This is what it’s supposed to look like in Atlanta in October, with red, white and blue bunting hanging from the façade, folks tailgating five hours before the game, multiple TV crews filming batting practice, and Chipper Jones sitting at a podium talking about what makes his team’s starting pitcher tough and what it’ll be like facing the other team’s veteran pitcher.
Playoff baseball is back, and this time the Braves aren’t limping into it with an injury-riddled team and crossing their fingers while hoping their starting pitcher has one of his best games and their bullpen isn’t entirely out of gas.
This time, the Braves lineup is almost entirely healthy, their key relievers, Eric O’Flaherty and Craig Kimbrel, have been at their best for the past month or more, and their starting pitcher, Kris Medlen, has been the best in baseball since moving into the rotation on July 31.
But unlike any postseason opener we’ve ever seen, and not because it’s last postseason that Chipper Jones will ever play. No, this Braves vs. Cardinals game today is so different because it feels a whole lor more like a Game 7 (or a Game 5 in a best-of-five) than it does an series opener.
For good reason.
It’s not a series opener. It’s not a series, period. It’s the new Wild Card game.
One game, do-or-die, winner-take-all ‘ball. Or as Chipper Jones calls it, “cut-throat baseball.”
By the way, speaking of Chipper…manager Fredi Gonzalez had so much nervous energy when he woke this morning, his wife Pam eventually told him to get out of the house and go to the ballpark. Which he did.
Meanwhile, the 40-year-old “Battle Axe”? He woke and came to work with his parents and without butterflies in his stomach.
“I was riding in with my mom and dad today,” said Chipper, whose parents also came to town for his last homestand and traveled with the team to Pittsburgh for his last regular-season series. “I turned around and told my dad, this is why I know I’m ready to go – I’m not even nervous. I don’t know if that’s just being prepared, or being confident, but usually first game of the playoffs I’m nervous before the workout the day before.
“I’m just ready to play. I’m ready to go. I’m going to go out and play hard for nine innings, hopefully not much further. [He smiled.] I don’t want to go into extra innings, but whatever happens, happens.”
If they win, then we’ll have a proper series to look forward to, beginning Sunday against the Nationals right here at Turner Field. But for now, we’ve got a postseason game unlike any other that’s come before.
And fortunately for the Braves, the city has responded not with the blasé attitude that permeated the opening postseason rounds during the latter stages of the Braves’ remarkable run of 14 consecutive division titles, when a lot of fans seemed to shrug their shoulders and say, let us know when they get to the NLCS.
Nearly entire upper-deck sections of Turner Field would be empty for some of those division-series games back then. But today, despite the awful start time – 5:07 p.m. on a Friday at a ballpark located adjacent to the major artery that runs through downtown in a city with some of the world’s worst traffic – there were standing-room only tickets available and nothing else as of three days ago.
There will be 45,000 foam tomahawks distributed at the gates, and we dare say there won’t be closets filled with leftover foam tomahawks. It’s going to quite a scene here at the start of the game, particularly if the Braves can muster a run or two early against Cardinals pitcher Kyle Lohse.
Those tomahawks and the war chant that accompanies the chop aren’t politically correct, but it damn sure is a sight to see — and intimidating when done with great gusto in a packed house. Perhaps even with the opposing team is the defending World Series champion, which St. Louis is after slipping into last year’s postseason as the NL wild card when the Cardinals overtook the collapsing Braves on the last night of the season.
Those Braves lost 20 of their final 30 games. These Braves won 20 of their last 29.
Chipper commended Gonzalez for doing a good job walking the line between keeping the Braves fresh and rested late in the season while also continuing to try to chase down the Nationals in the NL East. Like the rest of the Braves and his manager, Chipper would’ve preferred to win the division and avoid this death match of a one-game playoff, or to have won the wild card under the old format when there was only one wild card in each league and that team started the postseason in a best-of-five division series just like the three division winners in each league.
“It is what is is,” Jones said. “It’s exciting for the fans. I’m sure this place will be abuzz tonight and electric. I don’t remember a Game 7 here.”
He forgot the 1996 NL Championship Series, when the Braves beat St. Louis 15-0 in Game 7 at old Fulton County Stadium.
“Oh yeah,” Jones said. “I forgot about that. I shouldn’t have forgot about that.”
