Even after a series win on the road, things are a little bleak. The Diamondbacks haven't lost in a week, which is how long it's been since Carlos Beltran was in the lineup, not hitting. The Giants haven't been this far out of first place since May 7. Or, you know, two days ago. I'd wager that Jonathan Sanchez imploding against the Pirates was as bleak as it's been this year, with the obvious exception of the Posey injury.
But the lowest I've felt in the past three or four years when it comes to the Giants -- again, excepting Posey -- was the Rick Ankiel game. It just fit the narrative of another crushing playoff loss, and it was the perfect player. It wasn't Brian McCann or Jason Heyward; it was Rick Ankiel. Just enough power to worry about, just enough hacking to tick you off when he does something.
I didn't give up on the Giants that night, but I wasn't exactly confident. I figured Ankiel would eventually play bass in Sandfrog, and when I saw them at the county fair, and they wouldn't sell glass bottles for me to throw. It would be something that was so close to satisfaction, but overall another just-miss -- a metaphor for the Giants and the playoffs.
The Giants went into Atlanta after that ... and won. They emerged from the bleak in Atlanta when I didn't really expect them to. More of that, please.
The Braves in 2011 are pretty much what I had hoped the Giants would be this year:
- Strong rotation
- Strong bullpen
- Catcher going ape on the rest of the NL
- Rookie first baseman in the Rookie of the Year discussion
- A midseason trade acquisition playing well
- A midseason trade acquisition playing
All told, an average to slightly below-average offense, framed by a fantastic pitching staff. When I look at the Braves, I get a little jealous -- not because everything's gone right for them, but because some of the things that have gone right remind me of what I hoped the Giants would be this year. Of course, the Giants are closer to the top of their division than the Braves are to theirs. So that's a small consolation. Very, very small.
But as far as a playoff spot is concerned, the Braves are looking pretty decent. They have a four-game lead over the Giants in the wild card, and other than two three-game sets against the Phillies, a road series against the Cardinals, and a three-game series against the Diamondbacks, the Braves are playing a pretty weak schedule. If the Giants want to be close enough to the wild card to consider it a viable option, they should win this series.
That's the analysis you pay for: sweeping this series could help the Giants' playoff chances. You read it here first.
The Braves are a direct competitor, though, and not in that let's-look-past-13-other-teams-and-pretend-a-NLCS-rematch-is-set-in-stone way either. Wins in this series would really help the Giants inch towards the playoffs. Losses would really screw with their chances. It's probably the most important series of the year, or at least, it's something comparable to the Diamondbacks series from two weeks ago.
While that should fill me with dread, it's worth noting that the Giants are a team built to screw with minds. The last series that they did something I was sort of expecting was a series win against the Dodgers in the middle of the July. Since then, the Giants have played seven series, and they have won the series I was expecting them to lose, and losing the series I was expecting them to win. I should probably stop expecting them to win.
Done! But if they could keep screwing with our minds, that'd be swell, too ...
Batter to watch
As far as 21-year-olds go, Jason Heyward is still ridiculously special. But he's having a lot of trouble staying healthy, and his numbers are really down this year. Last year at this time, he looked like he'd be an instant behemoth -- an A-Rod kind of player who'd come up as a teenager and just keep getting better.
Meanwhile, Madison Bumgarner, chosen four picks ahead of him in the 2007 draft, is having a great season, and his strikeout/walk ratio is preternaturally good for a 21-year-old.
Last August, it would have been a joke to suggest that the Giants wouldn't go back in time and pick Heyward over Bumgarner. This August ... it's not that far-fetched to think the Giants would be just as happy with Bumgarner. I think I'd still take Heyward's future, but only because pitchers are so volatile. It's a debate that's heck of a lot closer than it was 365 days ago. And before angry Braves fans tweet me into oblivion, note I'm writing this because Bumgarner's stock has improved a ton, not because Heyward's is dropping precipitously.
Also note that by raising this question, I'm guaranteeing that Heyward will hit six home runs in this series, with three coming against Bumgarner. Whoops. Too late now. Don't blame me. Blame the Indians for picking Beau Mills.
Pitcher to watch
Randall Delgado is the player the Braves didn't have to give up to get Michael Bourn. As the fan of a team that gave up its top pitching prospect for a broken Carlos Beltran, it irritates me that the Braves didn't have to give up one of their top four pitching prospects for a player who is under team control next year. And it irritates me that Delgado will have the chance to annoy the Giants even more by pitching well against them. Sure, maybe the Giants will rough him up -- six IP, two ER -- but Delgado gives me a bad feeling.
Beau Mills doesn't get a hit this series. Also, four games. We'll be sick of this team by the end. This is a lauuwng series.