A look at the battle for home-field advantage

Over the past few weeks, you have repeatedly heard how important it would be to gain home-field advantage throughout the National League playoffs.  Now with that prize within their grasp, the Braves simply need to surge through the regular season’s final five games and carry some momentum into the postseason.

The Braves enter today with a half-game lead over the Cardinals in the race for the NL’s best record.  And as you likely know, because of victories in the season series, Atlanta owns the head-to-head tiebreaker over both St. Louis and Los Angeles, the two other clubs that still have a legit shot to gain home-field advantage.

Atlanta’s magic number to clinch home-field advantage is four.  This number would reduce by one with any Braves win or Cardinals loss.   But while the focus has been on St. Louis, there is still certainly reason to keep an eye on the Dodgers, who stand two games out in the race to claim the NL’s best record.

Home-field advantage could truly be an even greater advantage than normal this year for the NL clubs.  If the Braves hold on to the NL’s best record, they will create the possibility of playing a majority of their games in the NLDS and NL Championship Series at Turner Field, where they have produced an NL-best .592 home winning percentage this year.  Ranking second and third in this category are the Cardinals (.589) and Dodgers (.580).

Maybe more importantly, grabbing the top seed would also allow the Braves to avoid playing either the NL West champion Dodgers or NL Central champ in the Division Series.  They would instead play the winner of the one-game Wild Card playoff that will be contested between the teams that finish second and third in the NL Central.

Here is a look at what Atlanta, St. Louis and Los Angeles have remaining:

BRAVES (5 games):  Wed. vs. Brewers; Thurs.-Sun. vs. Phillies

After watching potential NLDS Game 4 starter Paul Maholm oppose Kyle Lohse in tonight’s series finale against the Brewers, the Braves will send David Hale to the mound to oppose Tyler Cloyd in Thursday’s series opener against the Phillies.  They will then feature their top three starters  —  Kris Medlen, Mike Minor and Julio Teheran during the remainder of this series against Philadelphia.

Cliff Lee will oppose Medlen in the only attractive pitching matchup during this four-game set.  The Phillies have not announced a starter for Saturday, but speculation is they’ll go with Ethan Martin.  Then to conclude the regular season, the Braves will face  Zach Miner, who many moons ago was a pitching prospect in Atlanta’s system.

In the baseball world, it has often been said that momentum is the next day’s starting pitcher.  But as it pertains to the Braves offense, momentum could could come in the form of the starting pitchers they will face in three of the regular season’s final four regular season games.

CARDINALS (4 games)   —  Wed. vs. Nationals;  Fri.-Sun vs. Cubs.

After attempting to sweep the Nationals this afternoon, the Cardinals rest Thursday and then face Travis Wood, Edwin Jackson and Jeff Samardzija during this weekend’s three-game set against the Cubs.  St. Louis will send Lance Lynn to the mound on Friday.  Their starters for the final two regular season games will be determined by whether they have clinched the NL Central before Saturday.  Joe Kelly will likely make one of those starts.   Adam Wainwright could start on Saturday if there is not reason for him to be held back in the event he would have to available to  start the Wild Card playoff game.

DODGERS (5 games)   —  Wed. and Thurs. vs. Giants;  Fri.-Sun.  vs. Rockies

The pitching matchups for the final two games of the Giants series are Barry Zito vs. Ricky Nolasco and Tim Lincecum vs. Edinson Volquez.  Other than knowing the Rockies will send Juan Nicasio to the mound on Sunday, we don’t yet know who will serve as the other starting pitchers during this weekend’s series between the Dodgers and Rockies.

Having already secured a spot in a Division Series, the Dodgers will likely mirror the Braves by sending their top three starters Clayton Kershaw, Zack Greinke and Hyun-Jin Ryu to the mound during this weekend’s series.

WHAT WILL IT TAKE TO CLINCH:  Obviously, the Braves would clinch home-field advantage by winning four of their final five games.  If you are willing to assume the Cardinals will lose at least once more,  the Braves would simply need to win three of their final five games to clinch.

But two years removed from a point where Atlanta, simply needed to win two of its final five games to keep the eventual world champion Cards out of the playoffs, it might not be wise to make any assumptions.

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