Published October 04, 2012
A look at the National League wild-card playoff between the St. Louis Cardinals and Atlanta Braves:
Schedule: Friday, at Atlanta (5:07 p.m. EDT) (TBS).
Season Series: Braves won 5-1.
Cardinals: CF Jon Jay (4 HRs, 40 RBIs, 18 SBs, .385 OBP), RF Carlos Beltran (.269, 32, 97), LF Matt Holliday (.295, 27, 102), 1B Allen Craig (.307, 22, 92), 3B David Freese (.293, 20, 79), C Yadier Molina (.315, 22, 76), 2B Daniel Descalso (.227, 4, 26), SS Pete Kozma (.333, 2, 14).
Braves: CF Michael Bourn (.274, 9 HRs, 57 RBIs, 42 SBs), LF Martin Prado (.301, 10, 70), RF Jason Heyward (.269, 27, 82, 21 SBs), 3B Chipper Jones (.287, 14, 62), 1B Freddie Freeman (.259, 23, 94), 2B Dan Uggla (.220, 19, 78, 168 strikeouts), C David Ross (.256, 9, 23), SS Andrelton Simmons (.289, 3, 19).
Cardinals: RH Kyle Lohse (16-3, 2.86 ERA).
Braves: RH Kris Medlen (10-1, 1.57, 120 Ks, 138 IP).
Cardinals: RH Jason Motte (4-5, 2.75, 42/49 saves, 86Ks, 71 1-3 IP), RH Mitchell Boggs (4-1, 2.21, 78 games), RH Edward Mujica (0-3, 3.03), RH Fernando Salas (1-4, 4.30), RH Joe Kelly (5-7, 3.53), LH Marc Rzepczynski (1-3, 4.27), RH Trevor Rosenthal (0-2, 2.78).
Braves: RH Craig Kimbrel (3-1, 1.01, 42/45 saves, 116 Ks, 62 2-3 IP), LH Eric O'Flaherty (3-0, 1.73), RH Chad Durbin (4-1, 3.10), LH Jonny Venters (5-4, 3.22, 69 Ks, 58 2-3 IP), LH Luis Avilan (1-0, 2.00), RH Cristhian Martinez (5-4, 3.91), RH Cory Gearrin (0-1, 1.80), LH Mike Minor (11-10, 4.12).
The winner advances to face NL East champion Washington in a best-of-five series that begins Sunday. ... This is the fourth time the teams have met in the postseason. St. Louis swept a best-of-five NL championship series in 1982 and went on to claim a World Series title. The Cardinals also swept three straight in the 2000 division series. The Braves rallied from a 3-1 deficit to win the NL pennant in 1996, beating the Cardinals in the final three games by a cumulative score of 32-1. In Game 7, Atlanta scored six runs in the first inning and went on to a 15-0 victory behind Tom Glavine. ... The Braves were once a postseason fixture, claiming an unprecedented 14 straight division titles under manager Bobby Cox from 1991-2005. They haven't won a playoff series since sweeping Houston in the division round 11 years ago. Since then, their postseason record is 9-19, with six straight series defeats. ... Cox retired after a 3-1 loss to the San Francisco Giants in the 2010 division series. This is Atlanta's first playoff appearance under manager Fredi Gonzalez, a former coach under Cox. Gonzalez is benching banged-up catcher Brian McCann for this game, going with Ross instead primarily for defense. Slowed by a knee injury and an ailing right shoulder, McCann batted just .230 with 20 homers and 67 RBIs this season. ... Atlanta hasn't faced the Cardinals since May. The Braves swept a three-game series in St. Louis and took two of three at Turner Field. Kimbrel saved three of those wins. ... The hard-throwing Kimbrel gives the Braves something they often lacked during their run of division titles: a dominant closer. Regularly reaching 100 mph on the radar, he averaged nearly two strikeouts per inning. The Cardinals don't want to fall behind heading to the late innings. ... Just like last season, the Cardinals and Braves end up in a wild-card tussle. The difference is this year, instead of St. Louis capitalizing on Atlanta's swoon, it's head-to-head competition. ... The defending World Series champion Cardinals persever ed through injuries to co-ace Chris Carpenter and 1B Lance Berkman under rookie manager Mike Matheny, and are in the postseason for the third time in four seasons. ... Moving on after the departure of Albert Pujols in free agency, the Cardinals have one of the league's most dangerous lineups with five 20-homer players for the first time in franchise history. The pitching staff was even better. Lohse had a career year heading into free agency, Lance Lynn was an All-Star during his first year in the rotation and Adam Wainwright had a strong year after missing 2011 due to reconstructive elbow surgery. In the bullpen, Motte tied for the league lead with 42 saves. He was the first closer in franchise history to get all of the team's saves.
