People look at me like I’m coughing up live spiders when I say this, but I’m sticking to it: no team in the playoffs scared me more than the Atlanta Braves last year. This wasn’t a thought I had before the playoffs, but more a reflection of how I felt while the series were going on. And don’t get me wrong, I had a healthy respect for the Phillies and Rangers -- both were fantastic teams in their own right. But when the Giants were playing the Braves, there was just something so danged nerve wracking abut the whole thing.
It wasn’t really the lineup. Chipper Jones and Martin Prado were hurt, and their replacements weren’t especially fearsome. Rick Ankiel was getting regular playing time, and you knew the only thing that guy could hit were string-straight fastballs down the middle, and who would throw him one of those?
It wasn’t really the rotation, though it was a really good and deep collection of starters. Tim Hudson and the like didn’t scare me more than, say, Charlie Morton or Freddy Garcia would have because, hey, the Giants’ lineup.
No, what woke me up at night, what made me more nervous than any other part of the playoffs, as illogical as it might seem now that it's all over, was the Braves’ bullpen.
At some point during the season, members of the Braves front office sat around a long, oak conference table. There was a pitcher of lemonade, a rotating fan sharing a breeze with the rest of the room, and men in suits, either napping or gazing out the window. Then one of them yawned, took his feet off the table, and said, "Hey, how ‘bout we bring up that kid who throws 98 MPH and makes every hitter he faces look like John Kruk against Randy Johnson in the All-Star Game?" No one said anything, which was as good as an approval, and that’s the story of how Craig Kimbrel was called up.
Dealing with the San Diego bullpen all season obviously scarred Giants fans, and then when the Braves showed up with their ridiculous bullpen, with Wagner, Venters, and Kimbrel? It was like when you watched Empire Strikes Back and found out that Darth Vader had a boss. After a whole movie where you thought he was the evilest thing in the galaxy, it was stunning -- there was someone above that guy? We knew about the slider-spining goofs from Chassupokewah Preparatory, but the Braves had a bullpen hydra that was even more ridiculous.
So when I think of the Braves, I think of the bullpen, which then makes me think of how ridiculous it was that the Giants won Game Three of the NLDS. Henry Schulman has a good article on it here, and I still can’t get over it. Travis Ishikawa had one of the best at-bats of his career, drawing a walk that will live forever in Giants lore, just like that stupid Dave Roberts stolen base is a big deal to Red Sox fans. But the at-bat that I really can’t believe was Freddy Sanchez’s at-bat with two outs.
Overmatched. That was a major league veteran swinging a manatee corpse filled with gold bricks, trying to hit an upper-90s fastball. There was no way this was going to end well.
Well, that game stunk. Let’s see, the Giants had to win two games in a row, one in Atlanta, and then one at home. Not especially likely. It was a good season, and we’ll just have to try again next...
Then the Giants won the World Series. Of course they did.
Brooks Conrad gets the press for the error, but the Giants had already tied the game at that point. They could have won it, maybe, without him. But before there was a fortunate error, there was a walk, an amazing recovery from an 0-2 count, and an Aubrey Huff single. After a few months of "Swing and a miss! And that’s it!", sometimes you forget about all the highlights that came before that.
The Braves are coming into town again. Good team. Very good team, even. And when the games start, I’ll be focused entirely on the 2011 season. But when I stare at the schedule and see ATL, I flash to the playoffs, which makes me think of the untouchable bullpen, which makes me marvel that the Giants were able to ununtouch them the one time they desperately needed to.
Hitter to watch:
Jason Heyward is my favorite non-Giant to watch in baseball. Runners-up: Felix Hernandez, Kyle Drabek, Trevor Cahill, and Ryan Franklin. Watching Heyward is like watching a fish with feet diving into the primordial pool while other fish swim around doing fish things.
Correction: I absolutely hate watching Heyward play baseball against the Giants, even if he hasn’t done a whole lot against the Giants yet. And while we’re on an NLDS kick, go back and watch Heyward’s at-bats from the series. Sure, he was 2-for-16, but every single strike call that could go against him, did. Almost every corner pitch against him was called in the Giants’ favor. It allowed Giants pitchers to get ahead and stay ahead. Not trying to convince you of anything, not making a grand statement, just pointing it out. It was a tough series for him.
Pitcher to watch:
Oh, an addition to that favorites to watch list: the aforementioned Kimbrel. This is all you need to know about him:
Craig Kimbrel's career: 12 hits, 26.2 innings, .293 BABIP
If you don’t really get what that means, here’s my best attempt to translate. When you see a pitcher who has only allowed 12 hits in 26 innings, you should immediately assume he’s been lucky. That’s at least ten fewer hits than one would expect for 26 innings. But when you look at his batting average on balls in play, he’s not lucky. When hitters get the bat on the ball, the result is a hit just as often as it normally would be. But no one is getting a bat on the ball. It’s freaky. Talking Chop has more freaky if you’re so inclined.
And like Heyward, I hate watching him play against the Giants.
Most of the time.
I will never shut up about the 2010 San Francisco Giants, and I will insert them into just about every conversation or post, whether it’s appropriate or not.