By PAUL NEWBERRY
ATLANTA — Break out the peanut butter and honey. Kris Medlen is ready for another start.
Only this time, it’s the biggest game of his career.
The diminutive right-hander, who didn’t even start the season in Atlanta’s rotation, will deliver the first pitch in the inaugural wild-card playoff against the defending World Series champion St. Louis Cardinals. The Braves couldn’t have asked for anyone better in the winner-take-all format, considering they haven’t lost a start by Medlen (10-1, 1.57 ERA) in more than two years.
Just stop reminding him about it.
“It’s not me by myself,” said Medlen, who always snacks on a peanut butter and honey sandwich before his starts. “I’ve given up four or five runs in a start, and guys pull it out for me. My name is in the books or whatever, but it’s a team thing. I didn’t do it all by myself, that’s for sure.”
The Braves have won 23 consecutive starts by Medlen — a modern big league record. He eclipsed the mark held by a pair of Hall of Famers, Carl Hubbell and Whitey Ford.
“You can’t help but notice when someone’s having the amount of success that he’s had,” said Kyle Lohse, who will start for the Cardinals. “It’s impressive what he’s done. Obviously, the team plays very well behind him, and to be that consistently good to keep your team in games or win games says a lot about what kind of pitcher he is.
“I expect him to keep doing what he’s been doing out there,” Lohse added, “and my job is to do the same thing that he’s doing. Go out there and shut down their team.”
No one is quite sure what to expect from the one-game format, which was added this year when Major League Baseball expanded the playoff field by adding a second wild-card team in each league.
One-and-done may be the norm in football. But this is a whole new ballgame for the big leagues.
“We know the necessity to make it like a Game 7,” Cardinals manager Mike Matheny said. “You do things differently. We’ve been anticipating it, but I also want these guys to know we just want to go out and play the game we’ve been playing.”
Besides, St. Louis knows it’s just fortunate to have a chance to win another title. The Cardinals finished six games behind Atlanta in the wild-card standings. If not for the new system, they would be watching from home.
“We’re exceptionally happy about the format,” Matheny said with a smile.
Despite losing Albert Pujols last winter in free agency, the Cardinals have a chance to pull off another magical postseason run. A year ago, they trailed the Braves by 10 games in late August, but Atlanta collapsed over the final month and St. Louis pulled out the wild card on a frenetic final day. That momentum carried right into the playoffs, where the Redbirds pulled off three straight upsets, including another stunning rally against Texas in the World Series.
Pujols may be gone. But there’s plenty of holdovers from the title team, including Lohse (16-3, 2.86).
“A lot of guys with me in that clubhouse, they experienced last year from being 10 back and a lot of people kind of saying, ‘Go get ‘em next year,’” he said. “It helped us mature a lot and grow a lot as individuals and learn how to handle big situations like the one that’s coming up.”
The winner advances to face NL East champion Washington in the divisional round.
The Braves would love to get another crack at the Nationals, having chased them futilely all summer and coming up four games short in the divisional race. But Atlanta will have to do something it hasn’t done in more than a decade — win a playoff round. The Braves have dropped six straight series since winning a divisional playoff in 2001, including an 0-5 mark in elimination games at Turner Field.
They don’t want to go out like that again, not with 40-year-old Chipper Jones planning to retire as soon as the season is over.
“You don’t have that many opportunities in your career to play in the playoffs or to play in whatever this is called,” Medlen said. “But especially for him. It’s his last year. It inspires you to want to get a few more games under his belt and let him go out on top, which is where he belongs.”
If the Braves needed any more motivation, they could turn to the words of Cardinals pitcher Adam Wainwright.
As St. Louis closed in on the second wild card, the players took note of the raucous celebration by the Braves after they clinched a playoff spot — especially Wainwright, who came up in the Atlanta organization.
“No disrespect to what they did, but I think we’re going to save the big pop for after we beat Atlanta,” he said.
That little sound bite has made the rounds in the Braves clubhouse, providing some extra fire. But, overlooking the one-game format, this isn’t the gridiron. Bulletin-board fodder only goes so far. A player isn’t suddenly going to hit the ball harder because he’s mad at the other team. A pitcher isn’t going to get an extra 5 mph on his fastball.
“It’s not like football where we post it and I want to rip his head off,” said Braves catcher David Ross, noting that Wainwright won’t even be on the 25-man roster for this game. “But it is one of those things, you wonder why guys comment about other teams. I feel like, as a player, I wouldn’t make a comment about another team in a negative light to a media outlet. I just feel like I’m better than that.”
No one has been better than Medlen over the past two months.
