Results tagged ‘ Postseason ’

2010 World Series Primer

World Series 2010 Small Logo.jpgAfter spending the last few days hearing the media churn on relentlessly about the lack of a so-called “marquee presence” to add to the World Series appeal, I think I’m finally ready to do my part and help those with questions to wrap their collective heads around the actual point of the postseason. That being:

The team that keeps winning gets to walk home with the trophy.

It’s a remarkably simple concept. And for a league that has preached the virtues of parity for years, this should be a celebration of sorts.

Years of work to help bridge the gab between MLB’s richest and poorest, and even those stuck in the middle, has finally paid off with a Fall Classic that has historic implications.

Despite the fact that the Texas Rangers and San Francisco Giants have not been as fortunate in October as the dragons they slayed to get to the World Series, neither team was ready to roll over and allow a rematch of last year’s series.

This World Series matchup contains not only great storylines but also great human interest stories.

For Texas, there is the well-chronicled comeback of Josh Hamilton, followed up by Rangers ownership’s faith in manager Ron Washington, who made some poor personal decisions but was allowed to stay the course and lead his team to the World Series.

For San Francisco, there is the clutch hitting of late season waiver claim Cody Ross, Then there’s the slim margins of victory that have led to a brand of baseball that Giants fans have dubbed as “torture.”

And of course there is Brian Wilson‘s beard.

The two teams are not complete strangers. A 15-7 lifetime Interleague mark favors the Giants, who have won seven games in a row over Texas and claimed victory in 11 of the last 12 regular season battles between the two teams.

After 50 years and two cities in the league, the Rangers started this run through October by defeating the Tampa Bay Rays to win their first postseason series in franchise history. Then they came just one big New York inning away from sweeping the much vaunted Yankees right out of the American League Championship Series.

Mays Catch.jpgStill playing in New York, the Giants last won the World Series in 1954 over the Cleveland Indians. It was in that series against the Tribe that Willie Mays made his historic catch at the old Polo Grounds.

The Giants moved out west in 1958, but have been unsuccessful in three trips to the World Series while in San Fran. A very different Giants club was just five outs away from a winning it all in 2002, before the Anaheim Angels rallied to take Game 6 and then went on to win a decisive Game 7 the next night.

The Rangers first joined the American League in 1965 as the
second incarnation of the Washington Senators, relocating to Texas prior
to the 1972 season.

As you might have gathered, these are two completely different clubs. The Giants are strong on pitching and rely on timely hits, while the Rangers hit the ball with authority, run the bases well and rely on key pitching performances to hold opponents in check.

Texas has left-hander Cliff Lee, one of the biggest weapons on the mound in recent memory. With his October work over the past two seasons, Lee is cobbling together one of the best postseason résumés in the history of baseball.

As good as Lee has been individually, the San Francisco pitching staff has been collectively. Giants hurlers boast a 2.47 ERA in 91 playoff innings and have held opposing hitters to just a .199 average thus far this postseason.

When it comes to offenses, the Rangers appear to have an edge there. Texas hit .276/.338/.419 and scored 787 runs as a club in 2010, while San Francisco’s team slash line was .257/.321/.408 with 697 runs scored.

Since they have the luxury of the designated hitter, the AL team should hold the advantage upon a cursory evaluation of the team offensive statistics. There is a rather vast chasm between the hitting exploits of Vladimir Guerrero and those of Giants pitchers and pinch-hitters. So take it all with a grain of salt.

The Rangers and Giants both hit exactly 162 home runs as a team in regular season. Texas, however, utilizes the speed game more than their NL counterpart, stealing 123 bases to San Francisco’s 55 this year.

Texas has put on a postseason power display while running wild on the basepaths thus far in October. As a team, the Rangers are hitting .281 with 17 homers and 59 runs scored in 11 playoff games. Led by Elvis Andrus‘ seven steals, the Rangers have swiped 15 bases and been caught just twice this postseason. That gives the Texas offense a rare balance of power and speed. 

Offensively, the Giants have not exactly been the biggest run producers in October. Through their first 10 postseason games, San Francisco is hitting .231 as a club and averaging just 3.0 runs per game. Their defining work with the bats seems to come in the clutch, with 15 of the 30 Giants runs coming with two outs in an inning.

