The NL's postseason picture didn't snap into focus until the final pitch of the season. When closer Brian Wilson struck out Padres outfielder Will Venable on a perfect San Francisco Sunday, he clinched the NL West for the Giants, eliminated San Diego and set up a Division Series showdown with the Braves.
It was appropriate that the title was decided with Wilson on the mound, since the San Francisco bullpen is the biggest reason the team closed 19--10 to edge the Padres. In that five-week stretch Giants relievers had an 0.90 ERA over 80 innings; none had an ERA higher than 2.25. Not to slight San Francisco's fantastic rotation of Tim Lincecum, Matt Cain, Madison Bumgarner and Jonathan Sanchez or a lineup that is much better now than it was on Opening Day, but the bullpen made this postseason appearance possible.
The Phillies enter the playoffs even hotter. On July 21 they were 48--46, seven games behind Atlanta in the NL East; after that they went 49--19. Adding righthander Roy Oswalt to the rotation before the trade deadline kick-started Philadelphia's pitching staff and enabled the team to survive an ugly stretch of injuries to the core of its lineup. With Roy Halladay the likely Cy Young Award winner and lefty Cole Hamels having his best season, the Phillies will have the superior starting pitcher in every game. Now that all their hitters are healthy—especially last year's postseason hero, second baseman Chase Utley—the only concern is (still) the bullpen. Despite his 2.96 ERA, closer Brad Lidge has trouble throwing strikes and relies too much on his slider, throwing it nearly three out of every five times. Look for manager Charlie Manuel to let his starters, especially Halladay, be their own closers when possible.
The Reds bring a rotation filled with six-inning starters, supported by a bruising offense: They led the league in runs, homers, batting average and slugging percentage. Manager Dusty Baker stuck with young outfielders Jay Bruce and Drew Stubbs through early-season struggles and was rewarded with strong finishes by both. If the top of the lineup can get enough runners on base for sluggers Joey Votto and Scott Rolen—a problem at times, especially against righthanders—Cincinnati can spring an upset. A strong bench and deep bullpen will make the Reds tough late in close games.
The July Braves would have been much more interesting as a playoff team than the version that actually made it. Half the starting infield—third baseman Chipper Jones and second baseman Martin Prado—is out for the year. Outfield production has been a problem; only rightfielder Jason Heyward has been a positive. Atlanta scored just 3.5 runs per game in September and October, and facing the Giants' pitching won't help increase that figure.
The dominant elements in the two NL Division Series are the rotations of the Phillies and the Giants, teams that also have highly productive offenses. The Reds' offense could put a scare into Philly, especially late in games with Lidge trying to retire lefthanded batters who have power and patience, but the Phils' starting pitching will hold. The Braves will pose less of a threat to San Francisco, having the most punchless lineup in the postseason. Phillies in four, Giants in four.