NL wild-card preview: Atlanta Braves vs. St. Louis Cardinals
St. Louis Cardinals (88-74) at Atlanta Braves (94-68), 5 PM ET
It seems somehow fitting that the first of the two single-elimination wild-card games — Game 163, in essence, though it's considered a postseason game and not a regular season one — pairs the two teams that went down to the wire for the wild-card in Game 162 last year. The Braves' stunning loss opened the door for the Cardinals to squeeze into the playoffs, and the Redbirds ultimately went on to win the World Series. This year, Atlanta left itself plenty of breathing room to make the playoffs thanks to a 20-10 record from Sept. 1 onward, not that that roll is predictive; St. Louis didn't exactly slouch down the stretch, winning 12 of its final 16 games. The Braves won the season series 5-1 over the Cardinals, and took two out of three in their lone series at Turner Field in late May.
Atlanta comes into this single-elimination game riding arguably the hottest pitcher in the majors in Kris Medlen. In his first full season back from Tommy John surgery, the 26-year-old righty didn't join their rotation until July 31 and made just 12 starts, but the Braves won all of those games, and Medlen has sparkled. As a starter, he has posted a microscopic 0.97 ERA and an 84/10 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 83 2/3 innings, relying on a baffling changeup with a 27 percent whiff rate, set up by an outstanding curve and a well-placed 90 MPH fastball. Ten of his 12 starts were quality starts, the only exceptions being his first two, in which he was still building his stamina and lasted less than six innings. Only once did he allow even three runs. He didn't face the Cardinals as a starter, making three relief appearances against them totaling 5 2/3 innings in May. If he can give the Braves six or seven innings tonight, he'll turn things over to a bullpen that ranked second in the NL with a 2.76 ERA, with lefties Eric O'Flaherty and Jonny Venters setting up righty Craig Kimbrel, who struck out a remarkable 50.2 percent of the batters he faced this year and yielded a 1.01 ERA while converting 42 out of 45 save opportunities.
For the Cardinals, Kyle Lohse gets the call ahead of their two co-aces, Adam Wainwright and Chris Carpenter, a choice that appears to be based on 2012 performance and durability rather than the longer track record. Not that Lohse dind't earn it; he ranked fifth in the league in ERA (2.86), seventh in innings (211) and fourth in walk rate (1.6 per nine) to offset a pedestrian strikeout rate. Pitching coach Dave Duncan may be gone, but his sinker/slider/pitch-to-contact strategy lives on in the 33-year-old Lohse, who's got a good changeup himself (18 percent whiff rate) when he needs to miss a bat. He faced the Braves just once this season, but wasn't terribly effective, yielding five runs and nine hits (including homers by Brian McCann and Freddie Freeman) back on May 30 in Atlanta.
Where the Cardinals are at a real disadvantage is the bullpen, which ranked just ninth in the league in ERA (3.90) and 10th in strikeout rate (8.3 per nine). Closer Jason Motte struck out 10.8 per nine while saving 42 games, but he blew seven saves and yielded 1.1 homers per nine. Mitchell Boggs and deadline acquisition Edward Mujica (1.03 ERA in 26 1/3 innings since being traded by the Marlins) are good righty setup men, but lefty Mark Rzepczynski saw a big falloff from last year in that he wasn't tremendously effective against same-siders, yielding a .255/.320/.362 line — a rise of roughly 300 points worth of OPS over 2011 — compared to .259/.323/.459 against righties.
An interesting wrinkle for the Braves is that Dave Ross will start at catcher over McCann, who suffered through a down year due to a shoulder injury. Ross caught five of Medlen's starts, and had superior years both at the plate (.256/.321/.449 versus .230/.300 /.399) and behind it (44 percent caught stealing versus 24 percent), not that the Cardinals are a particularly frisky bunch (13th in steals and stolen base attempts, with one of their four players who reached double digits, Rafael Furcal, done for the season due to an elbow injury). Atlanta's offense ranked seventh in the league in scoring (4.32 runs per game), but was a patient lot, leading the league in walks to offset a .247 batting average (11th in the league) and a .389 slugging percentage (ninth); its .320 on-base percentage, by contrast, ranked seventh. The Braves match up well with the righty Lohse in that their biggest offensive threats bat from the left side, namely Jason Heyward (.269/.335/.479 with 27 homers), Freeman (.259/.340/.456 with 23 homers) and switch-hitter Chipper Jones (.287/.377/.455), who may be playing in the final game of his 19-year career. Lohse's platoon splits were typically unremarkable this year (.253/.287/.377 versus lefties, compared to .226/.263/.360 versus righties), but the Cardinals' lack of a shutdown lefty may loom large.
The Cardinals offense, by contrast, was a juggernaut that ranked second in the league in scoring (4.72 runs per game) and batting average (.271), first in on-base percentage (.338) and fourth in slugging percentage (.421). Five of their players — Carlos Beltran, Matt Holliday, Allen Craig, Yadier Molina and David Freese — hit at least 20 homers, but of those five, all but the switch-hitting Beltran are righties. Craig, Holliday and Molina all slugged above .600 and had OPSes over 1.000 against southpaws, but none of that quartet of righties was above .482 slugging (Craig) against righties and all were in the .820-.830 range in OPS. Beltran, who led the team with 32 homers while hitting .269/.346/.495, rebounded from a two-month slump in September, but his drop from an MVP-caliber .296/.382/.542 line in the first half to .236/.302/.440 line since the All-Star break does raise questions about his health. The Cardinals do have the best bench player of either team in lefty Matt Carpenter, who hit .294/.365/.463 with six homers; expect Mike Matheny to save him for a high-leverage at-bat in the late innings. Anything can happen in a single game, but it's difficult to avoid the conclusion that the matchups pose a bigger problem for the Cardinals than the Braves. The prediction from here is that Atlanta will advance to face the Nationals in the Division Series.