Cody Ross has been the man the Giants have turned to throughout the postseason. He’s shown not only a flair for the dramatic, but an ability to give his team a lift when it’s needed the most. Ross has broken up three different playoff no-hitters with solo-homers. His heroics in the NLCS netted Ross series MVP honors.

The Game 1 Pitching Matchup:

Cliff Lee WS.jpgA pair of Cy Young Award winners will lock horns in the opening contest, which pits two distinctly different styles against each other.

Trying to write economically about Cliff Lee’s postseason career is probably one of the hardest things I have ever had to do. Where do you start?

How about his absolutely unheard of 34/1 K/BB ratio this postseason. Or maybe his six game postseason winning streak, second only to Bob Gibson in baseball history. Or maybe the fact that Lee (1.26) possesses the third lowest ERA among all pitchers with at least five postseason starts, trailing the likes of Sandy Koufax (0.95) and Christy Mathewson (1.06).

Lee (3-0) tamed the Yankees bats as a member of the Phillies World Series squad last year and did it again for the Rangers in this year’s ALCS. He brings a streak of 14 consecutive scoreless innings into tonight’s start, and has struck out 10 or more batters in each of his three playoff outings with Texas. One more 10+ K performance would give Lee the most in MLB postseason history (6).

Tim Lincecum WS.jpgTim Lincecum has been putting together a fine playoff run of his own for the Giants, twirling a dominating two-hit shut-out against Atlanta in Game 1 of the NLDS before splitting a pair of decisions against the Phillies in the NLCS.

Lincecum (2-1) has piled up 30 strikeouts in 23.1 innings so far this postseason The aptly dubbed “Freak” is a former first round draft choice who has been silencing critics throughout his career. Nine teams passed over the hard throwing yet slightly built Lincecum in the first round of the 2006 draft, fearing his body would never be able to hold up under the incredible strain of his mechanics. If his early results are any indication, Lincecum is doing just fine, thanks.

Two Cy Young Awards later, the 26-year-old Lincecum is anchoring the pitching staff which turned in the best ERA (3.36) in all of baseball this season. Lincecum will need to channel the same kind of electric performance that he turned in against the Braves in the NLDS to get keep the high-powered Rangers offense in check. That makes a nice segway to the…

Series Keys:

San Francisco — The Giants will need more strong pitching from Lincecum, Matt Cain, Jonathan Sanchez and rookie Madison Bumgarner in order to lay the foundation for success in the series. Texas has Hamilton, Guerrero, and Nelson Cruz among other very capable sluggers who can turn the game around with one swing of the bat.

If they can avoid a barrage of Rangers longballs and maintain some semblance of order on the basepaths, then there is a chance that San Francisco could minimize damage long enough for their offense to produce the necessary run support. I wouldn’t count on the bats breaking out in a big way for the duration of the series, but the Giants should be due for at least one big scoring night.

Freshman catcher Buster Posey has made himself right at home in his playoff debut, racking up a franchise rookie record with 11-hits so far this October. Veteran bats Aubrey Huff – who led the Giants in most offensive categories, Pat Burrell – who enjoyed a renaissance after returning to the NL at midseason, and Pablo Sandoval will all need to do their part to help generate the support that Lincecum and company will need.

San Francisco has one of the deepest bullpens in the NL, and have used it to their advantage throughout the playoffs. Anchored by the bearded-wonder Brian Wilson, the Giants got seven scoreless innings out of the pen in the NLCS clinching win against Philadelphia. Suffice it to say, manager Bruce Bochy would like to avoid doing that on a nightly basis.

The Giants have gone 4-1 on the road this postseason, but they want to grab the early series lead in order to make the most of the homefield advantage that was provided by the NL’s victory in the All-Star Game. The Giants can ill-afford to see the series shift to Texas with the hot-hitting Rangers up 2-0.

Texas — If Lee and/or C.J. Wilson can give the Rangers an early lead in the series, then there is a chance the Rangers can bring the series home and do some real damage. Hamilton hit .390 with 22 homers and 57 RBI’s in Arlington this season and is coming off ALCS MVP honors. His presence in the lineup will be a clear and present danger to the Giants hopes of quieting the Rangers run scoring attack.

The Rangers red-hot lineup will force Bochy and the Giants to pick their poison. Nelson Cruz (.371-13-42), Vladimir Guerrero (.315-16-63), and Michael Young (.307-16-55) likewise enjoyed the home cooking for a Texas club that batted .288/.352/.447
at home during the regular season. Luckily for the Giants, this series starts with the Rangers playing the visitor’s role.

