ATLANTA Behind a dynamic pitching performance from Kris Medlen and a Chris Johnson home run, the Atlanta Braves remained the frontrunners to capture the National League's home-field advantage with a 1-0 win over the Philadelphia Phillies on Friday night. Here are three observations from the NL East pitching duel:
1. Kris Medlen has aligned himself to be the Braves' Game 1 starter
Looking back on Medlen's early-season numbers is an odd activity, almost as odd as taking a retrospective peek at his historic end-of-the-season run in 2012. It's difficult to recall that he was 1-6 with a 3.48 ERA through the first two months of the season, being run out after just two innings in his final May start.
Though his numbers weren't awful if anything, they underlined the veritable nature of wins and losses, as Paul Maholm was 6-4 with a 3.74 ERA at the time it wasn't the Kris-Medlen-as-ace scenario the organization was looking for him to be right out of the gate. The club dubbed veteran Tim Hudson as its de facto ace throughout the year, especially after his season-ending ankle injury, but, in terms of production, that title has fluctuated. Mike Minor, Julio Teheran and Medlen have all taken cracks at it.
Medlen took his best shot at the title against the Phillies on Friday night. The Braves' 27-year-old right-hander pitched eight innings of shutout baseball, matching opposing starter and former Cy Young winner Cliff Lee pitch for pitch.
"I feel like (Medlen) can go toe-to-toe with anybody," Johnson said. "If you can go toe-to-toe with that guy over there (Lee), you're a stud. You're an ace, and he's our ace and he's proved it for a while now."
As Kris Medlen walked off the mound for the final time during the 2013 regular season, he did so as the team's best second-half pitcher, presumably aligning himself to pitch in the NLDS opener next Thursday. In total, Medlen (15-12, 197 innings, 3.11 ERA, 3.47 FIP) has not distinguished himself from Minor and Teheran in terms of value. However, in his final six starts of the season, he's posted a 0.84 ERA.
If manager Fredi Gonzalez is going to ride the hot hand like he did in last season's one-game wild card, Medlen is the choice.
"It was just an unbelievable day, having to face a team that has literally had my number my entire career and I just go through 'em. It's a good feeling," said Medlen, who added seven strikeouts and did not allow a hit until the sixth inning. "That's the farthest I've ever gone without giving up a hit. I think before that was Washington, where I went three (innings), at any level.
"I felt like we really didn't waste any time trying to establish my fastball. We just went right to everything, you know? Any pitch, any count."
In a playoff-type matchup, the Braves' batters desperately needed to be great. Lee, the left-handed scourge of Atlanta offenses, allowed just three hits in eight innings of work. The only difference for Lee (14-8, 2.87 ERA) was that one of the hits he allowed went over the Turner Field fence. If this Braves team (95-65) has co-written its own blueprint for winning in October, the script says that one-run and two-run games are going to be the norm.
With the likes of Clayton Kershaw, Adam Wainwright, Mat Latos, Zack Greinke, Homer Bailey and A.J. Burnett looming on the NL side of the playoff bracket, Atlanta might need similar performances at times to advance. And though starting Medlen in Game 1 is not the absolute no-brainer decision it was a year ago, it still appears to be the best option for the Braves franchise. But don't expect Gonzalez to blatantly tip his hand.
"It's a hell of a finish, really. He's been outstanding," Gonzalez said of Medlen before addressing the Game 1 situation. "We'll see between now and then, but you guys gotta do the math. That's all."
Added Medlen: "(The coaches) haven't told us anything. Obviously, they tell you guys before they tell us anything. Whatever it's gonna be, it's gonna be. We have three, four, five pitchers who are confident in their stuff and we've won games all year. Just go out there and do our thing."
Of course, Medlen's win was sealed by none other than Craig Kimbrel, who logged his 50th save of the season and is putting the finishing touches on yet another historic win.
As Jayson Stark pointed out, Kimbrel is poised to become just the second 50-save player ever to allow 40 hits or fewer that season. The other was Dodgers closer Eric Gagne in 2007 he went on to win the Cy Young.
2. Chris Johnson's may not win the batting title, but he remains a vital piece in the Braves lineup
Prior to Friday night's game, Johnson stood on top of the dugout steps and asked Jason Heyward a question: "Do you know what I would give for a 5-for-5 night?"
Well, he should have known that logging five at-bats in a game Cliff Lee was pitching would be a challenge, as would making up ground in the NL batting race. Johnson went 1-for-3 against the Phillies (72-88), leaving him approximately 11 points back of batting leader Michael Cuddyer (.335) heading into the Colorado outfielder's matchup against Kershaw late Friday night. With two games remaining, that's a tall, tall task.
That being said: Hitting the game-winning home run in the eighth inning off a Cy Young-caliber pitcher in an 0-2 count with home-field advantage on the line will probably suffice. In fact, Johnson was just looking for anything he could manage off the Philadelphia ace.
"It's tough to score runs when you get big-league studs on the mound like that and on their game. I can't tell you how hard those at-bats are. No part of me was trying to hit a home run on that swing, I was just trying to keep my swing short and got my barrel to it. I'll take anything he makes a mistake on. He's one of those guys where he starts the ball in the same spot and it goes 14 different ways and you walk back to the dugout like, 'I don't know what to do.'"
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Since May 30 the day the Braves traded Juan Francisco to the Brewers, tabbing Johnson as their everyday third baseman Johnson is hitting .316.353.443 in 402 plate appearances, including 32 extra-base hits and 53 RBI. In terms of weighted runs created over the course of the season, Johnson ranks behind only Freddie Freeman and Justin Upton among Braves hitters.
His home run against Philadelphia was his 11th of the season. The Braves could use a few more like it starting next week.
3. Dan Uggla's strikeout streak reaches Season No. 3
It's no secret that Uggla has not been breaking the right kinds of records since signing a five-year, 62 million contract extension in 2011. He's struggled, gotten LASIK surgery and struggled some more. But up until this season, he had proven a productive baseball player relative to his position: he posted two top-10 WAR seasons among second basemen in 2011 and 2012; not 13-million-per-year numbers, but not replacement level.
Well, this season, as he breaks his own strikeout record for the second-consecutive season (169 and counting), Uggla has hovered as close to replacement level as players warranting 500-plus plate appearances get.
His power numbers are still present (22 homers), but while hitting .180.307.364 with a 31.8 percent strikeout rate, the team's maligned second baseman is wrapping up the worst big-league season of his eight-year career. (It doesn't help his cause that he's statistically considered one of the worst defensive players in the game this season, costing the Braves 18 defensive runs according to The Fielding Bible.) But it's his strikeout numbers that really help document his decline, as his strikeout rates have jumped up considerably with each subsequent season in Atlanta:
2011: 156 Ks, 672 plate appearances
2012: 168 Ks, 630 plate appearances
2013: 170 Ks, 532 plate appearances
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Even at his peak, Uggla was a high-strikeout hitter. Many power hitters are. The only time he's gotten his K-rate below 20 percent was his rookie season in Miami, which was more than acceptable when he was one of the five best offensive second basemen around.
But that's no longer the case. Uggla still offers a power bat at the tail end of the lineup that fellow middle infielders Elliot Johnson and Paul Janish don't, but Gonzalez has some interesting decisions to make throughout the postseason in that regard. Benching Uggla (or B.J. Upton) seems inconceivable when looking at the team's payroll, but every team has to give itself the best chance to win come October. That's for the organization to debate early next week.
In Uggla's defense, Lee is (again) really good. In 15 career starts against Atlanta, he's struck out 113 batters and walked just seven.