Braves, Giants follow similar recipes to NLDS
Pitching, phenoms, veteran managers compile winning blueprint
The roads taken by the Giants and Braves to the 2010 postseason party came from starting points as different as Northern California and the South. But they hit similar peaks and similar bumps along the way to the same destination: The National League Division Series.
Now that they've arrived, one road will continue and another will end, but they're both right where they want to be as the NLDS begins.
The two teams' October stories will begin to unfold with Thursday's Game 1 at 9:37 p.m. ET from AT&T Park, likely pitting two-time defending NL Cy Young Award winner Tim Lincecum against veteran right-hander Derek Lowe, who is coming off a remarkable September run.
The key elements of each team's season to date will butt heads in the best-of-five series that will determine which road continues.
There are the mentors: What has been a glorious ride into the sunset continues into October for Braves manager Bobby Cox, while perhaps one of Bruce Bochy's most challenging seasons has fully established him as part of the next generation of managerial veterans.
There are the phenoms: The Braves' season began with a bang off the bat of rookie outfielder Jason Heyward, and some might say the Giants' season really began May 29 with the arrival of rookie catcher Buster Posey. Now, everyone has something to say about which put together the season most worthy of NL Rookie of the Year Award honors.
And above all else, there is the method: Both teams thrived on pitching. The Giants lead the Majors with a 3.36 ERA, and the Braves were not too far behind with a 3.56 mark, both serving up stellar starting pitching and stalwart relief down to the last out.
Still, getting there wasn't easy, they'll both tell you. Both had their moments of struggle, and both had spates of offensive shortfalls. Yet both showed their mettle down the stretch to earn their rightful place in the postseason field.
In fact, both took their quests down to the final day of the regular season -- and when the Giants clinched the NL West with their win over the Padres, the Braves knew they didn't need a tiebreaker game to get into the playoffs.
"I know they were probably celebrating when we got the last out, too," Bochy said, and he was right.
Bochy is ready for the challenge ahead.
"I look forward to the matchup, seeing Bobby," he said.
Certainly, the Braves' leader knows a thing or two about getting into the October party.
Cox made it official last season that 2010 would be his final one, and the Braves helped him make the most of it. He became just the fourth manager to reach 2,500 wins, and this year's Braves became the 15th 90-win team he has managed in his 29 years at the helm. He hasn't been to the World Series since 1999, but the Braves went on a run of 14 consecutive division titles through '05 -- with his '10 swan song leading to one more return to the playoffs.
In short, what else could Cox have asked of his final season?
He's not squared up against some fly-by-nighter -- actually, he faces a manager who 12 years ago denied Cox's Braves a trip to the World Series. After Cox sails into the sunset, and assuming Joe Torre also does while Tony La Russa does not, Bochy will enter the 2011 season as the manager with the second-longest continuous service in the Majors, behind La Russa. Bochy is in his 16th consecutive season managing -- first for 12 years with the Padres and now four with the Giants.
As it turned out, 2010 provided a number of challenges for Bochy. His vaunted No. 3 hitter, Pablo Sandoval, never caught a steady groove all year and was batting eighth at times down the stretch. The outfield completely turned over from Opening Day, as Andres Torres emerged as a sparkplug, Pat Burrell was lifted off waivers and both Jose Guillen and Cody Ross were acquired in midseason deals -- shifting Aubrey Huff to first base, where he continued to thrive. The starting pitching, as great as it has been overall, went into a rotation-wide slump led by Lincecum's worst stretch as a Major Leaguer in August, only to rebound in a huge way in September.
What each manager received this year was a boost from a highly-touted prospect who did nothing short of live up to the hype.
Heyward's three-run homer in his first plate appearance amounted to as brilliant a debut as one could imagine, and the just-21-year-old bookended that performance by finishing strong. He reached base safely in 37 of his final 40 games, dating back to Aug. 21, and batted .302 in the second half.