I mentioned the Giants had the lifetime advantage against the Rangers during Interleague matchups, but the Rangers enjoyed their slate of games against the NL in 2010. Texas went 14-4 in Interleague play, while the Giants finished 7-8 against the AL this season.

At the back of the bullpen for the Rangers is the electric right arm of 22-year-old rookie closer Neftali Feliz, who strangely enough has not registered a save in the postseason. His early work was definitely shaky, with five walks and a home run allowed over his first three appearances. Feliz bounced back with scoreless frames in his final two outings against the Yankees, but if the Rangers are going to edge the Giants in close contests then Feliz must be ready to slam door.

NLDS Game 3: Conrad’s errors give Giants edge

Conrad_Alone.jpg

The Recap…
 
Atlanta was one strike away from victory before the San Fransisco Giants stunned the Braves with a ninth inning rally in Game 3 of the National League Division Series on Sunday.        

The defensive woes of second baseman Brooks Conrad fueled the Giants comeback. Conrad committed three errors on the night, including a costly miscue on a ground ball that allowed the eventual winning run to score in the top of the ninth as the Giants took a 3-2 victory.

Momentum has been swinging back and forth between the two clubs, in both single contests and the series itself.

Great pitching performances by both Tim Hudson and Jonathan Sanchez had the two teams locked squarely in another one-run battle into the late frames.

Hudson went seven innings and allowed just one unearned run on four hits and four walks while striking out five. The lone run against him came across during the second inning, when Conrad dropped a flyball in shallow right field to allow Mike Fontenot to cross the plate and break the scoreless tie.

Sanchez continued the Giants starters’ penchant for big strike-out performances, fanning 11 men and allowing just two hits and a walk over 7 1/3 innings of work.

Atlanta moved quickly against Sanchez in the eighth as Alex Gonzalez stroked a single to give the Braves just their second hit of the night. Conrad’s nightmare continued, this time with the bat, as he popped up a bunt attempt for the first out of the inning.

From there, the managerial wheels began to turn. Braves manager Bobby Cox sent right-handed hitting Troy Glaus to the plate to pinch-hit for the lefty swinging Rick Ankiel. That move prompted Giants skipper Bruce Bochy to lift the lefty Sanchez in favor of righty reliever Sergio Romo (1-0).

Cox countered by replacing Glaus with lefty bat Eric Hinske, who made the move look like a stroke of genius when he wrapped a line-drive two-run homer around the right field foul pole to put the Braves ahead by a run.

But just when the dramatic pinch-hit homer by Hinske gave the Braves a 2-1 lead, disaster struck an inning later in the form of Conrad’s third error of the night.

Hard-throwing rookie Craig Kimbrel started the ninth, but his one-out walk to Travis Ishikawa breathed life into a stunned Giants club. After a strikeout of Andres Torres pressed the Giants down to their final out, Freddy Sanchez rolled Kimbrel’s two-strike slider back up the middle to put the potential go-ahead run aboard as well.

With two Giants runners on base, Cox again played the matchup game and brought in southpaw Mike Dunn to face lefty-hitting slugger Aubrey Huff. That move backfired when Huff lined a single to right that plated Ishikawa and tied the game 2-2.

Conrad’s third and final gaffe of the evening would follow, and it proved to be the Braves undoing. Buster Posey slapped a sharp grounder that skipped between the second baseman’s legs, allowing Sanchez to come across with the eventual winning run.

The Breakdown…

 
Atlanta proved to be one of the most resilient teams in all of baseball throughout the season, and they will need to continue those kinds of exploits if they hope to continue playing beyond Monday.

That said, the Giants gave the Braves a taste of their own medicine with the late-inning come-from-behind victory. Atlanta had 25 victories in their last at-bat during the regular season, and one already in the NLDS, but the Hinske homer would not stand up in the face of a ninth inning collapse.

Brooks Conrad’s night became the stuff on infamy. In the aftermath, columns that threw Conrad in with the names of “the Ralph Brancas, the Bill Buckners, the Leon Durhams” popped up almost instantaneously.

