NL wild card playoff: Cardinals at Braves: Game-changers
If starting pitching, momentum and playing at home are keys to prevailing in a one-game playoff, count the Atlanta Braves the favourite in Friday’s National League matchup against St. Louis (5 p.m. ET).
The Braves will trot out Kris Medlen, the hottest pitcher in the major leagues over the past two months with nine victories and a 0.96 earned-run average.
Atlanta also enters the game having won 12 of its last 15 starts, including a 4-0 blanking of Pittsburgh in the regular season finale. The Braves also won 48 times at Turner Field.
Some would say the Braves have a clear advantage Friday, considering they’re one of the best all-around teams entering the post-season with their quality starting pitching, speed and power, not to mention they took five of six meetings in the season series.
The winner will face NL East champion Washington, which won 98 games in the regular campaign and is the league’s top seed for the post-season. Game 1 is scheduled for Sunday. The loser of Friday’s contest will see its season come to an end.
For St. Louis fans, the good news is their team is fresh off a 1-0 win over NL champion Cincinnati, and it can draw on last fall’s remarkable run to the World Series title.
"It’s an advantage," rookie St. Louis manager Mike Matheny told reporters. "To go through [a post-season], to see the atmosphere and to have the success these guys had last year is invaluable. They come to expect that from themselves and now they’re excited to see how far they can take it."
The Cardinals’ 38-43 road record was the poorest of any NL playoff team. The Cards also didn’t fare well in one-run games, going 21-26.
Below is a list of three game-changers for each team:
SP Kris Medlen — The converted relief pitcher’s 1.57 earned-run average won’t look as strong if he doesn’t lead the Braves into the NL Division Series. Atlanta has won a major league record 23 consecutive games started by Medlen dating back to May 2010. And the right-hander is fairly fresh entering the playoffs, having accumulated just 138 innings pitched after starting the season in the bullpen.
3B Chipper Jones — There is probably no player more motivated in these playoffs than Jones, who will retire after the season. The 40-year-old has struggled down the stretch, hitting only .231 with one home run since Sept. 1, but Jones always has been able to find another level in big games. He is a .288 hitter with 13 homers and 47 runs batted in 92 playoff games.
OF Michael Bourn — With the ability to steal a base at anytime, the Braves’ leadoff man can change a game immediately. Atlanta won 57 of 73 regular-season games when Bourn scored a run and was 32-50 when he played and didn’t. The speedy centre-fielder has more steals than any NL player in the playoffs (40), hits for a solid average (.276), scores runs (94) and is ranked in the top 10 in walks (68).
SP Kyle Lohse — He surprisingly emerged as the Cardinals ace this season and gets the nod Friday over Adam Wainwright. A 16-game winner in the regular season, Lohse has surrendered three or more earned runs in three of his six September starts. He also hasn’t stood out on the road this season, sporting a 3.41 ERA while the opposition is averaging .251 against the right-hander. Lohse gave up five runs in five innings in his lone start against the Braves this season.
1B/OF Allen Craig — St. Louis’ hottest hitter in September (.316, 20 RBIs), Craig still seems rather unknown to casual fans who probably think of Carlos Beltran, Matt Holliday or Yadier Molina when asked about Cardinals hitters. But the versatile Craig is a force after hitting .307 in the regular season with a .354 on-base percentage, 22 home runs and 97 RBIs.
3B David Freese — Many believe the 2011 World Series hero is the real X-factor. Should the No. 6 hitter struggle, the Cardinals likely will have trouble driving in runs, as the lineup’s last three hitters – second baseman Skip Schumaker, shortstop Pete Kozma and pitcher Kyle Lohse – have a combined 45 RBIs on the season.