NL Wild Card Breakdown
The National League playoff picture is now complete. The Nationals, Reds, and Giants have won their divisions, and the Cardinals and Braves will hook it up in Friday’s NL Wild Card game. For many Braves fans, this matchup is poetic justice for what happened at the end of last season. Most people, myself included, figured that the 2011 Wild Card spot was going to come down to a one game playoff in St. Louis. Thanks to an amazing run by the Cards and an epic collapse by the Braves, that game never happened.
However, none of that will matter. By the end of Friday, there will be only four NL teams left vying for the pennant. Here is my breakdown of the NL Wild Card game.
The Cardinals are top five in most important offensive team categories in the NL. Players like Yadier Molina, Matt Holliday, and Allen Craig are having career years at the dish. The Braves offense is pretty good, but they have really struggled with runners in scoring position for much of the season. Still, Michael Bourn, Martin Prado, Jason Heyward, Freddie Freeman, and Chipper Jones are all tough outs in that lineup. However, the Cardinals have one of the best lineups in all of baseball.
The Cardinals are going with their 2012 ace in Kyle Lohse, and the Braves are going with their surprise superstar in Kris Medlen. Lohse is having the best season of his career, and he could easily be a Cy Young favorite. He has 10 games this season where he either got a loss or a no decision when he gave up two or less earned runs. He could easily have 20+ wins. Medlen is the reigning pitcher of the month for September, and he has helped the Braves set a record when they won the 23rd consecutive game in which he started. He is the hottest starting pitcher in baseball, and he is baffling NL hitters with only a couple of pitches. However, as great as Medlen has been, he has yet to pitch in a game of this magnitude; so, we do not know how he will react. Lohse has pitched in several huge playoff games, and he has shown that he can handle the pressure. In this respect, I have to give a very slight advantage to Lohse.
This has been one of the Cardinals’ bugaboos for much of the year, and the Braves continually have one of the stronger and more reliable bullpens in the NL. The Mujica/Boggs/Motte 7th-9th setup for the Cardinals has been very strong for the last couple of months especially. However, pitchers like O’Flaherty and Venters pave the way for the game’s most dominant closer in Craig Kimbrel. If this game turns into a battle of the bullpens, the Braves seem poised to come out on top.
Neither has any managerial playoff experience, but both will be tested on Friday. Both managers have done well, but they are both still very green. Nonetheless, Gonzalez has a few more years of experience as a manager over Matheny.
Aside from Carlos Beltran, the 2012 version of the Cardinals is pretty close to the 2011 version that rode a wave of momentum all the way to the World Series title. Aside from Chipper Jones and Tim Hudson, the Braves are made up of a lot of young players with very little (if any) playoff experience.
Biggest Storyline: Chipper Jones
This could very well be the final game in Chipper Jones’ amazing career. If the game does not go the Braves way, at least Chipper will be able to say farewell in the only home ballpark that he has ever known.
Key for the Braves: Avoid Crooked Numbers
The potent Cardinals lineup can put up runs like very few teams in the league can. In a flash, they can hang a very crooked number on the scoreboard with the combination of tough at bats and clutch hits. The Braves will need to avoid these innings to keep the game close enough for their offense to have a chance to score.
Key for the Cardinals: Get to Medlen Early
Part of the reason why Medlen has been so effective this year is because he has been dominating hitters through the first two times through the lineup. This is due in large part to the fact that hitters are seeing him for the first time but also because his stuff is filthy. However, Medlen has been allowing runners on base in the first few innings of his last couple of starts, but teams have not been capitalizing. The Cardinals will need to do just that to avoid Medlen getting settled in.
This will be the only playoff game/series that I will not give a prediction. This is due to my extreme amount of dedication to the Cardinals and my tremendous respect for the Braves. I do not want my prediction to soil what should be an incredible game and unnecessarily open the floodgates for negativity directed at either team or their fans. It is unfortunate that both of these teams will not see a full playoff series, but the fireworks from Friday night should be impressive.
Tweet to @MLBFanCave using the hash tag #WildCard to let us know who you think will win this game.