The 2021 Dodgers were so stacked it was believed they could win 117 games, which would mark an all-time high. It was believed, at least around here, that the Dodgers’ primary challenger would be the Braves, who carried L.A. to an National League Championship Series Game 7 last fall. (Others saw the Mets as the greater threat, and for such folks there’s no excuse.) Neither the Dodgers nor Braves tracked the expected path, but here they are.

The Dodgers arrive having survived the indignity of the wild-card game. They were tied after 8-1/2 innings with St. Louis. Chris Taylor’s home run sent them into the Division Series against the Giants, their ancient enemy. A more modest ninth-inning hit decided Thursday’s Game 5 – Cody Bellinger singled, the same Cody Bellinger whose home run off Chris Martin undid the Braves in Game 7 last October – and sent the Dodgers winging toward Atlanta.

ExploreHeaded to Truist Park for the NLCS? Here’s what you need to know

Despite being without Trevor Bauer, the National League’s reigning Cy Young winner, and Clayton Kershaw, three times a Cy Young winner, for much of the season, the Dodgers won 106 games. It wasn’t 117, but it matched the most in franchise annals. It also left them one game behind the astonishing Giants, of whom not much was expected. From April 28 until the regular season ended, the Giants spent one day – Sept. 1 – behind the Dodgers. Counting the NLDS, the teams played each other 24 times. Each won 12.

The Braves spent much of their season being less than tremendous. For the hundredth time: They didn’t rise above .500 until Aug. 6; they didn’t take first place until 10 days later. They won 88 games, the lowest total of the 10 playoff qualifiers. They lost Ronald Acuna to a torn ACL, Mike Soroka to another torn Achilles and Marcell Ozuna to a hand injury followed by an arrest on charges of domestic violence. They won the NL East by 6-1/2 games. They were an NLDS underdog. They outscored Milwaukee 11-4 over the final three games.

Not that the Giants wouldn’t have been a worthy opponent, but in their heart of hearts the Braves are surely thrilled to have another chance at the Dodgers. (Whether they’ll be quite so thrilled 10 days hence is another matter.) Having made the playoffs nine years running and reached the World Series three times over the past four seasons, the Dodgers are the benchmark. Indeed, they’ve served as style influencer for these Braves.

Alex Anthopoulos, the general manager whose deadline buys saved the Braves’ season, worked as assistant GM in L.A. for two years before coming here. He admits he learned the importance of depth at the right hand of Dodgers president Andrew Friedman. The Dodgers used 61 players this season, 39 of them pitchers. The Braves’ totals were 56 and 30.

The parallel pursuit of talent even turned comical. The Dodgers signed reliever Shane Greene six days after the Braves cut him. The Dodgers released him in September, having learned the same lesson: Shane Greene has nothing left.

Last year, Anthopoulos paid $18 million for a year’s worth of Cole Hamels, who worked all of 3-1/3 innings. In August this year, the Dodgers signed Hamels for a reported $1 million. Not two weeks later, he landed on the 60-day injured list. Cole Hamels has nothing left, either, though he does have a pile of money.

Dodgers depth will be tested forthwith. Game 1 is set to begin at Truist Park 47 hours after the start of Game 5 in San Francisco. Two of their three best pitchers – Julio Urias and Max Scherzer – were used in relief Thursday. Walker Buehler, their best pitcher, started Tuesday’s Game 4 on short rest. That said, the Dodgers went with what’s known as an “opener,” as opposed to a certified starter, in elimination games against the Braves twice last year and now against the Giants. L.A. won every time. We say again: depth.

The Braves aren’t without resources. Their infield has coalesced into a group rivaling the Dodgers’ famed foursome of Steve Garvey, Davey Lopes, Bill Russell and Ron Cey. Their outfield will stand forever as Anthopoulos’ opus. Max Fried is prepped to start Game 1 on full rest. The Braves’ bullpen had an ERA of 1.23 against the Brewers, the only runs coming against Huascar Ynoa, a starter by trade. The COVID-related absence of Jorge Soler should mean more time for Joc Pederson, who hit .429 with two homers and four RBIs against Milwaukee and who is, not incidentally, a former Dodger.

For the past several months, the Dodgers’ focus was on the Giants. The Braves’ minds have been on L.A. for years. Of their past four playoff runs, three were ended by Dodger Blue. Last year the Braves took a 3-1 series lead and led Games 5 and 7 after five innings. As gifted and professional – and deep; don’t forget deep – as the Dodgers are, they’re past due to lose an elimination game. With all the wonders the Braves have worked, would it surprise us if they won?

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