Major League Baseball calls it the inaugural wild-card playoff. The participants see it in more blunt terms.
“It’s Game 7,” Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez said. “As simple as it may seem, it’s Game 7. You can imagine we’ve played six. We’ve won three and they’ve won three. It’s Game 7.”
Lose and go home. Win and receive the Washington Nationals for a best-of-five division series. The Cardinals represent the first beneficiaries of an expanded format that has allowed them to carry their World Series defense onto a postseason stage. They will send Kyle Lohse, who lost only three of this season’s 33 starts, against the Braves’ talisman, Kris Medlen.
The Cardinals (88-74) enter as defending World Series champions partly because of the Braves’ beneficence last September. The Braves, who defined National League success in the 1990s, haven’t won a postseason series since 2001.
Since May the Cardinals have firmed their bullpen while enduring a come-and-go offense. The Braves (94-68) surged behind Medlen, with whom they have won in 23 consecutive starts dating to 2010.
“We know the necessity to make (Friday) like a Game 7 but there is also still a balance of ‘Let’s play the game,’” offered Cardinals manager Mike Matheny. “Let’s play another game. It’s worked for us down the stretch here in September just to continue to play the game and not try to reinvent the wheel.”
The Braves won five of this season’s six games between the two teams, including a three-game sweep at Busch Stadium that punctured the Cardinals’ 20-11 start. The Braves then won a May three-game series at Turner Field as Matheny sorted through an ill-fitting bullpen.
“I saw a very good team. I think we saw an offense that came into St. Louis early in the season and put together the kind of series that we had been putting on everybody else,” Matheny said. “Then we came here and they played well again. But when you get to the postseason there are no slouches.
“We have the utmost respect for Fredi and this club. But we also have a lot of respect for ourselves and a lot of belief, faith and trust that we can do what we need to do to make things happen.”
Medlen did not start against the Cardinals this season. His pitching style is similar to Lohse, featuring lots of sinkers and late action to both sides of the plate. An aggressive strike-thrower, he can become vulnerable to home runs, something the Braves believe may become pronounced in Friday’s pressured atmosphere. Medlen has never appeared in a postseason game.
Medlen, 26, is unbeaten in 12 starts this season. As a starter, he carries a 0.97 ERA, 9-0 record and 84 strikeouts against 10 walks in 83 2/3 innings. Lohse carries the highest win percentage (.842) among pitchers qualifying for the league ERA title.
If not for the Braves’ epic collapse last September, the Cardinals would never have constructed last October’s storybook narrative.
The Braves never led their division after April 1 last season, but they appeared firmly in command of the wild card as they climbed 20 games above .500 (69-49) on Aug. 10. They greeted September with a win over the Washington Nationals that bumped them to 81-55 while the Cardinals were completing a three-game sweep of the Milwaukee Brewers that improved their record to 73-64, an 8½-game separation.
The rest is glorious or ignominious history depending on the perspective.
The Cardinals completed a 23-9 kick as the Braves’ bullpen immolated around a catatonic offense. Gonzalez’s addiction to daily use of an impressive band of middle relievers took its toll as the offense scraped for three runs or fewer in 15 of its last 25 games.
The Braves achieved rigor mortis by scoring only seven runs during a season-ending five-game losing streak. Meanwhile, the Cardinals won four of their last five to erase a three-game deficit. They saturated Minute Maid Park’s visitors’ clubhouse with champagne when Freddie Freeman grounded into a season-ending double play.
Gonzalez exercised a longer view for much of this season and is rewarded by the National League’s best September ERA (2.39). Fueled by six shutouts, the Braves matched the San Francisco Giants’ 19-8 month for the league’s best September record. The Cardinals finished with the league’s fifth-best monthly ERA (3.52) with a figure more than a run higher than Los Bravos. The Cardinals also scored 65 more runs than the Braves this season, 30 more in September.
Their 12-4 season-ending push, which began with a riveting 12-inning win Sept. 16 over the Los Angeles Dodgers, brought last year’s wild card back to the same stage.
True, the defending champions punished two 100-loss weaklings, the Houston Astros and Chicago Cubs, for seven September wins. However, they also won their last two series from division champions, the Washington Nationals and Cincinnati Reds.
“I think we’re a better team now than then,” said catcher Yadier Molina. “I like our team. I like the way we’re playing. And what we went through last season and in the playoffs only makes us stronger now. No one wants to play us.”
If they were paralyzed early by their dysfunctional bullpen, the Cardinals have corrected thanks largely to the July 31 acquisition of Edward Mujica from the Miami Marlins. An unflinching formula that calls for Mujica, Mitchell Boggs and closer Jason Motte working the seventh, eighth and ninth innings has removed suspense from what frequently resembled a middle-inning improv before the All-Star break.
“It makes a big difference when guys know when and how they’re going to get in the game,” Motte said after the Cardinals clinched a tie Tuesday. “It’s everything that goes into it. Guys know when to start getting ready. When they can start looking at who they’re going to face. If you do all that several times a game it can wear on you. There’s stress that’s involved. I think everybody’s seen what’s happened since we got Ed here.”
Early bullpen issues created the perception of an underachieving team. The second half has given rise to an offense that has struggled for consistency after steamrolling to the All-Star break. Recent developments lead some in the clubhouse to sense a well-timed breakout.
“We haven’t played our best baseball yet,” said third baseman David Freese, the MVP of last October’s NLCS and World Series. “Hopefully, that begins now.”