The Los Angeles Dodgers took control of the NL West with an amazing 2½-month stretch and could let off the gas over the final weeks.
The Atlanta Braves won the East going away, their commanding lead not at all threatened by a losing record over the final month.
Now, it’s time to get serious again.
They meet tonight in Game 1 of the NL division series.
“I don’t think we necessarily let up,” Dodgers infielder Michael Young said after a workout at Turner Field. “In our situation, we had to get some guys healthy. A couple of guys needed a couple of days off, so we gave it to them. Now we’re ready to roll.”
Despite having some room for error, the Dodgers are far from healthy going into the playoffs.
Slugger Matt Kemp is out for the postseason with an ankle injury, while outfielder Andre Ethier will likely be limited to pinch-hitting duties because of his own ankle issues. He hasn’t played in the field since Sept. 13.
While Ethier took part in the workout, he ruled out any chance of playing in the field.
“The ankle is getting better every day,” he said. “It’s not as fast as we want, but it’s definitely on the timetable that we knew going in. Every day that it doesn’t get more sore and set me back is a good day.”
The Dodgers certainly won’t get any sympathy from the Braves, who lost seven players to season-ending injuries.
Atlanta was bolstered by unlikely contributors such as Evan Gattis, who made the team as a non-roster player in the spring, hit 21 homers and paced all NL rookies with 65 RBIs. He’s expected to bat cleanup against Dodgers ace Clayton Kershaw (16-9, 1.83 ERA) in the series opener.
Gattis is not alone. The Braves playoff roster is filled with guys who no one would’ve expected just a few months ago.
Journeyman Elliot Johnson, acquired off waivers in August, will start at second base. Veteran pitcher Freddy Garcia, purchased from Baltimore late in the season, is set to start Game 4 if the best-of-five series goes that far. Rookie David Hale, a Walker School product who made two September starts after the rosters expanded, made the bullpen as a long reliever.
“We got a lot of contributions from a lot of guys who, coming into the season, a lot of people didn’t expect,” catcher Brian McCann said.
There also were some huge disappointments. Three-time All-Star second baseman Dan Uggla hit just .179 and didn’t even make the 25-man squad, despite 22 homers. B.J. Upton was demoted to a backup role in the outfield after batting .184 with nine homers and 26 RBIs.
With Kemp out and Ethier hurting, the Dodgers are counting on veterans such as Young, Skip Schumaker and Jerry Hairston to step up. Plus, they have one of the most exciting — and sometimes exasperating — rookies in the game, 22-year-old Yasiel Puig, who batted .319 with 19 homers and 42 RBIs.
“Matt is a great player,” first baseman Adrian Gonzalez said. “But we have a bunch of great players behind him.”
Kris Medlen (15-12, 3.11) will start Game 1 for the Braves. He was the loser in last year’s wild-card playoff against the St. Louis Cardinals and struggled a bit early this season, but the Braves are confident he can go pitch-for-pitch with Kershaw.
“Some guys thrive in these situations. Some guys don’t,” McCann said. “He’s definitely one of those guys that the bigger the moment, the more he thrives.”
The Braves also discount their shaky performance down the stretch, which cost them home-field advantage throughout the NL playoffs. Atlanta won just 13 of 27 games in September and lost the top seed to St. Louis by a game, which certainly raised the question of whether the team is destined for its eight straight playoff series loss. The Braves haven’t won a postseason series since 2001.
“We clinched the division with a week and a half to go, but we still had home-field advantage we were fighting for,” first baseman Freddie Freeman insisted. “We fought all the way to the end of the season. There was no edge taken away. We were competing every day, every game. That’s going to help us going in.”
Atlanta shrugged off its history of playoff failures, which dates to an unprecedented run of 14 straight division titles from 1991-2005 that resulted in only one World Series championship.
McCann is the only active holdover from the Braves’ last division crown. He said this team isn’t dwelling on the ones that got away.
“No one here was even part of it for those 14 years. I just caught the tail end of it that last year,” McCann said. “I don’t think anybody thinks about that. Once the game starts, it’s just us vs. them.”