The first wild card matchup on Friday will start at 5:07 PM, and will pit the 94-68 Atlanta Braves against the defending World Champion and 88-74 St Louis Cardinals. The game will be in Atlanta, in front of 50,000 screaming, tomahawk chopping Atlanta fans, where the Braves are 48-33 this season (including 12-3 in September). The Braves seem to be the favorite coming into the game with unstoppable starter Kris Medlen taking the hill, but is it really that simple?
Starting Pitching: The Braves seemingly have a huge advantage here, with Medlen taking on Kyle Lohse. Medlen's season has been well-documented, with the former reliever taking the National League by storm this year. In 12 starts this season, Medlen is 9-0 with an 0.97 ERA, 84 strikeouts, and only ten walks in 83 2/3 innings. Perhaps more importantly, the Braves haven't lost any of Medlen's 12 starts, a streak that extends back to 2010 and 23 Medlen starts. In fact, they're 25-1 in his last 26 starts, with the one loss coming in a 3-2, ten inning loss in Pittsburgh in 2010. But back to the present. In Medlen's 12 starts this season, he's had just two starts against playoff teams: both against the Nationals, and Medlen combined to allow one run in 14 innings, striking out 20 and walking just two.
On the other side, there's Kyle Lohse, the veteran who is having the best year of his career. The 34-year old has a 16-3 record this season, but he's had a solid year aside from the record, posting a 2.86 ERA in 211 innings, walking 143 and walking 38. Lohse's big issue was the 19 homers he allowed. He also didn't finish the season strong after an awesome June to August stretch, pitching to a 3.89 ERA in 37 innings with an excellent 36:6 strikeout to walk ratio...but five homers, the most of any month he's allowed this year. Lohse also had a relatively easy go of it this year in the NL Central, starting just three games against playoff teams after the All-Star Break. and only five games against teams that finished above .500. The Braves also beat the tar out of him at a start in Turner Field back in May.
The advantage seems to be with the Braves and Medlen, but it doesn't seem like as much of an edge as the media is making it out to be. I wouldn't be surprised if both pitchers put a quality start together and the game was decided in the hands of the bullpen.
Bullpen: The Braves have a *huge* edge this season. Atlanta's bullpen is led by Cy Young candidate Craig Kimbrel, who absolutely shuts down teams in the ninth inning. As a team, the Braves bullpen has an ERA a full run lower than the Cardinals pen. Recently, Atlanta's bullpen has been even better, posting a fantastic 2.38 ERA in August and miniscule 1.23 ERA in September and October this year, compared to St Louis' 3.79 ERA in August and a 3.44 ERA in September and October. The difference boils down to one statistic: homers. Both teams strike out nearly a batter per inning and have solid enough walk rates, but the Cardinals allow many more homers than the Braves, to the tune of 16 more over the course of the season in fewer innings. The Cardinals really only have three fantastic relievers (Jason Motte, Mitch Boggs, Edward Mujica), and not much else that's great. The Braves, aside from Kimbrel, have a pair of excellent long men in Cristhian Martinez and Luis Avilan, as well as dominant setup men Eric O'Flaherty and Jonny Venters and a groundball ace in Cory Gearrin.
Lineup: The Braves will be trotting out a lineup tonight with no sub-average player (according to wRC+) after subbing in backup catcher David Ross in for struggling incumbent starter Brian McCann. The same however, is true for the Cardinals with the exception of second baseman Daniel Descalso. The major difference in the two teams' lineups is the bottom third. The Braves have Ross, rookie shortstop Andrelton Simmons, and the pitcher's spot, while the Cardinals feature Descalso, their own rookie shortstop in Pete Kozma, and the pitcher's spot. In a one month trial in the majors, Kozma has blistered the ball, OPSing .952 with a .236 ISO...but the thing is, those numbers are far and away better than his minor league stats for his entire career. The 24-year old Kozma is being helped by a .415 BABIP, which will come down in the long-term...but will it come down in the playoffs? In Simmons, the Braves have a rookie who had a hot June then got hurt in July, and has struggled offensively since his return from the DL. Ross is obviously a huge power boost over anyone in either team's bottom third, and I think the Braves' overall power advantage gives them a very slight edge.
Bench: Both teams are going with three catchers, but the Braves are deeper overall thanks to the inclusion of McCann and Ross along with emergency catcher JC Boscan, compared to the Cardinals with the superior Yadier Molina, but a pair of insufficient backups in Tony Cruz and Bryan Anderson. St Louis does possess the best overall masher off the bench on both teams in Matt Carpenter after the Braves curiously left Juan Francisco off the roster in favor of washed up veterans Eric Hinske and Lyle Overbay. Both teams also have a versatile outfielder (Reed Johnson, Shane Robinson) and a speedster (Jose Constanza, Adron Chambers) on the bench too. And when it comes down to it, the versatile but sloppy Jeff Baker and Tyler Pastornicky lose out to rookie Ryan Jackson and Skip Schumaker. A slight edge goes to the Cardinals, mainly thanks to Atlanta's silly veteran fetish.
Overall: This is a really close matchup. The Braves appear to be a better team, but the Cardinals defintely have the potential to go crazy offensively compared to the more streaky Braves. This game has potential to be a 2-1 pitchers duel, and at the same time, it could get out of hand depending on how early the bullpens get involved. Our writers nearly unanimously picked the Braves to win, and that seems like the wise choice. But I wouldn't put any money on this game, and it really could go either way depending on how each team's offense steps up.