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10/04/12 10:00 AM ET
Berth well earned by NL Wild Card reps
Each club worthy of spot in Division Series, but one must go home
By Anthony Castrovince / MLB.com
These are not upstarts or underdogs. It is not merely an honor to be nominated. The Atlanta Braves and St. Louis Cardinals don't enter the National League's first Wild Card game merely happy to have extended their season for another day. They don't come from playoff-starved towns newly caught up in the October craze, and they didn't enter 2012 with anything less than real World Series title hopes. That's what makes Friday's 5 p.m. ET game at Turner Field such good theater. One team is going to walk off that field with the potential to be a truly difficult draw for the Nationals, and the other is going to walk off knowing the outcome of this coin-flip contest cost it a realistic shot at a ring. Add in the emotional element of what very well could be Chipper Jones' swan song, and I'd say this qualifies as must-see TV.
We've also got a little bit of irony at play here, in that the Cards had their shot at a ring last year only at the expense of the Braves, who endured a historic September fade. Somehow, though, I doubt the Cards feel they owe one to Atlanta. What is owed to Atlanta and St. Louis alike are kudos for hanging tough during a season in which very little went as planned in their respective starting rotations. It was the ability to navigate and recalibrate with depth options and unexpected contributions that allowed them to get to this point. Now that they're here, it's time to see which of these second-place squads has the goods to keep going. And as much as I know it is foolish folly to even venture into predictions in postseason series, let alone single games, I'm going to pick the Braves to win this flip. I like Kris Medlen to continue his sterling string of successful starts, I like the Braves bullpen to be bullish in the late innings and I can't shake the feeling ol' Chipper will rise to the occasion, as he's so often prone to do. Medlen is the key to the Braves' confidence going into this tilt. Some have called him the anti-Stephen Strasburg in the NL East, in that he's a 2010 Tommy John surgery recipient who saw his workload get dialed up as the year progressed, rather than going full bore right away and then having the cord cut. The Braves knew they had something special in Medlen, but they also knew they wanted to get the most out of him, and their depth afforded them the opportunity to stash him in the bullpen until a glaring starting need presented itself midseason. What Medlen has done in the time since is nothing short of extraordinary. Since joining the rotation at the end of July, he's gone 9-0 with a 0.97 ERA and a .191 batting average against in 12 starts. He's allowed 0.81 walks and hits per inning pitched. He's throw 70 percent of his pitches for strikes. And if there were questions over whether he could post such stunning statistics in games that matter and against able offenses, I'd say he answered them in his Aug. 22 and Sept. 14 starts against the Nationals -- 14 combined innings pitched, one earned run allowed. This one-and-done postseason round is such a crapshoot that you want to place the percentages in your favor as much as humanly possible. When you consider the Braves have won 23 straight games Medlen has started, dating back to 2010 (the longest such streak in history, according to the Elias Sports Bureau), he seems as safe a bet as you can realistically place at this point. None of this, of course, should be taken as a knock on Kyle Lohse. In a season in which Adam Wainwright's return from Tommy John came with the prescribed ups and downs and co-ace Chris Carpenter didn't take the mound until mid-September because of nerve issues, Lohse provided a huge pick-me-up in a fortuitous free-agent walk year. But if we're going to get nitpicky, Lohse has fared slightly better at home (2.33 ERA) than on the road (3.41), one of his roughest starts of the season came against the Braves (his career ERA against them is 4.97) and his postseason ERA is 5.54 (including an unbecoming 7.81 mark in three starts last October). And if this game comes down to a battle of the bullpens, you've got to like the Braves' chances there, too. I love the job general manager John Mozeliak did to patch up a Cardinals 'pen that had been a source of frustration, but the Braves' relief corps is simply one of the best in the game. With 116 punchouts in 62 2/3 innings, Craig Kimbrel put up otherworldly strikeout numbers this season, and he, Jonny Venters and Eric O'Flaherty are all more rested and ready than they were during last year's collapse. The Cardinals, unquestionably, have the deeper and more potent offense. But I think a game of this immediacy lends itself to a pitchers' duel in which neither manager -- Fredi Gonzalez of the Braves or Mike Matheny of the Cardinals -- is slow with the trigger-finger when calling on his assemblage of available arms. I like the Braves' assemblage just a little more. That's why I think they're going to win one for the Chipper.