ATLANTA — Justin Upton knows all too well what Clayton Kershaw is capable of.
Having seen the Dodgers ace for four years while he was with the National League West rival Diamondbacks, Upton offered a succinct and fitting take on the pitcher the Braves will face Thursday in Game 1 of their division series.
“He’s definitely at the top of his game, at the top of his craft,” Upton said.
Or, as Kris Medlen, who will take the mound opposite Kershaw for the NL East champion Braves said: “(He) has had an unbelievable run this year and I think is the Cy Young Award winner.”
The numbers certainly back Medlen up.
Kershaw (16-9) led the NL in ERA (1.83) for the third straight, making him the first pitcher to do so since Greg Maddux (1993-95). He also led the league in strikeouts (232) and allowed more than three earned runs in three of his 33 starts.
It’s a dominance that the Braves have only been able to take in from a distance.
They missed Kershaw in the May series in Atlanta and the June set in Los Angeles and, in fact, haven’t faced him since 2011. There are just four players on the NLDS roster who played in those games, Jose Constanza, Freddie Freeman, Jason Heyward and Brian McCann — the fifth, Dan Uggla won’t play in this series — and not a one of them has more than four at-bats against Kershaw.
That’s where Atlanta is leaning on its NL West imports.
“We got some information, like everybody else,” said Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez. “We got a scouting video and Justin will give you his opinion and we have a couple other guys that have 10 or 11 at-bats against him. We’re going to go at it that way.”
Before every series, the Braves hitters meet to discuss the opposing pitchers, with those familiar with them voicing their opinions and giving teammates crib notes on tendencies, arsenals, etc.
In those latest meetings Upton and Chris Johnson, his fellow D-back teammate last season, spoke loudest.
“You’re only going to face him three times really in Game 1 — hopefully,” Johnson said. “So you just try to have a good pitch to hit, put a good swing on it and whatever the situation dictates, that’s what you try to do.”
But doing it is a different monster all together.
Upton has 31 plate appearances vs. Kershaw, while Johnson has seen him 12 times. But neither has had much success with Upton going 3 for 29 (.103) with two extra-base hits, while Johnson has one hit, a double, in 12 tries (.083). Paul Janish has also faced Kershaw 12 times, going 2 for 11 (.182) with a walk, but his last at-bat was in 2011, as was Uggla’s (1 for 12; .083).
Upton’s advice has largely revolved around what makes Kershaw so complex with an ability to keep batters out of their comfort zones.
“You’re going to have to hit his pitch sometimes and I think that’s what makes some pitchers good,” Upton said. “You might get your pitch a couple of times a night, but those other two or three at-bats you’re going to have to hit his pitches and we have to be prepared to do that.”
There are Braves who have fared well vs. Kershaw in small samples sizes with Freeman going 2 for 4 with a home run and two walks, while Constanza and Reed Johnson are 1 for 3 and Gerald Laird is 1 for 2.
But Atlanta’s best weapon in neutralizing him may be a guy who of late has been every bit Kershaw’s equal.
“He’s got to throw the ball over the plate and when he commands it does what he can do, it’s going to be a tough, difficult night,” Gonzalez said. “But Medlen can do that also and hopefully we can match pitch-for-pitch.”
Medlen’s first full season as a starter got off to a rocky start, as he was 1-6 at the end of May with a 3.48 ERA. He ended looking more like the ace-in-the-making who was on the mound for a MLB-record 23 straight wins last season, going 4-0 in five starts in September with a league-best 1.00 ERA in 36 innings to earn NL Player of the Month honors and run his season record to 15-12.
He has also fared well against the Dodgers, going 3-0 with a 1.23 ERA, including going 1-0 in two starts with a 0.00 ERA in 13 2/3 innings.
Medlen is confident and his teammates are too in his ability to go toe-to-to with Kershaw.
“Some guys thrive in these situations. Some guys don’t,” said catcher Brian McCann. “He’s definitely one of those guys that the bigger the moment, the more he thrives.”
The Braves had the best home record in baseball at 56-25, while the Dodgers totaled more road wins (45) than any team in the postseason. For Atlanta, adding another victory at Turner Field means derailing arguably the best pitcher in baseball.
But while the prevailing thought is that the Braves avoided Kershaw in winning their season series 5-2, Medlen offered another take.
“We missed him twice this year both times we played,” he said. “But I think our team, the confidence we have, he missed us.