San Francisco Giants (92-70) at Philadelphia Pillies (97-65)
The Phillies find themselves in their third consecutive NLCS, although this time not against the Dodgers. The Giants defeated the Braves in a great NLDS — seriously — and will now try to dethrone the two-time defending NL champions and their three-headed pitching Cerberus.*
*Or Cerbe-ROY-us. Get it?
Yikes. I don’t know if I can remember a League Championship Series in which one team had a more definitive offensive advantage over the other. The Phillies have better offensive players at all but one position (catcher). In fact, the Phillies have better defensive players at probably every position.*
*According to Fangraphs, the Giants have a substantially better team UZR than the Phillies. I assume this is because Pat Burrell and Jose Guillen only started playing regularly of late — although Aubrey Huff, Pablo Sandoval, and Juan Uribe have played a lot this season.
Philadelphia made the wise move following Game 1 of their NLDS sweep of the Reds — in which they didn’t have a hit after the third inning, which kind of went unnoticed — to bump the struggling Jimmy Rollins down to sixth in the order with Shane Victorino taking back the leadoff spot. It puts a better hitter at the top while also lengthening the order and breaking up some of the lefties by pushing Raul Ibanez to seventh. It is inarguably the deepest lineup in the NL, with the only .300 hitter (Carlos Ruiz) batting eighth.
Ruiz would probably hit sixth in San Francisco’s order, which doesn’t feature much beyond Aubrey Huff and Buster Posey. Those two combined to go 10-for-31 in the NLDS; the rest of the team was 18-for-101. The Giants will need someone else to step up, whether it’s former Phillie/Ray Pat Burrell, former Marlin Cody Ross, former Cub Mike Fontenot, or former Royal Jose Guillen (and those formers all apply to this season). Oh, and a few Philadelphia errors would help.
Also, fun fact: Each of these teams hit .212 in their NLDS. And won. God bless the National League.
Here’s where it gets closer, even if Philadelphia appears to still hold a slight edge. The Phillies’ trio of Roy Hallday, Roy Oswalt, and Cole Hamels (H2O!) held the NL’s best offense in Cincinnati to a .124 average while tossing two shutouts. (Lost in Halladay’s no-hitter was that Hamels tossed a five-hit shutout in Game 3, which seems pretty pedestrian by 2010 NLDS standards.) The question for the Phillies, though, is whether to stick with those three or throw Joe Blanton into the mix for a Game 4 start. Signs point to Blanton being part of the NLCS rotation, which obviously weakens it significantly.
The Giants, meanwhile, have a stronger one through four in Tim Lincecum, Jonathan Sanchez (pushed up to Game 2), Matt Cain, and Madison Bumgarner. All of them pitched well in the NLDS (especially Lincecum and Sanchez), and a pair of Halladay-Lincecum showdowns should be must-watch TV for any baseball fan. If San Francisco wants to have a chance this series, it probably needs its two-time Cy Young winner to split with Philly’s soon-to-be two-time Cy Young winner and Bumgarner to beat Blanton in Game 4. Then the Giants would “only” have to split the Sanchez-Oswalt and Cain-Hamels matchups.
The problem for the Giants, though, is that their pitchers have to pitch so much better than the Phillies’ hurlers against such a tougher lineup. I can see their pitchers matching Philly’s, but having their mistakes hit out of the park instead of to the warning track for doubles.
JOHN: So, was that Braves-Giants series the best four-game NLDS of all-time? Is anyone looking into the possibility that Brooks Conrad was The Mole?
TIM: Obviously Conrad had been wronged in some way by Bobby Cox in the past, and this was his way of getting back at him. I’d go so far as to call that series the best NLDS of all-time, period. The only five-game NLDS that’s memorable in any way is the 2001 battle between Arizona and St. Louis, and only Game 5 of that series is memorable. There was something memorable about each game of this series, from Lincecum’s performance in Game 1, to Ankiel’s homer in Game 2, to the great back-and-forth and Conrad’s Es in Game 3, to the Giants’ classy applause for Cox in Game 4. It was a great series.
