With the Phillies' NLCS opponent yet to be decided, we take a look today at which of the two possibilities - the Giants or the Braves - would make a better sparring partner for the Phillies. In his post earlier, David Cohen asserts--against all decency, if not logic--that we should be hoping for Atlanta to advance. Here, I counter that any true Phillies fan should be pulling for the Giants.
Let me start with an admission: I don’t think the Giants are the easier NLCS matchup for the Phillies than the Braves would be—at least not the current injury-depleted Braves, missing stars Chipper Jones and Martin Prado and Billy Wagner, forced to turn to makeshift arrangements in the infield and bullpen that probably cost them a pivotal Game Three on Sunday evening. The Braves started to falter even before losing Prado and Wagner, as what looked two months ago like a glide path to the playoffs for Atlanta turned into a barefoot scramble over broken glass; they dropped crucial late-season series not only to the streaking Phillies but to going-nowhere teams like the Pirates and Nationals en route to a 13-16 record from September 2 through the end of the regular season. Were it not for Charlie Manuel’s merciful/questionable decision to pitch Danys Baez in the season finale, the Braves very probably wouldn’t even have made the postseason.
But they’re here now. I don’t want them to get any farther, and I humbly suggest any Phillies fan should feel the same way. Here’s why:
1) Fan simpatico. The Giants-Braves series pits arguably the most beautiful and interesting city in America against a glorified airport with self-imposed historical amnesia (seriously, go to Atlanta and try to track the story of the civil rights movement in the city, let alone what Sherman did there, which you can kind of understand their not wanting to highlight), populated by (to judge from the despicable "tomahawk chop") dimwitted, baseball-ignorant racists. I have no problem wanting to see the Giants fans taste a series win before we end their year; if they did somehow beat the Phils, I’d have no problem rooting for them as the representatives of the National League. The only team I’d ever root for the Braves against is the Dallas Cowboys, and that matchup is impossible by the laws of this universe.
2) Personnel and personalities. The Giants are a likable team of phenoms, castoffs and weirdos: young gun pitchers Tim Lincecum and Jonathan Sanchez, college buddies Pat Burrell and Aubrey Huff, Brian Wilson and his Bruntlett-as-hipster beard. Their manager, Bruce Bochy, might well be asked to play himself if and when Hollywood gets around to remaking "Major League." And then there’s the Braves. Atlanta’s most hateable players, Jones and Wagner, are on the shelf for the rest of the playoffs. But Bobby Cox is still there, at least for another game or two, and he’s as easy to loathe for his ump-baiting, ballpark-whining and wife-smacking as ever. Ditto team president John Schuerholz, for whom it might be a mercy to spare him another trip to Citizens Bank Park and its evidently accordion-like dimensions. Other than those guys, the Braves don’t have much personality to speak of: I’m not sure their young (and very talented) relievers, the Craig Kimbrels and Mike Dunns and Jonny Venterses of the world, were given personalities when Schuerholz genetically engineered them in government-subsidized labs these last few years.
3) Consider the Timmeh: While we might rightly regard Cox and Jones and Schuerholz and Wagner as gaping assholes, if the Braves get past the Giants and face the Phils in the NLCS, you can pretty much count on Joe Buck and, especially, Tim McCarver slurping them dry hour after hour, game after game. I don’t think it’s so much that they love the Braves, or hate the Phillies, as that they push the easiest, most hackneyed storyline they can come up with production meetings and casual conversations. For this one, it will be one last shot at glories that mostly went unclaimed during those fourteen straight Octobers when the Braves were winning divisions, an underdog (because of the injuries, which is legitimate enough) having its day against the big bad Phillies, maybe even the dawning of a new Braves dynasty led by Jason Heyward and Tommy Hanson and the aforementioned cloned relievers. It makes me want to projectile-vomit just thinking about it.
4) The Killers: As noted at the top, I think the Phils probably have an easier matchup against Atlanta than they would San Fran. But there are a few players on the Braves who do seem to have the Phillies’ number. Matt Diaz is a career .301/.350/.456 hitter; in 161 plate appearances against the Phils, he’s .338/.366/.591 with 8 of his total 43 home runs. Derrek Lee has pretty good career numbers versus the Phils, but this year he was out of his mind in 12 games against them: .348./.392/.630, with three homers and 13 RBI (five more than he recorded facing any other opponent). On the pitching side, Jair Jurrjens has held the Phils to a .190 batting average against in 59.2 innings against them; Derek Lowe has a career 3.21 ERA against the Phils, much better than his 3.85 overall mark; Tommy Hanson put up a sparkling 1.21 ERA in four 2010 starts against the Phils. That leaves Tim Hudson, the Braves’ ace, as the Atlanta pitcher who hasn’t shown himself to be even better facing the Phillies than against other opponents. (Hudson went 2-1, 3.79 in three starts against the Phils this season; his lifetime ERA facing them is also 3.79).
5) Pitching Matchups for the Ages: We’re Phillies fans, and we want our team to win. But we’re also baseball fans, and my contention is that no baseball fan worth his or her salt can deny that Roy Halladay, Roy Oswalt and Cole Hamels against Lincecum, Matt Cain and Sanchez is just a thrilling prospect. I say this without disrespect to the Braves’ starters, who are pretty good themselves—given Atlanta’s injuries, they’re the team’s biggest remaining strength--but Hudson and Lowe have neither the "it factor" nor the attainments, in terms of no-hitters and Cy Youngs and playoff MVPs, of the Big Three on each side.
The talents of the Giants’ Big Three (and their fourth, rookie Madison Bumgarner) likely mean that the games will be close and hard-fought—with the importance of every play, every pitch, magnified, the tension ratcheting up each inning. Call me old-fashioned, but that seems like how playoff baseball should be. Go Giants!