- Tim Kurkjian, MLB reporter
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This series between the Atlanta Braves and the San Francisco Giants has 3-2 written all over it. Not that the series is definitely going five games (though it might), but that a 3-2 score, or less, seems likely in each game.
The Braves batted only .233 in seven games against the Giants in the regular season; the Giants hit .197 with three home runs against the Braves. Atlanta is severely challenged offensively without Chipper Jones and Martin Prado; the Giants have improved offensively, but will be severely challenged by the Braves' staff. The Braves' RBI leader this year is catcher Brian McCann with 77, the fewest by a team leader for a playoff team in a full season since the 1984 Royals with Steve Balboni. The Giants' RBI leader was Aubrey Huff with 86.
Here are five questions about the series:
1. Ace Tim Hudson won't pitch until Game 3. How much will that hurt the Braves?
They would have preferred to start him in Game 1, obviously, but you could do a lot worse than Derek Lowe and Tommy Hanson in Games 1 and 2. Lowe was 5-0 with a 1.17 ERA in September -- the first Braves pitcher to go 5-0 in September since 1954. He has had great success in October in his career. Plus, he won all three series clinchers for the Red Sox in their championship season of 2004. The only worry with Lowe is that he is a sinkerball pitcher, and the Braves' infield defense isn't as solid without Prado. Rookie Brooks Conrad can hit -- he has gotten a lot of big hits for the Braves -- but whether he is playing third base or second base, defense is not his strength, and he might see a lot of ground balls with Lowe and Hudson on the mound.
2. What happened to Tim Lincecum between August and September?
"He fixed his mechanics,'' one scout said. "He's not taking the ball over his head [in his delivery] anymore. And he's got his confidence back. He had none of that in August.'' In August, Lincecum went 0-5 with a 7.82 ERA, and the league hit .415 off him, statistically the worst month by a Giants pitcher since Bud Black almost 20 years ago. In September, however, Lincecum was 5-1 with a 1.94 ERA and the league hit .242 off him. The Giants' staff begins and ends with Lincecum; as he goes, so goes the team. In September, the Giants posted a 1.78 ERA, the fifth-best ERA by any team in any month in the live ball era (1920 onward). The NL hit .182 off the Giants in September. The best pitcher they had in the month was perhaps Jonathan Sanchez, who has a 1.03 ERA in his last seven starts and got the win in a 3-0 victory over the Padres on the final day of the season, sending the Giants to the playoffs.
3. Which bullpen is better?
They are both great. The Giants had the second-best bullpen ERA in the major leagues (2.99). During one stretch in September, Giants relievers allowed two earned runs and three extra-base hits in 50 innings. Closer Brian Wilson, who led the NL in saves, is a tightrope act in the ninth inning, but he is fearless. And it's not just him out there. Sergio Romo has five strikeouts for every walk. Santiago Casilla has gotten huge outs, as has Jeremy Affeldt, Ramon Ramirez and Javier Lopez. The Braves had the third-best ERA in the major leagues (3.11). Jonny Venters (1.95 ERA) and Craig Kimbrel (40 strikeouts in 20 2/3 innings) have been sensational getting the ball to Billy Wagner, who in his final season has been spectacular: 104 strikeouts and only 22 walks in 69 1/3 innings. If this comes down to the battle of the bullpens, these games might stay 1-1 for about 14 innings.
4. What is the Bobby Cox factor?
This is the final year for arguably one of the top five managers of all time. No manager has ever gone to the World Series in his final year of the World Series, and Cox and Larry Dierker (2001) are the only managers to go to the playoffs in their final seasons. It seems the Braves are trying to win for Cox, and they are doing so in dramatic fashion. The Braves won 13 games in walk-off fashion, the most in the major leagues this season. The Braves are also 56-25 at home, the best home record by an NL team since the 1977 Phillies.
5. How hot are the Giants?
Since July 4, they are 51-30, the second-best record in the National League. They are hitting home runs at a far greater rate than they were earlier in the year partly because of the additions they made, including Pat Burrell, Jose Guillen and Cody Ross. (One warning here, however: The Giants often make defensive replacements in the corner outfield spots late in games, which could affect their bench should games go to extra innings.) Since July 4, the Giants have also done a far better job shutting down the running game behind catcher Buster Posey. Posey, hitting in the middle of the order, has been stunningly good in every way. This series will feature a matchup not just of the two best rookies in the National League -- Posey and the Braves' Jason Heyward -- but, many years from now, they might be regarded as two of the best rookies ever.
PREDICTION: GIANTS IN FIVE
Tim Kurkjian is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine. His book "Is This a Great Game, or What?" was published by St. Martin's Press and is available in paperback. Click here to order a copy.
Check out the top five questions heading into the National League Division Series between the Atlanta Braves and the San Francisco Giants.