Rocky outing against Dodgers reminiscent of Braves' 2012 Wild Card loss
ATLANTA -- The high Kris Medlen was riding into his Game 1 duel with Clayton Kershaw and the Dodgers was nothing new.
Medlen had earned a home start in the Braves' first game of the postseason after a dominant final month of the regular season for the second consecutive year. His signature pitch, a low-80s changeup that slipped past countless flailing bats, appeared to be back in top form, and the mechanical issues that dogged him throughout the opening months of the 2013 season seemed like nothing more than background noise, another dramatic setup to a torrid stretch run.
A 6-1 loss to the Dodgers in Game 1 of their National League Division Series on Thursday ensured that Medlen's September success would once again be marred by a shaky introduction to October baseball. In a reprisal of the Braves' 6-3 loss in last year's NL Wild Card Game, Medlen's outing was not sharp enough to overcome some defensive miscues and a quiet night for the offense against a pitcher at the top of his game. He allowed five earned runs on nine hits over four-plus innings and was lifted after his 74th pitch of the night plunked Yasiel Puig to put the first two batters on in the fifth.
"If you don't give up any runs, you don't lose," Medlen said. "We got one off Kershaw, and if I put up zeros, it should be good enough, but it wasn't tonight."
Medlen's first inning had the 43,201 in attendance at Turner Field prepared for a classic pitchers' duel, in the vein of the eight-inning gem he tossed against the Phillies' Cliff Lee a week earlier. He struck out the side on 14 pitches, freezing Hanley Ramirez with a two-seam fastball to electrify the crowd and send the Braves to the plate with a swell of momentum.
"I think it was one of those games where I felt like I came out strong," Medlen said. "It was probably one of the coolest first innings I've ever thrown, with the crowd and whatever else. I think it was just one of those games where even when I felt like I made pitches, they still found places to put them."
Medlen was the Braves' best pitcher after the All-Star break, posting quality starts in 10 of his final 11 turns in the rotation to carry the load after Tim Hudson went down with a season-ending injury and the rest of the starters' standout first-half numbers returned to earth. On many of those nights, his stuff looked as sharp as it did in the final months of 2012, a run of 12 unbeaten starts that earned him the right to pitch that Wild Card Game against the Cardinals.
During those hot streaks, the balls put in play off Medlen never found the holes they did on Thursday night. Yasiel Puig sparked Los Angeles' decisive second inning by bouncing a ground ball up the middle, the first of a handful of hits shot just beyond the reach of an Atlanta infielder. Three batters later, Evan Gattis' limited range in left allowed A.J. Ellis' two-run double to fall in safely.
One inning later, Elliot Johnson mishandled a sharply hit ball to second, allowing Carl Crawford to reach safely. The infield hit loomed large later in the third when Adrian Gonzalez took advantage of Medlen's aggressiveness, jumping on a first-pitch changeup and taking it to straightaway center for a two-run homer that gave the Dodgers a 4-0 lead that seemed insurmountable, given Kershaw's nearly unhittable stuff.
"I almost let it go knowing he was sitting on it," Medlen said. "I let it go thinking, if I executed it, I could still get him to roll it over.
"It's been a successful pitch for me and something I've been relying on the entire year."
The Braves were not charged with three errors as they were in the 2012 Wild Card Game, but Medlen's final line could certainly have been softened by a more cynical interpretation of the plays on the field behind him.
"I thought there was a couple plays that we could have made, second and third inning," manager Fredi Gonzalez said. "I think we got a couple of two-out RBIs a couple times that really put a dagger in your offense. But it's maybe a combination of guys being a little over-amped a little bit."
For all the similarities between Thursday night and last year's Wild Card Game, this time Medlen can hope for a potential rematch with Kershaw in Game 5, a chance to show his team his second-half success can translate into a deep playoff run.
"They're a great team, and when you have an opposing pitcher on the mound who is as good as Kershaw, I mean, there's not a lot of room for error, and I had a lot of error tonight," Medlen said. "Obviously frustrating, but that's the beauty of there being a series rather than just a one-game thing, and I think it's a lot different than last year."