CUMBERLAND, Ga. – The Atlanta Braves have not won a playoff series since 2001, but the National League East champions believe they are the team to break that streak entering Game 1 of the NL Division Series at home Thursday against the St. Louis Cardinals. The Braves won 97 games and a second-consecutive division crown, but there is concern around two key pieces of an offense that finished the regular season third in the NL in runs scored, and fourth in batting average and homers.
TV: 5:02 p.m. ET, TBS
Outfielder Ronald Acuna Jr. - who hit 41 homers while leading the NL in runs scored (127) and stolen bases (37) - missed Atlanta's final four games with a left groin strain, and first baseman Freddie Freeman (career-high 38 homers and 121 RBIs) hit just .111 with a .406 OPS in his final 12 games while battling a bone spur in his right elbow, but both have worked out with no complications this week. The Cardinals, who survived a four-game losing streak to hold off Milwaukee for the NL Central title, have injury issues of their own as second baseman Kolten Wong (hitting .285 while being a frontrunner for a Gold Glove) is nursing a left hamstring strain, but is expected to start. St. Louis, which was 44-45 in mid-July before going 47-26 to close out the regular season, finished second in the NL in ERA (3.80) and in the second half its staff pitched to a 3.44 ERA and a 1.24 WHIP. Third baseman Matt Carpenter struggled most of the season offensively but hit .302 with a .963 OPS in his final 21 games, and likely will be in the lineup even if Wong returns and moves rookie infielder Tommy Edman to third.
PITCHING MATCHUP: Cardinals RH Miles Mikolas (9-14, 4.16 ERA) vs. Braves LH Dallas Keuchel (8-8, 3.75)
Mikolas tied for the NL lead in losses one season after tying for the league lead with 18 wins, but pitched to a 3.34 ERA with 25 strikeouts over 29 2/3 innings across five September starts. The 31-year-old, who makes his postseason debut, gave up two runs (one earned) on eight hits over 7 2/3 innings in his regular-season finale Sept. 22 against the Chicago Cubs, following up back-to-back starts where he allowed three runs each against Colorado and Washington. Mikolas, who is 4-8 with a 5.40 ERA and 1.42 WHIP in 17 road starts, surrendered three runs on seven hits with nine strikeouts and no walks over seven innings in a home loss to the Braves on May 24.
Atlanta signed Keuchel in June with an eye toward the postseason, considering he is 4-2 with a 3.31 ERA and 1.14 WHIP across 51 2/3 innings over 10 career playoff appearances (nine starts). The 31-year-old, who has allowed two earned runs or fewer in six of his nine postseason starts, gave up 11 earned runs in 16 innings across his final three regular-season outings after a six-start stretch during which he went 5-0 with a 0.97 ERA and 35 strikeouts in 37 innings. Keuchel has not pitched against St. Louis since a 2016 start in which he gave up six runs on six hits over five innings while with Houston.
1. Edman, who also can play the outfield, hit .329 with a .921 OPS in 53 games since Aug. 1 with seven homers, 13 doubles and 41 runs scored.
2. Braves 2B Ozzie Albies, the NL hits leader (189), batted .330 in September with a .949 OPS, 12 extra-base hits and 17 runs scored in 24 games.
3. Atlanta won the season series 4-2 (all six games were played in May) and outscored St. Louis 29-27.
PREDICTION: Braves 4, Cardinals 2