"We put heat on them," first-year manager Mike Matheny said. "Our guys were aggressive."
St. Louis was expected to fade after slugger Albert Pujols signed with the Angels and longtime manager Tony La Russa retired. And, indeed, the Cardinals wouldn't have made the playoffs without a change in the format, adding a second wild-card team in the each league. They finished six games behind the Braves during the regular season, only to hand them more misery in the postseason.
The Braves haven't won a playoff round since 2001. Since then, they've gone 0 for 7 — including six decisive losses at Turner Field.
The atmosphere was electric at the start of the game, a crowd of 52,631 battling its way through Atlanta's notorious rush-hour traffic to fill the place before the first pitch. Among those in attendance: former President Jimmy Carter and former Braves owner Ted Turner.
The stadium got even louder when David Ross, starting at catcher in place of McCann, sent a two-run homer into the left-field seats in the second.
McCann struggled through an injury plagued season, prompting Gonzalez to give Ross the nod. It looked like a brilliant move when the Braves struck for an early lead. Uggla walked with two out against 16-game winner Kyle Lohse, then Ross appeared to strike out to end the inning. But the hitter yelled for time just before Lohse delivered the pitch, and plate umpire Jeff Kellogg hopped out from behind the plate waving his arms while Ross swung and missed.
That call worked out for the Braves.
Behind the plate, Molina dropped his head when he realized the pitch didn't count. He was really kicking himself when Lohse hung a breaking pitch right over the plate — and Ross knocked it out of the park. In the dugout, McCann clapped and pumped his fist for his backup.
But the Cardinals have been in this position before.
Carlos Beltran led off the fourth with the first hit of the game off Medlen, a bloop single to right. Holliday followed with a hard shot to third base, and Jones made a nice backhanded scoop. The crowd cheered, expecting a double play. That turned to gasps when Jones' throw to second base sailed over the head of Uggla, winding up in right field. Instead of having no one on with two outs, Medlen and the Braves faced second and third and no outs.
The Cardinals made Atlanta pay, as they always seem to do in October. Allen Craig, the replacement at first base for Pujols, lined a double off the left-field wall, cutting Atlanta's lead to 2-1. Molina followed with a groundout that brought home another run and moved to Craig over to third. He trotted home on Freese's sac fly to center field.
The Braves totally fell apart in the seventh, and Freese was right in the middle of things again. He led off with a routine grounder to Uggla, who bobbled it briefly, then unnecessarily rushed his throw to first. It wasn't close, the ball ricocheting sailing behind home plate while Freese kept right on going to second. Daniel Descalso bunted him over to third, then Chad Durbin replaced Medlen.
Durbin got what he wanted from Kozma — a grounder to the drawn-in infield. But Simmons bobbled the ball and hurriedly threw it all the way to the backstop as pinch-runner Adron Chambers, who replaced Freese, slid across head first to make it 5-2. Kozma took second on the miscue, and he came all the way around to score on another ball that didn't get out of the infield. Matt Carpenter's bunt down the first-base line was fielded by another new pitcher, Jonny Venters, who missed a swipe tag and, with his back turned, failed to notice that Kozma kept right on running to make it 6-2.
"We played to win the game," Molina said. "They played to lose the game."
Lohse got the win, allowing six hits and two runs in 5 2-3 innings. Medlen, who went 10-1 during the regular season, surrendered just three hits and two earned runs in 6 1-3 innings. But he gave up five runs in all, most of it none of his doing.
Jason Motte earned a save by getting the final four outs, taking over after the delay.
NOTES: The Braves outhit the Cardinals 12-6 but left 10 runners on base. St. Louis left only two runners aboard. ... For the first time, the teams wore special patches on their caps commemorating the playoffs. In the past, those were only worn during the World Series. ... Lohse (16-3) and Medlen had a combined record of 26-4 during the regular season. The cumulative win percentage of .867 was the highest ever for opposing postseason starters, edging the .850 mark of California's John Candelaria (10-2) and Boston's Roger Clemens (24-4) in the 1986 AL championship series.