Braves staff shuts down high-scoring Cards in sweep
ATLANTA -- Inside the Braves' clubhouse late Sunday night, there was a matter-of-fact approach -- only to be interrupted by lighthearted jabs from Tim Hudson-sent text messages on starter Kris Medlen's phone -- to the team's attention-grabbing execution against the St. Louis Cardinals. This was the plan.
Well, it's always the plan.
Easier planned than executed, though.
On a weekend when the National League's World Series favorite re-entered the confines of Turner Field for the first time since last season's contentious one-game Wildcard playoff, the home team walked away with every single W. Three-game sweeps against the Cardinals do not come easy. And, aside from needing a go-ahead hit from Andrelton Simmons in the eighth inning of Game Two, Atlanta left little doubt.
The Cardinals boast the NL's top-scoring offense -- in fact, the next-highest scoring NL team (Cincinnati) entered the weekend more than 30 runs behind them. But behind the collective dominance of a pitching staff that threw its three best remaining starters -- Mike Minor, Julio Teheran and Kris Medlen -- the Braves became the first team to limit the Cardinals to seven runs or fewer in any series this season.
St. Louis hitters crossed the plate just three times in three games.
"Obviously we have confidence going in that we can control their lineup," said Medlen, who allowed just two runs in six innings but received some razzing from Hudson for giving up two hits to opposing pitcher Shelby Miller. "But knowing the kind of lineup that they have and how good of a team they have -- I mean, I'm trying to avoid saying we were surprised that they only scored three runs this series, but I just think that's how good we are as a staff."
Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez tempered his praise when asked about shutting the door on an offense that was averaging five runs per game entering the weekend -- "Sometimes it's a combination of good pitching and sometimes it's just catching a team at the right time," he said -- but he couldn't help but tip his cap. After losing staff veteran Tim Hudson to season-ending ankle surgery, his team simply needed this series more than the Cardinals, if only for reasons of momentum and/or confidence. Though St. Louis is locked in a much tighter division race, which places a higher premium on wins, a dropped series here would have placed greater importance on a few of Atlanta's unknown or unproven variables (Brandon Beachy, Alex Wood, Paul Maholm, potential trade deadline deals).
Instead, the Minor-Teheran-Medlen combo, the team's best-possible triumvirate (at least until Beachy's return to form), went 3-0 with a 1.35 ERA in 20 innings pitched before turning all three games over to one of the top bullpens in baseball.
"That was the common denominator for all three of these games here: good starting pitching," Gonzalez said. "Hell, we only used three guys out of the bullpen in three games. We used (Luis) Avilan, (Jordan) Walden and (Craig) Kimbrel. We never allowed anyone else because our starting pitchers went seven (innings) -- they went deep in the ballgame."
One key for Braves pitchers, excluding Simmons' usual defensive wizardry: controlling the top of the order.
The Cardinals entered Sunday night with the best top-of-the-lineup 1-2 punch in baseball, statistically speaking, utilizing All-Stars Matt Carpenter and Carlos Beltran to set the tone for the majority of the season. They owned baseball's 2nd-best team OPS+ among leadoff hitters and 3rd-best team OPS+ among No. 2 hitters. That usually sets up the likes of Matt Holliday, Allen Craig, Yadier Molina and David Freese (otherwise known as All-Stars or World Series MVPs) to do their damage.
Minor, Teheran and Medlen limited that production.
The Cardinals Nos. 1 and 2 batters hit just 3-for-24 in the series. And as Medlen pointed out in the clubhouse, even when Beltran touched him for two hits there was little to no damage done.
"Guys put certain guys in the 1- and 2-holes for their big guys for a reason: they get on-base, they really set the tone for those guys," Medlen said. "And the way that team hits with runners in scoring position, you gotta execute against the 1 and 2 guys so you can have empty bases with the big guys coming up."
With the win Sunday night, the argument was proposed to Gonzalez that this was the team's best series of the season, all things considered. As alluded to above, outdueling a Cy Young favorite, shutting down the league's top offense and just generally looking like a World Series contender -- twice in front of a national TV audience -- is not to be taken lightly. The argument could even be taken one step further: the weekend marked one of the most impressive performances by any team in any series this season.
Gonzalez, of course, wouldn't take it that far: "As far as what I can recollect here in the last two weeks this is a pretty darn good series."