Set to retire at the end of this season, Bobby Cox would like nothing more than to ride off into the sunset with another World Series ring.
Unfortunately, it’s unlikely to happen for the Cooperstown-bound skipper, who once piloted the Braves to 14 consecutive division titles. In a best-of-five series, the San Francisco Giants’ starting rotation appears to be too strong.
Headed by two-time Cy Young Award winner and National League strikeout king, Tim Lincecum, who will start Game One, the Giants boast the best young staff in baseball. As a team, the Giants fashioned an incredible 1.78 ERA in September and their bullpen – lead by Brian Wilson (48 saves) – hasn’t allowed a run in 31 innings.
The fact that the Giants can follow Lincecum up with two starters – Matt Cain (13 wins, 3.14 ERA) and Jonathan Sanchez (13 wins, 3.07) – who have been equally effective this season is a frightening prospect for the Braves. And if any of their big three falter, the Giants can turn to Madison Bumgarner (7-6, 3.00 ERA), who was also impressive in his rookie campaign. Anchored by the aforementioned Wilson, the Giants also boast an excellent bullpen. Relievers Sergio Romo, Santiago Casilla and Jeremy Affeldt all enjoyed solid regular seasons and can be counted on to record crucial outs.
The Giants’ problem has been their offense. Their lineup heading into the playoffs is almost completely different than their opening day lineup. Sluggers like Pat Burrell, Jose Guillen and Cody Ross have joined the club, but the most important addition has been National League Rookie of the Year candidate Buster Posey, who hit .305 and belted 19 homers after his May 29th call-up. Outfielder Andres Torres (16 homers, 26 stolen bases) has been a pleasant surprise at the top of the order, while first baseman Aubrey Huff (26 homers, 86 RBIs) and shortstop Juan Uribe (24 homers, 85 RBIs) were key run producers. The Giants also hope that third baseman Pablo Sandoval, who hit just .268 with 13 homers this season, will find his stroke in the playoffs.
The good thing for the Giants is that the Braves offense has been equally anemic. Without all-star Martin Prado, who recently went down with a hip injury, and future Hall of Famer, Chipper Jones, the Braves will be hard-pressed to muster any sort of offensive attack. Derrek Lee, Brian McCann and rookie outfielder Jason Heyward will have to be especially prolific if the Braves are to stand any chance against the Giants’ dominant pitching staff.
One advantage the Braves do have is an experienced pitching staff. Game One starter Derek Lowe, coming off a red hot September, has pitched in six previous post-seasons, while 17-game winner Tim Hudson, who will get the ball in Game Two, has pitched in five. Highly touted righty Tommy Hanson (10 wins, 3.33 ERA) is a formidable third starter for the Braves. If any of them should falter, however, the Braves don’t have a reliable fourth starter like the Giants do in Bumgarner.
The Braves’ bullpen, however, is as strong as the Giants. Left-hander Billy Wagner has been close to invincible in his role as closer (37 saves, 1.43 ERA) and set-up men Takashi Saito, Jonny Venters and Peter Moylan all represent reliable relief options.
I’m happy that ex-Jays manager Bobby Cox will end his career as part of a playoff team. But the depth and dominance of the young Giants staff, combined with their revamped offense, gives them a slight edge over the Braves. Prediction: Giants in five.