will play in the first-ever single game Wild Card
playoff this afternoon, with the season for each hanging in the balance. It's a strange situation for a baseball team, to be in a one game do or die showdown. Baseball is a game played in series, all year long. One game is just...unnatural.
Nonetheless, that's the landscape now. One game, win or go home. Unfortunately, that one game is in Atlanta, giving the Redbirds a bit of an uphill climb. Still, home field advantage isn't everything. The Cardinals certainly have the talent to make a run in the playoffs. I think most of us believed all along we would be watching this team late into October. Maybe we still will.
First, though, they have to get by the Braves.
The Cards head into this game with a decided advantage on the offensive side of the equation; they outscored the Braves 765-700 this season. It's not surprising the Redbirds have an offensive edge; they scored the second-most runs in the National League
this year (behind only the Brewers), despite some struggles in the latter part of the season. They rank near the top of the league in OPS. Number one overall in on-base percentage. Fourth in batting average. The one thing the Cardinals didn't do exceptionally well is put the ball over the fence (which is partially due to the effect of playing home games in Busch Stadium
), but in all other ways this is a potent run-scoring machine.
The Braves, on the other hand, are pretty much middle of the pack in most categories. Jason Heyward had a big bounceback season, and Brian McCann is always a potent offensive force. Michael Bourn had an excellent year and Dan Uggla did his Dan Uggla thing, hitting just .220 but adding a fair amount of power to the Atlanta lineup. (Though not quite to the extent he has in the past, actually.) The Braves have a solid lineup, but nowhere near as deep as that of the Cards.
This may be the single most intriguing matchup in this game. Both teams will send high quality pitchers to the mound, with the Cardinals calling on Kyle Lohse and the Braves countering with Kris Medlen.
Lohse has been outstanding this season, going 16-3 with a 2.86 ERA. He's gotten some talk as a dark horse Cy Young candidate. He's been so good almost everyone has forgotten how much we hated his contract before this year. (Well, almost.) He posted the best strikeout to walk ratio of his career, at 3.76. It's hard to find anything bad to say about Kyle Lohse in 2012.
The only problem is the fact the guy the Braves are sending to the mound has been even better. Kris Medlen began the year in the Atlanta bullpen, and ended it being compared to Greg Maddux. And, scarily enough, those comparisons aren't completely ridiculous. A 1.57 ERA, a 2.42 FIP, and a 10-1 record all point to just how dominant he's been this season. That 3.67 K/BB ratio for Lohse? The one I said was really good? Well, it doesn't look quite so good when you stick it up against Medlen's 5.22. In other words, both teams have really good pitchers starting the game for them today. Atlanta's is a whole lot really gooder, though.
The Cardinals can win with Kyle Lohse on the mound. But they're going to have to do one hell of a job to get to Medlen.
Ugh. So remember a second ago when I called the starting pitching the most intriguing matchup of the game? Well, here we have the scariest. The Cardinal bullpen has plenty of talent, but all the same has been the single biggest bugaboo for this team in 2012.
The good news is that in a single game, the Cards can run out their best arms, and there is some definite power to be had. Players like Jason Motte, Trevor Rosenthal, and Mitchell Boggs are all capable of getting the ball up there in the high 90s, and there are plenty of strikeouts to go around. All the same, though, this is a bullpen that blew a lot of leads in 2012, and if there's one place the Cardinals are oh so vulnerable, it's in the relief corps.
The Braves...well, they have a guy named Craig Kimbrel closing games for them. You may have heard of him, or you may not. (You should have.) If you haven't, this is what you need to know about Craig Kimbrel: he's the best reliever in baseball right now. His ERA for the season was 1.01. His FIP was 0.78. That's not a typo. It looks like one, but it isn't. His fielding independent percentage was below one. His strikeout rate is 16.66. Also not a typo. There is no other single reliever in the game right now who can impact a game the way Kimbrel can.
The rest of the Atlanta 'pen is solid, if not quite as intimidating as it appeared last season. Johnny Venters, the other half of the Braves' 2011 Tandem of Terror (patent pending), has had an up and down season, but still managed to strike out better than a batter per inning. Eric O'Flaherty gives the Braves a second nasty left-hander. It's a good 'pen.
In the end, though, the Atlanta bullpen in this game largely comes down to Kimbrel. The Cardinals have to believe they need to win the game in seven innings; if they get to Kimbrel you wouldn't bet on a comeback.
Overall, this is a fairly even matchup, with the Cards having the edge on offense and the Braves a pitching advantage. The problem, though, is the format. In a single game, pitching can completely take over, and Atlanta has just the kind of pitching to do it. Medlen for six, some combination of guys for the seventh, and two innings from Kimbrel to close things out is a daunting proposition.
Unfortunately, as talented as this Cardinal team is, I think the Braves return the 2011 favor and knock the Redbirds out tonight. Their pitching is just too tough, and the Cards won't get a second bite at the apple. I think the season ends tonight.
Now let's all hope I don't know what the hell I'm talking about.
It wouldn't be the first time.