The Washington Nationals are fully prepared to head into the playoffs without their best starting pitcher. The Atlanta Braves are hoping to join the October festivities as well, but if they get there, they’ll have plenty of innings left in the tank of the man who has become their ace, Kris Medlen.
He’s not Stephen Strasburg. He wasn’t the number one pick in the draft, he doesn’t stand 6 foot 4 or feature an upper-90s fastball. He’s not a Cy Young candidate. But Medlen is baseball hottest starting pitcher these days and he has more in common with Strasburg than you might think. Both Medlen and Strasburg underwent Tommy John surgery in 2010. Both right handers returned at the end of the 2011 season, and both entered 2012 with an innings cap, bestowed upon them by their teams, of roughly 180 innings.
The difference is that while the Nats opened the season with Strasburg as the anchor of their outstanding starting rotation, the Braves opted to use Medlen out of the bullpen and only recently allowed him to start again. While Strasburg has hurled 156 innings this year, Medlen has just barely crossed the century mark.
Now, as the countdown to the shutdown of Strasburg stands at a mere two starts, Medlen is coming off a five-hit complete game victory over the Rockies on Monday, one where he fanned a career-high 12 batters.
It’s not as if Medlen was struggling in relief. He had worked in 38 games from Atlanta’s bullpen and posted a 2.48 ERA. His last seven appearances have come as a starter, however, and it was an error by the sure-handed Paul Janish on Monday that brought Medlen’s scoreless innings streak to an end at 34.2 innings. Over his past five starts, Medlen is a perfect 5-0 with a 0.23 ERA and 41 strikeouts versus just two walks in 39.2 innings.
The Atlanta Braves are not the Washington Nationals. The two franchises, though they compete in the same division, may be polar opposites when it comes to heritage. The Nats franchise hasn’t made a post-season appearance since 1981 when they played as the Montreal Expos. Meanwhile, the Braves have seen the post-season seemingly every year (or pretty darn close) since the early 1990s. Coming into the season, the Nats were viewed as improved, but still a long shot to be where they are. After all, until Monday, they had never won as many as 81 games since moving to D.C.
Meanwhile, the Braves were coming off a historic collapse that kept them out of the playoffs last season. With virtually the same roster coming back, the Braves expected to be in the thick of the race all season long. They knew that if it came down to it, they wanted Medlen available all season long. They held a foresight the Nationals did not.
When push comes to shove on September 12, I’m still not sure the Nationals will have the guts to voluntarily pull the plug on their best chance to win a World Series. But thanks to some optimistic planning, Atlanta won’t have to make the same decision with the new ace of their staff.
For more on the National League’s hottest starter, visit Tomahawk Take.