While most of them were able to keep in mind that the Braves roster has been –  and continues to be – drastically altered by injuries suffered to key players, it’s still hard to fathom how one player could have a defensive game of such epically poor proportions. It was so much so that “Brooks Conrad” was the number two trending topic on Twitterin the entire world in the hours following the game.

Conrad_in_field.jpg

Conrad has served much of his 10-year professional career trying to find his way into the big leagues after showing a decent bat and little else in the minors for three organizations. Some forget, or simply fail to realize that the only reason that he is in the starting lineup for a playoff team is the number of key injuries to the Atlanta infield.

His story should have been marked among the highlights of what was an incredible 2010 season for a Braves club that had missed the playoffs every season since 2006. Conrad became the master of clutch hits, and clutch grand slams for that matter. His game-winning hits represent yet another piece of the puzzle that has the Braves battling for postseason glory in the NLDS.

Sadly, one cannot overlook the fact that Conrad’s glove has long been a big part of the reason that he has never had the opportunity to hold down and everyday job in the majors. He committed seven errors in 37 games at third base this year, and his throwing issues there in the final week of the season forced Cox to move him back over to second base to keep the best-hitting infield option the Braves had remaining in the line-up.

It’s a fact of the game that when you’re playing badly on defense, the ball will find you. I think we’ve all seen that now.

There’s no way to bring back Chipper Jones or Martin Prado. Their seasons are over. Troy Glaus lacks mobility and has played two innings at third base in the majors this season. Add to that that Glaus missed most of 2009 due to injury and then moved across the diamond to first base in Atlanta. That may not stop him from finding his way back in the lineup at the hot corner based on his key double play from Game 2.

Diory Hernandez, a career .138 major league hitter in parts of two seasons, is primarily a shortstop. He has only played eight games at second base over the past two seasons (majors and minors), but perhaps he should have checked in defensively given the struggles Conrad has suffered with the glove. There’s no going back now.

There simply weren’t better options to be had at the time, but Conrad’s defensive lapses may force Cox to explore one of those options tonight. My guess would be Glaus over Hernandez, as the offense can’t afford to lose the power threat.

While much of the blame will sit squarely on the shoulders of Conrad’s defensive shortcomings, the loss of closer Billy Wagner was evident in the ninth inning struggles.

Cox chose to go with hard-throwing rookie Craig Kimbrel to start the ninth, but the righty put the tying and go-ahead runs aboard be
fore being lifted with two outs in the frame.

A questionable pitch selection by Kimbrel in giving Sanchez a slider after repeated late swings on high-octane fastballs may have been the final straw in the rookie’s outing. There’s no questioning Kimbrel’s stuff, but after issuing a walk and yielding a base hit on a secondary pitch that puts both the potential tying and wining runs aboard, it’s hard to blame Cox for making a move.

Aubrey_Huff_Shell.jpg

Some would decry the decision to use the situational lefty Dunn, citing that Huff hits LHP’s better than RHP’s, but that is a fallacy. Sure, Huff had a hit against Jonny Venters prior, but over the course of his career, Huff has been more productive against RHP. Huff had strong stats against lefties in 2010, but his slash lines were roughly the same. Again, choice is often dictated by track record and calculated risk.

Postseason games are not a good place for a young closer’s growing pains. If Cox leaves Kimbrel in the game with Dunn warm in the pen and Huff does his damage against Kimbrel, then critics will ask how could Cox not go to the lefty and play the matchup. It’s a classic damned if you do, damned if you don’t situation.

As it happens, you have to make a choice. All numbers aside, there’s a 50/50 chance that the batter is either going to make an out or get on base. That is the only percentage that matters. Beyond that, it’s hunches and educated guesses.

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: Second-guessing is easy. It’s the first-guessing that’s hard.

Regardless of having the luxury of hindsight being what it is, there is no guarantee that Kimbrel retires Huff. One can’t simply assume, because there’s absolutely no way of knowing. Given the eventual outcome of the game, of course the masses are going to side with any other option that was available at that time over the stark reality of a frustrating loss.

That’s baseball. That’s sports. That’s life.

One of the best pieces that I have ever read on second-guessing was written by former player turned ESPN analyst Doug Glanville. He is a very talented wordsmith who has been inside the world where most of us can only imagine the inner workings. I’ll leave you with that as we get ready to discover what changes may be in store for the Braves line-up…

Doug Glanville – As an authority, expect second-guessing

NLDS Game 2: Ankiel makes a splash

Ankiel_points.jpg

The Recap:
 
The Atlanta Braves have been a team that has taken to coming from behind to win games through 2010. Why should the postseason be any different?

