Ask most baseball pundits and they'll tell you that the team to beat in the National League is the Philadelphia Phillies.
Well, the only major pickup the Phillies made this offseason was left-hander Cliff Lee. Lee dominated the Rays and Yankees in the 2010 American League Divisional and Championship Series before taking the mound against the Giants in the World Series last year.
To describe Lee's performance in the first two rounds of the playoffs as "dominating" is truly an understatement. In three starts between the ALDS against Tampa Bay and the ALCS against New York, Lee was 3-0 with a 1.13 ERA. He struck out 34 and walked just one.
Based on these numbers by themselves, the addition of Lee to a Philadelphia staff that already features Roy Halladay, Cole Hamels and Roy Oswalt would no doubt make Philadelphia the favorite not only to win the NL East, but to go deep into the playoffs with great potential for World Series glory.
But that picture leaves out a minor detail: the 2010 World Series, and its winner—the San Francisco Giants.
The aforementioned Lee—with phenomenal postseason numbers entering the Fall Classic—was anything but phenomenal against the San Francisco Giants, the National League Champions and the underdog in their matchup with Lee's Texas Rangers.
Lee's numbers in his two World Series starts against San Francisco? 0-2 with a 6.94 ERA.
Lee had nine earned runs on 14 hits, including the three-run home run by World Series MVP Edgar Renteria that sealed the title for San Francisco.
So how about those Giants?
Can they really contend against the Phillies for another title in 2011? Let's take a look at how the other members of "the big four" on Philadelphia's starting staff fared against San Francisco in 2010:
On April 26, 2010 the undefeated Roy Halladay took the mound at AT&T Park in San Francisco to face the Giants. By the end of the night, his Phillies were on the short end of a 5-1 outcome. Halladay went seven innings, gave up five runs on 10 hits and took his first loss of the season.
In the postseason, Halladay faced the Giants twice. He was 1-1 with a 4.15 ERA. In Game 1 of the NLCS, Halladay was shelled for four runs on eight hits in seven innings in Philadelphia. And the Giants took the all-important opening contest in that best-of-seven series.
Next in line is Cole Hamels. On April 28, 2010, Hamels faced the Giants in San Francisco. He gave up four runs on nine hits in six innings, getting a no-decision. Hamels faced the Giants again on August 19 in Philadelphia. He gave up five runs on seven hits in five innings pitched, taking the loss.
In the NLCS, Hamels gave up two runs on three hits in four innings of work, taking the loss in Game 3.
Roy Oswalt spent most of the season with Houston before being traded to Philadelphia for the stretch run. He faced the Giants four times during the regular season. He went 1-3 with a 3.85 ERA.
In the LCS, Oswalt fared better against San Francisco, going 1-1 with a 1.84 ERA. The one loss, however, was in relief, when Oswalt was summoned from the bullpen to preserve a 5-5 tie in the bottom of the ninth. Giants shortstop Juan Uribe hit a walk-off sacrifice fly to give San Francisco a 3-1 series lead.
In 2010, the Giants defeated Cliff Lee, Roy Halladay and Cole Hamels twice each, and Roy Oswalt four times, en route to their first World Series title in 56 years. Now that Cliff Lee is a Phillie, why should that mean that Philadelphia is any more likely to get past San Francisco should the two clubs meet in October?
Is It the Offense?
Perhaps it's the Phillies' formidable offense. With the likes of Shane Victorino, Chase Utley, Ryan Howard and Placido Polanco, what pitching staff wouldn't quiver at the thought of facing this vaunted Philadelphia lineup?
The answer is the staff from San Francisco.
During the regular season, the Phillies hit .260 and scored 4.76 runs per game. In the LCS against the Giants, they hit just .216 and scored 3.3 runs/game. They also struck out 56 times—roughly nine Ks in each game of the series, or one strikeout every 3.39 at-bats.
Further, the Phillies lost slugging right fielder Jayson Werth to free agency this offseason, as he signed with the Washington Nationals.
Meanwhile, nearly all of San Francisco's starters are returning for 2011, with the exception of Juan Uribe (Dodgers) and Edgar Renteria (Reds). They have added veteran shortstop and former AL MVP Miguel Tejada at shortstop. They'll also have 2010 NL Rookie of the Year Buster Posey and World Series Game-4 winner Madison Bumgarner—both midseason call-ups from Triple-A last year—for the entire season.
Finally, the X-factor for the Giants this season could be slugging first baseman Brandon Belt. Belt hit .352 with 23 homers in the minor leagues last year, and made the big league club for 2011.
He's already shown his amazing offensive potential, blasting a three-run home run against the Dodgers during the opening weekend of the season. If Belt turns out to be another Buster Posey, the youth movement in San Francisco could continue to spark the Giants this season.
2011 NLCS? Giants Over Phillies
If there's a rematch in the 2011 National League Championship Series, I like the Giants.