In a season where much of the National League is less than stellar, chiefly the surprisingly underachieving NL Central, two teams stand head and shoulders above the rest: the Los Angeles Dodgers and the Atlanta Braves. Treating any regular season series as an inevitable October prelude is always thinking too far ahead…but it might not be in this case.
Thus, it’s time to take a look at the highlights these hallowed franchises have created against each other for decades. Through historic regular season moments, heated pennant chases and playoff matches, the Dodgers and Braves have consistently represented the National League – and baseball – at its absolute best.
Regular Season Head-to-Head
With the Braves having existed since 1876, and the Dodgers since 1884, these two have seen each other on the diamond a lot. That’s enough for 2,246 games going into this weekend, and the Boys in Blue hold the edge 1,193 to 1,031. There are many highlights in these games, one being the fact that Braves pitchers have no-hit the Dodgers four times. The most recent was Kent Mercker’s no-no at Dodger Stadium in 1994.
Jackie Robinson and Hank Aaron Set Milestones
The most important part of these franchises’ shared history are the two milestones they respectively set against one another. The first is perhaps the most important day in baseball history: April 15, 1947. At Ebbets Field, Jackie Robinson took the field and broke MLB’s color barrier. Almost as important, he helped the Dodgers best Boston Braves ace Johnny Sain for a 5-3 win that set the tone for a pennant-winning season in Brooklyn.
The second was April 8, 1974, at Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium. With none other than Vin Scully on the call, Braves slugger Hank Aaron launched a pitch from Dodgers left-hander Al Downing for his 715th career home run, surpassing Babe Ruth for the all-time record.
Pennant and Division Battles
In their second year in Los Angeles in 1959, the Dodgers battled the Braves (then playing in Milwaukee) and the San Francisco Giants all season long for the NL pennant. When the season ended, Milwaukee and Los Angeles boasted identical records of 86-68, forcing a tiebreaker playoff series. Given the Braves were back-to-back NL champions, and World Series winners in 1957, the odds seemed to be in their favor.
But the Dodgers rose to the occasion, taking the first game in Milwaukee and rallying from down three in the ninth at the Coliseum to set up a pennant-clincher in extras. The ghosts of 1950 against the Phillies and Bobby Thomson’s Shot Heard ‘Round the World in 1951 were purged. The Dodgers went on to defeat the Chicago White Sox in the World Series for the second championship in franchise history, and the first in Los Angeles.
After the first divisional realignment in 1969, the Braves (now in Atlanta) and Dodgers were both put in the newly created National League West. Their first battle for the division crown came in 1982, also a three-way battle that included San Francisco. By the final day of the season, L.A. had a chance to force a one-game playoff with Atlanta. But Joe Morgan and the hated Giants downed them 5-3, ensuring the Braves won their first ever division crown.
The sequel of this new intra-divisional rivalry came right the next year in 1983. The race was effectively decided in an unforgettable contest at Dodger Stadium on September 11, one full of surreal twists including rookie Orel Hershiser pitching in just his third major league game. The best was saved for last, when rookie R.J. Reynolds executed the perfect walk-off suicide squeeze to give the Dodgers the division lead they’d hold on to for the rest of the month.
However, the Braves would get them back in 1991. Los Angeles were in first much of the season, but the upstart team from the south went 55-28 after the All-Star break to catch them. Once again, the Giants gleefully played a role by shutting down the Dodgers 4-0, while Atlanta took care of Houston. The Braves would then defeat the Pittsburgh Pirates in the NLCS, but some guys from Minnesota had the final say in the World Series.
The Braves and Dodgers have been frequent trade partners since 1895, agreeing to 49 transactions in total as of this writing. Some notable acquisitions for L.A. from Atlanta include Alex Wood, Lee Lacy, and Luis Avilan. On the flipside, the Braves have received the likes of Gary Sheffield, Mike Marshall (the pitcher), and Andy Pafko.
The most beneficial one to the Dodgers came in November 1975, when they acquired Dusty Baker in a six-player swap. Having grown disgruntled with Atlanta’s irrelevance, his mentor Hank Aaron being traded to the Milwaukee Brewers, and living in the Deep South, Baker requested a trade to a West Coast team. It ended up being to his childhood favorite, and from 1976 to 1983 he excelled, fueling three pennants and the 1981 World Series champions with his powerful bat. He also likely invented the high five.
The biggest recent trade, obviously, was the salary dump in December 2017 that sent Brandon McCarthy, Charlie Culberson, Scott Kazmir, and Adrian Gonzalez to Atlanta for Matt Kemp. It was a surprise move, given many believed the Dodgers should go for Giancarlo Stanton and Kemp’s somewhat checkered clubhouse reputation when he was traded from L.A. to San Diego in 2014.
However, the trade ended up being one of the keys to the 2018 season. Hungry to prove himself anew after his bitter departure in 2014, Kemp got in shape and had a stupendous comeback season. He started in the All-Star game, dominated Archie Bradley, took Chris Sale deep over the Green Monster in the World Series, and won NL Comeback Player of the Year.
Compared to their historic and down-to-the-wire regular season battles, the history of Atlanta and Los Angeles in the playoffs is borderline underwhelming. They wouldn’t even be able to meet in the playoffs until the divisional realignment in the mid-’90s, setting up the first meeting in the 1996 NLDS. The Braves were defending champions, and proved just why in a quick three-game sweep.
Even as the Braves continued to make the playoffs every year, the Dodgers were out of October action from 1997 to 2003, and it wasn’t until 2013 that they finally met again. After splitting the first two games in Atlanta, the Dodgers romped to a 13-6 win in game three at home, and thus a 2-1 series lead.
However, the Braves held a 3-2 lead going into the bottom of the eighth in game four. With then-untouchable closer Craig Kimbrel pacing in the pen, it seemed like a certainty the series would go back to Atlanta for a winner-take-all fifth game. Rookie sensation Yasiel Puig, however, started things with a double off reliever David Carpenter. Veteran third baseman Juan Uribe stepped up and initially showed bunt. Fortunately, he decided against it.
The rubber match occurred just last year, another four-game triumph for L.A. As the Dodgers were defending National League champions, and the Braves were a young team just out of a rebuilding cycle, it was admittedly a highly likely outcome. The Dodgers took the first two games on dominant starts from Hyun-Jin Ryu and Clayton Kershaw, but the Braves rallied to take game three in Atlanta on Ronald Acuna’s historic grand slam.
In game four, however, the Dodgers rebounded thanks to trade acquisitions Ryan Madson, David Freese, and Manny Machado. Machado in particular sealed it with a three-run blast, which he nonchalantly observed while blowing his bubble gum. It was enough to ensure the team’s third consecutive tip to the NLCS.
As the two clubs square off this weekend, it’s impossible not to see it as a surefire October preview. Los Angeles is by far the best team in the NL (and arguably the best in baseball), while Atlanta has matured significantly from the Baby Braves’ first taste of the playoffs last year.
If history is any indication, this weekend series should be prescient, and in a good way. Who goes to the World Series is most compelling when it comes down to the two best teams in the league. In 2019, the Dodgers and Braves are that 1-2 punch for the NL. Enjoy these few games…they are likely just a teaser of bigger things this fall.