Braves win pitchers' duel to keep pace for home field
Medlen hurls eight scoreless; C. Johnson takes Lee deep in eighth
By Mark Bowman / 9/28/2013 12:01 AM ET
ATLANTA -- Kris Medlen left little reason to wonder if the Braves will hand him the ball to start Game 1 of the National League Division Series. At the same time, he proved he is more than capable of standing toe to toe against the brand of elite pitchers he could match up against over the next few weeks.
Medlen was simply masterful as he carried a no-hit bid into the sixth inning and did not blink as he battled Cliff Lee in a pitchers' duel that resembled those often seen in the postseason. Medlen's determined effort was preserved when Chris Johnson halted Lee's dominance with an eighth-inning leadoff home run that gave the Braves a 1-0 win over the Phillies on Friday night at Turner Field.
"That was a fun game," Johnson said. "It's tough to score runs when you get big league studs on the mound like that and they're on their game. I can't tell you how tough those at-bats are. No part of me was trying to hit a home run on that swing. I was just trying to keep my swing short and I got my barrel to it."
Lee had retired 16 straight batters before Johnson went down to connect with a low 0-2 slider that he sent over the left-center-field wall. Johnson, who was leading the NL batting title race as recently as Sunday, entered this decisive plate appearance with just one hit in his previous 18 at-bats.
After Johnson produced a lead, Craig Kimbrel notched two strikeouts in a perfect ninth inning that enabled him to join John Smoltz as the only Braves pitchers to ever record 50 saves in a season.
Kimbrel's dominant conclusion fittingly capped a night of pitching excellence. Medlen surrendered two hits over a season-high eight innings and Lee recorded 13 strikeouts while allowing three hits in his stellar eight-inning effort.
Lee struck out eight of the nine batters he faced between the fourth and sixth innings. Medlen was the only Braves player to put the ball in play during that stretch.
"It was just an unbelievable day having to face a team that has literally my number my entire career, and I just go through them," Medlen said. "It was just a good feeling. It's the furthest I've ever gone without giving up a hit at any level."
It was a good night all around for the Braves, who remain tied with the Cardinals in the battle to claim the National League's best record and gain home-field advantage leading up to the World Series.
Because they own the head-to-head tiebreaker, the Braves would clinch this advantage if both teams win their remaining two regular-season games. But if St. Louis loses during this weekend's three-game series against the Cubs, Atlanta would simply need to win one of the next two games, during which Philadelphia will start Ethan Martin and Zach Miner. In simpler terms, Atlanta can clinch on Saturday with a win combined with a St. Louis loss.
The Braves are already guaranteed to start the NLDS at home. If they finish as the NL's top seed, they will avoid a first-round matchup against the Dodgers and will instead face the winner of the Reds-Pirates battle in the Wild Card Game.
"The ball is in our court," Johnson said. "That's nice, because you don't have to worry about what other teams are doing."
When asked whether he was now ready to confirm Medlen will start the NLDS opener on Thursday at Turner Field, Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez said, "You guys do the math."
If the alignment of the starters for this series against the Phillies did not already provide enough indication that Medlen will get this honor, the 0.83 ERA he compiled during his final six regular-season starts should do the trick. This impressive stretch was reminiscent of the one he produced while compiling a 0.97 ERA in the 12 starts he made during the final two months of last season.
"I feel he can go toe to toe with anybody," Johnson said. "If you can go toe to toe with [Lee], you're a stud. You're an ace. He's our ace and he has proved it for quite a while now."
On his way to recording his 15th win during a season in which he won just one of his first seven decisions, Medlen held the Phillies hitless until Cesar Hernandez recorded a two-out infield single in the sixth inning. Johnson barehanded the chopper at the edge of the grass and fired a throw that narrowly missed retiring the speedy outfielder at first base.
Chase Utley's one-out single in the seventh inning accounted for the only other hit surrendered by Medlen. Utley was retired via one of the two double plays the Atlanta right-hander induced during his 101-pitch effort.
Much of the gratification Medlen carried out of this start came from the fact that it came against a club that has given him fits. He allowed just one run in the 15 innings he completed in his final two starts against the Phillies this year. But he had compiled a 5.60 ERA in his previous five career starts against Philadelphia.
"They're just a team that I've had so much trouble with," Medlen said. "For me to have some success against them for even one game felt pretty awesome, and just take it into the playoffs."