One of the most intriguing aspects of the new playoff format is the wild-card game presents a unique way to manipulate your roster. Tiebreaker games like we've seen in the past were considered regular-season games, so managers had their entire roster at their disposal, including September call-ups. Obviously, in winner-take-all games, playoff series teams are limited to their 25-man playoff roster.
But for this round, teams construct one-game 25-man rosters and then can change for the next round. So the Cardinals, who are starting Kyle Lohse, won't have Adam Wainwright, Chris Carpenter or Jaime Garcia. The Braves did put Tim Hudson and Mike Minor on theirs. Let's examine more closely.
No major surprises and I think the Braves did the right thing by carrying only nine pitchers. Hudson is the likely long man if Medlen gets knocked out early, which seems unlikely considering the way he's pitched lately. Minor could be used as a LOOGY but more likely will be held in case the game goes deep into extra innings.
The somewhat surprising decision to start Ross at catcher over McCann necessitates the need to carry a third catcher in Boscan. This will allow Fredi Gonzalez to either use McCann as a pinch-hitter or if he later enters for Ross, to use a pinch-runner for him if needed.
The Braves are much weaker against left-handed pitching -- the middle of the Braves' order, Heyward, Jones and Freeman, all have sizable platoon splits -- but the Cards are starting the right-handed Lohse and have just two lefties in the pen. You wonder if Gonzalez would consider hitting for Heyward or Freeman against Marc Rzepczynski late in the game with a lefty killer like Johnson (.311 against left-handers). It's not something you'd do in the regular season, but this isn't the regular season. If Gonzalez is willing to do that, it will be near impossible for the Cards to get a matchup advantage in the later innings.
The game plan for the Braves is simple: Get the ball to Kimbrel. He's the best reliever in baseball and Gonzalez should be willing to use him for more than three outs. The meat of the St. Louis order is coming up in the eighth with a tie game or one-run lead? Use Kimbrel. You can't afford to hold him for a save situation that may never exist. One-run lead in the seventh with two runners on? Don't be afraid to use Kimbrel to get out of the jam. When you have a weapon like Kimbrel, you have to optimize his usage.
LHP -- Sam Freeman, Marc Rzepczynski
This roster leaves me scratching my head. I get it: Wainwright is a starter. You want him for Game 1 of the Division Series if you get there. But couldn't you envision a situation where you'd rather use him than Kelly or Salas?
I thought the Cards might carry Garcia to have another lefty available, but he did start Monday, so maybe they just felt it would be too risky to use him. That leaves them with only Rzepczynski, who didn't have a great year, and the rookie Freeman, who pitched 20 innings and wasn't even particularly effective against left-handed batters (.290, .421 OBP). I doubt Mike Matheny would consider him as anything but an emergency option.
The Cards kept three catchers, even though Molina is unlikely to be removed, except maybe for a pinch-runner in a one-run deficit scenario in the ninth inning. But as is they're already carrying Jackson (.118 in 17 at-bats) and Chambers (.222, albeit a pinch-running option), so it's not like they had a lot of other options. Well, they do have Lance Berkman, who pinch-hit in the season finale, but that was largely ceremonial. Joe Sheehan pointed out that Berkman as a decoy would possibly more valuable than some of these other guys, and I'm inclined to agree.
Lohse had a good season but it will be interesting how quick of a hook Matheny will have. Lynn is around as the likely long man. With Kimbrel looming at the back of the pen, the Cardinals have to believe they need to win this game in the first seven innings. Say it's a 1-1 game in the top of the sixth and Lohse comes up with a couple runners on and two outs: Does Matheny try and go for the lead then? He may have to.