The Atlanta Braves were handed their fourth loss in the past seven days as Adam Wainwright and the Cardinals took Game Two of the four-game set in St. Louis. Here are three observations from the game:
1. Wainwright continues his winning ways against the Braves
There was no shortage of enthusiasm from the Cardinals' 6-foot-7 ace as the final out of his six-hit complete game fell into left fielder Allen Craig's glove. And why not? Wainwright was spectacular against his former organization, ensuring his team of its 75th win of the 2013 season.
Other than Freddie Freeman and Chris Johnson -- both of whom logged two-hit nights in the middle of the Braves' order; not surprisingly, Freeman provided the lone RBI -- Wainwright was nearly untouchable. He held the Braves to 6-for-34 at the plate without walking a single batter. He struck out nine. After the sixth inning, Wainwright limited the Atlanta lineup to just one hit in its final 10 at-bats.
"He beat us pitching-wise and he also got that extra run for them," Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez said of Wainwright, who also provided the Cards with an insurance run in the seventh inning. "We've seen him do that a lot. He's a special guy when he gets on the mound and do what he did to us today."
In 12 career games against the Braves (77-51), who made him the 29th overall pick in the 2000 MLB Draft, Wainwright is 7-2 with a 2.80 ERA. Excluding his three relief appearances against Atlanta in 2006, he's averaged nearly seven innings in those starts. Safe to say that trade for J.D. Drew and Eli Marrero in December 2004 has not panned out long-term.
The good news for Atlanta's hitters? They aren't the only ones Wainwright has his way with. Entering Friday night, he ranked third in WAR among all MLB pitchers (5.3), third in fielding-independent pitching (2.39) and first in strikeout-to-walk ratio (6.92). Those numbers were be even better after his most recent gem. More so than any other NL playoff contender outside of Los Angeles (Clayton Kershaw) the Cardinals (75-53) boast a bona fide ace. He proved it once again Friday night.
"He's a Cy Young candidate for a reason," Braves starter Kris Medlen said.
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2. Atlanta's offensive production without Jason Heyward is not off to a promising start
Granted, we are simply evaluating a two-game sample size against a good team throwing out two good (or superb, in Wainwright's case) starters, but the results are not overly surprising. The Braves have scored just three runs total in St. Louis the Braves had not been held to three runs or fewer in a two-game span since Heyward was inserted into the leadoff spot, including a stretch against Cliff Lee, Stephen Strasburg, Gio Gonzalez and Jordan Zimmermann, consecutively.
"We're not facing Joe Schmo, we're facing a pretty good darn pitcher," Gonzalez said of Wainwright. "The guy last night (Joe Kelly) pitched pretty darn well also."
In short, though, similar to their early- and midseason lineups, the Braves again are in search of a table-setter. Heyward's exploits in the 1-hole have been well-documented (.341.414.580, 24 runs scored, 99 plate appearances), so watching outfielder Jordan Schafer go 0-for-8 at the top over the past few games is quite a stark contrast. Not to say that all -- or even most -- of the blame falls on Schafer's shoulders here, but the two outcomes are not entirely mutually exclusive.
Yes, the Cardinals are a super-.600 team at Busch Stadium this season, but is it really a surprise the Braves lost back-to-back games for the first time since July 20-21 as they adjust to an offense sans Heyward?
It will be interesting to see going forward if the Braves stick with Schafer at the leadoff spot -- the 26-year-old simply has not been the same play since coming off the DL on Aug. 11, tallying just three hits in 30 at-bats (.100) with three walks and nine Ks -- or if they give Andrelton Simmons or B.J. Upton (or someone else) another look. Over the course of the season, Schafer has the edge but it's getting more and more dull.
Simmons is but 2-for-8 in St. Louis while the elder Upton -- younger brother Justin was tossed in the sixth inning for arguing with home plate umpire Paul Nauert -- snapped an 0-for-25 slump on Friday.
3. Kris Medlen wanted more time
If Medlen is not the most outspoken player in the Atlanta clubhouse, then he definitely makes the top-three. Often times, that leads to the best quotes and funniest comments. On Friday, after being pulled in the seventh inning while trailing Wainwright's Cardinals 2-1, Medlen was less than pleased. He let reporters know it, too.
"You know, I got taken out with 78 pitches. I was just about to start battling. I didn't have to battle yet, but, you know, wasn't given the opportunity. I don't think -- I guess I'm voicing the fact that I didn't appreciate that," Medlen said. "I don't know what type of mentality we're trying to create for our starters, but I feel like we should be able to work out some jams. I know we have a good bullpen and it's easy to go to 'em, and (Scott Downs) did his thing, but I felt like I was doing well enough to where I could have -- I was just a strikeout and a double play from getting out of the inning."
Medlen finished the game with six innings pitched, allowing three earned runs on six hits and one walk.
However, his troubles began before he got out of the sixth inning. Medlen was protecting a 1-1 tie with two outs in the inning and a 0-2 count on outfielder Matt Holliday -- he just couldn't get strike three. Holliday fouled off three straight pitches, took a ball and then belted an 84-mph changeup into the left field seats. Medlen escaped the inning, but opened the seventh allowing back-to-back hits and well, first let's let him finish:
"Tonight I felt like I earned the right to get out of that (seventh-inning) jam," he said. "The manager's there to make the decisions. And I think he made it when he came out to the mound, so I don't argue or anything. But you'd like a chance to kinda battle out of that and try to get a win."
Here's the thing: Medlen has earned some clout in this league. He's earned plenty of rights. He's earned the trust of Gonzalez and pitching coach Roger McDowell. In all likelihood, he'll be starting a postseason game (or games) for the second-consecutive season in the organization. And yes, maybe he could have finagled his way out of that tight spot.
But the organization and its coaches appear to be acting in their long-term interest here. The Braves are trying to limit their starters' innings during this stretch run -- up 13 games in the NL East standings -- and with Wainwright cruising and Medlen, at the time, struggling to get outs, it's hard to argue with the decision.
With those innings counts in mind, would it be better for the Braves to (hypothetically) lose 2-1 with Medlen pitching eight strong frames or losing 3-1 with Medlen logging six? Either way, once Holliday's shot cleared the fence, Wainwright essentially was handed the win. As Brandon Beachy heads to the disabled list with a visit to Dr. James Andrews looming on Monday's schedule, the Braves can ill-afford to overwork their remaining starters, especially Medlen, Mike Minor, Julio Teheran and Alex Wood, each of whom, if Beachy receives a negative diagnosis, should be in line to compose the team's four-man postseason pitching staff. (Sorry, Paul Maholm andor Freddy Garcia.)
Gonzalez, catcher Brian McCann and plenty of others inside the organization have gone on record in recent weeks saying McDowell is the best in the business at managing his pitchers and providing Gonzalez with valuable in-game insight. (Gonzalez has also stated multiple times that he never wants his pitchers wanting to come out of the game.) It's difficult to rebel against that notion in this situation.
This just seems like a brief disagreement between individual competitiveness and organizational well-being.