The plan is coming together for the Atlanta Braves, who are back in the National League Championship Series amid a series of circumstances that couldn't have turned out better if they had laid them out themselves.
The Braves will host the Los Angeles Dodgers in Game 1 on Saturday night, earning home-field advantage in the rematch of last year's seven-game NLCS despite their opponent having a better regular-season record.
The Braves, the NL East Division champions, were 88-73 in the regular season but get to host the NLCS opener, and a potential Game 7, because the 106-win Dodgers failed to win their division before they advanced through the wild-card game.
Atlanta also has the advantage of finishing off the Milwaukee Brewers early in the NL Division Series -- three games to one -- and were able to set up their rotation, while the Dodgers were slugging it out in a five-game NLDS against the San Francisco Giants.
That the defending World Series champion Dodgers had to use two of their starting pitchers in Thursday's NLDS clincher, including expected Game 1 NLCS starter Max Scherzer for one inning as an impromptu closer, only played further into the Braves' hand.
Yet despite the scenarios, and the Braves' playoff familiarity with the Dodgers, they aren't gloating over the matchup. Especially since the Dodgers won last year's playoff duel.
"No, it's always challenging to go up against this team," Braves manager Brian Snitker said. "Are you kidding me? No matter how familiar you are with this club, it's challenging when you (just) have a three-game series against them."
Left-hander and Los Angeles-area native Max Fried will start Game 1 for the Braves. He was 0-1 in two starts against the Dodgers in last year's seven-game NLCS but did have a 2.84 ERA and 14 strikeouts in 12 2/3 innings. In five regular-season starts against the Dodgers, he is 1-2 with a 4.30 ERA.
Fried is 1-0 this postseason, pitching six scoreless innings in a 3-0 victory over the Brewers on Oct. 9.
"There's no secrets," Fried said of the NLCS matchup. "We know each other well enough by now, and it's just going out there and handling it between the lines."
The Dodgers will try to handle an opponent bent on revenge by using the momentum created by Thursday's nail-biting, 2-1 clincher over the Giants.
After a miserable season marred by injuries and a lack of productivity, Cody Bellinger drove in the go-ahead run Thursday in the ninth inning. After Julio Urias, in a relief role, was solid over four innings through the middle of the game, Scherzer pitched a scoreless ninth, helped by a controversial check-swing third strike for the last out on Wilmer Flores.
While Scherzer's use in Game 1 is likely, it is not official. He is 0-1 with a 1.46 ERA in 12 1/3 innings this postseason.
"I can't even comment on it," Scherzer said Thursday. "I got to come in (Friday), see how my arm feels, and then make a decision."
The Dodgers were sporadic on offense against the Giants, getting shut out twice, scoring a combined 16 runs in their first two victories in the series, then doing just enough in Game 5.
One reason for the inconsistency was the absence of Max Muncy and his career-best 36 home runs. His status for the NLCS remains unknown after he dislocated his left elbow in the regular-season finale.
"I've talked about it for six years; our expectation every year is to play through October," Dodgers manager Dave Roberts said. "You're going to have highs, lows, some tough games where you got to kind of pick things up to win a ballgame. So I have no doubt our guys are going to come ready to beat the Braves in Game 1."
--Field Level Media