ATLANTA — The new Major League Baseball playoff format — the one that has the Washington Nationals on hold until Friday’s one-game wild-card game is played — received starkly different reviews the day before its debut here. The 94-win Atlanta Braves, who finished with the third-best record in the National League, aren’t exactly happy that their postseason future will be decided by one game. Understandably, the St. Louis Cardinals completely disagree.
“We’re ecstatic,” Cardinals Manager Mike Matheny said. “We’d be home right now and we’d be spectators. So we’re exceptionally happy about it.”
Both teams enter uncharted territory on Friday evening. Rosters are set for only this game, so both managers are loading up on position players over pitchers. Even though both managers insist they will play the same style of baseball they have all season, it’s hard not to imagine tighter leashes on struggling pitchers and aggressive play. And more importantly, both are spending their best starting pitcher on this game, possibly hurting their chances if they advance to face the Nationals.
“It’s Game 7,” Braves Manager Fredi Gonzalez said.
The Cardinals are using veteran Kyle Lohse, their 16-game-winning sinker-balling right-hander who finished fifth in the NL with a 2.86 ERA. The Braves are spending their dazzling young right-hander Kris Medlen, with whom they have won a major league-record 23 games when he has started over the past two years. In a traditional format with only one wild-card team, either pitcher could have faced the Nationals twice in a five-game series.
“Medlen only goes once the next round, really, and I that’s how [baseball] wanted to do it,” Gonzalez said. “I think there were some complaints in the past that the wild-card team didn’t get penalized enough for being the wild card, or the division winners didn’t get rewarded enough for them to win the division.”
That’s indeed what MLB hoped for. In the past, only one wild card from each league reached the playoffs and was guaranteed a five-game series against the top overall seed.
“The priority is back to teams concentrating on winning the division,” Tony La Russa, former Cardinals manager who serves on Commissioner Bud Selig’s special committee that considered the new format. “They’d gotten away from it because you really weren’t penalized much for being a wild card. . . . Now, everybody wants to win the division because nobody wants to go into that one and out, or one and in, playoff spot.”
The team that could stand to lose the most without their ace is the Braves. After Medlen, the rest of the Braves’ playoff rotation has been uneven against the Nationals. If the Braves advance, Tim Hudson is expected to pitch the opening game of the division series against the Nationals; the improving Mike Minor and Paul Maholm are projected to follow. “If [Hudson isn’t] 1, he’s 1-A,” Gonzalez said.
Although its a small sample size, the Braves were 4-5 and had a 4.85 ERA in games started by those four starters against the Nationals this season. Remove Medlen and the Braves went 2-5 with a 6.26 ERA against their division foe.
When asked if he would have preferred to face the Nationals twice in the division round if they advance, Medlen brushed off the question. “There won’t be a next series if we don’t get it done [Friday],” he said. “I’m not even approaching that, worrying about that at all. . . . We know how to play against [the Nationals]. I think we played well against them.”
The Cardinals are in a similar position. After Lohse, the Cardinals are expected to use Adam Wainwright, Jaime Garcia and Chris Carpenter, who has made only three starts this season after returning from major shoulder injury. The Cardinals had a record of 2-3 with a 7.71 ERA with those four pitchers against the Nationals. Subtract Lohse and it’s worse: 1-2 with a 8.36 ERA.
“It doesn’t matter, brother,” Cardinals right fielder Carlos Beltran said. “It’s not about how you locate your starting rotation. It’s about finding the way to be in the playoffs. And just because you have your best starter out there doesn’t mean it will guarantee you a win. That doesn’t work here in the playoffs. Anyone can win. Any team can get hot. Any team can get cold.”
Teams are allowed to adjust their 25-man roster for every round of the playoffs, and the Braves and Cardinals are leaning more on position players than they would in the regular season. Matheny said the Cardinals would carry 15 position players and 10 pitchers Friday. Gonzalez said he could have as many as 16 position players based on the matchups.
Both teams may be well-equipped for Friday’s game, but if they advance, the depth of their pitching, in particular, will be key.
“I’m not for this new playoff thing at all,” Braves second baseman Dan Uggla said. “. . . It just kind of messes things up for everybody. Especially the team that won the division, they gotta wait four, five days before they get to start playing. And even though they won home-field advantage they really don’t get home-field advantage.”
More coverage of the Nationals and MLB:
Boswell: The year baseball went Nationals
Transcript: Hamilton on the Nationals, and more
Video: The story of the Nationals