After completing an 8-2 road trip, the Atlanta Braves will return to Truist Park Tuesday for a six-game homestand that will begin with a three-game series against the St. Louis Cardinals. Tuesday’s game will also begin a stretch of 10 games in nine days for the Braves. Atlanta comes into the series with the Cardinals with a 90-46 record and a healthy 15-game lead in the NL East standings. Their magic number to clinch a sixth straight NL East title is 12, with 26 games remaining in the season. Atlanta swept a three-game series in St. Louis back in early April, in an early sign of the soon-to-vastly-diverge fortunes of these two clubs.
Ronald Acuña Jr. strengthened his MVP resume on the road trip, going 15-for-45 with four homers and five stolen bases. He became the first player ever to have 30 homers and 60 stolen bases in a season and homered in three of the four games against the Dodgers. Acuña has 63 stolen bases and needs just 10 more to break Otis Nixon’s modern-day franchise record of 72, set back in 1991.
The Cardinals came into the season expecting to compete for another NL Central title, but have been one of the biggest disappointments in the baseball. They will enter the series with a 59-78 record good for last place in the NL Central, 17.5 games behind the Milwaukee Brewers. St. Louis unloaded pitchers Jordan Montgomery, Jack Flaherty and Jordan Hicks at the Trade Deadline.
The Cardinals are 17th in the league in runs scored with Paul Goldschmidt and Nolan Arenado putting together solid, but unspectacular seasons. The pitching staff wasn’t great before unloading Montgomery and Flaherty and they are riding out the string while evaluating their options for next season. What’s somewhat strange about the Cardinals is that they’re currently 13th in both position player and pitching value, which suggests they should be a mediocre, .500ish team that’s a hot streak away from contention. Instead, their season has been a disaster from the outset, as they went 10-19 to start the year, and then suffered through an 8-15 June. You might be surprised to know that they actually had a winning record in both May and July, but it hasn’t been nearly enough, and the franchise is now at a bit of a crossroads as they approach their first sub-.500 season since 2007 and their first last-place finish since 1990.
It’s hard to look at the St. Louis roster and point out either gaping holes or great successes; they mostly just can’t seem to get out of their own way despite their production. They have nine players with 2+ fWAR; the Braves only have ten. But the Braves have multiple star-level performers and six players with more fWAR than the 3.2 held by Cardinals leader Lars Nootbaar.
Tuesday, September 5, 7:20 p.m. ET (Bally Sports South)
Miles Mikolas (29 GS, 164.1 IP, 16.0 K%, 4.7 BB%, 38.7 GB%, 4.66 ERA, 3.99 FIP)
Veteran righty Miles Mikolas will get the start for the Cardinals in the series opener Tuesday. Mikolas has endured an up-and-down season and it has been a struggle at times. He’s been hit hard of late, allowing 19 runs over his last 23 innings encompassing four starts. He allowed seven hits and three runs over six innings in his lasts start against the Padres. Mikolas faced the Braves way back on April 5 and allowed nine hits and five runs over six innings.
Mikolas has a really weird line: 110 ERA-, an even worse xERA, but a 93 FIP- with a 108 xFIP-. He has gotten extremely fortunate that more fly balls haven’t left the yard, but his overall results have been pretty junky due to strand rate and non-homer BABIP issues. That said, the HR/FB is normalizing in the second half to some extent, which is why his performance has seemed worse since.
Tuesday’s start would have gone to rookie Darius Vines, but he was sent back to Gwinnett so that the Braves could add a fresh arm to the bullpen (Ben Heller) for the final two games of their series in Los Angeles. The Braves appear to have a couple of options for this game in Dylan Dodd and Michael Soroka. Allan Winans, who was optioned on August 22, can’t return to the majors until Thursday unless there is an injury.
Wednesday, September 6, 7:20 p.m. ET (Bally Sports South)
Dakota Hudson (13 G, 7 GS, 56.0 IP, 13.9 K%, 8.9 BB%, 52.5 GB%, 4.02 ERA, 5.04 FIP)
Right-hander Dakota Hudson will make his eighth start of the season for the Cardinals on Wednesday. Hudson began the season in Triple-A and has worked his way back from a neck injury that hampered him last season. He has had pretty good results, although his 5.04 FIP is about a run higher than his ERA and not a particularly encouraging mark, and is pretty similar to his 4.93 xFIP. Like so many Cardinals pitchers, the lack of strikeouts hamper him from getting out of trouble, but he has done a good job of keeping the ball on the ground. He pitched well in his last start, where he allowed three hits and one run over seven innings against the Pirates.
Hudson’s eating-inning ways seemed like a bad fit for the types of contending Cardinals teams he previously pitched on, but it seems to gel pretty well right now with a team that’s just trying to get through the year at this point.
Spencer Strider (27 GS, 159.1 IP, 38.0 K%, 7.6 BB%, 34.6 GB%, 3.56 ERA, 2.81 FIP)
Spencer Strider will take his turn with an extra day of rest Tuesday. Strider allowed four hits, four runs and struck out nine in six innings in his last start against the Dodgers. He struck out nine and has 28 strikeouts over his last three outings. For the season, Strider has 245 strikeouts, which is the fourth most by a Braves pitcher since the franchise moved to Atlanta. Phil Niekro had 248 in 1978 and 262 in 1977. John Smoltz holds the Atlanta era record with 276 in 1996.
Strider hasn’t faced the Cardinals this year, but mowed them down twice last year, with a combined 19/3 K/BB ratio in 12 innings.
Thursday, September 7, 7:20 p.m. ET (Bally Sports South)
Adam Wainwright (18 GS, 83.1 IP, 11.1 K%, 8.1 BB%, 38.6 GB%, 8.10 ERA, 5.90 FIP)
Veteran righty Adam Wainwright will get the start for St. Louis in the finale. Wainwright still needs two more wins to reach 200 for his career and time is running out on what has been the worst season of his career. Wainwright will carry an 8.10 ERA into Thursday’s start. He did pitch well in his last outing, where he held the Padres to one run over six innings despite allowing eight hits and three walks. Prior to that start, he had allowed 24 runs in just 14 2/3 innings.
Wainwright has the 25th-worst xFIP- for any starter with 80+ innings since data are available (going back to 2002), but even more amazingly, he has the second-worst ERA- in that stretch, with a 191 mark trumped only by Hideo Nomo’s 199 ERA- in 2004. Amazingly, he somehow has “just” -0.2 fWAR, which isn’t really a remarkable number.
Max Fried (11 GS, 60.2 IP, 25.8 K%, 5.3 BB%, 59.1 GB%, 2.52 ERA, 2.95 FIP)
Max Fried will get the nod in Thursday’s series finale. Fried is coming off arguably his best performance of the season, where he blanked the Dodgers for seven innings while piling up 10 strikeouts. Fried looks like he is starting to round into form after his long stint on the Injured List and has a 2.86 ERA and a 2.88 FIP in 34 2/3 innings since his return. Fried didn’t face the Cardinals this year, but held them scoreless through six frames with a 4/1 K/BB ratio in a start last year.