What a difference a year can make. At this time last year, the Atlanta Braves were licking their wounds after a historic collapse, Chipper Jones was pondering another season and Kris Medlen was recovering from surgery that left him unable to pitch for most of 2011.
If you would have told Medlen then that he would be starting Game 1 of the postseason for Atlanta the very next season, I'm not sure he would have even believed you. Being unable to throw a baseball all season would be one reason those aspirations seemed out of reach, but Medlen was also being told that he might be converted to a relief pitcher after the surgery by the organization.
Well, here he is, pitted in a one game win or go home scenario against the defending champion St. Louis Cardinals, who may not have Albert Pujols or Tony LaRussa, but still play one of the cleanest brands of baseball in the bigs.
Chipper is back too, as is manager Freddi Gonzalez despite much speculation after the collapse in 2011. All said it's a script that would be hard to write, one Medlen may have kept stored in his wildest dreams but likely wasn't expecting to come to fruition.
Since the day he decided to pursue baseball beyond high school, Medlen has been doubted by more than a good share of coaches, scouts and experts around the game. He carries the label of being a sub-six-foot pitcher, a stigma that will turn many organizations away regardless of statistics.
After being passed over by D-1 programs, Medlen landed at Santa Ana C.C. in Southern California, where he excelled on the mound and caught the attention of the Braves.
They saw enough to spend a 10th-round draft pick on him in 2006, slotting him for the bullpen in the low minors. There he continued to pitch well, posting an ERA of 0.41 in his first season and 1.53 in his second season.
That's about when the Braves toyed with the idea of moving Medlen into the starting rotation. He was giving up less than a hit per inning as a reliever, also striking out more than a batter per frame.
So in 2008, they did. Medlen was a starter for the first time since junior college and his transition was right on schedule. A 7-8 record and 3.58 ERA for Gwinnett (AAA) in 2008 proved to be a promising start, one that allowed the Braves to keep Medlen a starter for the time being.
The next season in 2009, Medlen got off to a hot start, going 5-0 with a microscopic 1.19 ERA before the Braves decided it was time to give him his first ticket to the show.
Used at first as a spot starter and middle reliever, Medlen made 37 appearances, making four starts and finishing with an ERA of 4.26. The results were mixed, as were the Braves' plans for where to put Medlen to maximize his potential.
The organization continued to use Medlen in both roles in 2010, as he made 31 appearances and 14 starts before feeling pain in his right arm that would eventually lead to Tommy John surgery in the offseason.
He wouldn't pitch again until September 2011—a trying time for any Braves fan.
That's about the time most people give up. For Medlen, it couldn't have been a high point in his career, but he kept his nose to the grindstone, knowing that one day he would pitch again.
He did pitch again, and when the Braves needed help, there arose an opportunity for his second chance to prove the doubters wrong. Atlanta called Medlen up after just three starts for Gwinnett (AAA) in 2012, likely due to an unresolved rotation rather than unwavering faith.
But their faith he repaid, more generously than could have been expected by any within the organization. In 12 starts, Medlen went 10-1 with a 1.57 ERA and emerged as the best pitcher in the Atlanta rotation. He made 50 appearances for the team as a hybrid between the rotation and bullpen, allowing just 103 hits in 138 innings pitched.
Medlen's miraculous comeback comes full circle today in St. Louis, a position he may not have thought possible, but one he has likely conjured in a daydream at some point along the way.
Buster Posey may be a better statistical choice for the 2012 Comeback Player of the Year, but no one deserves more credit than Medlen for the transformation he has made in one year's time.