ATLANTA — A slow clap greeted Fredi Gonzalez after the Atlanta Braves manager finished his news conference Thursday afternoon. The manager's confused eyes darted to the source: a man, 5-foot-10 in spikes, leaning in the white cinder-block hallway wearing a flat-brimmed Braves cap pulled to his eyebrows.
Kris Medlen could be mistaken for a clubhouse attendant.
Instead, the wisecracking, always-moving 26-year-old with a changeup straight out of a video game and spiked hair under his hat is baseball's hottest pitcher. He'll start Friday's 5:07 p.m. wild card game or, in his words, "whatever this is called," against the St. Louis Cardinals at Turner Field.
The winner hosts the Washington Nationals starting Sunday for the first two games of the best-of-five National League Division Series. The loser's season is over.
None of this seemed to faze Medlen. He couldn't sit still before the Braves' off-day workout. Words tumbled out, one on top of the other, as he worked the room like a stand-up comedian. Take his pregame routine. A peanut butter and honey sandwich 30 minutes before the first pitch.
"It's a light meal," he said in a serious voice, but couldn't keep it up. "I randomly needed something to eat, and I'm not going to eat fried chicken."
Noted Braves catcher David Ross: "He's a different bird."
Over 12 starts since the Braves moved him into the rotation July 31, Medlen has transformed into one of baseball's elite right-handed pitchers with numbers almost too lopsided to be believed. Drafted as a shortstop and part-time relief pitcher in 2006, Medlen transitioned to the mound, underwent Tommy John surgery Aug. 18, 2010 and spent three games at Triple-A Gwinnett to gather arm strength. That equated, of course, to Medlen limiting opponents to nine earned runs — good for a 0.97 earned-run average — and a .197 batting average over 83 innings. He struck out 84.
This isn't the traditional path to pitching so dominant that Medlen earned Friday's start ahead of 14-year veteran Tim Hudson.
Then again, little about Medlen is traditional. His fastball barely touches 90 mph. Instead, he keeps the ball low and lives on the corners with four pitches he can throw for strikes. Medlen pitches off his two-seam fastball (he throws it almost half the time) and uses the changeup to torment left-handers and coax strikeouts.
During Medlen's first stint with the Braves' instructional league team in Florida in 2006, he learned the changeup with a four-seam grip to diversify his four-seam fastball and curveball repertoire. There's nothing unique about the changeup, he insists, but that's difficult to imagine when you examine the results.
Off Medlen's 375 changeups this season, opponents are hitting just .097 with 37 strikeouts.
"They just kind of forced me to throw it and I kind of developed it on my own," Medlen said. "It's just a bigger stage and people notice it a little bit better now, but it's pretty much identical to how I used to throw it."
This season the Braves haven't lost when Medlen starts.
"Are you conscious of that?" one reporter asked.
"You keep reminding me of it in the clubhouse," Medlen shot back, and laughed.
Two or three weeks ago, Gonzalez and his coaching staff kicked around possible starters for the wild-card game. Medlen and Hudson were the choices. The unexpected ace was the answer. The only downside to Medlen's Friday outing for the Braves is, with a win, he will only be available to pitch once in the Division Series.
"I don't think Medlen's going to step on the rubber [Friday] and go, 'Wow, I'm pitching Game 7,'" Gonzalez said. "He's going to be the same guy."
If that happens, the Braves' season will continue. Same for Medlen's applause.
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