Ankiel HR.jpg

Rick Ankiel belted a towering solo-shot into McCovey Cove in the 11th inning gave the Braves their first lead of the series and propelled Atlanta to a 5-4 win over the San Francisco Giants in Game 2 of the National League Division Series on Friday.

Staring at an early 4-0 hole and with just four innings turned in by Tommy Hanson, the Braves offense was still struggling to find themselves against another strong Giants righty starter.

Matt Cain worked 6 1/3 innings and allowed just one unearned run, but this game would be decided in an extra-inning battle of the bullpens.

The Giants jumped on top thanks to Pat Burrell‘s three-run homer in the first inning and added another run in the second when Cain helped his own cause with an RBI-single that built the 4-0 San Francisco advantage.

When Hanson departed after just four innings of work, Atlanta turned to the one of the team’s biggest strengths, a multi-talented bullpen.

Six Braves relievers combined to turn in the seven scoreless innings that closed out the game. A trio of righties and a trio of lefties took to the mound, holding the Giants to just four hits and a walk from the fifth inning on.

As the game rolled on, the bats slowly began to come around for the Braves. Brian McCann stroked an RBI-single in the sixth inning to give his club its first run of the series and cut the deficit to three runs.

Atlanta mounted a late inning comeback that was vintage for the 2010 regular season. Still trailing by three-runs in the eighth and with all-star closer Brian Wilson on the in relief,  Melky Cabrera reached on a throwing error that allowed a run to score. Alex Gonzalez capped the three-run rally with a game-tying two-run double that knotted things up, 4-4.

Extra-innings would eventually follow, and it was there that the Braves suffered would could be a substantial blow to the strong relief corps. Closer Billy Wagner was forced to depart the game with just one out in the 10th inning with what was later diagnosed as strained left oblique, which puts his availability for the remainder of the postseason in serious jeopardy.

With Wagner out, Atlanta turned to the once-maligned Kyle Farnsworth to extinguish the fire that was started when Edgar Renteria opened the inning with a bunt single and advanced to second on a sacrifice. Farnsworth hit Freddy Sanchez with a pitch and then walked Aubrey Huff to load the bases with one out for rookie sensation Buster Posey.

What followed was the stuff of legend. Troy Glaus, who had seen limited playing time over the season’s final six weeks was in at third base – a position he played in the majors on just one prior occasion during the regular season.

Posey battled Farnsworth before eventually sending a sharply hit grounder to third base that was fielded by Glaus and fired to second to start an inning-ending 5-4-3 double play.

Atlanta turned in a big league best 46 come-from-behind wins in the regular season, but it was Ankiel who would provide the first of the playoffs. His splash down homer off Giants reliever Ramón Ramírez (0-1) broked the 4-4 tie and put the Braves ahead to stay, 5-4.

Farnsworth (1-0) finished off the Giants by pitching a scoreless 10th inning and earning the victory that ties the NLDS at a game apiece as the series shifts to Turner Field for the next two games.

GAME NOTES Braves manager Bobby Cox was ejected for the third time his postseason career (158th overall time) after arguing a play at first base with umpire Paul Emmel, the same man who missed a crucial call on a stolen base at second in Game 1 that led to the only run of the night… Alex Gonzalez was just 2-for-35 to close out the regular season and hitless in three at-bats against Tim Lincecum a night ago before lacing the game-tying double in the eighth inning… Rick Ankiel’s extra-inning blast was his first career postseason homer… The Braves acquired both Ankiel, who drove in the winning run, and Kyle Farnsworth, who notched the victory, from Kansas City in the same trade on July 31… Giants closer Brian Wilson entered the game with no outs in the eighth inning, but had never previously recorded a six-out save in his career… Billy Wagner will be forced to sit out the NLCS, should the Braves advance, if he is replaced on the NLDS roster due to injury… Troy Glaus had played just two innings at third base with Atlanta this season after making 1,336 appearances there over his 12-year career entering the season… Atlanta committed the third most errors by any team in the NL (126) during the regular season, played errorless ball on Friday while the Giants, who committed the third fewest amount of errors (73), were charged with two errors on the night, including one by Pablo Sandoval during the Braves three-run eighth inning rally… Tim Hudson will face Jonathan Sanchez of the Giants in Game 3 on Sunday.

