NLDS Preview: Braves vs. Giants

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Here at HardballTalk we pride ourselves on writing dozens of posts a
day obsessing on every single little thing possible. We’re told,
however, that some of you have lives and thus not all of you are able to
read dozens of posts a day obsessing on every single little thing
possible.  That’s a shame, but for that reason, we’ve put together a few
previews covering the broad strokes of each of the four Division Series
matchups. Today, the final one:
Braves vs. Giants.

The Matchup: Atlanta Braves (91-71) vs. San Francisco Giants (92-70)

How’ve they been doing?
The Giants ended the season in pretty spiffy fashion, going 19-10 over
the last month. Really, their entire second half was pretty spiffy
(45-29).  The Braves, well, not so much. They were 14-16 in September
and October, and often looked bad doing it. They certainly peaked
mid-season, looking uncertain back in the spring and simply hurt/tired
as the weather cooled down.

Haven’t I seen you before?
The Braves took the season series 4-3. Two of those Braves wins, however, came back when Atlanta had Chipper Jones, Martin Prado and an effective Troy Glaus playing and before the Giants — in Mat Latos’ words — went out and got a bunch of guys and slapped “San Francisco” on their chests. The season series has very little bearing here. They are very different teams.

Who’s pitching?
The Braves go with Derek Lowe, Tommy Hanson and Tim Hudson in the first three. Bobby Cox was being cute yesterday and said that maybe Brandon Beachy would start Game 4, but I think the odds of that occurring are about the same as sporting those red pinstriped uniforms from the late 70s. Is Derek Lowe on short rest ideal? Nah. But for such a thing to be a good move doesn’t require him pitching as good as Derek Lowe on full rest. It merely requires him pitching better than Brandon Beachy in a playoff game. Which I think he would do.

The Giants are going with Lincecum, Cain and Sanchez. Bruce Bochy said he’s not sure if he’d go with Madison Bumgarner or Barry Zito in Game 4, though I’m guessing it would almost certainly be Bumgarner. It’s one thing to avoid using your big expensive bust of a pitcher in the playoffs, but it’s another thing altogether to make a big point of it before the thing begins.  If the Giants’ backs are up against the wall in Game 4, however, we’d probably see Lincecum again.

The storyline which doesn’t really matter in the grand scheme of things
but which TBS will nonetheless beat to death

Bobby Cox Bobby Cox Bobby Cox Bobby Cox Bobby Cox Bobby Cox
Bobby Cox Bobby Cox Bobby Cox Bobby Cox Bobby Cox Bobby Cox Bobby Cox Bobby Cox Bobby Cox Bobby Cox Bobby Cox Bobby Cox.

Hey! Did you know that Bobby Cox is retiring? Did you that this is, in fact, his last time in the playoffs? Were you aware that the Braves and their fans would like to see Bobby get another World Series ring?  If not, be sure to keep the sound up during these games, because the broadcast team may just talk about this a bit.

Runner-up: Buster Posey vs. Jason Heyward. Yes, I love both of these players, yes they’re both awesome, and yes they’ll finish 1-2 for Rookie of the Year. But that voting is over now, and nothing they do in these playoffs will affect it.  I tend to get bored when too much focus is placed on one or two players in baseball — you can’t really take over a playoff series in baseball like you can in basketball or something — but we’ll probably hear a lot about that. 

The storyline which actually does matter but about which TBS won’t spend a lot of time
talking

There will be a lot of focus on the Braves’ off-brand lineup. And there should be, because how a team relying heavily on Melky Cabrera, Rick Ankiel, Nate McLouth, Matt Diaz, Brooks Conrad and Omar Infante managed to even make the playoffs is one of the greater mysteries of the known universe. But with the exception of Infante’s from-out-of-nowhere nice season, those guys are who we thought they were.  What we’ve heard very little of — and likely will continue to hear very little of — is how cold Jason Heyward and Brian McCann were late in the season.  We can talk about these no-names, but the couple of big-names the Braves have in the lineup need to step up.

What’s gonna go down?
There’s a time for being a fanboy and time for being a realist. Right now, it’s time for realism. While I think the Braves have a better shot of knocking off the Giants than either the Reds or Phillies, I can’t in good conscience pick them here. Yes, they have a decent 1-2-3 starting pitching punch, but it’s inferior to the Giants’. Yes, the Giants offense is rather anemic and one-dimensional (home runs), but the Braves’ is anemic too, and not as good in that one dimension as the Giants are. The Braves have a good pen. But if you don’t have a lead to protect . . .

