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Giants down Braves 3-2: Advance to NLCS

The Giants celebrate their first playoff series win since 2002 at Turner Field (AP Photo/Dave Martin)

Once again there was a pitcher’s duel between the Atlanta Braves and San Francisco Giants. Once again the Giants were the team to come from behind in the late innings to win the game in Atlanta. The Braves who have the most come from behind wins in the Majors this year could not come back from a late 3-2 deficit despite getting two walks with one out in the bottom of the 9th inning. Closer Brian Wilson got his command back and got Omar Infante to strike out for the second out and Melky Cabrera to ground out to 3rd base to end the game and the managerial career of the legendary Bobby Cox.  In a touching moment Cox came out for a curtain call tip of the hat to the fans receiving a standing ovation not just from the Braves faithful but from the victorious San Francisco Giants.

End of an era: Bobby Cox tips his hat after the game (Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images)

The Giants started rookie Madison Bumgarner in game for against Derek Lowe pitching on short rest. Bumgarner struggled in the first three innings loading the bases in the 2nd and allowing a run on three singles and a sacrifice fly in the bottom of the 3rd inning.  Lowe was very effective actually going into the 6th inning with a no hitter which was broken up by a solo shot by Giants outfielder Cody Ross to tie the game.

Cody Ross celebrates after his 6th inning home run (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)

After the first three innings the young left-handed Bumgarner was very effective until the bottom of the 6th when he gave up a solo home run with 1 out to Braves catcher Brian McCann which gave the Braves a 2-1 lead and had the Braves faithful in full tomahawk chop frenzy mode.  With the crowd in his face Bumgarner bore down and despite giving up a single the Jayson Heyward struck out Alex Gonzales and Rick Ankiel to end the inning.

Fear the beard: Giants’ Closer Brian Wilson gets his second save in two games in Atlanta (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)

In the top of the 7th the Giants came back. Freddy Sanchez grounded out to lead off the inning but the tiring Lowe walked Aubrey Huff and then gave up a single to Buster Posey which sent Huff to 2nd base. Bobby Cox came to the mound to pull Lowe from the game with Pete Moylan ready in the bullpen. A defiant Lowe told Cox that he could get the next batter Pat Burrell out and Cox gave way allowing the World Series veteran to stay in the game. Instead of getting Burrell out Lowe walked him to load the bases which brought out Cox for the second time to bring in Moylan.  The first batter that Moylan faced was Juan Uribe who hit a sharp ground ball to shortstop Alex Gonzales who threw just high enough to bring second baseman Omar Infante off the bag allowing Huff to score and the bases to remain loaded. Jonny Venters relieved Moylan and struck out pinch hitter Aaron Rowland for the second out. Venters then faced Cody Ross who singled to left to score Posey for the go-ahead run but left fielder Matt Diaz threw out Burrell at the plate aided by a great block of the plate by Brian McCann.

Brian McCann and Diory Hernandez look on as the Giants celebrate (Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images)

The Giants sent Santiago Casilla to relieve Bumgarner in the bottom of the 7th and Casilla sent the Braves down in order.  He would get Derek Lee to strike out swinging before giving up a one out single to Brian McCann.  Casilla then got Alex Gonzales to hit a soft sinking line drive to shortstop Edgar Renteria who misplayed it but was able to recover and throw out Gonzalez who paused before running to first base thinking that Renteria had the catch. Pinch runner Nate McLouth went to second on the play and Giants manager Bruce Bochy to bring in Javier Lopez and Lopez struck out Jayson Heyward to end the inning.

The Giants managed nothing in the 9th despite an Aubrey Huff single.  In the bottom of the 9th the Giants brought in closer Brian Wilson.  Wilson got pinch hitter Brooks Conrad, the error prone goat of Sunday night to fly out but then walked Rick Ankiel and Erik Hinske.  Wilson then struck out Omar Infante who was one of the most effective Braves hitters in the series before retiring Melky Cabrera on a ground ball to third to end the game.

Saluting the longtime foe: The Giants pause their celebration to tip their hats and honor Bobby Cox (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)

This was a true championship caliber series and certainly more competitive and well played than any of the other divisional series game.  Like all the games of this series the game could have gone either way. These teams were so evenly matched and played so well that it was a shame that one had to lose. Both secured playoff berths on the last day of the season and both are class organizations and have great fans. The difference was pitching the Giants starters had an ERA of 0.89 in the four games but not the starters alone as the Giants’ pitching staff allowed just 5 earned runs in 37 innings work for a 1.21 ERA.   Giants’ starter Madison Bumgarner got the win while Derek Lowe picked up his second loss of the series.

