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Only upstart Giants stand in way of Phils, history

Only upstart Giants stand in way of Phils, history

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They're rested and ready, locked and loaded. And they're perhaps the most intimidating team left standing in the postseason.

Say what you will about the boys in pinstripes over in the American League, but the Phillies enter the National League Championship Series on Saturday with some serious momentum and sky-high expectations, having dispatched the Reds in three games in the NL Division Series after closing out the regular season with a 27-8 kick.

They have a scary deep pitching rotation -- led by Roy Halladay, Roy Oswalt and Cole Hamels -- and a lineup full of veterans who have been there, done that. And now, two years after winning the World Series, they want to try to go there and do it again.

At stake for the Phillies when they face the Giants in the NLCS: their third consecutive NL pennant, something no team has done since the Cardinals in 1942-44.

"We're going to try to play the best baseball we can and try to win the next four games as fast and as quick as we can," Hamels said. "Because our ultimate goal is to win the World Series."

Standing in their way are the never-say-die Giants, fresh off a 3-1 series win over the Atlanta Braves that put them in their first NLCS since 2002. They don't quite have a 1-2-3 that can stack up with the two Roys and King Cole, but the Giants' starting pitching is certainly capable of shutting down opponents.

San Francisco led the NL in ERA this year, with Tim Lincecum, Matt Cain and Jonathan Sanchez anchoring a strong rotation and closer Brian Wilson at the back of one of the best bullpens in the NL this season. Giants starters allowed three earned runs in 29 innings in the NLDS.

The likely pitching matchup in Saturday's Game 1 in Citizens Bank Park in Philadelphia will be one of the most anticipated of the season: Halladay, fresh off his no-hit performance, taking on two-time defending NL Cy Young Award winner Lincecum, who struck out 14 batters in his Game 1 NLDS win, a two-hitter.

The conventional wisdom is that the two teams' pitching staffs are roughly equivalent, but that the Phillies are the superior offensive club. That is not, however, how it played out when the two teams met during the season. While they split six games -- each taking two out of three at home -- the Giants batted .290 against the Phillies and outhomered them, 8-3, over the six games.

Furthermore, the Giants' oft-dismissed offense fared much better against the Philadelphia Threedom than the Phillies' heralded lineup did against the Giants' trio. In four starts against San Francisco, H20 went 1-2 with a 6.12 ERA, allowing 32 hits over 25 innings with 27 strikeouts. But the Giants' trio was much more effective against the Phillies' vaunted offense, going 2-1 with a 1.96 ERA over four starts, allowing only 15 hits over 27 1/3 innings while striking out 28.

Whether that holds up in the postseason remains to be seen, and perhaps experience will be a factor, as it was in the Phillies' sweep of the Reds in the NLDS. That stands to be a big factor in favor of the Phillies, who are in the playoffs for the fourth year in a row. The starting cast has stayed pretty much the same, with Ryan Howard, Jimmy Rollins, Chase Utley and Shane Victorino among those anchoring Philadelphia's core.

The Giants certainly don't have the postseason chops to compare with the Phillies, but San Francisco has veterans in Aubrey Huff, Freddy Sanchez and ex-Phillie Pat Burrell, as well as talented younger players like Buster Posey, who are playing under the bright lights of the postseason for the first time.

And under the bright lights and the increased scrutiny of October is when things are different. Every play is magnified, every at-bat bigger than the one before it. The Phillies know all about this. This is just part of their grand plan.

Perhaps that's why the Giants might just have a chance. For the most part, the postseason pressure is still something they're figuring out. If their gutsy series victory over the Braves is any indication, it hasn't bothered them one bit.

BREAKDOWN

HEAD TO HEAD
2010 Record:: Giants 3-3, Phillies 3-3
Batting average: Giants .290 | Phillies .226
Home runs: Giants 8 | Phillies 3
RBIs: Giants 26 | Phillies 25
ERA: Giants 4.00 | Phillies 4.50
Strikeouts: Giants 47 | Phillies 49
Walks: Giants 20 | Phillies 10

Key Late Game Matchups
Closer Brad Lidge was tremendous down the stretch for the Phillies, saving 17 out of 18 games with an ERA below 1.00 in the final two months. The only left-handed bat in the Giants' lineup with some real pop -- especially when Pablo Sandoval is out of the game -- is Huff, who has only one career at-bat against Lidge (0-for-1). Giants closer Wilson led the league with 48 saves, but blew a save early in the year against the Phillies when Jayson Werth hit a three-run double. Werth is 1-for-2 against Wilson all time, and Utley is 2-for-3. Howard and Rollins are a combined 3-for-6, so things will be interesting if Wilson has a chance to close out a tight game.

Secret Weapon
Phillies: Setup man Ryan Madson doesn't only keep things loose in the Phillies' clubhouse by wearing good-luck masks like he did Sunday. He also could be a valuable presence to bridge the gap between the Phillies' terrific starting pitching and Lidge, who's pitched well since the start of August. Madson has quietly put together a solid season.

Giants: Mike Fontenot. Giants manager Bruce Bochy showed his confidence in the steady infielder by starting him in two consecutive games at third base in the NLDS in place of Sandoval. Fontenot, who reached the playoffs in 2007 and '08 with the Cubs, may provide the spark the Giants need on offense.

Achilles' Heel
Phillies: Rollins has had a sub-par season and had just one hit in the NLDS. With runs figuring to be at a premium against the Giants' pitching staff, the Phillies are going to need a rejuvenated J-Roll.

Giants: Sandoval hasn't lived up his terrific 2009 season, and if Bochy opts to continue to stick with Fontenot instead of Kung Fu Panda, especially on the road, it gives him one less solid left-handed stick off the bench.

AND THE WINNER IS ...
Phillies will win if ... Halladay, Oswalt and Hamels do their thing. Halladay, of course, threw a no-hitter in Game 1 of the NLDS against the Reds, and Hamels tossed a brilliant shutout in Game 3. Oswalt is unbeaten in his career in the playoffs and was named the Most Valuable Player of his previous NLCS appearance for the Astros against the Cardinals in 2005.

Giants will win if ... they outpitch the Phillies, and they're capable. Giants starters allowed only three earned runs in 29 innings in the NLDS, and if San Francisco can keep the games close and make it a battle of the bullpens in the late innings, it will have the edge.

Brian McTaggart is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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