San Francisco Giants (92-70)
The San Francisco Giants started the season looking one way and finished looking much differently. They added 10 key players through trades and call-ups from the minor leagues. Brian Sabean, the Giants general manager, was very busy.
The Giants are still built around pitching. They enhanced their bullpen during the season. They also tried to add pieces to upgrade their offense. They needed every bit as it took a win in Game 162 to seal a playoff berth.
The Giants had the NL's second best starters' ERA. They have some of the best young arms in baseball led by two-time Cy Young Award winner Tim Lincecum. They have power and balance in the rotation. Their starters pitched healthy the entire season, not one of them missing a start. In September, when they made their successful run to the postseason, the starting rotation had a 1.72 ERA, the best in baseball. They held opposing hitters to a league low .236 average on the season.
Giants vs. Braves | Schedule
Frankie Piliere's Scouting Reports: Giants | Braves
Tim Lincecum (16-10, 2.33 ERA) had a rollercoaster season. He got off to a great start with a 1.27 ERA in April, but then it spiked to nearly 5.00 in May. He got back on track in June and July, but then hit a wall in August, a month in which he was 0-5 with a 7.82 ERA. He got his mechanics back in sync and has returned to form lately (5-1, 1.94 ERA in September and October). He is the type of pitcher that fares well in the postseason -- featuring power stuff with quality secondary pitches. He led the league in strikeouts for the third straight year.
Matt Cain (13-11, 3.14 ERA) has great stuff but he never seems to get enough run support to earn the victory. Like Lincecum, he has the kind of power arsenal that tends to bring success in the postseason. He is a tough competitor. He held opponents to a .218 average and he has the ability to get a big strikeout when he needs it to get out of a jam, a trait that is critical to success in October.
Jonathan Sanchez (13-9, 3.07 ERA) is getting better each year in the majors. He held opponents to a .204 average and struck out 205. He pitched well Sunday against the Padres in what was very similar to a playoff game. He is competitive and aggressive. He really turned it on in the second half, going 6-3 with a 2.61 ERA, including a 1.17 ERA in September. He is pitching his best at the right time.
The Giants have a great bullpen. They went 31-15 with a 2.99 ERA this year. They have a variety of looks and the stuff to handle just about any situation or lineup. The midseason acquisitions of Javier Lopez (1.42 ERA) and Ramon Ramirez (0.67 ERA) added tremendous depth to an already deep bullpen. Brian Wilson has been a remarkably consistent closer. He converted a National League best 48 saves in 53 opportunities while striking out 93 hitters in 74 2/3 innings. The Giants can pitch the most quality innings of any staff in the playoffs.
The Giants scrambled to score runs all season long. They were ninth in runs in the NL. They are a contact-hitting team that puts the ball in play and avoids strikeouts. Their approach limits walks as they tend to swing at 3-2 pitches and put them in play. They lead the NL in double plays. Speed is not a strength of this club.
For the Giants to score runs they need homers or they need to lump multiple hits together. That can be difficult to do in the playoffs as hitters face the best from the best pitchers. Their leading hitter is Aubrey Huff, who is tops on the team in most categories. He hit .290 with 26 homers and 85 RBI. Not exactly big numbers for a team leader. Buster Posey is their most talented hitter and he is a rookie.
Lincecum has to win when he pitches. The Giants can not find themselves in a position where they need to outscore or outslug their opponent. They just don't have the firepower to do that. Lincecum has the type of stuff to put a lineup in a slump. He needs to shut down the Braves.
Atlanta Braves (91-71)
The Braves got off to a slow start but put things together in late May. The offense finally came to life to support their deep pitching staff. Bobby Cox has worked his magic one more time, maximizing the talent on his roster. It took everything the Braves had to get to the playoffs. The question is whether they have anything left to advance now that they're there.
The Braves have a deep starting rotation that typically gives them a chance to win the game. They have a blend of youth and experience in their rotation, although it will be the experience they will rely upon in the playoffs.
Derek Lowe (16-12, 4.00 ERA) was really struggling in August and then he was diagnosed in early September with a bone spur in his elbow. He received two cortisone injections to reduce the inflammation in the joint. He then had a meeting with pitching coach Roger McDowell, who advised him to change his approach a bit. Rather than going primarily with his sinker as he had done his entire career, McDowell suggested Lowe use his slider more frequently. He has, and it has made a dramatic difference. Opposing hitters show with their swings that they are unsure what to expect from him now. He has gone 5-0 with a 1.17 ERA since he made the adjustment. Lowe is 1-0 with a 1.50 ERA against the Giants this year.
Tim Hudson (17-9, 2.83 ERA) is back. He has fully recovered from Tommy John surgery and has found his sinker again. Hudson was as good as we have ever seen him this year. He seemed to run out of gas a bit in September as he went 1-4 with a 5.35 ERA. He does everything a good NL pitcher must to win games: pitch well, field his position, hold runners and handle the bat. He is 1-0 with a 1.20 ERA against the Giants this year.
Tommy Hanson (10-11 3.33 ERA) is growing up before our very eyes. He is a big kid so we expect more than what is fair sometimes. He is still just 24. It seems like he can put up some zeroes on the scoreboard, but then get bit by a bad inning. He gets better every month. In September he was 2-1 with a 2.04 ERA. He held hitters to a .159 average in six September starts. He had a quality start against the Giants this summer but received a no-decision.
This has been a real strength of the Braves this year. They had the third best bullpen ERA in baseball (3.11). Cox has helped develop a very deep and versatile bullpen. He has options for every situation he may face. Peter Moylan is tough on righties, while Jonny Venters and Craig Kimbrel are tough on everyone. Takashi Saito has pitched effectively. Billy Wagner, the closer, has logged 104 strikeouts in 69 1/3 innings on his way to 37 saves and a 1.43 ERA.
The Braves OBP offense ranks first in the league in that category. They don't have tremendous power (11th in homers) or speed (14th in stolen bases). They get on base by hitting a lot of doubles, leading the NL in two-baggers. They find ways to get runners on and then hope to hit the ball in the gap to score them. With their lack of home run power it is sometimes difficult for them to score. Their lack of speed makes it difficult to manufacture runs easily.
Lowe has proven himself as a big-game pitcher both in the month of September this year as well in playoff games in the past. The Braves are going to need Lowe's experience and effectiveness to win this series. They need to match the Giants pitch for pitch as both clubs can struggle to score runs.
GIANTS IN FOUR.