JOHN: How long does Halladay’s hitless streak last?
TIM: Well, his hitless streak is only two at-bats, and it might last several more with a pair of matchups waiting with Lincecum. His no-hit streak probably won’t last that long, but I can see him taking it into the fifth inning or something before Buster Posey breaks it up.
JOHN: Try to be realistic: What are your expectations for tonight’s Halladay/Lincecum matchup (and the potential Game 5 matchup)? Where will it ranks among the great postseason pitchers duels of the last 25 years (Johnson/Maddux in the 2001 NLCS, Morris/Smoltz in the 1991 World Series, any others you can think of…)?
TIM: Did you look up that Johnson/Maddux “duel”? I totally forgot about that. (Schilling/Morris in that aforementioned NLDS was better.)
Morris/Smoltz is on its own level, just because that was Game 7 of the World Series. But there have been plenty of tremendous pitchers’ duels that people — and you — have forgotten: Tom Glavine and Al Leiter in the 1999 NLCS, Smoltz and Rick Reed in the 1999 NLCS, Glavine, Dennis Martinez, and the Indians’ bullpen in the 1995 World Series, Curt Schilling and Roger Clemens in the 2001 World Series. I always come back to the Brandon Backe-Woody Williams duel in the 2004 NLCS. These kinds of duels aren’t unheard of.
As for tonight, I’m not getting my hopes up too high, just because I’m not 100 percent sold on Lincecum this season. Yes, he had a terrific September, and yes, he struck out 14 batters in a two-hit shutout last game. But did you see that game? The Braves swung at everything. Lincecum wasn’t exactly pounding the strike zone; only 53 of his 119 pitchers were in the zone, meaning the Braves swung at 22 pitches that weren’t strikes. The Phillies are a better hitting team, and a more disciplined one.
Halladay, on the other hand, was everything people said he was and more against Cincinnati. He could have thrown three or four more no-hit innings. And now he gets a worse offense? I can honestly say I’ll be surprised if San Francisco gets on the board tonight.
JOHN: If you’re Philadelphia, do you use Blanton in Game 4? I mean, obviously he’s a huge downgrade from their Top 3, but Hamels has never started on short rest, and neither Halladay nor Oswalt has done it since 2008. Wouldn’t you rather have those three at full strength for their six starts?
TIM: We talked about the idea of matchups in the ALCS preview, and I think that holds here: If you start Blanton against Bumgarner in Game 4, you’ve still got a reasonable shot to win that game, and you have the pitching edge in at least four of the other six games (depending on how you feel about Sanchez/Oswalt). Remember, it doesn’t take a whole lot to limit the Giants’ offense.
I think Halladay would be fine on three days’ rest; I don’t know about Oswalt and Hamels. And if you go that route, you give the Giants the advantage in Games 5 and 6 (Lincecum over Oswalt, Sanchez over Hamels).
So I’d keep those three at full strength and roll the dice with the occasionally effective Blanton.
JOHN: Just in case something weird happens and all seven/eight starters don’t throw complete games, which of these teams has the better bullpen? At the very least, Brian Wilson has the best beard on either team, right?
TIM: Not if Jayson Werth has a say. The Giants have the edge in the bullpen, but they still have their share of question marks from the NLDS. Sergio Romo, their primary setup man, faltered in Games 2 and 3, to the point where Santiago Casilla replaced him in Game 4 in the eighth. If I’m Bruce Bochy — something I think about daily, obvs — I’d stick with Casilla in this series, as well. He was excellent in the seventh this season, and just last year the Yankees swapped setup men in the postseason, with David Robertson taking on a larger role.
At the end of the game, Wilson and Brad Lidge are going to give you chances to beat them, but they’ve still got great stuff and get the job done most of the time. It should make for some exciting ninth innings in a low-scoring series, though.
JOHN: What is the over/under for runs scored in this series? 18.5 if it goes seven?
TIM: I was going to go 8.5 if it goes seven. I’m interested in seeing whether the Giants can crack double- digits in the series and whether either team will hit above the Mendoza line.
