Inside a clubhouse clinching celebration, hyperbole flows like Champagne, so maybe the San Francisco Giants’ Aubrey Huff was a mite too exuberant as he looked ahead to Tim Lincecum vs. Roy Halladay, Matt Cain vs. Roy Oswalt and Jonathan Sanchez vs. Cole Hamels, if indeed it unfolds that way.
“This might be the best three pitching matchups the world has ever seen,” Huff said. “It’s going to be fun to watch.”
In the year of the pitcher, what else should dominate the National League Championship Series, which begins in Philadelphia on Saturday?
Much of the national chatter has the Phillies with an edge because of their experience, as it should be. They have won the last two NL pennants. Also, in sweeping Cincinnati in their Division Series, Philadelphia’s Big Three starters choked off a Reds lineup that produced the league’s best offensive numbers during the regular season.
However, anyone who predicts another Philly blowout in the NLCS must consider how well the postseason novices on the Giants’ staff pitched against the Braves.
The Giants’ modus operandi in the best-of-seven series will not be a state secret: They must keep the games low-scoring and hope to get one or two good pitches to hit, a mistake here or there, and convert them into the decisive runs.
For a team with so few playoff-proven players, the Giants comported themselves well during four one-run Division Series games. Granted, the Phillies’ offense is leagues better than the Braves’, so the challenge will be greater. But at least pitching coach Dave Righetti’s staff knows firsthand what tight playoff baseball is like.
“It’s the way we play, close games,” manager Bruce Bochy said. “It’s valuable experience. You know how important every pitch is, every at-bat is. When you learn to play like that, it helps you in the postseason, even if you’ve never played in the postseason before.”
Some numbers that will get a lot of play this week: Lincecum, Cain and Sanchez together were 2-1 with a 1.98 ERA in four starts against the Phillies in 2010, and Halladay, Oswalt and Hamels were 1-5, 6.17 in seven starts against the Giants.
Giants hitters indeed had some good games against Philly’s best, but caveats apply.
They pinned five runs on Halladay, but that was in April in San Francisco. Halladay has gotten progressively stingier. He faced the Reds three times this year, allowing 13 hits on June 30, five on July 10 and, of course, none in his Division Series masterpiece.
Oswalt is 1-3 against the Giants but took all those losses with the punchless Astros, who provided him a total of two runs of support in the three games. Pitching for Philly against the Giants in August, Oswalt enjoyed four runs of support in a 9-3 victory against Barry Zito.
The Giants fared best against Hamels, scoring nine runs in 11 innings.
That aside, Giants hitters understand they must have better at-bats in the NLCS after hitting .212 with six extra-base hits and 11 runs in four Division Series games.
They have a good resource in Cody Ross, who would have been named MVP of the Division Series if the award existed. He played in 11 games against the Phillies this season. Though he hit .146 in 41 at-bats, he has some insight on Philadelphia pitching that he can share.
Ross hit .188 in 32 at-bats against the Braves this season before his .286 Division Series and said familiarity indeed bred success.
“Anytime you have experience against a team that you play against, it helps,” Ross said. “When you go in blind, it’s tough to know how they’re going to approach you. I had a pretty good idea what they were going to do. That helps tremendously.”
Another thing that might help is a national perception that the Phillies will win the series. The pressure will be on them, not the Giants.
“The Phillies are tough, and they know they are good,” said Pat Burrell, who was part of that team until last season. “We’ll probably be the underdogs there. We’ll go in there and give it our best shot.”