The hero for the Giants was Cody Ross who had the game winning hit in game one and 2 RBIs in the finale to give the Giants just enough juice to end the Braves season and Bobby Cox’s managerial career.  As Bobby Cox tipped his hat at the end of the game I thought back to all of the times that this legendary manager has taken the Braves to the playoffs, especially their amazing run in 2005 with the “Baby Braves” rookies.  Cox was an old time manager who knew how to get the most out of his people and even continued to wear steel cleats to his final game. The colorful Cox will be missed and whoever the Braves get to fill his shoes will have to work many years in the shadow of a legend.

The Giants now move on the face the Phillies in the NLCS which begins on Friday in Philadelphia. I will analyze that series and the ALCS matchup after the Rays and Rangers series ends tomorrow evening.

Peace

Padre Steve+

 

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Baseball is Back….Thank God!

Norfolk’s Harbor Park

Night baseball isn’t an aberration. What’s an aberration is a team that hasn’t won a World Series since 1908. They tend to think of themselves as a little Williamsburg, a cute little replica of a major league franchise. Give me the Oakland A’s, thank you very much. People who do it right.” George Will on the Chicago Cubs

Baseball is back and I am very happy as spring returns and winter fades away as I can again watch baseball again live or tape delay.  Sure it is pre-season and the teams are still sorting out rosters but Spring Training is something that I look forward to every year.  I was actually hoping to get to Florida this year to take in a bit of the Orioles camp in Sarasota but thanks to a nasty Kidney stone I was pretty much knocked out of it.  Work will be too busy and Holy Week is coming so I will have to wait until opening day at the Church of Baseball, Harbor Park Parish.

Joey Gathright bunts for a hit against Atlanta’s Gwinnett Braves in 2009

There is something about Spring Training as you watch the teams, study the roster reports and look at potential line ups pitching rotations and relief pitching staffs.  It is also the time that we begin to see how the personnel changes, signings, departures and prospects look up close.  It is a time when teams and players get to know each other again. I follow the Giants, Orioles and A’s very closely as well as looking most of the other teams as I look trough team sites, ESPN, Yahoo Baseball and sports blogs.

The statement of George Will the political columnist and avid Cubs fan speaks a lot of truth. The Cubs for years have either been penny pinchers or spent money like a drunken sailor with little to show for it. Since Jesus will come when they win the World’s Series next I think it likely that they will continue to be just what Will said they are “a cute little replica of a major league franchise.  Some teams spend their money be it large amounts or small wisely and know how to win.  Others spend money with no return throwing good money after bad on horrible deals every season and reaming losers.

What really interests me in baseball is not just the Major League teams but their Minor League affiliates.  Of course I have a close up view of the Orioles AAA International League affiliate the Norfolk Tides from my pew in Section 102, Row B Seat 1 and 2 a Harbor Park.  One of the things that I follow closely are the prospects as well as former Major League players as they move between the Majors and Minors as well as how they figure in trades.

A lot of people simply follow the big name players on contending teams and I admit that there is nothing wrong with that.  However, my view is that you have to take a look at a team’s farm system in relationship to the Major League team that it supports and feeds.  The depth and talent found in a teams’ Minor League system is vitally important to a team’s success or failure. Let me follow this with a few examples.

Mariano Rivera- Raised in the Yankee System

Let’s begin with the New York Yankees.  They are often portrayed as a team filled with “hired gun” type free agents who the pay an ungodly amount of money to obtain. Yes the Yankees are committed to winning and they will pay top dollar to get the best in baseball. Teams that want to win make the commitment to doing it.  Those that are content to be in the middle of the pack or lower don’t.  It is that simple. Like him or not George Steinbrenner knew what he was doing. However this is only part of their formula for success.  They also have also chosen to invest a lot in an excellent farm system.  Many of their top players came out of that system including Derek Jeter, Mariano Rivera and Jorge Posada.  Their current middle relief staff, which had for many years been a weakness, is now stocked with solid pitchers who came out of the Yankee system.  The depth of their system also allows them to use it to sweeten up trade deals with other teams.  If you want to win consistently you have to have the depth in the Minor League system in case you need it.

