Friday October 15th, 2010

As his Giants teammates created mayhem around him in celebration of their playoff series win over the Braves, rookie catcher Buster Posey stood sedately in the corner of the clubhouse

After one player threw a bevy of water and ice on Posey and the reporters he was talking to, Posey paused and said, "I don't get that." He didn't elaborate, but given his manner, it seemed that he was not only talking about how he didn't understand why ice was used as a projectile but also why the club was so raucous after a Division Series clincher. There's still work to be done.

When asked about the benefit of two more days' rest, with San Francisco having finished Atlanta in four games, Posey quickly lapsed into a chip-on-his-shoulder series analysis entering the National League Championship Series against the Phillies, beginning Saturday night in Philadelphia.

"We've heard a lot of talk about how good Philly's staff is," he said, "but we think we've got three guys that line up right there with them."

From the start of the postseason it was clear that the Giants posed the biggest threat to league favorite Philadelphia because of their starting pitching. While Tim Lincecum is a household name, Matt Cain is more slowly gaining appreciation and Jonathan Sanchez is still better known for his no-hitter last year than his overall body of work.

Since Sept. 1, San Francisco's starting pitchers had a 2.36 ERA, .201 average against and 187 strikeouts in 179 1/3 innings over their final 29 regular-season games. That's a hair better than the more celebrated Phillies, who had a 2.68 ERA, .226 average against and 157 strikeouts in 184 2/3 innings.

The difference, of course, is in the offenses -- San Francisco backed its starters with 4.0 runs per nine innings; Philadelphia supported its rotation with 5.9 runs per nine innings.

The duel between former Cy Young winners -- Philadelphia's Roy Halladay, who threw a no-hitter in the NLDS, and San Francisco's Tim Lincecum, who threw a 14-strikeout, two-hit shutout -- may only happen once.

The veteran workhorse Halladay is a strong candidate to start Game 4 on short rest, at least if the Phillies trail in the series, because that would also set him up for a Game 7 start on short rest.

Giants manager Bruce Bochy, however, has used more Lincecum more conservatively, as his young ace has never started on three days' rest. That's not likely to change this series, particularly in light of the recent report that Lincecum has a blister on his throwing hard, so don't expect to see Lincecum back on the mound until Game 5 at the earliest.

Their teams will be favored in each of their starts if the aces go off-kilter after Game 1, making their one head-to-head battle each team's best chance to beat their opponent's ace.

The Phillies are the World Series favorites, but like a football team with a shaky field goal kicker, they continue their postseason run with a wobbly back end of the bullpen. Lidge, of course, helped lead the Phillies to the 2008 World Series championship with a perfect regular and post-season before enduring a wretched 2009 in which he went 0-8 with 11 blown saves a 7.21 ERA.

He righted the ship with a solid second half of 2010, saving 17 of 18 chances and allowing just two earned runs in 24 2/3 innings (0.73 ERA) since the beginning of August, but he had four blown saves and a 5.57 ERA through the end of July. Even in September there was one game that showed glimpses of Lidge's prior struggles: against the Marlins on Sept. 15, he faced five batters, getting one out and allowing a single and three walks.

The Giants, meanwhile, have reliable Brian Wilson, who saved 48 of 53 games in the regular season with a 1.81 ERA. He did blow a save in NLDS Game 2 but only when called upon with two runners already on and needing six outs. Later in the series, Bochy shied away from calling upon Wilson so early.

After winning the 2008 title, the Phillies allowed Burrell, their former No. 1 overall pick and left field mainstay for nine years, to leave the organization without great effort to retain him. New general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. had someone else in mind and quickly inked Raul Ibañez to a three-year, $31.5 million contract to take over in left field.

As far as complimentary pieces go, Ibañez is a luxury. With Chase Utley, Ryan Howard and Jayson Werth occupying the middle of the lineup, Ibañez doesn't need to carry the offensive load, but at times he can. He hit 34 home runs and drove in 93 runs in his All-Star 2009 season. This season his power was down (16 HRs, 83 RBIs) but in the second half he batted .309 with a .375 on-base and .494 slugging percentage to keep the Phillies afloat while Utley and Howard missed time with injuries.

Burrell, on the other hand, began the year with the Rays (his second in Tampa Bay) before being designated for assignment for his unproductive play. Back in the NL with the Giants, he's been asked to carry a lion's share of the offense, batting fifth behind the rookie Posey. With San Francisco he hit 18 home runs with a .266/.364/.509 batting line in 96 games and slugged a three-run homer in the first inning of NLDS Game 2. The onus is on him to produce power for the Giants' middling offense, and he'll need to produce early in games -- he often gets replaced for defense by the seventh inning.

The Phillies stack their lineup with power lefties, including Utley, Howard and Ibañez, so it's natural to think that their Kryptonite would be pitchers who throw with their left hand -- or "wrong hand," as it's often called in baseball scouting circles. That hasn't entirely played out for Philadelphia this season, which has gone 69-45 against right-handed starters (.605 winning percentage) and not much worse against lefties with a 28-20 record (.583). That's because Carlos Ruiz, Jayson Werth and switch-hitters Jimmy Rollins and Shane Victorino all mash lefties from the right-handed batter's box.

The Giants' Sanchez, at least, has still found success against Philadelphia. It's not just that he won both starts against the Giants this year, winning once in each ballpark while allowing just two earned runs over 13 innings, it's that he is now 3-1 with a 1.82 ERA (five earned runs in 24 2/3 innings) with 28 strikeouts in last two seasons against the Phillies. That's a key reason he was bumped up to start Game 2, particularly since he's more of a groundball pitcher than Matt Cain and that game will be in cozy Citizens Bank Park in Philadelphia.

Neither Placido Polanco nor Pablo Sandoval has contributed much from the plate recently. Polanco, Philadelphia's third baseman, went 1-for-9 in two NLDS games, missing the first one with back soreness. In the season's first four months he hit six home runs and slugged anywhere from .397 (July) to .469 (May), but in August that slipped to .322 and then to .315 after Sept. 1. For him such a drop is almost certainly tied to his the bone chip in his left elbow, pain he acknowledged that he might not have played through had he not been playing for a contending team.

Sandoval doesn't appear to have an injury to blame his hitting woes on. After a breakout 2009, the Giants' third baseman, affectionately known as Panda, has regressed considerably. In '09 he batted .330/.387/.556 with 25 homers and 90 RBIs; in '10 he hit .268/.323/.409 with 13 homers and 63 RBIs, as well as grounding into an NL-leading 26 double plays. He went 1-for-7 in NLDS Games 1 and 2 and made two defensive miscues -- an error on a throw and a violent collision with Posey while chasing a popup.

As a result he was benched for the last two games of the NLDS in favor of Mike Fontenot, a light hitter who nevertheless contributed a triple in Game 3. But it's Sandoval who is the real offensive threat and the type of hitter -- when things are going well -- who could be a difference-maker for the Giants, especially against the Phillies' starters. Sandoval is 2-for-4 against Halladay, 2-for-9 against Philadelphia's Game 2 pitcher Roy Oswalt and 3-for-9 with a homer off Game 3 starter Cole Hamels.

It might be in Bochy's best interest to give Panda the Burrell treatment -- start him, give him three at bats and then replace him for defense.

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