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Not So Fast ESPN, Giants-Braves Will Be Closer Than Expected

Patrick Crawley |
October 5, 2010 | 1:42 a.m. PDT

Senior Sports Editor

On Monday, ESPN.com unanimously declared the San Francisco Giants favorites in the National League Division Series with 10 out of 10 analysts picking Tim Lincecum and Co. to beat the Atlanta Braves and the majority of them predicting it would take just four games to do so.

[Update: Pedro Gomez's prediction is "Braves in 4," making it nine out of 10 ESPN analysts. Not unanimous.]

But hold the champagne, Giants fans. Contrary to what the experts think, this series is going to be closer than the quarters in a bachelorette-stuffed Las Vegas elevator. And just like the party that follows that elevator ride, this series is going to be anything but predictable.

Popular belief says the Giants are much better than the Braves, but San Francisco finished the season just one game better than Atlanta (92-70 to 91-71) and the Braves actually won the season series 4-3.

Public perception has San Francisco as the sweetest of sweethearts but other than home field advantage and a superior Giants bullpen, there isn’t much separating these teams.

The Giants are hitting .257 this season and averaging 4.3 runs per game. The Braves: .258 and 4.6. The Giants picked up 1,411 hits and 2,241 total bases. The Braves: 1,411 and 2,190. The Giants have an OPS of .729. The Braves: .740.

Offensively, they’re the MLB version of Tweedledum and Tweedledee.

Yes, the Giants hit more home runs and have a bit more offensively flexibility since adding Pat Burrell and Cody Ross to their lineup, but the Braves counter with a better team on-base percentage and more stolen bases.

To say either team has an offensive advantage is a Mark Teixeira-sized stretch.

It’s also a stretch to say the Giants’ pitching staff will outperform the staff of the Braves in this series.

Yes, Tim Lincecum is a two-time Cy Young winner and Derek Lowe is, well, Derek Lowe. But the Braves’ hitters have lit up the Giants this season.

Matt Cain, San Francisco’s Game 2 starter, surrendered six hits and three earned runs to the Braves in early August, and Jonathan Sanchez was even worse against them: five hits, three walks, two homers and four earned runs in four innings of work.

Psychological advantage: Atlanta Braves.

Even if Lincecum dominates the Braves in Game 1, which common wisdom says he will, Atlanta still has a very good chance of winning the next two swing games, given the ownership they’ve had over Cain and Sanchez.

Complicating matters further is the fact that Lowe, Tommy Hanson (Atlanta’s Game 2 starter) and Tim Hudson have been terrific against the Giants this year. The trio is a combined 3-0 in five starts against San Francisco and all three have an ERA under 2.50.

Granted, the Giants’ lineup had the potency in August of a six-pack of O’Douls and has since improved. And granted Hudson was a special effects-worthy trainwreck in September. Still, those are pretty spectacular numbers the Braves aces put up.

Also of concern for the Giants’ pitching staff is a lack of postseason experience.

Lincecum, Cain and Sanchez have a combined zero games of playoff seasoning. Meanwhile, Hudson and Lowe have a combined 18 playoff starts and 30 appearances. Not that playoff experience is the end-all, be-all when it comes to determining future postseason success (just look at what Josh Beckett was able to accomplish in 2003) but it can play a factor, particularly in a tight series like this one.

Ultimately, this matchup will come down to what all MLB playoff series come down to: the team with the best pitching performances and the hottest bats will win.

At the moment that team appears to be the Giants. Their pitching staff was lights out in September and their lineup was able to produce timely hits in crucial situations down the stretch. Knocking off the Padres and Rockies was no small feat. Fans in the Bay Area are very excited and that will make a difference. 

Momentum and a raucous home crowd are great benefits to the Giants. Still, saying they are runaway favorites is an exaggeration.

San Francisco will likely come out on top but the numbers don’t lie. This series will be as close as they come.

To reach editor Patrick Crawley, click here.

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