JOHN: Seriously, how are the Giants going to score in this series? Cincinnati—the NL’s best offense—managed 11 hits in three games, and San Francisco has arguably the worst lineup in postseason history (I mean seriously, Jose Guillen? Mike Fontenot?).
TIM: I don’t know why Jose Guillen draws so much of your ire; he’s not that bad. He had a 102 OPS+ in Kansas City this season. I understand he’s not great and that he shouldn’t be a corner outfield starter on an NLCS team, but he’s not awful. He’s certainly a better right-field option than Jeff Francoeur, no?
To answer the real question — how are the Giants going to score? — umm, I don’t know. Maybe they can string some singles together in an inning against Roy Oswalt, maybe Burrell or Ross goes deep with some men on…. We’re all just excited to find out.
JOHN: I’m pretty sure I know how you’ll answer this (your pro-San Francisco, anti-Philadelphia agenda has been clear for quite some time now), but which of these teams have better fans? Who has the better ballpark?
TIM: I don’t think you need to be pro-SF, anti-PHI to say that the Giants have the better ballpark. That place is beautiful, and it looks even better on a brisk October night. I like having a West Coast team that still plays in cold weather.
I expect the atmosphere for this series to be tremendous. Say what you will about them, and I have, but Philly fans are indeed loud. They aren’t like the Atlanta fans from last decade that were spoiled by success. Giants fans, on the other hand, were terrific in that NLDS — very loud, very appreciative of the chance to be back in the postseason after seven years.
JOHN: I know you’re a bigger believer in the impact a manager has than I am, so is Bruce Bochy a good manager? Are we prepared for a world in which he has led two teams to the World Series, putting him in a class with Tony La Russa, Sparky Anderson, and probably a bunch of others I’m forgetting?
TIM: At first, I thought those were the only two guys to do that, and I was amazed Bochy had even this good a shot to join them. I’ve never considered Bruce Bochy an elite manager by any stretch of the imagination. I’m not really sure what he does that works. When San Francisco lured him away from the Padres, I was surprised to learn there was a Bruce Bochy market out there.
My guess is Bochy, like Charlie Manuel, is just good at keeping order in the clubhouse and pushing the right buttons when he needs to (like going to Casilla and Fontenot in Game 4). I don’t expect to see a lot of overmanaging or unexpected in-game moves in this series.
JOHN: Is the Phillies lineup really as deep and scary as you make it out to be? It seems like, with the exceptions of Ruiz and Jayson Werth, everyone had a down year, whether it be due to injury (Utley), natural drop-off after a great year (Ibanez), possibly struggling in a new league (Polanco), or just not being that good in the first place (Rollins). Are those numbers misleading or does a .750 OPS qualify as good in the National League?
TIM: You mean an OPS 40 points higher than Derek Jeter’s? No, a .750 OPS is not good; it’s a good thing only two Phillies (Rollins and Polanco) were below that.
I look at the Phillies’ lineup the same way I do at certain aspects of the Yankees’. Even though a lot of those guys have had down years, they’re still very scary presences. Howard, like Alex Rodriguez, isn’t hitting the way he used to, but you’re still loath to face him in a big spot. Utley was ice cold before his World Series explosion last year. Victorino’s average is down, but his power is up and he had some big hits in the NLDS.
Like the Yankees, the Phillies don’t give you a break in their order (even the pitchers get hits, sometimes!). The easiest out in that order this year is Rollins, who is, remind me if I’m wrong, the only current shortstop to ever win an MVP (deserved or not; dude had 88 extra-base hits that season).
JOHN: So who will the Yankees be facing in the World Series this year?
TIM: The more obvious question is who will the Phillies be facing. It won’t surprise me if San Francisco’s pitching keeps most of these games close, but it’s going to be so much easier for the Phillies to score a quick run here or there with a home run or a double à stolen base à sacrifice fly. Philly has so many more ways to score, and that bears itself out. I’ll give the Giants Games 2 (the Phillies always lose Game 2) and 4 before the Phils close them out in six.