Braves were rooting for Giants; now they get to play them
The Giants host the Braves in NL playoff opener; the Reds are at the Phils
Rays will host Rangers in Game 1 of AL playoffs while Yankees visit Twins
Five cuts from Sunday's action:
1. It all comes full circle for Atlanta. The Braves were in the strange position of rooting for the Giants in the late afternoon on the final day of the regular season. Atlanta's 8-7 win over Philadelphia early on Sunday put them a half-game up on San Diego in the National League wild-card standings, meaning a San Francisco defeat of the Padres would clinch a playoff spot for Bobby Cox's Braves without the need of a one-game playoff. The Giants complied, winning 3-0 to claim the NL West for themselves and the first wild card in franchise history for Atlanta.
It was, after all, the Braves' and Giants' epic 1993 NL West race that provided key motivation for the advent of the wild card. That year the Braves and Giants entered the final day of the regular season with 103 wins each, only for Atlanta to win and San Francisco to lose, thereby giving the division to the Braves and sending the Giants home despite a 103-59 record.
The Braves' support of the Giants will be short-lived, however. The two teams meet Thursday in San Francisco in the NL Division Series. The other first-round NL series pits the Reds at the Phillies, beginning Wednesday.
2. Right guy, wrong league. Brooks Conrad is making a strong case to be the Braves' designated hitter -- unfortunately, they play in the NL.
The infielder contributed two hits and two RBIs on Sunday but committed another error, his fourth in the last four games, even after Cox moved him from third base to his more familiar second base, while flipping Omar Infante from second to third. Conrad bobbled a grounder in the fifth inning on Sunday, after his throwing errors at third base on Friday and Saturday led to seven unearned runs for the Phillies.
Then again, Infante also booted a ball at third for an eighth-inning error, leading to a pair of unearned runs. The realization may simply be that the Braves only have a mediocre overall defense anyway -- they rank No. 13 in the majors according to Baseball Prospectus' Park-Adjusted Defensive Efficiency -- with particularly poor infield defense, thanks to the injuries to Chipper Jones and Martin Prado.
Still, Cox's best bet is to continue playing Conrad at second and Infante at third. Though Conrad has made 22 starts at third for the Braves this year and now only two at second base, he spent most of his minor-league career at second and, as previously noted in Five Cuts, is better there while Infante is superior at third.
3. Help and harm from the opponent. Typically facing a team with nothing left to play for is an advantage, as the opponent will rest its starters. On Sunday that situation giveth and taketh away for the Braves.
Though the Phillies had already locked up homefield advantage and the best record in the NL, manager Charlie Manuel respected the integrity of the regular season and the importance of this game for his opponent by starting his normal eight position players and his starting pitcher, albeit for only a couple innings.
Manuel saw the pros and cons of that decision in the third inning. His catcher, Carlos Ruiz, was hit by a pitch on the elbow, thus exposing the peril of playing the starters and risking injury. But then starting pitcher Cole Hamels' spot in the lineup came up, and rather than hitting Hamels (.149 average and .149 OBP), he sent John Mayberry Jr. to the plate, a much more formidable hitter than would typically bat ninth for an NL team. Mayberry hit a two-run homer.
By using Roy Oswalt for an inning of relief in the third, Manuel essentially got his usual starter-quality pitching for three innings -- a little less than half of what he'd normally get -- and then Atlanta benefited from the Phillies' decision to rest their arms. Manuel turned the ball over to a procession of relievers pitching in different innings than they're used to, including Danys Baez, whom the Braves promptly clobbered for four runs in the fourth inning.
4. Heyward's triple threat. Jason Heyward gave a strong closing argument that he should be NL Rookie of the Year. While Giants catcher Buster Posey remains another worthy recipient -- and Posey's Sunday homer effectively sealed San Francisco's win -- Heyward's dramatic third inning gave his own candidacy a few extra clips for the highlight reel.
In the top half of the third, Heyward robbed Phillies centerfielder Shane Victorino of an extra-base hit with a leaping catch, his glove snaring the ball just before it hit the top of the very rightfield wall. Heyward grimaced in pain as his feet returned to the dirt of the warning track, but he held on for the catch.
In the bottom half of the third, Heyward smoked a grounder down the rightfield line and into the corner for an RBI triple. In the eighth, Heyward singled, alertly reached second on a pitch in the dirt and then stole third base.
He finishes the Braves' 162nd game with a .277/.393/.456 hitting line with 18 home runs and 72 RBIs. His .417 OBP since the All-Star break ranks third in the majors.
5. The dust settles in the AL. Also settled in Sunday's early action were the matchups for the AL Division Series. Though the Rays are limping into the postseason with an injured Evan Longoria and mediocre play over the season's final fortnight, they claimed the AL East thanks to the Yankees' 8-4 loss to the Red Sox. The Rays followed it up with a 3-2 victory over the Royals in 12 innings, but they had already had begun celebrating in the dugout upon learning that New York had fallen.
The Rays nevertheless have secured the top seed in the AL and will host the Rangers in the ALDS starting Wednesday.
The Twins lost 2-1 to the Blue Jays but had no chance on Sunday of catching the Rays anyway, as it entered a game behind Tampa Bay, which had won five of their eight meetings and thus held the tiebreaker. In the other first-round playoff series, Minnesota will welcome the Yankees to Target Field, against whom they are 2-14 since the start of 2009, including a 3-0 ALDS sweep last year. That series also begins Wednesday.