Philadelphia Phillies vs. Cincinnati Reds
There's a saying that has become popular in Philadelphia over the last decade: "As Jimmy Rollins goes, so go the Phillies." This season, however, Rollins was plagued by injuries and only played in 88 games.
Still, the Phillies managed to secure the best record in the National League.
A big part of that has to do with their starting rotation, dubbed H2O. The nickname stands for Halladay, Hamels and Oswalt, who together combined to give the Phillies 40 wins and just 22 losses.
Roy Halladay was dominant from the season opener, throwing a perfect game on the way to finishing 21-10 with a 2.44 ERA. Cole Hamels bounced back from a disappointing year last season, notching 12 wins against 11 losses with a 3.06 ERA. His record would have been even better had he not gone through a 10 start stretch in the middle of the summer when the Phillies offense provided him with just one run or less in each game. Finally, Roy Oswalt, acquired in July, went on a tear after an initially disappointing start to his season with Houston, going 7-1 with an impressive 1.74 ERA after the trade.
If there were any team in the NL that could match Philadelphia, it is the Cincinnati Reds. The Reds led the league with a .272 team batting average, 188 home runs, 761 RBI and a .436 team slugging percentage.
Young players like Joey Votto, Jay Bruce and Drew Stubbs combined with veterans such as Brandon Phillips, Scott Rolen and Orlando Cabrera to put the Reds' offense over the top and win their first division crown since 1995. Around the All-Star Break, Votto was considered a viable candidate for the Triple Crown, and he ended the season hitting .324 with 37 homers and 113 RBI. Bruce finished with his best season to date with 25 homers and Rolen continues to be productive into his mid-30s, blasting 20 homers of his own.
However, the Reds might have had some company at the top of the offensive leaderboards if Philadelphia's lineup had stayed healthy this season.
Ryan Howard, Chase Utley, Raul Ibanez and Shane Victorino all joined Rollins as Phillies who spent a significant amount of time on the disabled list. With the lineup more or less intact from early September on (except for Rollins), the Phillies went 23-7 over their last 30 games, including an 11-game winning streak in the middle of September. In that same stretch, the Reds went 14-16.
Between H2O, the Phillies' healthy and functioning lineup, and the Reds' starting trio of Edinson Volquez, Bronson Arroyo and Johnny Cueto going just 10-11 down the stretch, the Phillies have a shot at going 3-0 in this series. The Reds may take a game due to the bullpen woes that occasionally pop up in Philadelphia, but a sweep could be in order.
Atlanta Braves vs. San Francisco Giants
It's been a little while since either of these teams have reached the playoffs. Barry Bonds was still lurking in left field for the Giants when they won their division in 2003, and Andruw Jones wasn't a struggling veteran when the Braves won their last of a string of 11 straight NL East division championships in 2005.
This year, both clubs punched their tickets to the playoffs on the last day of the season. The Braves survived a late inning scare against the Phillies and the Giants won over the Padres late Sunday afternoon, sealing the matchup of these two teams.
The Giants have utilized their spacious ballpark and its fly ball-killing winds to amass a good rotation of mostly young pitchers. Starting with young ace Tim Lincecum and moving down the rotation to Barry Zito, Matt Cain, Jonathan Sanchez and Madison Bumgarner, the Giants' starters had a National League low 3.36 ERA.
Lincecum went 16-10 with a 3.43 ERA, a step down from last year's 15-7, 2.48 year, but dominant nonetheless. Cain, Sanchez and Bumgarner combined for 33 wins to supplement Lincecum's solid season. Sanchez even had a breakout year, looking much better than he did in 2009. Barry Zito showed flashes of brilliance but remains something of a disappointment. He finished the year 9-14 with a 4.15 ERA.
The Braves weren't far off the track set by the Giants. Their starters amassed a 3.56 ERA, good for third best in the league behind the Padres. Tim Hudson had his best year since coming to Atlanta, going 17-9 and carrying a 2.83 ERA. Speculation is that his return to dominance came from fully recovering from Tommy John surgery that put a little extra zip on his fastball.
Derek Lowe also had an impressive season for Atlanta, going 16-12. Tommy Hanson fell into a bit of a sophomore slump but still finished 10-11 with a 3.33 ERA. Lowe is set to start for the Braves in the NLDS against Lincecum, relying on his sinker to turn a few double plays on the rather slow Giants.
Offensively, the Giants have the power edge over the Braves, despite their open, pitcher-friendly ballpark and the Braves' launching pad. The Giants swatted 162 homers to the Braves' 139 in 2010. Atlanta finished with a .258 team average, edging the Giants team batting average by a point.
Overall, the Braves have a more athletic team in the field. Despite the offensive re-awakening of Pat Burrell and his 18 home runs, he has little range left in his legs. Pablo Sandoval also doesn't exactly look like Brooks Robinson at third, which is compounded by his down numbers this year.
The pitching matches up evenly, with Barry Zito and Tommy Hanson being their respective teams' wild cards. Both clubs have strong bullpens, with Brian Wilson and Billy Wagner looking like the two of the best closers in the Majors, despite Wagner's meltdown last Sunday.
In the end, I think the Braves' two older experienced guns, Hudson and Lowe, will fare better than playoff rookies Lincecum, Cain, Sanchez and Bumgarner. The Giants may pop a few home runs, but the Braves' offense has a more balanced feel with the likes of Jason Heyward, Brian McCann and Martin Prado on top of a defense that should really help out Hudson and Lowe.
It will definitely be a tight series, but look for the Braves to win in five.