If the playoffs are a crap shoot, the newly minted play-in game is a coin flip. There’s really no handicapping the Braves-Cardinals game. There’s only “heads” or “tails.”
And yet: We wouldn’t be doing our duty if we didn’t make the attempt at determining what might (and might not) be important. So here, as the saying has it, goes nothing, even as we know full well such factoid-finding might indeed amount to nothing.
Hitting: This isn’t close. The Cardinals lead the Braves in runs, batting average, home runs and on-base percentage. The Cardinals have also struck out 99 fewer times than the Braves, which might sound like a big deal but probably isn’t. (It means St. Louis batters have whiffed, on average, .61 fewer times per game.)
The Braves have drawn 43 more walks than the Cards, but since Kyle Lohse, who has walked only 38 batters over 211 innings, is scheduled to start Friday, that nugget could be rendered just another pebble. This, however, might be of substance: The Braves entered their 162nd ranked last among National League teams in hitting with runners in scoring position; the Redbirds were fourth.
If the game comes down to a manufactured run, the Cardinals have the better track record. But the most famous play-in game ever — Yankees 5, Red Sox 4 in 1978 — was decided by a three-run homer hoisted by a No. 9 hitter who’d hit four home runs over 162 games, which is how Bucky Dent came to be handed a new middle name by bitter Bostonians.
Starting pitching: Lohse won 16 games and finished with the league’s fifth-lowest ERA. But he’s not a knock-the-bat-out-of-your-hands pitcher. (He had 143 strikeouts in those 211 innings.) Because of his control, his WHIP (walks/hits per innings pitched) is excellent (1.09), and opponents have hit only .239 against him. That said, the Braves did muster five earned runs on nine hits and two homers in their one outing against Lohse, who took a no-decision in a game his team would lose 10-7 here on May 30.
The Braves haven’t lost a Kris Medlen start since May 23, 2010. His WHIP is a flyspeck 0.91, and opponents have hit .208 against him. But the Cardinals, as fate would have it, have hit him pretty well. (Albeit when he was a reliever.) In 5 2/3 innings against him this season, they managed six hits and three earned runs. But the most recent of those games was Memorial Day.
In a one-game setting, you’d have to give the edge to the man who never loses, but it must be noted that, in 2007, San Diego started Jake Peavy, who would win the Cy Young Award that year, against Colorado’s Josh Fogg, who finished the season 10-9 with a 4.94 ERA. The Rockies won the play-in game 9-8 in 13 innings, neither starter figuring in the decision. But Fogg did yield one fewer earned run (five) than Peavy (six).
Relief pitching: This one isn’t close, either. The Braves finished with the league’s second-best bullpen ERA, the Cardinals with the 10th-best. The Braves’ closer is Craig Kimbrel, whose regular season has been of historic proportions. Kimbrel struck out more than half the batters he faced (116 of 231), and according to Eric Seidman of FanGraphs, no pitcher with 30 or more innings in a season has ever come close to that staggering rate.)
Kimbrel has blown only three saves in 42 chances. The Cardinals’ closer is Jason Motte, who’s good (41 saves, seven blown saves), but he’s not Kimbrel. Nobody is.
But we return to the 2007 play-in: The Padres handed Trevor Hoffman, who was the career leader in saves until Mariano Rivera passed him last season, the ball with a two-run lead in the bottom of the 13th. He faced five Rockies. One walked. Three got hits. One of the best ever had his worst night and blew the postseason for his team. It can happen.
Which is pretty much the point: In any one baseball game, anything can happen. It never hurts to be at home, which the Braves will be, and it helps if you catch the ball, and the Braves have made 20 fewer errors than the Cardinals. And it says a little something that the Braves took five of six from St. Louis this season and were, on the record, a better team over the six-month season. Still, you could outrank the opponent in every category from WHIP to BABIP, and if you have a bad day at the ballyard you can lose.
As much as we like to believe sports serve to measure skill and will, they don’t always. Sometimes it comes down to luck. Sometimes you just need to call “heads” and be blissfully right.
By Mark Bradley