COMING SOON: The Breakdown

Melky in the middle for Game 2?

Now, I know that the very fact the Atlanta Braves are batting Melky Cabrera in the fifth spot in the order is far from ideal and somewhat confusing to some, but I’m going to try and construct a theory as to why he may – surprisingly – be a classic case of making the best of what’s around.

Here is the Game 2 lineup, before we get started:

Infante, 3B
Heyward, RF
Lee, 1B
McCann, C
Cabrera, LF
Conrad, 2B
Gonzalez, SS
Ankiel, CF
Hanson, SP

Injuries have claimed the Braves starting third baseman twice this season. The absence of Chipper Jones and his hot corner fill-in Martin Prado have been felt in the field and in the lineup. Both men were manning the #3 spot in the order at the time of their respective injuries.

Melky_Spring_photo.jpg

When a team loses their number three hitter, not once but twice, and still makes it into the postseason, then they have already had to “make the best of what’s around” in every meaning of the phrase.

The Braves have the best manager in baseball at maximizing the impact of all 25 men on the roster. Often second guessed but seldom, if ever out-managed, Bobby Cox no doubt spent a fair amount of time pouring over his decision before eventually settling on Cabrera and not Matt Diaz, Nate McLouth or Eric Hinske in the Atlanta outfield for Game 2 of the NLDS.

One of the things that his players will always say is that Bobby has a way of making each man feel like he can be the difference maker on any given night. That could play a role here as well. 

I can’t explain why Cabrera is hitting fifth in this line-up. In a perfect world, he wouldn’t be.  What I can
tell you that the men batting behind him or those on the bench don’t really offer much in the form of alternatives.
 
Melky Cabrera: Batted 266-3-33 with a .365/.317 (SLG/OBP) vs. RHP this season (RHP Matt Cain starts Game 2). With runners on base, his average was a healthy .274 with 38 RBI in 215 AB’s. 

Brooks Conrad – For all his heroics, and they were many, Conrad only had 156 regular season at-bats, but you could certainly bat him ahead of Cabrera if you like. His situational stats with runners on base are strong (.274-5-30 in 69 AB’s), and include an excellent .378 AVG with 26 RBI’s in 45 AB’s with RISP.

Alex Gonzalez – Finished the season 2-for-his-last-35 and promptly went 0-for-3 vs. Lincecum in Game 1. He’s been ice cold, and that’s not exactly the kind of thing you can afford to just trot out there in fifth spot and hope it improves.

Rick Ankiel – Batted just .210-2-9 in and struck out 42 times in 119 AB’s with Atlanta. He has provided some pop in the past, but his stint with the Braves (47 games) has not been very productive.

Nate McLouth – He will be watching from the bench, but McLouth hit just .190-6-24 in a disastrous season and has seen his range in center field diminish. All six homers were hit against righties, but his .205/.368/.317 (AVG/SLG/OBP) vs. RHP this season does not scream middle of the order bat either.

Eric Hinske – In addition to losing a power threat pinch-hitter by starting him in left field, the AJC’s Dave O’Brien was nice enough to point out (via Twitter) that – “In his past 48 games, Hinske has hit .190 (16-for-84) w/ 3 homers, 12 RBI, 23 Ks, a .299 OBP and .333 SLG” 

A cursory look at the numbers Cabrera posted this season would tell you that he has not been especially impactful to this point, and has looked like little more than a fourth outfielder who was pressed into regular play with the rash of injuries and ineffectiveness that ravaged the Braves outfield.

One thing that Cabrera has that others (save Hinske) do not possess is that all-too-valuable postseason experience, so maybe that played some role in Bobby’s final decision.

Like I said before this whole entry really got going, having to bat Cabrera fifth in a playoff game was never part of the Braves master plan, but they’re way beyond that now. The Braves need a productive showing collectively from the offense in order to even the NLDS at a game apiece and make a run deep into October.

NLDS Game 1: Lincecum gives Giants 1-0 win

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The Recap:
 
Atlanta’s return to the postseason following a four-year absence hit a speed bump in the person of Giants ace Tim Lincecum.