Cardinals: There's life after Pujols and Tony La Russa, after all. The Cardinals returned to the postseason thanks to an ensemble effort with several anchors to the lineup and rotation. Molina should be in the conversation for NL MVP after putting up a career year that justified the five-year, $75 million contract extension he signed in spring training. On track for a fifth straight Gold Glove, Molina is the undisputed standard bearer at his position with an arm that discourages baserunners from even attempting a steal. He had personal bests at the plate, too, finishing fourth in hitting. The $20 million or so the Cardinals had been prepared to pay Pujols went to Beltran and injured SS Rafael Furcal, both All-Stars. ... The Cardinals won 12 of their last 16 to finish at 88-74, matching their high water mark for the year. They ended up nine games back of first-place Cincinnati in the NL Central and were the last team to qualify for the postseason, but their wealth of October experience could be an equalizer. ... Matheny is the fifth manager to take the Cardinals to the postseason in his first year with the club, and first since La Russa in 1996. ... Starting pitchers worked six or more innings in 85 games, the most for the franchise since the 1969 rotation that featured Bob Gibson and Steve Carlton also did it 85 times. ... Jay was just the Cardinals' third regular outfielder to have an error-free season, joining Orlando Palmeiro (2003) and Curt Flood (1966).
Braves: Shaking off the disappointment of a historic collapse, the Braves (94-68) returned to the playoffs for the second time in three seasons. Last year, Atlanta squandered a 10½-game wild-card lead and lost out to the Cardinals on the final day, going 9-18 in September. This season, the Braves trailed Washington in the NL East most of the summer but maintained a comfortable lead for the top wild card. Of course, with St. Louis getting in as the second wild card under the expanded format, the teams that battled in 2011 for the final NL playoff spot now find themselves matched in the league's first one-game postseason round. ... Jones announced during spring training this would be his final year. At age 40, he put up solid numbers and remained a force in the middle of the lineup, even though he couldn't play every day because of an ailing body. Heyward bounced back from a disappointing sophomore season to provide the sort of pop he showed as a rookie. Prado was perhaps the most valuable of the position players, playing regularly in left field but also filling in at second and third base. ... The Braves had to revamp their rotation during the season to deal with injuries and ineffective performances. Brandon Beachy was leading the NL in ERA when he went down in mid-June with season-ending elbow surgery. Former All-Star Jair Jurrjens never returned to form, spending most of the year in Triple-A. Atlanta acquired LHP Paul Maholm from the Cubs, but it was Medlen who saved the season. After missing most of 2011 recovering from Tommy John surgery, he started the year in the bullpen. The right-hander moved into the rotation after the All-Star break and never looked back, going 9-0 with a 0.97 ERA as a starter. Without Medlen, the Braves likely would have been watching another postseason on television.
— Medlen's Streak. When the rotation was struggling, Medlen took over as a starter and went on to a record-breaking streak. The Braves have won 23 straight games with Medlen as the starter going back to 2010, the longest run in modern baseball history. Since 1921, only two other teams won 22 straight starts by a pitcher: the New York Giants with Carl Hubbell (1936-37) and the Yankees with Whitey Ford (1950-53).
— RBI Machine. Craig was third on the team in RBIs, but there's a reason he's the cleanup man. In his first season as a starter, he was just eight RBIs shy of 100 despite playing only 119 games due to injuries. He began the year in right field and was the regular first baseman most of the season after Berkman went down early with knee woes.
— Chipper's Farewell. The Braves' third baseman announced during spring training this would be his final year. Now he's trying to extend it as long as he can. The 40-year-old switch-hitter remains a key contributor in a lineup that was hampered by miserable performances from Uggla and McCann. While his body keeps breaking down, Jones still has a flair for the dramatic. He homered in his return from the disabled list, on his birthday and on a bobblehead night in his honor.