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October 5, 2012
National League Wild Card Game (UPDATED)
The last time the Cardinals met the Braves in the postseason, in 2000, St. Louis swept a three-game series by outscoring Atlanta 24-10. Only six players from that series remain active and two, Rafael Furcal and Chipper Jones, will attend this one. Fresher on the minds of both squads and their fans is what happened last year, when the Cardinals made a late-season surge and stole away the Braves’ postseason ticket on the season’s final night. Consider this Atlanta’s opportunity for revenge.
The Cardinals scored more runs than every National League team except the Brewers. This is a tough lineup, even without Lance Berkman and Rafael Furcal. Jay is close to being a prototypical leadoff hitter: he hits for average, gets on base, and is the team’s best stolen base threat, in terms of volume and efficiency. Following Jay is a slate of well-rounded hitters. From Beltran through Freese you have players capable of doing it all at the plate. The seven-through-nine spots are the closest thing an opposing pitcher has to a reprieve, especially if Kozma’s uncharacteristically good offensive production ceases.
Atlanta might have the weaker lineup overall, but they do have some small advantages over St. Louis. Namely, the Braves have the best two basestealers in the series, in Bourn and Heyward. The Braves can also run out a more balanced lefty-righty lineup, making it tough for the Cardinals to play matchups in the later innings. Atlanta led the NL in walks drawn and was near the top of the league in strikeouts as well; Uggla does a lot of both. The decision to start Ross over McCann actually improves the lineup, given McCann’s otherwise down season.
St. Louis might have the two best pinch-hitting options in the series, in Carpenter and Schumaker. You can almost envision a scenario now where the Cardinals insert Carpenter and the Braves counter with Jonny Venters or Eric O’Flaherty. Otherwise, the Cardinals bench is full of useful, necessary pieces: second and third catchers, a backup shortstop, and two speed-and-defensive-minded outfielders.
The Braves are also employing three catchers. But, whereas it’s hard to imagine St. Louis removing Molina unless absolutely necessary, Atlanta will probably use McCann as the first pinch-hitter off the bench against a right-handed pitcher. Versus lefties, Johnson would likely get the call, though Baker and Francisco are also fit to answer if needed.
RHP Kyle Lohse (211, 2.86, 3.55)
RHP Kris Medlen (138, 1.57, 2.47)
Remember when Lohse brought back Zach Ward, and then Matt Maloney in trades made within a year’s time? Now Lohse is responsible for keeping his team’s season alive. Lohse succeeds by throwing strikes. His first-pitch strike rate this season is 69 percent, a ways above the league-average mark of 59 percent. Lohse uses three pitches to get by. A low-90s fastball that he’ll place on the black, as well as a changeup and a slider that serve as his out pitches. Despite the sinker-like movement on Lohse’s fastball, he’s willing to work up in the zone. Expect Lohse’s struggles against the Braves in a start earlier this season to get plenty of airtime. Oh, and Lohse’s pending free agency.
Medlen overcomes small stature with outstanding athleticism, pitching aptitude, and mound presence. When tasked with fielding his position, Medlen shows the tools he acquired in his past life as a collegiate shortstop. Medlen’s outstanding pickoff move keeps those players who do reach base tethered to the bag, as he’s allowed one stolen base for every 30 innings in his big-league career. When it comes to pitching, Medlen utilizes a three-pitch mix in a smart manner. His low-90s fastball runs inside to right-handed batters and his ability to locate it down in the zone (as well as on both sides of the plate) is the catalyst for his 54 percent groundball rate. Complementing the fastball are two fine secondary pitches: a mid-70s curveball and low-80s changeup. Medlen works quickly, pounds the zone, and shows confidence in all of his pitches by mixing them well.
In a one-game series, concentrated quality means more than dispersed quality. This is good news for the Cardinals, a team that ranked 20th in bullpen ERA during the regular season. The combination of Motte, Boggs, and Mujica is solid, and Rzepczynski has pitched decently against lefties this season. Beyond that, it’s possible none of the other relievers see work. Lynn, who made a name for himself last postseason, is around in case of emergency.
As good as St. Louis’ best relievers can be, Atlanta’s bunch is even better. Kimbrel had one of the most dominant seasons you’ll ever see from a reliever. He struck out more than 50 percent of the batters he faced and had 34 three-pitch strikeouts—about as many as starting pitchers David Price, Zack Greinke, and CC Sabathia. Venters and O’Flaherty are likely to cover the next-highest-leverage situations, especially those involving left-handers. Gearrin could do the same against right-handers. Hudson and Minor, who should start Games One and Two of the Divisional Series should Atlanta advance, are available if needed.
The Cardinals could have the strongest defense up the middle of any National League playoff team. Jon Jay, Pete Kozma, Daniel Descalso, and Yadier Molina are all better-than-average defenders. Yet St. Louis ranks near the middle of the pack in defensive efficiency, raw and park-adjusted, because of their corners; namely Carlos Beltran and Matt Holliday.
Atlanta’s defense ranks within the top-10 in raw and park-adjusted defensive efficiency. The outfield, led by Michael Bourn and Jason Heyward, might be the best defensive unit in the game. On the infield, the Braves are able to overcome Dan Uggla and Chipper Jones thanks to the work done by Freddie Freeman and Andrelton Simmons.
Mike Matheny makes his postseason debut as a manager. Expect announcers to attach the suffix “not Tony La Russa” to Matheny’s name throughout the tournament. The allusions to the Cardinals’ old skipper will also surface whenever Matheny gets tactical, though those occurrences are seldom. Matheny does love using pinch hitters—only the Brewers and Mets used more this season—but that sums up the extent of his managerial greed. He will not call for many bunts, steals, hit-and-runs, or intentional walks, unless the October stage alters his strategic profile. You might see Matheny get down into a squat and warm up his pitcher, however.
During Fredi Gonzalez’s first year as the Braves manager, in 2011, he earned ire by overtaxing his best relievers, bunting the second-most times in the league, and benching Jason Heyward for Jose Constanza. Year no. 2 went better. Gonzalez used other members of his bullpen more often, all but forbade his position players to put down a bunt, and did not bench a potential franchise bedrock for a career minor-leaguer. That isn’t to say Gonzalez is as managerially conservative as Matheny. If one of these managers is going to issue an intentional walk or call for a squeeze play, it’ll be Gonzalez.
The Cardinals are better at scoring runs, the Braves are better at preventing runs. Atlanta has the luxury of playing at home, so look for them to advance to the Divisional Series.
After running the lineups and pitchers for tonight's game, given the Rest-of-Season PECOTA projections for those players, PECOTA expects the Braves to have the advantage, with a projected .639 win percentage for Atlanta. The Cardinal's slim advantage in runs scored isn't enough to offset the Braves' advantages in pitching and their home field advantage.