Here we go, postseason time! The Dodgers open up in Atlanta in the best-of-five series for a trip to the NLCS. And from there, in what would be their first trip back in 25 years since winning it all in 1988, the Fall Classic.
Let's take a look at five reasons the Dodgers can win it all, and five reasons they might not.
1. Clayton Kershaw and Zack Greinke as a 1-2 punch. There are plenty of great arms on display in the postseason, but none quite as good as what the Dodgers can roll out to the mound the first two games of any series. No matter who is in or out of the lineup, Don Mattingly knows the Dodgers have a great chance with Kershaw and Greinke toeing the rubber.
Based on the second half of the season, it's no stretch to say that these guys are also the top two pitchers in baseball right now. We all know how fantastic Kershaw was in what will be his second Cy Young Award won (16-9, 1.83 ERA, 0.94 WHIP ), but Greinke's stats after the All-Star break have been phenomenal as well (7-2, 1.85 ERA, 0.98 WHIP). If your numbers approach Kershaw's, even for half the season, then you've done something pretty special. Despite playing at home for the first couple of games of the NLDS, the Braves can't feel that great about their chances. The numbers back it up.
2. Hanley Ramirez is the best hitter around. There's no doubt that 2013 has been the season that has put Ramirez back on the map, despite playing in only 86 games because of various injuries. But by hitting .345 with 20 homers and 57 RBIs, he reminded everyone just how well-rounded a hitter he is.
Now is the time for Ramirez to put the offense on his back and get the big hits needed to win. With Matt Kemp out for the playoffs, it's even more important that he hits well. Yes, he's still banged up, but even at less than 100%, he's a great hitter. After only gathering 11 at-bats in April and May combined, he ended July with a .365 average, 10 homers, and 34 RBIs. I don't think at any point this season he's been fully healthy, so that stats show just how good he is anyway. A big month of October will not only lead the Dodgers to a title, but a big fat contract extension as well!
3. Yasiel Puig on the big stage. There's just something about Puig and his flair for dramatics that can get Dodger fans excited. After making a big splash in Spring Training, he was called up on June 2 with the Dodgers at a pathetic 23-32. Puig lit a fire in this team that helped carry them to the NL West title.
His lack of big game experience shouldn't be a factor at all, because if anyone is ready and willing to go all out, all the time, it's Puig. He's the type of player that can strikeout his first four at-bats, then hit the game-winning homer in his fifth. He can also make the big diving catch to save a game. I think he's chomping at the bit to get out there and prove what kind of a great player he is.
4. Brian Wilson and Kenley Jansen closing out games. It's taken only 18 games for Wilson to prove that not only is he back, he's just as dominant as ever. Combine his arm with Kenley Jansen's, and the Dodgers have to feel very confident with a lead after seven innings.
Wilson carries an 0.66 ERA into the postseason along with three holds. He's a more reliable option than Ronald Belisario, who continues to go from good to bad one game to the next. Wilson also has the obvious postseason experience having won two rings with the Giants, including closing out the World Series over the Rangers in 2010. Jansen was sensational in the closer's role with 28 saves, a 1.88 ERA, and 111 strikeouts in 76 2/3 innings. They're both ready to let it loose.
5. Road warriors. The team with the best record away from home? That would be the Dodgers, which tied the Rangers for tops in the Majors at a 45-36 clip. Thanks in large part to their historic 15-game road winning streak around the All-Star break, the Dodgers appear just as comfortable away from home as they do at Chavez Ravine.
Of course any team would rather open up the postseason at home, but keep in mind that Kershaw and Greinke are going the first two games in Atlanta, so the Dodgers' confidence has to be high. Basically they need to take one game on the road to regain home field advantage, which seems doable. And based on their great road record, it can certainly happen.
1. No Matt Kemp. As Don Mattingly correctly pointed out as news of Kemp's shutdown hit on Sunday, the Dodgers went 42-8 at one point without him. Kemp has only played in 179 games the last two seasons, so they're certainly used to not having him around.
But with all of that said, there's just no way the Dodgers won't miss him. Opposing pitchers have to gameplan a whole heck of a lot more against Kemp than they do for his replacements like Skip Schumaker, or even Andre Ethier, who might also miss the NLDS. Kemp has the type of impact bat that could give the Dodgers a big lead late in the game with a home run. That's so hard to replace. And since all signs were that he'd be back for the postseason, only to get the bad news after the last regular season game, there's no doubt it's a big blow for everyone.
2. Injury prone. To go along with Kemp, it seems like there are so many guys who are only a play away from being done for the season as well. Ethier is most likely either scratched from the NLDS or is only a pinch-hitter. Ramirez has been banged up all season. Puig has been battling through a few ailments lately as well.
Don Mattingly is used to mixing and matching his lineup on a daily basis, but still, it's tough not to be able to write in his big guns everyday and let them do their thing. The fact that Schumaker is the probable starting centerfielder is a reminder just how things can change so quickly. Can you imagine what would happen if Kershaw, Greinke, or Jansen got hurt as well? Man, that would be awful.
3. Yasiel Puig on the big stage. Yes, you read that right. As much as Puig is about to embrace the bright lights of October, it could turn out to be a disaster if he gets out of control.
We've already seen Mattingly and his own teammates get on his case for throwing temper tantrums, and trying to throw guys out from about 800 feet away, allowing runners to move up. Plus, there have been a whole lot of swings and misses of late, mostly because he looks like he's trying to kill everything. Expect pitchers to make him expand the zone and challenge him to be patient. What if he doesn't want to walk? He'll be an easy out from the leadoff spot if he can't control himself, and the offense will suffer.
4. Streaky offense. It's true that the final three-game series against the Rockies was meaningless in the big picture, but take a look at their run production: 11, 0, 1. That's not exactly the most encouraging way to enter the postseason.
Their runs scored has dipped quite a bit in September. In August they scored 128 runs (4.4 AVG), good for third in the NL. This past month that fell to 102 (3.8 AVG), which was ninth. Granted, some of those games were played with quirky lineups thanks to being the first team to clinch the division, but plenty of the regulars still got their swings in. Maybe the offense is ready to roll again with a set lineup, but they'll have to prove that. And with Kemp not in there, it'll be even tougher.
5. Ricky Nolasco fading. After shutting down the Diamondbacks on September 9, Nolasco stood at 8-1 with a 1.82 ERA in 12 starts with the Dodgers. It sure looked like the Dodgers had a huge advantage in the first three games of any series with Kershaw, Greinke, and Nolasco, not to mention Hyun-Jin Ryu after that. Life was good.
And then life was bad. His next three starts were an unbelievable disaster, as he got bombed by going 0-2 with a 12.75 ERA. He seriously went from unhittable to batting practice. There really was no in between. I firmly believe he would've been the Game 3 starter, but not anymore. Suppose the Dodgers are down 2-1 in the NLDS, how confident are they sending him to the mound? It's hard to say they would feel that good about it right now. That's how badly things have turned around for him.