreads through the organization. They won’t consider any one set more important than the other until the calendar turns to October.
But despite their stance, regardless of how they approach it, this weekend has a little extra oompf. The Dodgers come to SunTrust Park for three games. The Braves are simultaneously celebrating alumni weekend and tickets are already standing room only for each day.
If you want to see a postseason atmosphere in August, this is it. The two best teams in the National League, two budding rivals who faced off last October, will provide what might be, dare we say, a National League Championship Series preview.
Whatever the future holds, the present boasts two of MLB’s top six teams going head-to-head in Atlanta. The Dodgers, coming off back-to-back pennants, are the class of the league. They’re the barometer. The road to the World Series will go through Los Angeles.
Here’s why: The Dodgers lead MLB in starters’ ERA, total ERA and WHIP. Offensively, they lead the NL in runs per game, homers and OPS. For as outstanding as the Braves’ bats have been, the Dodgers have statistically exceeded them. Though both teams share justifiable bullpen complaints.
The Braves are well-aware of the Dodgers’ excellence. This is their chance to distance themselves from their past miseries against L.A. The Dodgers eliminated them in four games last postseason, the first two of which the Braves didn’t look ready for primetime. When the teams met in May, the Dodgers swept.
Of course, much has changed with the Braves since. It was the ensuing series in Arizona that Snitker moved Ronald Acuna back to leadoff, prompting an offensive revival that’s propelled the Braves to the current day. The Dodgers haven’t seen the new-and-improved Braves. That’s how they’ll approach it.
Clayton Kershaw and Walker Buehler, both of whom the Braves faced last postseason, won’t start this weekend. The Braves will see nemesis Hyun-Jin Ryu, who’s in the midst of a career-best season after the Braves had no answer for the lefty last October.
Ace Mike Soroka pitches Friday’s opener, opposing Kenta Maeda. Mike Foltynewicz will face Ryu, a rematch of Game 1 of the NLDS. The finale will feature Max Fried against a to-be-determined Dodgers pitcher. Dustin May is slated to start but manager Dave Roberts suggested he could transition to the bullpen. Roberts acknowledged there was gamesmanship in keeping his plans quiet.
However the series evolves, the Braves won’t prematurely begin to play match-up chess for the postseason. They stress there’s a division to win before looking at the Dodgers, Cubs and others.
“If you start doing that, you make mistakes,” said general manager Alex Anthopoulos, who was asked if he allows himself to think that far ahead. “I’m very conscious, aware of the division. We were I think eight games back in the loss column with Toronto in 2015 and we won the division against the Yankees by six (games). So we’ve seen, whether it’s been the Braves or other teams, two months is a long time. We tend to forget it’s a third of the season.
“We get to the trade deadline and they figure the year is gone and things are going to continue the way they have. There are injuries, performance dropoffs, the fatigue element. People talk about the lead in the division, we play the NL East so much, especially the last month.”
While everything Anthopoulos said likely rings true, so does the reality that to reach the World Series, one must take down the class of the league. This weekend is the latest study to see how much the Braves have closed the gap.
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