It had been nearly 33 months since the Braves lost a regular-season game that Kris Medlen started, but his record-setting run ended Thursday on a cold, raw night at Turner Field.
The Phillies scored two runs in the second inning and held on for a 2-0 win against the Braves, averting a season-opening series sweep and snapping a major-league record streak of 23 consecutive Braves wins in games started by Medlen.
After cranking out six homers and 16 runs in the first two games of the series and beating Phillies starters Cole Hamels and Roy Halladay, the Braves could muster only two singles against left-hander Cliff Lee, who has dominated them since the middle of the 2011 season.
On a night when the first-pitch temperature was 41 degrees, Lee faced two batters over the minimum for eight innings, allowing two hits and no walks with eight strikeouts. He’s 4-1 with an 0.78 ERA in his past six starts against the Braves, with 45 strikeouts and only three walks in 46 innings.
“Cliff was darn good on a tough night to pitch, a tough night to play a baseball game because of the weather conditions,” Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez said. “He sure made it look pretty easy. He commanded all of his pitches. He got into the eighth inning with no problem.”
Medlen, off his mark in the early innings, was charged with two runs, five hits and four walks in five innings and threw 92 pitches. That included 49 pitches in the first two innings, when he issued three walks, including one to Lee to load the bases with none out in the second.
It wasn’t the adrenaline from his season debut that caused problems.
“My adrenaline was frozen,” he quipped. “I made some adjustments. I felt like I was rushing a little bit in the very beginning. It’s something I felt the entire spring. I left some balls up. Obviously the walks stood out; I think I’ve been up here long enough that you know that I don’t walk people. I ran into a bad little stretch.
“It’s just something that is not necessarily who I am as a pitcher. But if you told me I was going to go five innings and give up two runs today in the first inning, I would tell you you are crazy.”
Gonzalez said of Medlen: “He competed his butt off today. I thought his last two innings of work might have been his best two innings since last year. I think his delivery got better as the game went on.
“For him to just give up two runs, he did a nice job. Very easily that game could have been out of hand right from the beginning.”
Lee twice struck out B.J. Upton, who is 0-for-11 with seven strikeouts in his first three games with the Braves.
“He’s consistent,” Braves right fielder Jason Heyward said. “He’s in the same area all night, whether it’s on the plate or not – he’s close enough to the dish. He’s aggressive early. After that, he has a lot of weapons.”
Jonathan Papelbon retired the Braves in order in the ninth inning, striking out Heyward to end the game.
Braves batters had 10 strikeouts to give them 34 in the three-game series. B.J. Upton had a streak of strikeouts in six consecutive plate appearances before grounding out in the fifth inning. He struck out again to end the seventh.
“I hit the ball pretty well all spring training,” Upton said. “It’s just one of those rough spots right now, man. But it’s nothing to get stressed about. That’s why you get 700 plate appearances. Just keep working, it’ll happen. It’ll work itself out.”
The Phillies stranded eight runners in the first four innings, or things might have spiraled quickly on the Braves and Medlen. They got their only runs in the second on Ben Revere’s bases-loaded ground out and Chase Utley’s sacrifice fly.
Not counting Medlen’s loss to St. Louis in the National League Wild Card game in October — that was classified as a postseason game, not regular season — Pittsburgh had been the last team to defeat the Braves in a game he started. Medlen gave up two runs in 5 2/3 innings and got no decision in a 3-2 road loss to the Pirates on May 23, 2010.
He was 14-0 in 23 starts since, including 9-0 with a 0.97 ERA in 12 starts last season, when Medlen churned out a run of such spectacular pinpoint-control pitching that he drew comparisons to legendary former Brave Greg Maddux.
Medlen struggled with his command in spring training, going 1-2 with a 7.23 ERA in six starts while allowing 32 hits, 19 runs and four homers in 23 2/3 innings. That seemed to carry over to Thursday, when intermittent light rain or mist added to the misery index.
“Obviously it wasn’t ideal conditions, but this is what we are going to be dealing with in the whole month of April,” Medlen said. “We are going to Colorado and Pittsburgh and Detroit. So that’s not an excuse at all. You can’t give Cliff Lee a two-run lead in the beginning of the game.”
It was just the third loss in 31 career starts for Medlen, who was 15-2 with a 2.81 ERA as a starter before Thursday.
He needed 83 pitches to get through the first four innings against the Phillies. His only perfect inning was the fifth, when he threw nine pitches and got two strikeouts, both looking.
“I think it ended up OK,” Medlen said of his in-game adjustment and progress. “But, overall, it was a loss so it’s a bad day.”
As for the streak, he said, “It was there because I didn’t focus on it. It’s the same thing today. I wasn’t thinking about it. It was another start against one of our division rivals and obviously we wanted to come out a little bit better than we did. We lost today but we took two out of three, so it’s OK.”