MLB Playoff Prediction: 10 Reasons San Francisco Giants Will Beat Atlanta
The San Francisco Giants are going to the playoffs for the first time since the ill-fated 2003 campaign.
And the tortuous 2010 regular season really couldn't have ended any other way.
When the Giants swept the Arizona Diamondbacks earlier this week, the clincher seemed like a formality.
Of course, the San Diego Padres came to AT&T Park and pushed the lads to the brink of another cataclysmic failure. Memories of the 1989 Bay Bridge Series sweep, the face-plant at the end of the Last Pure Pennant Race in 1993, the 2002 horror against the Anaheim Angels, and all the ugliness before, after, and in between nagged at the edges of the City Saturday night and into Sunday morning.
Thankfully, Jonathan Sanchez danced through self-induced raindrops, using five strikeouts to neutralize five free passes, three hits, and stifle the Friars in Game 162. He then completed a script that even Tinsel Town wouldn't write when he started the decisive rally with only his eighth hit and second run scored of the whole year.
His one-out triple to the right-center gap in the third inning couldn't have been imagined by even the most optimistic of the faithful. The big hits from grizzled veterans Freddy Sanchez and Aubrey Huff that followed were more expected.
With the southpaw on third, the two rock-steady pros delivered in the biggest moments of their long-suffering careers.
After Andres Torres whiffed for out No. 2, the second baseman plated the first run of the game with a single that simultaneously gave the Gents their first lead of the afternoon and entire three-gamer. Huff followed with a double to center that fell just beyond the diving Chris Denorfia and scored Freddy from first.
Buster Posey and Brian Wilson would ice the cake.
A solo big fly from the rookie in the bottom of the eighth gave the closer an insurance run that he wouldn't need. Wilson eliminated San Diego with unsettling ease considering all the indigestion he's inflicted on the Bay Area, retiring the side in order.
The last swinging strike of '10 triggered a celebration that's still going, but San Francisco will have to get back to business soon when the Atlanta Braves come calling at AT&T Park on Thursday.
Here are 10 reasons the party might last a little deeper into October:
Home-Field Advantage: The Real San Francisco Treat
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That shot you see is Tim Lincecum in the process of spinning a 10-strikeout gem against the Bravos in mid-April. It's relevant because the sparkler gave the Giants two of the three games played in San Francisco.
Though Atlanta took the season series from the good guys (four games to three), four of those seven contests were played at Turner Field. Since the Orange and Black rides into the five-game National League Division Series boasting home-field advantage, any solace taken from the regular season meetings by the Braves has been eliminated.
In its place must be at least a little bit of anxiety given the energy in the stadium this weekend against San Diego.
Uncle Mo Ain't Sitting in the Braves' Dugout
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Momentum can be an overrated commodity in professional sports, and that's especially true in baseball.
Even so, it's not a trivial thing—you'd much rather come into a big confrontation on a winning streak and feeling right than be on the opposite side of either coin.
And that's more good news for SF.
While both franchises stubbed their toes on the final weekend of the regular season, dropping two of three games at home to divisional rivals, the larger pictures are substantially different.
For the Giants, it was a solitary bit of clumsiness against a foe that's owned them at AT&T this year (SD won seven of the nine games there in 2010). Get passed the trio with the Pads and you'll see San Francisco has won eight of their last 10 and authored the second-best September in all of Major League Baseball at 18-8 (behind only the Philadelphia Phillies).
For the Braves, the near-disaster against the Phillies was the culmination of a month-long stumble.
Bobby Cox's boys enter the NLDS having lost six of their last 10 games and emerged victorious from less than half of their September contests, finishing the month 13-14.
It won't guarantee los Gigantes anything, but momentum should be on their side.
The Injury Bug Doesn't Like the Taste of Giant
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The Giants' 2010 version has been a fortunate group in more ways than one, but perhaps the most unpublicized stroke of luck has been on the injury front.
Aside from Andres Torres' emergency appendectomy and a few tweaks to valuable relievers Jeremy Affeldt and Dan Runzler, the club hasn't seen too many games lost by crucial elements. Most significantly, the starting pitchers basically answered the call whenever their names came up and neither Aubrey Huff nor Buster Posey saw extended shelf time.