Forced into the rotation by injuries and ineffective performances, he suddenly became baseball’s hottest pitcher. He hardly looks the part, generously listed at 5-foot-10 with a fastball that struggles to reach 90 mph. But he is especially bedeviling with his changeup, a pitch the organization ordered him to throw coming up through the minors.
In 12 starts this season, Medlen is 9-0 with an 0.97 ERA. He struck out 13 hitters in one game, 12 in another. In six of those appearances, he didn’t give up an earned run.
Away from the field, it’s hard to take Medlen seriously. He is a bundle of nervous energy, which he copes with by delivering a constant string of jokes and one-liners. As manager Fredi Gonzalez finished up his time at the podium Thursday, Medlen stood against the wall, clapping slowly.
When asked about his pregame routine, Medlen made it clear he doesn’t have one.
Except for the peanut butter and honey.
“It’s a light meal. It’s good energy,” he said. “It’s not like I’m going to eat fried chicken.”
At a glance
Schedule: Today, at Atlanta (11:07 a.m. HST) (TBS) (850 AM)
Season Series: Braves won 5-1.
Cardinals: CF Jon Jay (4 HRs, 40 RBIs, 18 SBs, .385 OBP), RF Carlos Beltran (.269, 32, 97), LF Matt Holliday (.295, 27, 102), 1B Allen Craig (.307, 22, 92), 3B David Freese (.293, 20, 79), C Yadier Molina (.315, 22, 76), 2B Daniel Descalso (.227, 4, 26), SS Pete Kozma (.333, 2, 14).
Braves: CF Michael Bourn (.274, 9 HRs, 57 RBIs, 42 SBs), LF Martin Prado (.301, 10, 70), RF Jason Heyward (.269, 27, 82, 21 SBs), 3B Chipper Jones (.287, 14, 62), 1B Freddie Freeman (.259, 23, 94), 2B Dan Uggla (.220, 19, 78, 168 strikeouts), C David Ross (.256, 9, 23), SS Andrelton Simmons (.289, 3, 19).
Cardinals: RH Kyle Lohse (16-3, 2.86 ERA).
Braves: RH Kris Medlen (10-1, 1.57, 120 Ks, 138 IP).
Cardinals: RH Jason Motte (4-5, 2.75, 42/49 saves, 86Ks, 71 1-3 IP), RH Mitchell Boggs (4-1, 2.21, 78 games), RH Edward Mujica (0-3, 3.03), RH Fernando Salas (1-4, 4.30), RH Joe Kelly (5-7, 3.53), LH Marc Rzepczynski (1-3, 4.27), RH Trevor Rosenthal (0-2, 2.78).
Braves: RH Craig Kimbrel (3-1, 1.01, 42/45 saves, 116 Ks, 62 2-3 IP), LH Eric O’Flaherty (3-0, 1.73), RH Chad Durbin (4-1, 3.10), LH Jonny Venters (5-4, 3.22, 69 Ks, 58 2-3 IP), LH Luis Avilan (1-0, 2.00), RH Cristhian Martinez (5-4, 3.91), RH Cory Gearrin (0-1, 1.80), LH Mike Minor (11-10, 4.12).
The winner advances to face NL East champion Washington in a best-of-five series that begins Sunday. … This is the fourth time the teams have met in the postseason. St. Louis swept a best-of-five NL championship series in 1982 and went on to claim a World Series title. The Cardinals also swept three straight in the 2000 division series. The Braves rallied from a 3-1 deficit to win the NL pennant in 1996, beating the Cardinals in the final three games by a cumulative score of 32-1. In Game 7, Atlanta scored six runs in the first inning and went on to a 15-0 victory behind Tom Glavine. … The Braves were once a postseason fixture, claiming an unprecedented 14 straight division titles under manager Bobby Cox from 1991-2005. They haven’t won a playoff series since sweeping Houston in the division round 11 years ago. Since then, their postseason record is 9-19, with six straight series defeats. … Cox retired after a 3-1 loss to the San Francisco Giants in the 2010 division series. This is Atlanta’s first playoff appearance under manager Fredi Gonzalez, a former coach under Cox. Gonzalez is benching banged-up catcher Brian McCann for this game, going with Ross instead primarily for defense. Slowed by a knee injury and an ailing right shoulder, McCann batted just .230 with 20 homers and 67 RBIs this season. … Atlanta hasn’t faced the Cardinals since May. The Braves swept a three-game series in St. Louis and took two of three at Turner Field. Kimbrel saved three of those wins. … The hard-throwing Kimbrel gives the Braves something they often lacked during their run of division titles: a dominant closer. Regularly reaching 100 mph on the radar, he averaged nearly two strikeouts per inning. The Cardinals don’t want to fall behind heading to the late innings. … Just like last season, the Cardinals and Braves end up in a wild-card tussle. The difference is this year, instead of St. Louis capitalizing on Atlanta’s swoon, it’s head-to-head competition. … The defending World Series champion Cardinals persever ed through injuries to co-ace Chris Carpenter and 1B Lance Berkman under rookie manager Mike Matheny, and are in the postseason for the third time in four seasons. … Moving on after the departure of Albert Pujols in free agency, the Cardinals have one of the league’s most dangerous lineups with five 20-homer players for the first time in franchise history. The pitching staff was even better. Lohse had a career year heading into free agency, Lance Lynn was an All-Star during his first year in the rotation and Adam Wainwright had a strong year after missing 2011 due to reconstructive elbow surgery. In the bullpen, Motte tied for the league lead with 42 saves. He was the first closer in franchise history to get all of the team’s saves.