San Francisco’s diminutive flame-thrower sliced and diced the Braves lineup to the tune of 14 strikeouts while tossing a two-hit complete game shut-out in Game 1 of the National League Division Series on Thursday.

Pitching dominated the night. Lincecum’s mastery was met blow-for-blow by Braves starter Derek Lowe in the early going, before a blown call and a misplayed ball gave the Giants the only run they would need to grab the series opening victory.

Scoreless in the bottom of the fourth, Cody Ross gave the Giants a 1-0 lead with a single that plated catcher Buster Posey. A controversial stolen base call on the back end of what appeared to be a strike-em-out, throw-em-out double play allowed the Giants to continue their quest to supply some run support for Lincecum (1-0).

Posey had opened the inning with a single and was in motion when a strikeout was recorded at the expense of Pat Burrell. Second base umpire Paul Emmel called Posey safe, though replays showed Braves second baseman Brooks Conrad tagged Posey prior to his foot reaching the bag.

Following a strikeout of Juan Uribe, Atlanta opted to walk Pablo Sandoval intentionally and go after the right-hand hitting Ross. That move backfired when Ross lined a run-scoring single under the outstretched glove of third baseman Omar Infante.

Lowe (0-1) lasted 5 1/3 innings before being lifted in favor of lefty Jonny Venters in the sixth. The veteran right-hander surrendered a run on four hits, walked four and struck out six in taking the loss.

Though Infante struck for a game-opening double, it would not prove to be a harbinger of things to come. Instead, Lincecum harnessed the adrenaline and struck out Brian McCann and Derrek Lee to close the inning and begin his night of dominance.

Only a fourth inning walk to Jayson Heyward allowed the Braves to put a runner aboard between the first and seventh innings, when Brian McCann laced a one-out double in the seventh inning.

Those 14 strikeouts for Lincecum established a new single-game postseason record for a Giants pitcher, with 12 of them of the swinging variety. Infante was the only Braves hitter who was not punched out at least once by the Giants starter, who was making his postseason debut.

Lincecum’s performance was the story of the night, but five Atlanta pitchers combined to limit the San Fransisco offense to just five hits. Four Braves relievers held the Giants to just one hit over the final 2 2/3 innings.

The Breakdown:
 
The replays and the photos are worth a thousand words, but the Braves have no choice but to put a frustrating series opening loss behind them and focus on winning Game 2. In order to do that, Atlanta will look for a strong start from right-hander Tommy Hanson (10-11, 3.33) as he locks horns with Giants righty Matt Cain (13-11, 3.14).

Lincecum’s bigtime start helps to somewhat mask the fact that the Giants offense had its share of struggles in Game 1 as well. The Braves seemingly could not find the answers to Lincecum, who routinely got hitters to chase two-strike pitches well out of the zone. Atlanta was aggressive offensively, which they will need to continue on Friday against Cain. The difference and/or adjustments will likely come in the form of being more selective at the plate when behind in the count.

The blown call on Posey’s fourth inning steal of second base only furthers the public outcry for some kind of replay to be instituted. Of course, that won’t help the Braves or any of the other teams that may have felt slighted by a call on Thursday. It is a somewhat unfortunate trend to see popping up with regularity, especially given the fact that postseason games are under a higher degree of scrutiny. The human error defense ain’t what it used to be.

Hanson will make the first postseason start of his career, and he will be hoping to get more run support than he received throughout the year. Atlanta averaged just 3.0 RPG in Hanson’s final 18 starts of the regular season, and he won just three times after July 1.

Cain found himself in a similar situation in the first half. Despite a solid 3.34 ERA over his first 18 starts, Cain’s record sat at 6-8 and it appeared he may be in for another season in which his record was not indicative of the way he was pitching. Cain turned it on with a 2.91 ERA and a 7-3 record over his final 15 starts, walking just just 19 men in 102 innings over that stretch.

San Diego homered three times and battered Cain for six earned runs in his last start of the regular season. If Hanson can shed any ill-effects caused from fouling a ball off his eye in batting practice on Thursday and continue his excellent work from the final three starting assignments of the year (1 ER in 18.2 IP) then the Braves could have a good chance of heading back to Atlanta with the series tied at a game apiece.

The Atlanta offense will have to find a way to break out and provide those runs. That was something was increasingly hard to do in September/October as the team averaged just 3.5 RPG in over 30 games to close the season.

Prediction:
Braves over Giants, 4-2