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MLB.com Columnist

Richard Justice

Dodgers stellar, but NL playoff field strong

Dodgers stellar, but NL playoff field strong

Dodgers stellar, but NL playoff field strong

It's one thing to beat Clayton Kershaw. Actually, it can be done. Even though he has had one of the best years any starting pitcher has had the last four decades, he still has lost nine times.

So there's that.

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As the other four National League teams map out a path to the World Series, Kershaw does not represent the end of the road, even with that 1.88 ERA and those 224 strikeouts.

Nine losses is still nine losses. Never mind that the Dodgers scored a total of 23 runs in those nine losses. No use including that fact in the pregame pep talk.

If beating the Dodgers in the playoffs was just about beating Kershaw, that would be one thing. Unfortunately, they have a No. 2 starter almost as good as their No. 1. For a couple of months, he has actually been better.

Since June 22, the Dodgers are 16-2 when they hand the ball to Zack Greinke. In his past 16 starts, going back to the Fourth of July, he has allowed more than two earned runs just once.

So the challenge of beating the Dodgers begins with getting past two guys at the top of their game.

If it's true that starting pitching is where winning in the postseason begins, the Dodgers are in terrific shape. To have both Kershaw and Greinke on one team is the No. 1 reason they'll begin these NL playoffs as the consensus favorite to win their first pennant in 25 years.

Other teams will not see it this way. That's legitimate, too. These five teams -- the Dodgers, Braves, Cardinals, Reds and Pirates -- are very close in terms of talent. They're so close that the NL playoffs could be determined by the team that does the best job of limiting mistakes and not giving runs away.

There's a case to be made for every team. The Dodgers are the easy pick, not just because of Kershaw and Greinke, but also because of a lineup that has Carl Crawford and Yasiel Puig at the top and Matt Kemp, Hanley Ramirez and Adrian Gonzalez in the middle. There are days the Dodgers get sloppy on defense and don't take care of the small stuff. But the Dodgers have so much big talent -- Kershaw, Ramirez, etc. -- that it's virtually impossible to pick anyone else.

The St. Louis Cardinals will not see it this way. They'll probably hand the ball to their ace, Adam Wainwright, in Game 1, and no team in the sport has more confidence in their No. 1 guy than the Cards have in Wainwright.

Like Kershaw, Wainwright is one of the No. 1 starters every other is measured against. Like Kershaw, he's capable of putting a team on his shoulders. And while it's unclear who the Cardinals will start in Game 2, they know that Wainwright is capable of outpitching any other No. 1 on earth.

When a team gets a 1-0 lead in a postseason series, when it has just gotten past the guy the other team has the most confidence in, anything is possible.

The Cardinals have a deep lineup, one that will wear out opposing pitchers. Second baseman Matt Carpenter is going to be on almost every NL MVP Award ballot, and Matt Holliday is arguably finishing the regular season as baseball's hottest hitter. So even though the Cards aren't a perfect team, even though there's some uncertainty about their closer, they're plenty good enough to win.

Postseason series sometimes take on a life of their own, with momentum and confidence and players being at their best when the spotlight is brightest on the big stage.

The Pirates have been offensively challenged the entire year, but A.J. Burnett is a true No. 1 starter. He's one of those guys who wants his team to jump on his back, and with Charlie Morton and Gerrit Cole and Francisco Liriano behind him, the Bucs are good enough to win.

Likewise, the Reds have a very good rotation and a dominant closer in Aroldis Chapman. They also have Joey Votto in the middle of their lineup, and there may not be another hitter as respected as these playoffs begins. Momentum doesn't always begin with the starting pitcher. Sometimes a team has an offensive player so good that he's capable of taking control of a series. And Votto is one of those guys.

Now, about those Atlanta Braves. They're smooth and efficient and confident. They've haven't been great offensively the last month, but as Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez has pointed out several times, October is a new month and a new season. The Braves may go only as far as their young aces, Mike Minor and Kris Medlen, take them, and they feel plenty good about that.

So there you go. The Dodgers are the easiest team to pick, but if you're a fan of the Cardinals or Pirates or Reds or Braves, these kinds of predictions mean absolutely nothing.

Welcome to postseason baseball. Prepare to be surprised. Welcome to the best time of the year.

Richard Justice is a columnist for MLB.com. Read his blog, Justice4U. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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