Cardinals: There’s life after Pujols and Tony La Russa, after all. The Cardinals returned to the postseason thanks to an ensemble effort with several anchors to the lineup and rotation. Molina should be in the conversation for NL MVP after putting up a career year that justified the five-year, $75 million contract extension he signed in spring training. On track for a fifth straight Gold Glove, Molina is the undisputed standard bearer at his position with an arm that discourages baserunners from even attempting a steal. He had personal bests at the plate, too, finishing fourth in hitting. The $20 million or so the Cardinals had been prepared to pay Pujols went to Beltran and injured SS Rafael Furcal, both All-Stars. … The Cardinals won 12 of their last 16 to finish at 88-74, matching their high water mark for the year. They ended up nine games back of first-place Cincinnati in the NL Central and were the last team to qualify for the postseason, but their wealth of October experience could be an equalizer. … Matheny is the fifth manager to take the Cardinals to the postseason in his first year with the club, and first since La Russa in 1996. … Starting pitchers worked six or more innings in 85 games, the most for the franchise since the 1969 rotation that featured Bob Gibson and Steve Carlton also did it 85 times. … Jay was just the Cardinals’ third regular outfielder to have an error-free season, joining Orlando Palmeiro (2003) and Curt Flood (1966).
Braves: Shaking off the disappointment of a historic collapse, the Braves (94-68) returned to the playoffs for the second time in three seasons. Last year, Atlanta squandered a 10½-game wild-card lead and lost out to the Cardinals on the final day, going 9-18 in September. This season, the Braves trailed Washington in the NL East most of the summer but maintained a comfortable lead for the top wild card. Of course, with St. Louis getting in as the second wild card under the expanded format, the teams that battled in 2011 for the final NL playoff spot now find themselves matched in the league’s first one-game postseason round. … Jones announced during spring training this would be his final year. At age 40, he put up solid numbers and remained a force in the middle of the lineup, even though he couldn’t play every day because of an ailing body. Heyward bounced back from a disappointing sophomore season to provide the sort of pop he showed as a rookie. Prado was perhaps the most valuable of the position players, playing regularly in left field but also filling in at second and third base. … The Braves had to revamp their rotation during the season to deal with injuries and ineffective performances. Brandon Beachy was leading the NL in ERA when he went down in mid-June with season-ending elbow surgery. Former All-Star Jair Jurrjens never returned to form, spending most of the year in Triple-A. Atlanta acquired LHP Paul Maholm from the Cubs, but it was Medlen who saved the season. After missing most of 2011 recovering from Tommy John surgery, he started the year in the bullpen. The right-hander moved into the rotation after the All-Star break and never looked back, going 9-0 with a 0.97 ERA as a starter. Without Medlen, the Braves likely would have been watching another postseason on television.
— Medlen’s Streak. When the rotation was struggling, Medlen took over as a starter and went on to a record-breaking streak. The Braves have won 23 straight games with Medlen as the starter going back to 2010, the longest run in modern baseball history. Since 1921, only two other teams won 22 straight starts by a pitcher: the New York Giants with Carl Hubbell (1936-37) and the Yankees with Whitey Ford (1950-53).
— RBI Machine. Craig was third on the team in RBIs, but there’s a reason he’s the cleanup man. In his first season as a starter, he was just eight RBIs shy of 100 despite playing only 119 games due to injuries. He began the year in right field and was the regular first baseman most of the season after Berkman went down early with knee woes.
— Chipper’s Farewell. The Braves’ third baseman announced during spring training this would be his final year. Now he’s trying to extend it as long as he can. The 40-year-old switch-hitter remains a key contributor in a lineup that was hampered by miserable performances from Uggla and McCann. While his body keeps breaking down, Jones still has a flair for the dramatic. He homered in his return from the disabled list, on his birthday and on a bobblehead night in his honor.