I’ll root my heart out tomorrow evening, but I think the Giants take this one in four games.

Nationals activate Stephen Strasburg off the disabled list

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The Nationals officially activated Stephen Strasburg off the 10-day disabled list, the team announced Saturday. They’ll pencil him into the starting lineup for their second set against the Padres on Saturday night. Strasburg is expected to assume Max Scherzer‘s roster spot after Scherzer landed on the disabled list with neck inflammation prior to Friday’s series opener. No other roster moves appear to be necessary for the time being.

Strasburg, 28, is finally looking stable after serving a 26-day stint on the DL with a right elbow nerve impingement. It’s the first serious injury he’s sustained since last August, when he missed 20 days with inflammation in his right elbow, and one the Nationals are taking seriously as they juggle multiple stints for their elite starters. He’ll enter Saturday’s competition with a 10-3 record in 20 starts, supplemented by a 3.25 ERA, 2.7 BB/9 and 10.4 SO/9 through 121 2/3 innings.

Elbow issues are nothing to be played around with, but Strasburg’s performance in his lone rehab outing relieved any residual apprehension the Nats might have had about his activation this weekend. He tossed 66 pitches for High-A Potomac, hitting 95 MPH with his heater and logging three hits, one run, one walk and five strikeouts over five innings. Club manager Dusty Baker is hoping for a similarly dominant start against the Padres, and told reporters that he’ll hold Strasburg to a performance count as the righty works his way back to a full-time gig.

MLB umpires will wear white wristbands to protest “escalating verbal attacks”

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The World Umpires Association is dissatisfied with the punishment meted out to Tigers’ second baseman Ian Kinsler following his lengthy criticism of MLB umpire Angel Hernandez on Tuesday. Kinsler’s comments were sparked by a confrontation on Monday night, when the infielder was ejected after arguing balls and strikes with Hernandez in the fifth inning.

“It has to do with changing the game. He’s changing the game. He needs to find another job, he really does,” Kinsler told reporters. “Candidly, leave the game. No one wants you behind the plate anymore. No one in this game wants you behind the plate any more, none of the players.”

Kinsler was fined an undisclosed amount for the remarks, but did not receive a suspension. Hernandez, meanwhile, returned to cover second base the next day and appeared to resolve the conflict with a brief conversation and a handshake.

Whether or not the comments speak to underlying truths about Major League Baseball’s flawed umpiring system, they clearly got under the skin of the World Umpires Association. The union released a statement Saturday condemning Major League Baseball for choosing to overlook the “escalating attacks” on the men in blue:

This week, a player publicly and harshly impugned the character and integrity of Angel Hernandez – a veteran umpire who has dedicated his career to baseball and the community. The verbal attack on Angel denigrated the entire MLB umpiring staff and is unacceptable.

The Office of the Commissioner has failed to address this and other escalating attacks on umpires. The player who denigrated Hernandez publicly said he thought he would be suspended. Instead got far more lenient treatment – a fine. He shrugged that off and told reporters he has ‘no regrets’ about his offensive statements calling for an end to Hernandez’s career.

The Office of the Commissioner’s lenient treatment to abusive player behavior sends the wrong message to players and managers. It’s ‘open season’ on umpires, and that’s bad for the game.

We are held accountable for our performance at every game. Our most important duty is to protect the integrity of the game, and we will continue to do that job every day. But the Office of the Commissioner must protect our integrity when we are unfairly attacked simply for doing our jobs.

Starting Saturday, umpires will don white wristbands in protest of the Commissioner’s lack of support, and will continue to do so until their concerns are addressed.

Kinsler’s comments may have been in poor taste, but given the established in-game ramifications for challenging an umpire’s decisions, it’s difficult to tell where the union wants MLB to start drawing the line. If players already face ejections for questioning the parameters of a strike zone (often immediate ones, without any room for a productive or non-confrontational discussion), it seems unfair to hit them with suspensions for venting their frustrations after the game. Until Major League Baseball finds a way to start automating calls, however, the “human element” of the game will continue to pose problems for players and umpires alike.