The Atlanta Braves have assumed a self-proclaimed role as the postseason underdog -- and they like it.
While their claim that nobody expected them to win the National League East might be a bit of a stretch, there is little room for debate that when their NL Division Series against the Los Angeles Dodgers opens Thursday at 8:30 p.m. ET on TBS, the Braves, home-field advantage and all, will definitely be in that underdog role.
The Braves may have their hottest pitcher of late in Kris Medlen, the NL Pitcher of the Month in September, ready to start Game 1, but the spotlight will be shining on his Dodgers counterpart, lefty Clayton Kershaw, the odds-on favorite to claim his second NL Cy Young Award in three years.
Other than Justin Upton, acquired by Atlanta from Arizona last offseason, there is not a lot of familiarity with Kershaw among the Braves. Their NLDS active roster is a combined 10-for-69 with 20 strikeouts against Kershaw, and Upton accounts for 29 of those at-bats, only three of the hits and nine of the strikeouts.
"He's definitely at the top of his craft," said Upton. "He's one of those guys, you can tell when you see him out before games, when he's not pitching, he's preparing, so you know he's one of those guys that when he steps on the mound, he's prepared. You just have to be prepared to go at him, too."
Medlen put an exclamation point at the end of his first full season back from the Tommy John surgery he underwent in 2011. He went 15-12 with a 3.11 ERA in a season that began with him losing six of his first seven decisions, but ended with him running off a 5-0 record and a 0.84 ERA in his final six starts, earning Medlen the Game 1 start in the NLDS.
"I was in the outfield in Arizona [in mid-May after the fifth loss] saying, 'What am I supposed to do, what do I do?'" Medlen remembered saying to teammate Tim Hudson and pitching coach Roger McDowell. "They were all about simplifying and everything working out and evening out, and that's exactly what happened. Obviously you can't get to 15 wins without taking it to the second win and the third time. For me, it was just simplifying and taking my time."
There's not much simple about Kershaw.
"I faced him a couple of years ago in L.A.," said Braves first baseman Freddie Freeman. "He locates his fastball, and he has that huge curveball that's really, really good; it's sharp. He keeps you in the back of your mind, so you never know what he's going to throw, and he can throw any pitch any time he wants to."
Kershaw's regular-season record was only 16-9, but his 1.83 ERA allowed him to join Sandy Koufax as the only Dodgers starting pitchers to finish a full season with an ERA below 2.00. Kershaw allowed more than three earned runs in only three of his 33 starts, and he gave up two or fewer in 26 starts. Kershaw worked fewer than six innings in only four starts, and two of those were in April.
Kershaw led the NL with 232 strikeouts, his fourth consecutive season with 200 or more, and allowed a .195 batting average -- .202 to right-handed hitters and .165 to left-handed hitters. That in itself will be a challenge for the Braves, whose three most consistent hitters -- Freeman, Brian McCann and Jason Heyward -- are left-handed hitters.
Atlanta hit .239 against left-handers, which ranked 10th in the NL and was only seven points better than Chicago, which ranked last.
Also, Kershaw has no problems pitching on the road. He was 8-3 with a 2.14 regular-season ERA outside of Dodger Stadium.
"He's got a great arm, he's got a little bit of deception," said Heyward. "He's got three pitches he can throw to lefties or righties, but he's a guy that wants the ball every game, and that makes a big difference. You see his team feed off of that as well. That's why you have to expect him."
Medlen has been a steady progression of improvement. Initially used out of the bullpen in 2012 as he came back from Tommy John surgery, he moved into the rotation on a full-time basis the final two months a year ago. Medlen was 9-0 in 12 starts, and the Braves won the three no-decisions. He allowed more than one run in two starts, giving up two runs in an 11-3 victory against the Mets and three in a no-decision against the Marlins.
A starter in 31 of his 32 appearances this season, Medlen finished strong, going 9-3 with a 2.38 ERA after the All-Star break, capped off by his eye-opening September. And he welcomes the challenge of the Dodgers and Kershaw, public perception notwithstanding.
"All the attention," said Medlen, "I mean, we're not running for prom king. ... It's really not that big of a deal that they get more attention than us. At the end of the day, I hope we're getting all the attention with the World Series."
Dodgers: Filling in
In 922 regular-season games, Skip Schumaker has played 463 in the outfield and 456 at second base. With the NLDS slated to start Thursday, Schumaker finds himself getting ready to be in center field. The 33-year-old, who started only one regular-season game in center field for the Cardinals in 2011, drew the starts in center in Games 5, 6 and 7 of the World Series that year when St. Louis won a World Series championship.