That said, Posey's immediate and lasting influence on the Giants' fortunes can't be ignored. He played some first base to get his bat in the lineup when he first arrived, but since the trade of Bengie Molina, he has served as the Giants' full-time catcher -- making 75 starts behind the plate, totaling 662 innings -- and was on the receiving end of seven shutouts.
He has been even more impressive while standing alongside the plate, delivering 18 home runs -- many of the clutch variety, including Sunday's solo shot to help secure the Giants' clinching win -- and chalking up a .305 average and .505 slugging percentage.
Ultimately, however, neither team would be in the postseason without the work done on the mound.
The Braves' rotation received a huge boost in the return of Tim Hudson to ace status and the continued development of Tommy Hanson, while Lowe's awesome finish has been huge in helping the Braves reach the postseason -- he went 5-0 with a 1.17 ERA in five September starts. And with Billy Wagner anchoring the bullpen, the Braves' pitching staff is as deep as it has been since Atlanta's glory days of NL dominance.
But it's hard to top what the Giants' pitching staff has done, particularly in September. San Francisco's staff as a whole posted a 1.78 ERA in that final full month, set a new club mark in strikeouts, and its starters finished third in the Majors with a 3.54 ERA. Closer Brian Wilson equaled Rod Beck's club record with 48 saves, leading a bullpen that hasn't allowed a run in its past 31 home innings, finishing with a 2.99 ERA.
Both clubs have had their share of issues, too, with the Braves dealing with the losses of Chipper Jones and infielder Martin Prado to injury -- though getting contributions from 30-year-old rookie Brooks Conrad and others has helped. The Giants, meanwhile, have had a variety of slumps, collective and individual -- though they turned on the power in September for 36 homers.
And, boy, did they both make it interesting.
That much could be seen from something Hudson said in the aftermath of his team's clincher -- something that could easily have been said in the Giants' clubhouse Sunday as well.
"It's kind of our nature, better late than never," Hudson said. "It's been a good year for us. It's been a lot of fun. We have a lot of great guys in this clubhouse and we busted our tail all year."
Whatever similarities exist between the two clubs heading in, there will be one distinct difference between the two at the end:
One will be moving on to the NLCS, and the other will be going home.
HEAD TO HEAD
2010 Record:: Braves 4, Giants 3
Batting average: Giants .197 | Braves .233
Home runs: Giants 3 | Braves 9
RBIs: Giants 19 | Braves 27
Runs: Giants 21 | Braves 28
Strikeouts: Giants 45 | Braves 67
Walks: Giants 24 | Braves 45
TEAM STATS, RANKINGS
Giants batting: .257 (7), 660 RBIs (9), 162 home runs (6), .408 slugging % (6)
Braves batting: .258 (6), 699 RBIs (5), 139 home runs (11), .401 slugging % (t9)
Complete offensive team stats >>
Giants pitching: 3.36 ERA (1), 1,331 strikeouts (1), 578 walks (13), 1.27 WHIP (t3)
Braves pitching 3.56 ERA (4), 1,241 strikeouts (6), 505 walks (3), 1.27 WHIP (t3)
Complete team pitching stats >>
AND THE WINNER IS ...
Giants will win if ...: Their offense can muster up some support, especially early, for a pitching staff that frankly has carried the club all year long. The Giants are capable of bursting into rallies, but, as was the case twice this weekend, it can be too little, too late. Starting with Torres setting the tone and Posey being able to deliver in the cleanup spot as a rookie, the Giants need to score some runs. Juan Uribe might be their most dangerous hitter in the clutch. Watch out for Sandoval, too -- he's starting to swing the bat.
Braves will win if ...: Their starters deliver the goods. The Giants are a team they're capable of containing, and it's going to be difficult for the injury-depleted Braves lineup to bust out against the best pitching staff in the Majors. Can Lowe continue his September mastery into October? And will a display of Hudson's gutty professionalism help keep some pressure off the youngest of their top trio, Hanson? If so, and if they can keep San Francisco from gaining momentum on offense, that would be good news for Atlanta.
John Schlegel is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.