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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.

Lineups (AVG/OBP/SLG/TAv)

Cardinals
CF-L Jon Jay (.305/.373/.400/.286)
RF-S Carlos Beltran (.269/.346/.495/.298)
LF-R Matt Holliday (.295/.379/.497/.310)
1B-R Allen Craig (.307/.354/.522/.308)
C-R Yadier Molina (.315/.373/.501/.315)
3B-R David Freese (.293/.372/.467/.290)
2B-L Daniel Descalso (.227/.303/.324/.240)
SS-R Pete Kozma (.333/.383/.569/.326 in 82 plate appearances)

Braves
CF-L Michael Bourn (.274/.348/.391/.272)
LF-R Martin Prado (.301/.359/.438/.285)
RF-L Jason Heyward (.269/.335/.479/.294)
3B-S Chipper Jones (.287/.377/.455/.297)
1B-L Freddie Freeman (.259/.340/.456/.285)
2B-R Dan Uggla (.220/.348/.384/.271)
C-R David Ross (.256/.321/.449/.275)
SS-R Andrelton Simmons (.289/.335/.416/.264)

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.

Benches (AVG/OBP/SLG/TAv)

Cardinals
1B/3B-L Matt Carpenter (.294/.365/.463/.293)
2B/OF-L Skip Schumaker (.276/.339/.368/.255)
C-R Tony Cruz (.254/.267/.365/.222)
OF-L Adron Chambers (.222/.300/.296/.220 in 62 PA)
C-R Bryan Anderson (.250/.357/.333/.201 in 14 PA)
INF-R Ryan Jackson (.118/.167/.118/.073 in 18 PA)
OF-R Shane Robinson (.253/.309/.355/.248)

Braves
C-L  Brian McCann (.230/.300/.399/.245)
OF-R Reed Johnson (.290/.337/.398/.264)
INF-R Jeff Baker (.248/.287/.405/.235)
3B-R Juan Francisco (.234/.278/.432/.240)
OF-L Jose Constanza (.250/.321/.276/.226 in 86 PA)
C-R J.C. Boscan (.200/.200/.200/.140 in 10 PA)
1B/OF-L Eric Hinske (.197/.272/.311/.204)
SS-R Tyler Pastornicky (.243/.287/.325/.227)

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.

Starting Pitchers (IP, ERA, FIP)

Cardinals

RHP Kyle Lohse (211, 2.86, 3.55)

Braves

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.

Bullpen (IP, ERA, FIP)

Cardinals
RHP Jason Motte (72, 2.75, 3.16)
RHP Mitchell Boggs (73.1, 2.21, 3.46)
LHP Marc Rzepczynski (46.2, 4.24, 4.76)
RHP Edward Mujica (65.1, 3.03, 3.69)
RHP Fernando Salas (58.2, 4.30, 3.63)
RHP Trevor Rosenthal (22.2, 2.78, 3.14)
LHP Samuel Freeman (20, 5.40, 4.29)
RHP Joe Kelly (107, 3.53, 4.04)
RHP Lance Lynn (176, 3.78, 3.53)

Braves
RHP Craig Kimbrel (62.2, 1.01, 0.82)
LHP Jonny Venters (58.2, 3.22, 3.80)
LHP Eric O’Flaherty (57.1, 1.73, 3.31)
RHP Cory Gearrin (20, 1.80, 2.84)
RHP Chad Durbin (61, 3.10, 4.82)
LHP Luis Avilan (36, 2.00, 2.58)
RHP Tim Hudson (179, 3.62, 3.82)
LHP Mike Minor (179.1, 4.12, 4.42)

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. 

Defense

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.

Managers

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.

Prediction

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.

PECOTA Says

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.

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salvomania
10/05
I predict Matheny will have someone---and not an 8 or 9 hitter---bunt with a runner already in scoring position.
Tarakas
10/05
Yes, Matheny bunts quite a bit, often with odd choices, such as Jay.
BillJohnson
10/05
Actually, the Cardinals were right at league average in sacrifices per plate appearance for the year, just a tiny bit over but within easy statistical reach of average. Jay may look like an odd choice, but he has also been known to try to bunt for a base hit with nobody on; he's fast enough that bunting has some chance of working, and he's not a big power guy (.095 ISO) so that he's not giving up much of a probability of hitting the ball out of the park by doing it. (None of this is acknowledged by the Cardinals fans who grump about all of Matheny's bunting.)
Tarakas
10/05
Most teams bunt too much. Bunting a league average amount is too much. He also bunts at times that are highly questionable tactically--it is often hard to see the logic.
Oleoay
10/05
I remember Sveum spent about two weeks deciding how he wanted to revamp his Cubs lineup. The unveiled lineup had Mather batting third and, in his first at bat with a runner on second and an out, Sveum had Mather bunt. Teams do bunt too much.
kasgard
10/05
Salvomania is exactly right. Matheny drives me nuts with his bunts--not to mention what he probably does to underrated hitting coach McGwire. Particularly the first inning bunts. I thought Gene Mauch ball was long past. A recent game had Jay lead off with a double and BELTRAN bunting against Ricky "Cy" Nolasco. Jay eventually scored as a result of a 2-out hit (he'd have scored from 2nd). He's had Molina bunting this year which is ridiculous given the hitter he's evolved into over the last couple of years. Molina has even bunted on his own. "Yo Mike, save the bunting for the 239/293/344 hitters, you know, the ones who hit like you did."
surfdent48
10/05
Kris Medlen has been massively overachieving and tonight the Cards will prevail
gandriole
10/05
Agreed. His starts this year: Marlins (3), Mets (3), Padres (2), Nationals (2), Astros, Rockies.
BillJohnson
10/05
Thanks for pointing this out. Among all MLB pitchers who threw at least 100 innings this year, he had the ninth easiest opponents as measured by oppOPS, out of 130-odd qualifiers. (His opponent, Kyle Lohse, finished somewhere around 85th, i.e., had tougher batters to face.) And that includes the guys he faced out of the bullpen before becoming a starter, which were generally against stronger teams than the ones he started against. It'll be interesting to see how he fares against a much more potent lineup than he's been facing for the last couple of months. A winning expectancy of 64% for Atlanta seems pretty weird in the light of this observation.
mhmosher
10/05
Tonight has the look of a mismatch favoring Atlanta. Because its baseball, and things rarely go as expected in the playoffs, I have Cards 4-3.
mike1213
10/05
GOOOOOOOOOOOOOO CARDS BABY gl to the braves it should be a really good game