The Braves have started every series in first place since before I started writing for Talking Chop, so this is a completely new experience to me. The Braves are still holding onto a playoff spot as they are two games ahead of the Giants, but there is certainly still hopes for a division championship as they are tied with the Phillies in the loss column.
The Cardinals are struggling to stay in striking distance of the Reds as they are six games. With that said, this is obviously a huge series for both teams. It would be devastating to either teams chances of winning their division if they lost three of four.
As good as Jair is, this matchup goes in favor of the Cardinals. The former Brave farmhand turned Cardinal ace is having a tremendous season and has had his fair share of success at Turner Field. In Atlanta, he has a 1.80 ERA over 15 innings and three appearances, two of which were starts. For his career against the Braves, he has a 2.00 ERA over 36 innings. Jair will have to be on his game tonight in order for the Braves to take the series opener.
It doesn't get much easier for the Braves in game two. The Cardinals are throwing yet another consistently good big right-handed pitcher against a young Braves starter, so hopefully the offense can somehow scrape some runs across early to give Minor a lead to work with. Minor got hit up quite a bit in his last start, allowing six runs and nine hits over just four innings. That start spiked his ERA but his .407 BABIP points to him being rather unlucky. If he keeps pounding the zone and missing bats then Minor will have success the rest of the season.
Hanson has been worrying me as of late. Even with his two solid starts back-to-back, he has seemingly lost his ability to strike batters out as frequently as he was earlier in the season. In his past 44 innings, Hanson has just 25 strikeouts and 12 walks. His ERA is thankfully at 2.86, but his luck on balls in play has completely changed as his BABIP over that span is .191. Hopefully, Hanson can continue to get players out after contact and with strikeouts on Saturday. Westbrook is a pretty bad pitcher, there's not much more to say about him. If the Braves lose the first two games of this series, this game becomes one of the bigger ones of the season, in my opinion.
Lohse's inability to stay healthy or pitch well when on the mound is one of the biggest reasons for the Cardinals struggles this season. After an impressive 2008, Lohse has been injury prone and bad, which is about the worst combination you can have as a starting pitcher. Hudson has been anything but injury prone and bad this year. His ground ball rate and dominant sinker have him in the running for the Cy Young and he should be able to shut down the Cardinal offense as he has most other offenses this season.
The Cardinals have pretty much a middle of the pack offense this year. They sit at eighth in runs and ninth in wOBA. This is at least somewhat surprising, given the fact that they have Albert Pujols, Matt Holliday, and Colby Rasmus, plus they had Ryan Ludwick for a good portion of the year. The problems with Rasmus are unfortunate for the Cardinals because he is such a talent, but it may end up being a great thing for the Braves who could show interest in him this winter. Jon Jay has hit well this year, but his .322 average is fueled by an unsustainable .368 BABIP. The annual starting catcher for the All-Star team has a .291 wOBA this year, obviously a great selection!
The bullpen as a whole has a 3.67 ERA, which is respectably ranked sixth in the N.L. Their FIP, however, ranks third to last, in front of only the Diamondbacks and Cubs. It seems as if most of their success has been a mirage. Kyle McClellan and Jason Motte seem to be the biggest culprits, posting ERA's under 2.60 and FIP's over 3.65. Even so, these are their best two pitchers in their 'pen and both have the ability to get players out. Ryan Franklin has 24 saves and has blown just two, so getting the lead before he enters is obviously optimal.