But there hasn’t been a single Game 7 played in Atlanta since the Braves moved into Turner Field in 1997, not that there haven’t been series-ending games played here. More than the Braves would care to recall.
The truth is, the Braves have not been a good postseason team beginning with the 1999 World Series, when they were swept by the Yankees. But they’ve struggled particularly so in home games during that period.
They have a 12-26 postseason record beginning with that ’99 World Series, and the Braves are – you ready for this? — 5-15 at home in that period. Yes, 5-15 with a 4.40 ERA and only 64 runs scored in their past 20 home postseason games, scoring two runs or fewer in half of those games while allowing three or more in 17 of 20 and five or more runs in nine of 20.
The Braves have lost six consecutive playoff series since their last series win vs. Houston in the 2001 division series, when their winning pitchers were Seanez, Glavine and Burkett.
Of course, there is hardly any carry-over from any of those teams to the current one, other than from the beat-up 2010 team that lost four one-run games to the eventual World Series champion Giants in the first round, the last postseason series the Braves played.
Included in that series loss were pair of 3-2 games at Turner Field in the last playoff games of Bobby Cox’s managerial career, when the Braves played without DL’d Chipper (recovering from knee surgery) and without DL’d Martin Prado (torn oblique muscle and groin pull) and, for those two games at Turner Field, without closer Billy Wagner, who pulled an oblique in Game 2 at San Francisco.
This Braves team has a sore-shouldered Brian McCann, who is out of the lineup today in favor of David Ross, a veteran who works well with Medlen and who lately has hit better than the injured McCann.
You know Medlen is 9-0 with a 0.97 ERA in 12 starts since moving from the bullpen on July 31. But here’s another stat, for what it’s worth: Medlen has a 1.75 ERA in 92-1/3 innings with McCann catching this season, and a 0.81 ERA in 44-1/3 innings with Ross catching.
He has 69 strikeouts with 15 walks in 92-1/3 innings with McCann catching, and 49 strikeouts with eight walks in 44-1/3 innings with Ross catching, including both his 12- and 13-strikeout games in September.
“He’s the closest thing I’ve played behind to Maddux,” Chipper said of Medlen at today’s pregame presser. “Just in his repertoire, and he’s got the poise to boot. Nothing seems to [bother] him. He knows he’s going to make a mistake here and there, you know? Relegate it to a hard double with nobody or a home run with nobody on. The goal remains the same, which is to keep the team in the ballgame. And I don’t know anybody who’s done it as good as Kris Medlen in the second half.”
Like other Braves, Chipper has said how much he enjoys playing behind Medlen.
“It’s a lot of fun,” he said. “I know if Rossy or B-Mac sets up on the outside corner, that’s where the pitch is going to be. That puts me in optimum position to be able to make a play behind him. That was the thing that Maddux and Glavine and Smoltzy and all those guys did back in the day – they hit spots. When a catcher called for it, they hit a spot.
“It allows you as a defender to put yourself in the optimum position to make a play behind them. It’s not wonder why we play great defense behind the Madduxes and Glavines and ultimately the Medlens, because they were strike-throwers. They were aggressive and in the strike zone, and the defense was ready for it.”
• Bullpen duo: The Braves’ led the NL with a 2.87 ERA in the second half, far ahead of runner-up Cincy (3.30). And the Braves bullpen finished the season with a 2.76 ERA, second to the Reds (2.65).
Medlen, Kimbrel and O’Flaherty had a lot to do with both of those statistics.
I’m about to lay upon you some remarkable numbers. That trio of pitchers, since the All-Star break, has a combined 14-0 record with 17 saves and a 0.82 ERA in 78 games (12 starts), with 175 strikeouts and 25 walks in 142-1/3 innings.
Let those marinate in your mind for a moment.
Someone asked Chipper about this being his first playoff series since 2005 and what it would be like when he went to bat the first time today.
“It’s like riding a bike,” he said. “Like I said, the stakes don’t change. The goal is still the same. When you walk up there, the goal is to be as tough an out as possible. Know the repertoire of the opposing pitcher. Stick to your strengths as a hitter, and hopefully your strengths mesh with his weaknesses.
“I’m not nervous in the least for this game for the simple fact that I’m confident in my abilities when I walk up to the plate. I’m confident in Kris Medlen and Eric O’Flaherty and Craig Kimbrel. Hopefully, those are the only three guys we have to use today. I just feel like those combinations are a good formula for a W.”
