If you weren’t listening closely you didn’t hear it. But in addition to his pitching talents, his record winning streak, and a starting nod in Friday’s wild card one-game playoff against the Cardinals, Kris Medlen has a knack for one-liners.
So when a reporter prefaced a question about one of his eye-popping statistics recently by saying “beyond the streak, which is obviously going to end at some point…,” a little voice from Medlen’s vicinity goes, “nuh uh.”
It went unnoticed, so Medlen came back with: “Will it?”
The question was more of an answer, really, and a nod to the power of his capacity for positive thinking.
The former 10th round pick of the Braves is 5-foot-10 – maybe with his hair spiked up – and his fastball tops out at about 92, but he is a sports psychologist’s dream. For those who preach picturing the positive, Medlen is a poster boy. What images can he conjure up at this point that don’t look good?
The Braves have won Medlen’s past 23 starts, one more than the live-ball record he broke belonging to Hall-of-Famers Carl Hubbell and Whitey Ford. The Braves haven’t lost one of Medlen’s starts since May 23, 2010 in Pittsburgh.
It has been so long since then that when Medlen returned to PNC Park earlier this week, he didn’t remember where the visiting clubhouse was, or the food room.
That might have something to do with all that’s happened since that day: Medlen led the Braves to 11 straight wins that year, blew out his elbow, underwent elbow reconstruction surgery, endured a 13-month rehab, moved back to the bullpen, to the minors to stretch out, to the bullpen again and finally on July 31, to the rotation.
In that time, Medlen also bought a house in Duluth, met a girl, got married, and started a family.
On the eve of the first postseason start of Medlen’s career in Friday’s wild card playoff, Nicki Medlen was just grateful she’s only five months pregnant with their first child.
“I’m definitely more nervous than he is,” she said. “…I’m glad I’m not eight months pregnant and going to go into labor any time soon.”
For Kris Medlen, nervousness is pretty much his natural state. He fidgets. He finds about two reasons to slow down: watching an episode of Breaking Bad and pitching.
“I’m a little anxious and nervous no matter what the start is like,” said Medlen. “It’s a one-game situation so obviously it’s going to be a little bit stressful but (I’ll) approach it with some confidence and know that we can go to the next round….
“People approach things negatively and positively, and I’m one of the positive people. I don’t think like, ‘Oh man what if we lose.’ I’m thinking, ‘Man, what if we win?’”
It’s really not that far-fetched for Medlen to believe he can be the guy to see this through. He’s got the statistics to back it up – 15-2 with a 2.81 ERA as a starter for his career, including 9-0 with an 0.97 ERA since rejoining the rotation July 31.
And he’s got some history with pressure situations of his own.
Medlen was a ninth grader on the JV team at Gahr High in Cerritos, Calif., when he and his father showed up at a varsity game just to see how the big boys would do against West Torrance. The starting pitcher didn’t show up that day, so Coach Tom Bergeron told Medlen to go home and get his glove.
“The guy was a senior and hadn’t pitched varsity before,” Bergeron said of the scheduled starter. “I think he was scared.”
Medlen, all 5-feet, 97 pounds of him, pitched four innings of the seven-inning game and Gahr won 2-1.
“Talk about nerve-wracking,” Medlen said. “…That was my World Series right there.”
By the time Medlen was a senior, Bergeron pitched him 10 innings in a state playoff game – the maximum for a California high school pitcher in a week. Medlen played the last two innings at shortstop before his team lost in the 12th.
“He’s just not afraid,” Bergeron said. “He loves the competition. And he really loves playing baseball.”
Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez understands the temptation to push the envelope with Medlen. He pitched Medlen in relief of Craig Kimbrel with the bases loaded and two outs in the ninth of the must-win 2011 finale against the Phillies, when Medlen had made only one appearance in his comeback from surgery. Medlen got the out on a pop-up and three more in a scoreless 10th inning.
It’s why Gonzalez and general manager Frank Wren started Medlen in the bullpen this season with an eye toward capping him at 160-innings and heeded pitching coach Roger McDowell’s advice that if they opened the season with Medlen in the rotation, it would be hard to take him out.
In 12 starts since moving to the rotation, Medlen has given up one or no runs 10 times. He’s pitched two complete games. He’s won National League pitcher of the month twice, something no Brave has done with Greg Maddux in 2001.
His idea of a bad outing was the Braves playoff clincher. He gave up three runs to the Marlins Sept. 25 but kept the team in position to win.
Medlen hasn’t been charged with a loss since the first two starts of his major league career. Even Maddux lost 14 games his second season in the majors. Tom Glavine had 17 losses his second year.
About the age when those future Hall-of-Famers were in their primes, Medlen was undergoing “Tommy John” surgery, and that’s where he believes he gained some of his greatest experience.
“When you care so much about your job and the game and it gets taken away from you, it puts a lot of things in perspective,” Medlen said. “(It) gave me a new outlook on how hard you have to work to stay here.”
Medlen’s greatest fear wasn’t failure. It was sitting in the dugout in a sling, wondering if he should have come up with a backup plan somewhere along the line. Fear was what Medlen felt after throwing a curveball 30 feet in the bullpen, thinking a scar tissue break-up was his ligament blowing out again.
So when it comes to this winning streak, Medlen isn’t big on superstitions. The red T-shirt he wears every day isn’t for luck. It’s out of support for a friend and former college baseball player who has Lou Gehrig’s disease. The peanut butter and honey sandwich Medlen makes before every start is for a high-energy meal that won’t “weigh him down.”
Medlen, whose father Ray drives a big-rig truck for Fed-Ex and mother Susan decorates cakes at Albertson’s grocery store, is confident but grounded. When reporters have asked him recently about breaking Ford and Hubbell’s record, Medlen said: “I don’t belong with them.”
Back in Southern California, the coach who sent Medlen out to start as a freshman on the fly, has heard him say that. And Bergeron has another thought: “What if he does?”