Giants' pitching makes them clear favorite
Deep staff, banged-up Atlanta lineup point way to SF victory
SAN FRANCISCO -- If good pitching beats good hitting -- and more often than not, it does -- just imagine what great pitching can do to a wounded lineup.
No team in baseball pitched more effectively than the Giants this season. No team in this year's playoffs is more compromised offensively than the Braves. That combination means that for all the worry here about San Francisco's lineup, the National League West champs enter their NL Division Series against Wild Card-winning Atlanta with a decided advantage.
Anything can happen in five games, and anyone who claims to know what's going to happen is misguided or misleading. But there's a favorite in this series, and it's the Giants.
Battle of the bullpens
Their rotation led the Major Leagues in strikeouts. Their bullpen evolved, over the course of the year, into something utterly impenetrable. And their home ballpark magnifies both of those advantages. It's not easy for anybody to score runs off the Giants, and it's just about impossible to do so by the Bay.
San Francisco allowed 30 runs in its final 15 home games. Atlanta scored 105 runs in its final 30 games of the regular season. This looks like a decidedly stoppable force running into a very nearly immovable object.
Not that the Braves are daunted.
"We play in one of the best divisions in baseball, the National League East," said rookie slugger Jason Heyward. "The starters that we have to go out and face day and night, that's pretty tough. That's a challenge in itself. So it's more of the same. Even the bullpens, guys are throwing hard. ... So we just feel like we have to go and do what we've done this year, do what we've done well."
The problem is, the Braves can't fairly be asked to do what they've done all year, because they're not the same team. And while at first blush it might appear that Atlanta's pitching staff will have as much success against the Giants' offense as vice versa, the first look isn't accurate.
Over the course of the full year, the Braves outscored the Giants by 39 runs. That would seem to indicate that Atlanta has the better offense. But for several reasons, that doesn't come close to telling the whole story of these two offenses.
For one thing, the Giants' lineup is as strong as it's been at any point this year. With Buster Posey behind the plate and Pat Burrell in left field, San Francisco is fielding a group that it hasn't had for the full season. In the first three months of the season, the Giants averaged 4.1 runs per game. From July 1 on, they scored 4.5 per game. As the postseason dawns, San Francisco is putting its best foot forward.
"Their team is completely different," Braves manager Bobby Cox said before correcting himself slightly. "Not completely different, but there is a big difference between Opening Day here against the Atlanta Braves, and as we sit here today with the additions of Burrell, [Juan] Uribe is now the shortstop, and Posey is the catcher. You got [Freddy] Sanchez, and [Jose] Guillen in right field. It's a big difference, and they play the game differently than they did in April."
The Braves play differently than they did in April, but in their case, it's not a compliment. Chipper Jones and Martin Prado, two critical parts of the lineup, are done for the year. Troy Glaus, a key contributor in the team's first-half surge, hit .205 with a .598 OPS (on-base plus slugging percentage) after the All-Star break. The Braves fielded their best lineup in about May.
Armed and ready
There's also the difference in ballparks. Turner Field plays close to neutral. AT&T Park is one of the toughest places to hit in baseball. The Giants actually scored more runs on the road than the Braves did.
That gets magnified when San Francisco has a lead. The Atlanta rotation will need to be rock solid, because if the Braves fall behind, they're in big trouble. Giants relievers just don't blow leads. They have the second-best bullpen ERA in the NL and the fewest relief losses, and allowed the fewest homers of any bullpen in the league.
A two-run lead for San Francisco at home may as well be four runs for another team. And against an Atlanta team that just isn't what it was earlier in the year, that might even be more like five or six.
"It's as good a bullpen as I've ever had," said Giants manager Bruce Bochy. "You know, you have your great closers or your setup guys, and I've been fortunate there. But the depth of this bullpen is probably as deep as I've ever had. You know those guys in that fifth, sixth, seventh inning, they can make a difference in the game."
The bullpen allows Bochy to be aggressive with a struggling starter, on the rare occasions that happens. If one of his starters does have a rough night, he doesn't have to ride it out.
"It allows you to shorten the game up at times," Bochy said, pointing to the Giants' division-clinching win in which he pulled Jonathan Sanchez two batters into the sixth inning. "I thought Jonathan had gone far enough in the last game, and I don't pull him unless I have the confidence in the bullpen. And I have in those guys, because of the job they've done. It certainly makes life easier when you're able to make some moves earlier in the game because of the bullpen that you have."
Easier on Bochy, at least. Much tougher on the Braves.
Matthew Leach is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his blog, Obviously, You're Not a Golfer and follow him on Twitter at @MatthewHLeach. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.