Speaking of Kimbrel, his 42 saves tied for the NL lead for the second year in a row, making him the first Braves pitcher to lead the league in saves for multiple seasons.
Meanwhile, his 16.7 strikeouts per nine innings is the highest in major league history by any pitcher in 50 or more innings.
O’Flaherty finished sixth in the NL with 28 holds, which are basically to middle relievers and setup guys what saves are to closers.
The lefty got better as the season went on, posting a 4.91 in April, 3.18 in May, 1.86 in June, 0.90 in July, and then 0.00 in both August and September. O’Flaherty’s opponents’ OPS went from .797 in April to .724 in May, .712 in June, .536 in July, .574 in August and a stingy .307 in September. He had a .265 opponents’ average and .725 opponents’ OPS in 35 appearances before the break, and .185/.449 in 29 since the break.
Facing Lohse: The Cardinals’ Lohse has no decision and a 9.00 ERA in one start vs. Braves this season (five earned runs, nine hits in five innings), and a 16-3 record and 2.71 ERA in 32 starts against everyone else. Lohse is 2-0 with a 3.52 ERA in four career starts against the Braves at Turner Field, but that May 30 no-decision was his only start against the Braves anywhere since 2010.
In 10 career starts against the Braves, the righty is 3-1 with a 4.97 ERA, with the loss coming in a 2002 start against a Braves team that had only one player still playing for Atlanta. Chipper, of course. All nine of Lohse’s other starts against the Braves came in 2006 and later, and he’s 3-0 with a 4.11 ERA in those nine.
Against Lohse, Chipper is 6-for-13 with a homer, Freddie Freeman is 2-for-3 with a homer, Dan Uggla is 5-for-15 with a homer, and Prado is 6-for-14. A couple of others of note: McCann is 5-for-20 with a homer, Michael Bourn is 7-for-34 (.206) with one walk, and Ross is 1-for-2.
BRAVES WILD CARD LINEUP
CARDINALS WILD CARD LINEUP
I wasn’t real surprised by anything about the Braves’ roster for the Wild Card game, after seeing how Fredi used Jeff Baker and Lyle Overbay in Pittsburgh when it looked like he was prepping them by getting them plate appearances.
For most of the year I’d have thought for sure that Juan Francisco would be on the playoff roster, but remember this is just for this one game (rosters will be changed for the division series if the Braves advance). Also, it was pretty clear the last month of the season that the Braves weren’t relying much on Francisco. He only got 26 at-bats over the team’s final 34 games, going 3-for-26 with 15 strikeouts and no walks….
Prado finished the season tied with Jayson Werth for major league lead with a .286 average with two strikes, and Prado was 93-for-325 in those situations while Werth was 50-for-175. AL leaders were Joe Mauer (.266) and Prince Fielder (.265).
Prado also led NL with 60 multi-hit games, while no one else had more than 56. AL Triple Crown winner Miguel Cabrera (64) and Derek Jeter (64) were the only hitters with more in the majors….
Uggla (.220) didn’t finish with NL-low average, which went to Cincinnati’s Drew Stubbs (.213). Uggla (.187) did finish with majors-low home batting average.
Against the Cardinals, Uggla hit .391 (9-for-23) with three doubles, two homers and seven RBIs in six games this season, and Bourn hit .357 (10-for-28) with two doubles, two homers and seven runs in six games.
Jason Heyward was 5-for-26 (.192) and 14 strikeouts against the Cardinals, though he had two doubles, one homer and five RBIs. In his career against Cardinals, Heyward has .236 average, four homers, 10 RBIs and 25 strikeouts in 72 at-bats (19 games).
• OK, let’s close this with an appropriate tune (at the start of the postseason) from Shooter Jennings (Waylon’s boy) off his Family Man album. Click here to hear it.
“THE LONG ROAD AHEAD” by Shooter Jennings
There’s a cold breeze through city streets,
Blows leaves like dreams neath busy somewhere in an easy chair.
Somebody’s momma crying, cause baby ain’t there.
My baby’s so lazy like to lay around… Drive me crazy.
No time for the broken hearted,
Got to finish just what we started.
The only promise to the pour departed,
Is that they wind up dead.
Just as sure as holy violence,
We starve our songs in silence,
Were all looking for a little guidance
Down the long road ahead