That trend is continuing into the second season as Torres seems to have recovered completely from his ailment and even looks to have an extra bounce in his step due to the forced hiatus. Freddy Sanchez had to sit recently with a sore shoulder, but he's looked fine since returning to the lineup.
The story doesn't read so nicely for the Braves.
Marin Prado's nursing a hip issue, Jair Jurrjens has some discomfort in his knee, Derrek Lee is never healthy this time of year, Chipper Jones is done for the year (possibly for good), Takashi Saito is working his way back from a shoulder bugaboo, and the list goes doesn't end there.
Atlanta is a deeper team to be sure, but it will need to be with so many regulars dinged up.
Fear the Beard: San Francisco Wins the Battle of the Bullpens
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The national press will pick up on the domination of the San Francisco bullpen sooner or later, right?
Now that there are only eight teams to worry about and the Boston Red Sox are no longer alive to demand an unnecessary amount of the media's attention, it seems like the time should be ripe for the Giants' firemen to get their just desserts.
The entire unit has been excellent, but the filthy core has really ratcheted the stank up a notch for the stretch run. Santiago Casilla, Javier Lopez, Ramon Ramirez, Sergio Romo, Dan Runzler, and Brian Wilson have been virtually untouchable. They've combined to throw 58 innings with a 0.62 ERA, 0.64 WHIP, and 5.80 strikeouts per walk.
Atlanta's bullpen has been one of the best in the show all year as well. They've got some scary-good arms in the likes of Peter Moylan, Takashi Saito, Johnny Venters, and closer Billy Wagner. But their arms come with a little caveat, as we're about to see.
Timing Is Everything
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As agonizing as the final weekend was for the San Francisco faithful, you don't have to look too hard to see a rather large silver lining to the festivities.
The fellas had to scrap until the final day of the season, which means the Giants will get a nice respite before play resumes on Thursday, but there will be a minimal amount of rust. Additionally, manager Bruce Bochy didn't have to use ace Tim Lincecum, who has been dealing like the two-time defending NL Cy Young in his last six trips to the mound.
Ultimately, the Gent position players should be well-rested yet sharp while the rotation will be set with the Freak to go in Game 1 and then whomever the coaches see fit.
Meanwhile, the Atlanta Braves really could've done themselves a favor by clinching earlier.
A couple extra days rest probably would've done the aforementioned creaky players a world of good. Additionally, those bullpen arms have gotten a good chewing over the year and some are beginning to show. Johnny Venters, Peter Moylan, and Takashi Saito were all forced into action over the weekend and didn't set the world afire.
Finally, Tim Hudson would've been the best man to throw in Game 1. The veteran has been brilliant in 2010 and can draw on postseason experience. Instead, the right-hander threw on Sunday so the Bravos must either go with Huddy on short rest, the youngster Tommy Hanson, or the underwhelming Derek Lowe.
In a futile attempt at objectivity, it should be noted that Lowe was outstanding for Boston in the Sox' magical 2004 playoff run.
Andres Torres' Story Is Better Than Omar Infante's
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The Giants and Braves profile very similarly when you get right down to it.
One of their parallels is the emergence from out of essentially nowhere of an invaluable contributor. Neither San Francisco's Andres Torres nor Atlanta's Omar Infante had ever been a regular player at the major-league level before 2010, let alone a vital contributor.
Forget about a star.
This year, that's precisely what both player has become—Torres is the straw that stirs the Orange and Black kool-aid while Infante was an NL All-Star. That distinction, however, is the only area in which the utility man has the center fielder outshone.
The speedy should-be Gold Glover made up for the limited range of his corner fielding compatriots on defense. Meanwhile, he scored more runs than Infante (84 to 65), tallied more runs batted in (63 to 45), hit more home runs (16 to 8), hit more doubles (43 to 15), stole more bases (26 to 7), and posted the better slash line depending on your preference (.268/.343/.479 to .320/.358/.412).
Even more impressively, Torres is three years older and had a total of 408 at-bats since 2002 prior to his explosion onto the scene while Infante had 520 AB in 2008-09.