Matt Kemp's season-long battle with injuries took another U-turn during the weekend when he woke up Saturday morning with renewed soreness in his left ankle, which was later diagnosed as swelling in the talus, a major weight-bearing bone in the ankle. He will be on crutches in the next month in hopes the swelling will subside.
The Dodgers have survived without Kemp for a bulk of the season. Three trips to the disabled list led to him missing 88 games. Kemp strained his right hamstring in May, aggravated his surgically repaired left shoulder in early July and was out from July 22 until Sept. 16 with a sprained left ankle.
The No. 1 alternative to Kemp in center is Andre Ethier, but he's been sidelined with shin splints. Ethier has worked out at the Dodgers' instructional league in Arizona, and he worked out with the big league team Tuesday but still isn't sure he can run and round bases.
That leads to Schumaker, who started 17 games in center field this season in addition to 14 starts in left field, 34 at second base and eight in right field. He appeared in 125 games overall, hitting .263 with two home runs and 30 RBIs.
The Dodgers also have concerns about shortstop Hanley Ramirez and outfielder Yasiel Puig. Ramirez was limited to 86 games but hit .345 and ranked second on the Dodgers with 20 home runs and 57 RBIs, and he has not started on back-to-back days in three weeks because of back soreness. Puig fouled a ball off his left foot Friday and was limited to pinch-hitting duty in the final two regular-season games.
Braves: October angst
The Braves are making their 17th appearance in the last 22 postseasons, the most of any NL team. But for all the regular-season success -- 16 division titles and a Wild Card Game appearance in 2012 -- they have struggled in October.
Atlanta has lost in the first round in its past six appearances, dropping the NL Wild Card Game to St. Louis a year ago and losing in the NLDS in 2002, '03, '04, '05 and '10. The Braves are 7-16 combined in those six postseasons. In fact, since the advent of the League Championship Series in 1969, Atlanta has been eliminated in the first round in 10 of its previous 18 postseasons.
The Braves have won the final game of the season only once, beating the Indians in six games in the 1995 World Series. Atlanta lost in the World Series to Minnesota in 1991, Toronto in '92, and the New York Yankees in '96 and '99.
The Braves are 64-78 in postseason games since the advent of division play in 1969. Prior to '69, they appeared in four World Series. The Braves swept the Philadelphia A's in four games in 1914, lost to Cleveland in six games in '48, beat the Yankees in seven games in '57 and lost to the Yankees in seven games in '58.
After finishing the 1959 season tied with the Dodgers, the Braves were swept in a best-of-three tiebreaking series by Los Angeles, which went on to win the World Series. That is the only time prior to this year that the Braves and Dodgers played each other in the postseason.
The Dodgers won the first game of that showdown, 3-2, in Milwaukee, and the next day, in Los Angeles, they rallied from a three-run ninth-inning deficit for a 6-5, 12-inning win. Carl Furillo hit a sacrifice fly in the ninth inning off Warren Spahn to score the game-tying run and then delivered the game-winning single off Bob Rush, who retired the first two batters in the inning.
• Kershaw is the third pitcher in NL history to win at least three consecutive ERA titles. Greg Maddux did it with Atlanta from 1993-95 and Koufax with the Dodgers from 1962-66. In the American League, Roger Clemens won ERA titles 1990-92 for Boston and Lefty Grove, at the start of a stretch in which he won eight ERA titles, did it from 1929-32.
• Heyward hit .322 with six home runs and 16 RBIs in 118 at-bats batting leadoff. He hit .223 with eight home runs and 22 RBIs in 264 at-bats elsewhere in the lineup. The Braves were 23-7 when Heyward hit first.
• Freeman compiled a team-leading 109 RBIs. He was the first Braves player to eclipse 100 RBIs in a season since Jeff Francoeur (105) and Chipper Jones (102) did it in 2007.
• During the regular season, the Braves were an MLB-best 56-25 at home, winning 25 of their last 35 games at Turner Field.
• Atlanta won the season series against the four other NL playoff teams, taking five of seven from Los Angeles and four of seven from St. Louis, Cincinnati and Pittsburgh.
• The Dodgers were 12-15 in September. Since the advent of the Wild Card in 1995, only three times has a team with a losing record in the final month of the season won the World Series: the 2006 St. Louis Cardinals (12-17), the '00 New York Yankees (13-17) and the 1997 Florida Marlins (12-15).
• Braves closer Craig Kimbrel has a 0.75 ERA against the Dodgers in his career. He also has struck out 19.5 Dodgers per nine innings, the best against an NL team.
Tracy Ringolsby is a columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.