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.”