Our Rookie Is Better Than Yours
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Buster Posey should win the NL Rookie of the Year despite his remote location vis-a-vis Bristol, Connecticut.
Jason Heyward probably will win the reward because he plays on the Eastern seaboard. Alas, such is life in the ESPN Era.
Nah, just messin' around—the 20-year-old phenom deserves to win the RoY because he's been doing his thing since Opening Day whereas Gereld Demp the Third only joined the Big League club at the very end of May.
Nevertheless, though the margin hasn't been significant enough to make up for the two-month handicap, Posey's been the better player since May as evidenced by the blue-chippers' season totals:
Posey—108 GP, 443 PA, 58 R, 23 2B, 18 HR, 67 RBI, 30 BB, 55 K, .305/.357/.505
Heyward—142 GP, 623, 83 R, 29 2B, 18 HR, 72 RBI, 91 BB, 128 K, .277/.393/.456
Chuck in the fact that Buster's been a steadying presence on defense—helping guide one of the best pitching staffs in the Majors while doing more than his share to stifle the opposition's running game.
The J-Hey Kid has been good with the leather, too. But there's really no comparing a good defensive anything against a good defensive catcher.
Bobby Cox Is One Man, Freddy Sanchez and Aubrey Huff Are Two
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Much has been made of Atlanta manager Bobby Cox' last rodeo—the legendary leader is calling it quits after about 25 years with the Braves (in two stints) and almost three decades as a major-league skipper. He's won a World Series, numerous Manager of the Year awards, and is justifiably considered one of the best managers to ever ply the trade.
In other words, the players should and will draw a substantial amount of inspiration from their departing master. But Cox don't play the games, as the saying goes.
Aubrey Huff and Freddy Sanchez do.
Together, the two veterans have 2323 games played (1479 and 844, respectively) and 9537 plate appearances (6112 and 3425, respectively). When they dig into the batter's box for the first time on Thursday, each man will be taking postseason cuts for the first time.
While Aubrey and Freddy might be too nervous to even see the first few offerings, you can be sure their teammates will be competing as much for the two long-time pros getting their first tastes of the prelude to the Promised Land.
And who knows what Huff and/or Sanchez might do once they relax?
The Giants Have Three of the Four Best Starters in the Series
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This one is pretty simple.
Tim Hudson has arguably been the best starting pitcher from either team in 2010—he boasts the best earned run average and only Matt Cain has a better walks-plus-hits per innings pitched (WHIP). There's the matter of the strikeout ratios and the opponents' slash line, but let's just concede that Huddy's been the best.
That still gives San Francisco the next three pitchers in the two teams' combined pecking order and the matter's not even debatable:
Cainer has been arguably even better than Hudson on account of his superior strikeouts per nine innings, strikeouts per walk, walks-plus-hits per innings pitcher, opponents' batting average, and opponents' on-base percentage.
Jonathan Sanchez has only been slightly behind those two studs because of control issues, but he's been demonstrably harder to hit.
And then there's Tim Lincecum—all he's done is win two consecutive NL Cy Youngs and cobble together a September for the ages.
Tommy Hanson has been spectacular, but he only has 55 starts to his name and has shown his inexperience and 24 years of age at times.
Remember the Last Pure Pennant Race
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Once upon a time, there were no wild cards and there was no Central Division in either league—there were only two pennants, one for East and one for West.
The infamous strike of 1994 would prematurely end the last year of this four-team postseason format, which left the 1993 campaign as the last to feature a pure pennant race. As it happened, our beloved San Francisco Giants were well on their way to a playoff appearance in July when the Atlanta Braves (also in the NL West back then) acquired Fred McGriff from the San Diego Padres.
The Crime Dog, the Bravos, and Fulton County Stadium would all catch fire immediately after the trade and they'd use the flame to ultimately overcome the Gents on the last day of the season.
San Francisco won 103 games and missed the postseason because San Diego gave Bobby Cox' team McGriff for two cents on the dollar and indirectly helped Atlanta win 104 games.
Well, the Padres just received a measure of redemption.
And now the Braves are coming to town for theirs.