National League Division Series

October 01, 2002|By Roch Kubatko

Atlanta Braves vs. San Francisco Giants

Schedule (best of five)

Tomorrow: San Francisco (Russ Ortiz 14-10) at Atlanta (Tom Glavine 18-11), 1:06 p.m. (ABC Family)

Thursday: San Francisco (Kirk Rueter 14-8) at Atlanta (Greg Maddux 16-6), 8:17 p.m. (chs. 45, 5)

Saturday: Atlanta (Kevin Millwood 18-8) at San Francisco (Jason Schmidt 13-8)

Sunday*: Atlanta (Damian Moss 12-6) at San Francisco (Livan Hernandez 12-16)

Monday*: San Francisco at Atlanta

*-if necessary; times TBA

Matchups

Starting lineup: The Braves might have trouble scoring runs as San Francisco pitchers get farther down the order. Gary Sheffield struggled with injuries early in the season and didn't put up the usual power numbers, but he batted .462 against the Giants this season. Chipper Jones had 100 RBIs for the seventh consecutive season. Javy Lopez and Vinny Castilla had disappointing seasons, but Castilla homered in back-to-back games over the weekend and might be heating up. The Giants are more balanced from top to bottom, but they'll likely make another first-round exit if Barry Bonds continues his October swoon (.196 in 97 postseason at-bats). He's a .500 hitter lifetime against the Braves, with eight homers in 34 at-bats. Catcher Benito Santiago must produce behind Bonds. Jeff Kent, who bats ahead of Bonds, is one of baseball's most dangerous hitters.

Starting pitching: The Giants' rotation has been hotter than the Braves'. Ortiz won his last six starts and posted a 2.34 ERA since Aug. 28, Rueter was 10-2 with a 2.75 ERA since July 24, and Schmidt was 6-2 with a 2.85 ERA since Aug. 15. Glavine was 4-5 with a 3.37 ERA since Aug. 8, and Maddux was 5-3 with a 3.05 ERA since Aug. 13. But Glavine and Maddux posted ERAs under 3.00 this season, and Millwood resuscitated a fading career by going 9-2 with a 2.68 ERA since July 31. Rueter is better on the road and Schmidt is better at home, which explains the alignment. Hernandez is an enigma. He threw a two-hit shutout in his last start but failed to escape the third inning three times this season. He has the only playoff victory in the Dusty Baker era and is 5-0 with a 2.75 ERA in six career postseason appearances.

Bullpen: It's no longer a weakness in Atlanta. Chris Hammond (0.95 ERA), who retired for 2 1/2 seasons before pitching in Triple-A last year, joined Dennis Eckersley and Ferdie Schupp as the only pitchers in history to throw at least 70 innings and finish with a sub-1.00 ERA. The left-hander hasn't allowed an earned run since June 30, a span of 32 appearances. Darren Holmes, who appeared to be washed up during a brief stint with the Orioles in 2000, has a 1.81 ERA. Left-hander Mike Remlinger (1.99 ERA) was an All-Star this year. Tim Spooneybarger and Kerry Ligtenberg also have been stellar, and let's not forget closer John Smoltz, the winningest pitcher in playoff history, who set the league record with 55 saves in 59 chances. The Giants counter with Robb Nenn (43-for-51 in saves) and a less-publicized cast that includes former Oriole Tim Worrell (8-2, 2.25 ERA) and UMBC's Jay Witasick (1-0, 2.37 ERA).

Bench: Braves manager Bobby Cox has gotten good production from journeymen such as Matt Franco, Julio Franco and Darren Bragg. One of the Francos will go to the bench while the other starts at first base. Marcus Giles and Keith Lockhart are interchangeable at second base. Henry Blanco will be the reserve catcher when he's not teaming with Maddux. This will be Blanco's first postseason exposure. The Giants are deep in center fielders with Tsuyoshi Shinjo and Tom Goodwin, who can run down balls in center field and steal a base in the late innings. Damon Minor, the twin brother of former Oriole Ryan Minor, has shown promise this season and offers some power. Veteran Shawon Dunston always seems to surface this time of year.

Outlook: These teams took different routes to get here. The Braves (101-59) had the best record in the league while cruising to their 11th straight division title. The Giants needed to win 24 of their last 32 games, including eight in a row to close the season, to earn the wild card. If the Braves can get enough offense from Andruw Jones, Castilla and Lopez, they have a much better chance of advancing to the next round. But they're running into a hot team with an underrated pitching staff, not to mention one of the greatest players in history. If Bonds reverses his postseason ways, the Giants could pull the upset.

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