David Wright: One of the Few Bright Spots for the Mets

So now we go to the other end of the spectrum.  The New York Mets also spent a huge amount of money on big name free agents.  However, because the Mets invest almost nothing in their Minor League system it has been consistently the worst in baseball for years.  Likewise the mid to end of season implosions show just how bad the Mets system is.  For example the Mets treated their farms teams so badly since the arrival of Omar Minaya that their flagship affiliate, the Norfolk Tides ended their relationship with the Mets at the end of the 2006 season to become part of the Baltimore Orioles system.  The Mets system has few prospects and at the upper levels is stocked with older Minor Leaguers and worn out Major leaguers looking for one last year in the sun.  The Mets initially had to move the team to New Orleans for two years and then were able to market themselves to Buffalo when Cleveland moved their AAA affiliate to Columbus Ohio.  The team was the worst in the International League last year and Buffalo fans that for years enjoyed high caliber ball players and young prospects became angry.  Little good is being said about the Mets in Buffalo even now and since the Mets have depleted what they can spend, and few Minor League prospects they have little bargaining power to reach out and deal for the top tier free agents.

Brian McCann, one of the  18 “Baby Braves” who took the Braves to the 2005 NLCS

We move to another team that does things right with regard to this is the Atlanta Braves.  The Braves have been consistently good for many years winning 14 Division titles and a World Series. In that amazing run where they won more than 90 and sometimes over 100 games a season almost every year they often dominated to National League.  The team is stocked with home grown talent.  I have seen the Braves minor league teams at the AAA and AA level and am well acquainted with their system.  They too are usually really good, very good. That minor league system has produced great players including Chipper Jones.  Do not forget 2005 when the Braves beset by injuries called up a large number of Minor league players from Richmond and Mississippi including All Star catcher Brian McCann, Jeff Francoeur, Ande Marte, Kelly Johnson and 14 other rookies and the “Baby Braves” as they were known helped take the Braves to the playoffs.  The system had to recover from that and it has now because the Braves invest in it and those players are beginning to make an impact in the Majors.

Billy Beane the GM of the Oakland Athletics

Another team that knows how to use a farm system is the Oakland Athletics. The A’s after being very competitive using very little money for years fell on hard times last year, but one of the keys to their success was their reliance on top prospects in their Minor League System.  Over the years that system has produced some great players and more than likely will do so again.  The A’s system is built on the principle of Saber metrics which looks at numbers crunched by statistics geeks and has for the most part served them well.  The A’s General Manager Billy Beane has revolutionized the game for small market teams that want quality on a limited budget. Many former A’s cut loose when they would become too expensive now star on other Major League teams. The system is discussed in the book Moneyball.

The new “Baby Birds” Matt Wieters and Nolan Reimold along with Luke Scott great Oscar Salazar after a Home Run

A few years back the Orioles realizing that they could not compete dollar for dollar against ht Red Sox and Yankees began at the single A level to build a premier farm system.  Each year the best have moved up into the system to AA and AAA levels.  Last year the Norfolk Tides started out on fire and when the Orioles ran into major injury problems they called up a lot of minor league players including Matt Wieters, Nolan Reimold, Brad Bergeson and Chris Tillman.   The Orioles have built their system in stages and that building process went through the 2009 season.  Many of those called up were not quite ready for the majors but many are looked upon as future All Stars, especially their deep well of pitching talent that most teams could only dream about having.

Phillies Slugger Ryan Howard who I have seen play as a Reading Philly and Scranton-Wilkes Barre Red Barons before he went to the Majors

When I look at teams I always look at their minor league system and their prospects because that system and those prospects are the future of the team.  Teams that are consistently bad typically have bad minor league systems.  I have been watching minor league ball in person regularly for almost ten years.  As such I have seen many of today’s biggest stars including players like Ryan Howard, Felix Hernandez, Jason Verlander, Heath Bell, Grady Sizmore, Victor Martinez, Jacoby Ellsbury, Jhonny Peralta, Brian McCann, David Wright, Evan Longoria, Jonathan Papelbon, many of the current Baltimore Orioles as well as countless others.

The relationship of the Major League team to its farm system is of paramount importance. If a team does not invest in their minor league affiliates and make good draft choices and trades they will seldom do well even if they have a decent team at the beginning of the season. Without quality prospects in the minor league system they will not have personnel readily available for call up on short notice in case of injury, not will they have depth to trade for quality players if the need them.

This is one of the things that make the game of baseball so different than other sports with the possible exception of NHL Hockey and its farm system.  The relationship and the development of players at the minor league level have a direct impact on the Major League club.  This is part of why I am so passionate about this game.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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