The bar was set pretty high for Kris Medlen after Mississippi Braves teammates Todd Redmond and Tommy Hanson combined to allow only two runs while striking out 18 in the first two games of the Southern League playoffs.
Medlen did them one better on Saturday.
The 22-year-old right-hander struck out a career-high 12 in his first-ever complete game as the Braves completed a first-round sweep of the Birmingham Barons with a 3-0 blanking in Game 3 at Trustmark Park.
Mississippi advanced to the Southern League Championship Series for the first time in team history and will take on the Carolina Mudcats, who completed their own sweep of West Tenn earlier Saturday.
Medlen could hardly contain his excitement after pitching the best game of his career.
"It feels absolutely wonderful," he said. "[Redmond and Hanson] came up huge the first two games and that made it easier for me to attack the hitters tonight."
Medlen scattered five hits without issuing a walk. He struck out the side in the second and fanned two more in the fourth. He allowed a leadoff single in the sixth but retired the next three batters, fanning two, then worked around a one-out double in the seventh by striking out two more.
"My whole mind-set was raised in those tight spots," said Medlen. "I just made pitches when I had to. I was a little more pumped up, but you've got to attack it like a normal game and not put a lot a pressure on your mind. I left a few pitches up and they let me know when I made some mistakes. I bailed myself out, hit some spots and got them to chase some pitches in the dirt."
The California native was selected by Atlanta in the 10th round of the 2006 Draft and did not make his first professional start until this season. Once he cracked the rotation, he went 6-5 with a 3.11 ERA and 90 strikeouts in 89 2/3 innings.
"It turned around my season when I went to starting," he said. "We had a few guys hurt and some different situations come up. I had three good pitches and that's what they told me they wanted to do.
"It's been more challenging. You have to use all your pitches at different times as a starter and think pitch by pitch."
Kala Ka'aihue lifted a sacrifice fly in the first and Greg Creek hit an RBI single in the fourth to stake Medlen and the Braves to a 2-0 lead. Van Pope, who doubled twice, was hit by a pitch with the bases loaded in the eighth.
Birmingham starter Lucas Harrell (0-1) was the hard-luck loser after allowing two runs on six hits and a walk while striking out seven over seven innings.
Victor Mercedes had two hits for the Barons.