“The board is set, the pieces are moving and the game is about to begin.” Ok, I may have changed Gandolf’s words a bit, and he was talking about imminent war, not October baseball, but still. Friday night is going to be all out war for four teams, and the stakes are high.
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Sure, Wednesday’s game against the Pirates is more about stretching out, getting at-bats, auditioning young pitchers and sending Ben Sheets out in style, but in the back of every mind on the Braves’ bench and for loyal Braves fans is Friday night’s one-game playoff against the World Champion St. Louis Cardinals. For both teams, and their race to the postseason, one game decides whether they get the chance to showcase their stuff in the official postseason and both teams have something to prove.
For the Cardinals, it’s a chance to defend their throne, after last year’s heroic September and one of the best World Series I’ve ever seen (remember game six?). Though they haven’t shown the same spunk they had last year, they’re still in position to make another run of it.
For the Braves, there’s a little more on the line. After last year’s epic collapse against those same Cardinals, the Braves want to show they can still be postseason contenders, using mostly the same staff they had last year. They need to prove the naysayers in Atlanta wrong, that they won’t choke when the season is on the line. And they want to give Chipper Jones a final season for the books. The Braves missed their chance to send former manager Bobby Cox out on a high note, but this year, it’s one of their own. A guy on the field who’s put together a Hall of Fame career in 19 seasons with the same team. Chipper started with a World Series and it’s fitting that he end with one, too.
All that stands in the way is one, teensy weensy game against the defending World Champs. Should be a breeze, right?
Not by a long shot. The Cardinals will most likely throw their ace of the year, Kyle Lohse, who’s put up excellent numbers. Their previous ace and all around workhorse, Chris Carpenter, has missed too much of this season and may still be getting his legs under him. Of course, if the Cards win Friday night, Carpenter will likely start the NLDS against the Nationals, who clinched the top seed with a victory over the Phillies Wednesday afternoon. It’s much like the Braves, who will send their surprise ace in Kris Medlen to the hill on Friday and start veteran Tim Hudson in game one of the NLDS.
The battle between these two pitchers is going to be something to watch.
Lohse is no spring chicken. In his 12th year of service in the majors, he’s put up a 16-3 record with an ERA of 2.86, which is nothing to scoff at. In fact, this performance has earned him a spot in the conversation about the NL Cy Young award. He’s pitched in nine postseason games with various teams, starting four of them and only earning three decisions, all losses. The only time he’s faced the Braves this season, he threw five innings, giving up five earned runs and taking a no-decision on the game. In his final regular season game, he took a no-decision against the Nationals, giving up four earned runs in six innings.
When you talk about it like that, he may seem like a pushover, but don’t be fooled. He has loads of experience, including the postseason and will not be an easy pitcher to battle for a spot in the October drama.
How about Medlen? Well, that’s a whole different story. I could say that he hasn’t taken a loss since becoming a starter this year, going 4-0 in September with a 1.26 ERA. I could say that he’s won the NL Pitcher of the Month for the second month in a row, a feat a Braves pitcher hasn’t achieved since Greg Maddux did it in 2001. I could also say that he set a major league record, being the starting pitcher during which the team has recorded a win in 23 straight games, topping the likes of Whitey Ford and Carl Hubbel.
But that’s only part of the story.
Medlen has been working towards this since 2009, when he came up as a starter, but started only four games before heading to the bullpen to make room for rookie Tommy Hanson. After a torn ligament, Tommy John surgery and the rehab that followed, he started this year in the bullpen, working towards a chance to make it back into the rotation. His return has been almost magical, going from being a question mark to an unquestionable force.
But that’s only part of the dynamic that will be in play Friday night. The Braves’ offense hasn’t been performing at the clip that they started the season with, back when Michael Bourn was batting over .300 and getting on base almost three times a game. Back when they were averaging five runs a game through the first month of the season.
Obviously, for a successful playoff run, they’re going to have to step up the run production. Players like Bourn, Brian McCann, Dan Uggla, and Jason Heyward are going to have to have better at bats. Because even Medlen can’t throw a shutout every time he toes the rubber. The Braves bullpen can more than handle a lead from innings 7-9, but they have to have one to hold it.
This is not new information. Every team has to perform at a higher level when only the best of the best teams move into October. The Braves lineup is potent, but they are going to have to be hot as a team, not just a couple of players at a time. I think it’s a good chance that they will. As I’ve said, they have a lot on the line and Friday is going to be an exciting game. They certainly have one of the best pitchers in the league on the mound for them. And hopefully this isn’t the last post of mine about a contending team.
Because it all comes down to this.