ATLANTA — It is the Los Angeles Dodgers starting pitching that is getting the attention and that is hard for the Braves to argue with.
“It may be the best rotation in the National League,” Atlanta manager Fredi Gonzalez admitted.
That doesn’t mean, though, that the Braves are conceding anything in the best-of-5 National League Division Series that begins tonight at Turner Field with the Dodgers’ Clayton Kershaw — likely headed to his third straight Cy Young Award — facing Kris Medlen.
“There’s no underdog anything,” insisted Medlen. “We have a good team and we think we can beat anybody, whether it’s Kershaw or whoever.”
Kershaw (16-9) led major league starters with a 1.83 ERA, but Medlen was actually even better than the left-hander down the stretch. He was 9-1 with a 2.04 ERA in his final 11 starts after Tim Hudson got hurt and 5-0 with a 0.84 ERA in September.
“He’s a handful from the standpoint that he’s not really predictable,” Dodgers manager Don Mattingly said.
Medlen (15-12) grew up in Southern California dreaming about someday playing shortstop for the Dodgers. That didn’t happen, but he’s certainly enjoyed pitching against them so far.
The right-hander is 3-0 with a 1.23 career ERA against Los Angeles and didn’t allow an earned run over 13 2/3 innings this season, even homering in a victory at Dodger Stadium.
Kershaw, meanwhile, hasn’t faced the Braves since 2011. He knows what Freddie Freeman can do, though.
“For me he’s probably one of the top two or three MVP guys in the league,” the pitcher said.
The Dodgers will be without Matt Kemp and possibly Andre Ethier. The Braves, meanwhile, will have Brian McCann back in the lineup after a scare with a strained right adductor muscle last week.
The Braves were 5-2 against the Dodgers during the regular season, including a May sweep in Atlanta. All those games, though, were before Los Angeles, who led the majors with a 3.13 starters ERA, turned its season around with one of the hottest stretches in baseball history.
Neither team finished strong. The NL East-champion Braves were 13-14 in September, while the NL West-winning Dodgers were 12-15.
The Braves set themselves apart with a 10-game winning streak in April, then took 14 in a row during late July and early August.
Many forecasters remain unsold, though, on the Braves, who haven’t won a playoff series since 2001. That was especially true after they let the best record in the NL slip away to St. Louis and had to play the Dodgers in the NLDS instead of the wild-card team.
“Nobody’s picked us all year anyway,” third baseman Chris Johnson said. “Nobody picked us to win the division. It was the Nationals’ year. So we’ve already been through stuff like that and we’re fine like that.
“People talk about, ‘You’ve got to play the Dodgers, you’ve got to beat Kershaw.’ We’ve got to beat Kershaw if we’re going to win the World Series anyway. And if we don’t win the World Series, then it’s a bust anyway. I don’t see a problem.”
The Braves had the best home record in the majors, going 56-25 at Turner Field. With the first two games in Atlanta, they know they have to win at least one one of them even if Kershaw and Zack Greinke (15-4) are starting for the Dodgers.
“Hopefully we can match pitch for pitch and then get into a battle of the bullpens,” said Gonzalez, whose relief pitchers led the majors with a 2.46 ERA. Playoff baseball, though, can be very hard to predict.
“You never know what’s going to happen,” Gonzalez said. “We like to play it out on paper, but we don’t play on paper. We’ve got to play it on the baseball field.”