As two teams aiming to contend to the end meet in the finale of a three-game series Sunday night, the Cardinals and Braves know each other well enough to realize that each is constructed to make it into the postseason.
"Maybe the most well-rounded club that we're going to face this year," Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez said of the National League Central-leading Cardinals. "They pitch, you look at the stat pack and they're up there in the top three in fielding, pitching, hitting. It's a good, balanced lineup, and a good starting rotation."
The Braves, leading the NL East by the widest margin of any division leader in baseball, obviously have a lot going for them, too, as they send Kris Medlen to the mound against Cardinals rookie right-hander Shelby Miller hoping for the home sweep.
"A win is a win. But this road trip, you're going up against very good big league ballplayers and very good big league teams," Cardinals third baseman David Freese said after Saturday's loss. "It's a good test for us. Going into the last two months, obviously it's going to go down to the wire. If we can come back out tomorrow and take one and then win these next two series, that's huge for us."
The Cardinals are aware of workload concerns with Miller, which is why he had 12 days off before his last start. The time off appeared beneficial, as Miller had one of his stronger starts of the season, pitching six shutout innings against the Phillies for his seventh scoreless start of the season.
He did have to come out of that game with a cramp attributed to poor hydration, but Miller seemed much better than he'd been in a four-game stretch in which he'd allowed 14 runs in 18 1/3 innings.
"I'm not saying I'm back to where I need to be; I don't feel perfect," Miller said after that game. "You're never going to have that. But I do feel better, and I feel like I'm pretty prepared for the second half."
Miller, the first Cardinals rookie since Jaime Garcia (2010) to record 10 wins and the first rookie right-hander since Jason Simontacchi ('02) to reach that number, will be trying to join Adam Wainwright (13 wins) and Lance Lynn (12) to give the Cardinals three pitchers with at least 11 victories. Only two others in the NL have that many.
Medlen, meanwhile, starts Sunday's game after speculation that he'd be the odd man out of the rotation when Brandon Beachy returned from Tommy John surgery. Tim Hudson's season-ending injury has changed things, but Medlen knows there is some urgency for him to show he can pitch well deep into games if he wants to say in the rotation.
His last time out, Medlen was "two different pitchers," according to Gonzalez, between the first five innings and the sixth, when he allowed hits to four of the five batters he faced in a decisive three-run inning for the Mets.
"I think I've had a pretty good year from last year until now," Medlen said. "I'm just in a pretty bad stretch. Hopefully the team sticks with me with that. I'm just trying to do what I can do to control the situation. I'm just trying to stay aggressive and make the adjustments."
Cardinals: Holliday back in action
Matt Holliday was a welcome sight in the No. 3 spot for the Cardinals on Saturday, as he was activated from the disabled list prior to the game. He'd been out of action since sustaining a strained hamstring July 12, the final weekend before the All-Star break.
Holliday went 1-for-4 with a double in his return, marking his first game since he and wife Leslee welcomed their fourth child Wednesday, a son named Reed.
• The Cardinals are now 3-2 in a stretch of 37 games in 37 days, but 0-2 so far on a road trip that will take them through three contenders: the Braves, Pirates and Reds. Jake Westbrook, who will start the opener against the Pirates on Monday, will fly to Pittsburgh in advance of the rest of the team on Sunday.
Braves: Heyward, J-Up at top
For just the third time in his career, Jason Heyward batted leadoff Saturday, followed up by Justin Upton in the No. 2 hole.
"I haven't tinkered in a while," Gonzalez said.
Heyward went 0-for-3 with a walk and Upton went 1-for-4, but the Braves won the game. Gonzalez says he can see the leadoff hitter in Heyward because he can draw walks, but he knows Heyward's other assets might be a better fit in the heart of the lineup.
"If Jason was 5-foot-10, he would be the guy that, 'Oh, he's your leadoff guy,'" Gonzalez said. "But he can drive the ball out of the ballpark, and so you're always hesitant to put him in the leadoff spot. I succumbed, let him do that for a little bit."
• Before losing Saturday, the Cardinals had won or split their last five series. The Braves clinched this series with Saturday's victory.
• The Braves and Cardinals will meet again in about a month, with Atlanta visiting Busch Stadium for a four-game set Aug. 22-25.
• Last year, the Braves went 5-1 in the season series thanks to a three-game sweep in St. Louis.
• After Sunday's game, the Cardinals will continue their grueling road trip with a five-game set in Pittsburgh that starts Monday and includes a Tuesday doubleheader, while the Braves will host Colorado for four, starting Monday.
John Schlegel is a national reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.