Phillies, Giants heading in opposite directions as rivalry escalates
SAN FRANCISCO -- There were no blows exchanged Saturday afternoon at AT&T Park. Unless you count the gut-punch the Phillies delivered to the reeling Giants.
These are two teams feeling each other out, with all eyes trained on an October rematch. But right here in early August, they feel very much like clubs heading in opposite directions.
The Phillies -- the best team in the majors -- have won nine straight. They haven't lost since acquiring right-handed slugger Hunter Pence. Their last loss was on July 28, when Tim Lincecum shut them down.
The Giants, in contrast, will rely on Lincecum to salvage their pride Sunday in the regular-season finale between the teams. The defending World Series champions will also ask their ace to stop the bleeding: the Giants have dropped the first three games to the Phillies, being outscored 14-3 along the way, and have lost eight of their last nine, their worst stretch of the season.
"You have to figure out a way to win these games," Giants manager Bruce Bochy said. "You don't expect to score a lot of runs against a staff like that. What's important is how you deal with it."
Both teams dealt with their emotions Saturday. A day after tempers flared, benches cleared and the simmering bad blood between last year's NLCS foes boiled over onto the field, all was relatively calm. Bochy said he expects to hear from Major League Baseball on Monday about any fines or suspensions resulting from the fracas that was initiated when Giants reliever Ramon Ramirez drilled Shane Victorino in the back.
That was just the latest installment of what is becoming an increasingly testy and entertaining affair between these two teams. There was the bench-clearer in the NLCS last year in Philadelphia, after starter Jonathan Sanchez plunked Chase Utley. Lately, there's been a back-and-forth over Charlie Manuel's refusal to label the Giants' pitchers "great." It's a growing West Coast-East Coast rivalry by the two teams that lead the National League in attendance and have energized, passionate fan bases who throw verbal haymakers on blogs and Twitter.
But this week in San Francisco, the rivalry has felt decidedly lopsided. Does winning the four-game series in dominating fashion amount to a statement by the Phillies?
"No because they won the series in Philly," said starter Cole Hamels. "They have great pitching, great hitting. Both teams are going to be playing against each other in October.
"We're trying to get to the World Series and they are, too."
Manuel also declined to publicly make too much of his team's supremacy, though he did note "things are clicking for us."
"Anytime you win a series it's big, anytime you come on the road and win it's big," Manuel said. "Then again we're an everyday team: we don't look back, we try to look forward."
"We know how good the Giants are. At the same time, if we play the way we're capable of playing and stay relaxed and focused and concentrate on one day at a time that works for us."
This was the pitcher's duel in which these two teams specialize. The Phillies' fearsome lineup didn't make much noise Saturday. But it was just enough to tag Matt Cain for two runs in the first inning, one coming on a passed ball by catcher Eli Whiteside.
That was all the cushion Hamels needed. He threw his second complete game of the season, and was one out away from a shutout before Pablo Sandoval hit a home run in the ninth inning. Hamels was irritated he couldn't match teammate Cliff Lee who threw a shutout on Thursday.
"A shut out is more important than a complete game," Hamels said. "Cliff just got one. We're all trying to compete against each other."
It's debatable how much pride any pitcher should take in taming the Giants' lineup right now. The Giants have the second-worst offense in the league, ahead of only the Mariners in runs scored. Earlier in the season, they were getting the timely hit, doing just enough to eek out wins. But since the All-Star break, their smoke-and-mirrors-and-pitching act has fizzled. Hard luck Cain spoke his well-rehearsed lines about pushing through the tough times.
"We can't play worse than what we're playing right now," Carlos Beltran said. "Offensively things just aren't going well."
Beltran, of course, was the Giants' big trade deadline acquisition. He arrived the night of Lincecum's win in Philadelphia and was expected to bolster the Giants' struggling offense. It hasn't happened and the comparisons between the Beltran and Pence acquisitions are heating up.
Beltran has been around long enough to not be worried.
"That's baseball," he said. "Some teams get hot and some get cold. Right now we're cold. They're hot."
The Giants went through similar struggles last August when they lost 14 of 23 while adding new players and shuffling their lineup. It wasn't until early September that the team jelled and made its run into October.
The Giants have changed their chemistry again in recent weeks. Saturday's lineup included five position players who were either with other teams or on the Giants' bench at the beginning of the season. But it isn't clicking.
On the surface, these teams look like they're going in opposite directions. But both are wary of making any August statements.
"I know a lot of people will look at this like that," Ryan Howard said. "But when you get to October it's a whole different animal."
And both teams expect to be there, renewing this testy rivalry.