Giants make statement in Game 1 of NLCS

San Francisco Giants' Cody Ross (L) celebrates with teammates after hitting his second home run of the game against the Philadelphia Phillies in the fifth inning during Game 1 of their Major League Baseball NLCS playoff series in Philadelphia, October 16, 2010. REUTERS/Brian Snyder (UNITED STATES - Tags: SPORT BASEBALL)

Before the NLCS started, you almost had the sense that the Giants didn’t belong. That they weren’t supposed to be here and that they were just stopping by to pay a visit to the Phillies before Philadelphia went on to play in its third straight World Series.

Sure the Giants had Tim Lincecum starting in Game 1, but he was facing Roy Halladay. In his first postseason start of his career, “Doc” threw a no-hitter against the Reds, who arguably have a much more potent lineup than San Francisco. He was sure to slice through their lineup with the greatest of ease.

The Giants are a cute team, but you can’t get serious with them. You two have some fun, you share some laughs – but you’re not bringing them home to meet mom. The Phillies – now that’s a team you marry.

Well, apparently that cute Giants team isn’t messing around.

Thanks to huge night by Cody Ross, another stellar pitching performance by Tim Lincecum and a shutdown effort by their bullpen, the Giants beat the Phillies 4-3 in Game 1 of the NLCS on Saturday night. They knocked around Halladay for four runs on eight hits and Ross went deep twice on the Phillies’ ace to set the tone for a massive San Francisco win.

Lincecum wasn’t as dominating as he was in Game 1 of the ALDS versus the Braves, but he allowed just three runs on six hits over seven innings of work while also striking out eight. He gave up a two-run home run to Jayson Werth in the 6th to make the game 4-3, but Javier Lopez (a great mid-season add by GM Brian Sabean) and Brian Wilson (whose black beard is mesmerizing) combined to shut Philly out in the eighth and ninth to preserve the victory.

The G-Men have a long, daunting task ahead of them but this was a huge first step. To beat the Phillies’ ace in his home park and in a hostile environment was impressive. The late-season acquisition of Ross continues to pay off and don’t forget that Lincecum isn’t the only Giants’ pitcher with nasty stuff. Game 2’s starter Jonathan Sanchez took a no-hitter into the sixth inning against the Braves and his slider could limit Philly’s power. It doesn’t get any easier for Philadelphia, either.

But even if Sanchez doesn’t pitch well in Game 2 tonight, the Giants have already accomplished what they needed to do, which was win at least one game in Philly. Now that the pressure is on the Phillies to earn a split, San Fran could go a long way to making its World Series dream a reality if it can beat Roy Oswalt.

Lace ‘em up – we’ve got ourselves a series.

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Braves can’t send Bobby Cox out on top as Giants advance to NLCS

Atlanta Braves manager Bobby Cox number is painted on the field during a tribute ceremony honoring the retiring manager prior to their National League MLB baseball game in Atlanta, Georgia, October 2, 2010.  REUTERS/Tami Chappell (UNITED STATES - Tags: SPORT BASEBALL IMAGES OF THE DAY)

Nobody can say that the Atlanta Braves didn’t try to send their beloved manager Bobby Cox (who decided before the year started that he would retire at the conclusion of the 2010 season) out on a high note. They played with enthusiasm, passion and urgency, but in the end it wasn’t enough.

The Braves’ mantra at the start of the postseason was “11 for 6,” which is the number of wins they needed to win the World Series (11) for Cox, who wears No. 6. Unfortunately they came up 10 wins shy, as the Giants beat Atlanta 3-2 on Monday night to take the best-of-five series 3-1 and advance to the NLCS to face the Phillies.

Cox and the Braves couldn’t have asked for a better outing from Derek Lowe, who allowed three runs (two earned) over 6 1/3 innings in the loss. He didn’t allow a hit for the first 5 1/3 innings, but Cody Ross (who went 2-for-3 tonight and singled home the eventual game-winning run in the eighth inning) took him deep in the sixth to tie the game at 1-1. Lowe was pitching on only three days of rest, yet his sinker baffled San Francisco hitters for most of the night before he hung a pitch to Ross, who made him pay for the mistake.

While you can’t take anything away from the Giants (whose starting pitching was absolutely phenomenal throughout the entire series and they got another strong performance tonight from rookie Madison Bumgarner), they were the benefactors of close calls the entire series. Every time there was a close play at one of the bags, it went in San Francisco’s favor. Before Ross singled home the go-ahead run in the eighth, it appeared as though Pat Burrell was thrown out on a Juan Uribe hit to shortstop Alex Gonzalez, who made a throwing error to second baseman Omar Infante. The throw took Infante off the bag, but replays showed that he might have kept his toe on the bag.

That said, all of those plays were bang-bang and umpires don’t have the luxury of watching instant replay in order to get the calls right. Unfortunately for the Braves, they were snake bitten by the human element of baseball in this series.

So was Cox, who received a standing ovation at the end of the game from both the fans and the Giants, who congratulated each other and then stayed on the field to celebrate the skipper’s historic career. It was a classy move and it was a well-deserved moment for the three-time NL Manger of the Year and the two-time World Series champion.

Thanks for all the memories, Bobby.

Breaking down the 2010 National League Wild Card race

St. Louis Cardinals Albert Pujols receives high fives in the dugout after hitting his second two run home run of the night in the fifth inning against the Arizona Diamondbacks at Busch Stadium in St. Louis on June 29, 2010. UPI/Bill Greenblatt Photo via Newscom

Before their sweep of the Braves this week, I would have said that the National League Wild Card is a three-team race. But now that the Rockies are putting together a very Rockie-like charge, this is definitely now a four-horse competition in the NL.

Let’s break down the contenders and make a prediction.

(Side Note: I’m fully aware that the Phillies and Cardinals still have a great chance of catching the Braves and Reds in their respective divisions, but I’m going by the standings as of Thursday, August 26. In a couple of weeks, I’ll update this list so for now, let’s just call this Version 1.0.)

Philadelphia Phillies
Games Remaining: 36
Games Back: 0
What I Like About Their Chances: I like the Phillies because quite frankly, they’ve been here before. They know what it takes to play good baseball in the month of September and their roster is chockfull of veteran players. Even though they haven’t shown it of late, the Phils also still have the best lineup 1-8 of any of the four Wild Card contenders and a three-headed monster in Roy Halladay, Roy Oswalt (who has been outstanding in the month of August) and Cole Hamels. This is, by far, the most talented team of the four listed…

What I Don’t Like: …that said, this club isn’t playing very good baseball right now. In their last seven games, they’ve won only two and they were just swept at home by the Astros. Also, despite all of their offensive firepower, they’ve managed to score just 16 runs in those seven outings. They also have six more games against the Braves, who they are just 5-7 against this season. This is a club that seemingly can’t put it all together this season and you just get the sense that something’s missing.

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