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Maybe it's a matter of my being close to the action in the AL Central the last two years, but it seems to me that a 163rd game for a one-game play-in is one of the rites of autumn you can start taking for granted. And with a day that opened with a 50/50 shot at there being a 163rd and even a 164th game riding on the outcome, you can't deny the Braves/Phillies and the Padres/Giants games deserved center stage.*

The Braves' attempt to limp into October action has endured its share of handicaps. No Chipper Jones and, subsequent to last week's season-ending hip injury, no Martin Prado, so the Braves have had to finish the season with an entirely different infield than the one they opened the year with. The outfield beyond Jason Heyward has been barely any more stable. Atlanta also had to endure the indignity of a pair of games in which the Phillies decisively cleated the Braves on the throat, just to make it absolutely clear who the class of the league must be before Sunday's action.

Happily for the Braves, Charlie Manuel seemed to treat the game as a tune-up for the LDS, starting with his hooking Cole Hamels after two innings. That might not have seemed like an act of mercy, since he followed Hamels with Roy Oswalt, but then the skipper handed the game to Danys Baez, as clear a challenge to the Braves to win or have only themselves to blame as you might imagine. Atlanta responded easily enough, crushing the Cuban by plating four in the fourth.

Before the action, Tim Hudson was chided in the TBS pre-game show for struggling of late, but that's hardly fair, given his extraordinary fortune on ball-in-play outcomes earlier this year—Clay Davenport noted earlier this summer that Hudson was on pace to finish with the biggest discrepancy between actual hits allowed and expected hits. However, Hudson's September record wasn't really a case of his being flailed by the league with regression's cat o' nine tails. To his credit, he delivered five quality starts in seven between September and October—albeit through the first six innings of those seven starts.

Three of those quality outings, including yesterday's, were subsequently blown after the sixth. That's something you can't lay at any one doorstep—you can blame Hudson, of course, because he's the guy who gave up the two-run homer in the seventh to Jayson Werth with two outs to cut the Braves' lead to four. You can also blame a bullpen with a mediocre record for keeping inherited runners from scoring.

However, to take an unpopular tack given the skipper's future in the Hall of Fame as he heads into his career's conclusion, you also need to place some responsibility at Bobby Cox's desk. You have to, even if the skipper had a slow hook with his ace on the mound; with the club's rotation fraying down the stretch, you can understand the reasons why. Yesterday's choice to leave Hudson on the mound wasn't that different from the decision to have him work on three days' rest in his last two turns after having him pitch on longer-than-normal rest in his previous pair.

These were all elective decisions that weren't Hudson's to make. Cox very well could have kept Hudson on turn every fifth day in September, in which case his ace would have started Friday's game—opening the Phillies series. Doing so would have had Hudson cued up for either a Tuesday tiebreaker on three days' rest, or left him extra rested-up for the LDS.

If you're given to managing from your couch, you can also fidget over whether the Braves should have tried to add additional runs by little-balling it, considering that they had 13 baserunners in the last four innings but came away with just three tacked-on runs to tally eight. However, in the sixth, Cox couldn't have really avoided Derrek Lee's GIDP and gunned for an insurance run, even with his ranking in the top 15 in the majors in delivering twin killings at the plate—Lee hasn't dropped a successful sac bunt since 2004, and pinch-hitting for his best defender at the position seems equally unlikely. In the eighth, however, coming up empty on a bases-loaded GIDP by Alex Gonzalez was much more bitter; he's also a bit above average among deuce-generators.

But even then, you can't complain much about Cox's subsequent decisions. He gave Hudson the seventh, and it cost him two runs, but with Takashi Saito and Eric O'Flaherty both unavailable, and with Michael Dunn and Kyle Farnsworth pitching in both of the series' previous pair of games, Cox's options for the seventh and eighth innings before getting back to Billy Wagner were limited. He had Jonny Venters and Peter Moylan and the terribly exciting Craig Kimbrel.

Cox turned to Venters and nearly got through unscathed. It took a two-out grounder hit through Omar Infante at the hot corner to open the floodgates and create a three-run disaster barely contained by bringing Wagner into the eighth. It wasn't a rocket-science move in itself, but it's one that not every manager makes, so credit the old man there as well. Down just a run, you might wonder if Manuel should have expended any extra effort in the final frame, but he was nearly out of position players by the ninth. After Shane Victorino battled Wagner to an eighth pitch, there wasn't much to be done beyond simply letting Brian Schneider and Greg Dobbs stand in to get rung up.

Attention immediately swung across the country and the Giants/Padres game, with the outcomes being restricted to a fairly simple proposition—no extra action, or the scheduling nightmare scenario. Think on that—six months of regular-season play to try and determine the league's four best clubs, and we nevertheless could have been reduced to the spectacle of a playoff team playing in four different venues on four consecutive days without rest. Because the Padres, Giants, Reds, and Braves were all so tightly grouped in the last week, I suppose defenders of the three-division setup can take some satisfaction—matters could have been even worse if we had two-division leagues with two wild-card teams, since you'd have all four clubs potentially sucked into this parity-minded mess.

However, Jonathan Sanchez kept things somewhat simple early on, shutting down the Padres again as he had earlier in the month. The Pads' offense came into the game having scored zero runs or one in eight of their previous 22 games; in Sunday's action they'd make it nine of 23. You can't blame Petco Park alone for this, or the quality of their offense—those nine games came in two starts by Sanchez, and one apiece by Adam Wainwright, Madison Bumgarner, Tim Lincecum, Hiroki Kuroda, Carlos Zambrano, Jake Westbrook, and Tom Gorzelanny. Gorzo the Magnificent is obviously the least of them, but it's the sort of pitching that puts you in chicken/egg territory, about whether good pitching makes bad hitting worse or bad hitting makes good pitching great.

Robbed of an extra-base hit early thanks to the game's devotion to human error from the men in black, the Giants got to enjoy the benefit of the even less-likely heroics of a pitcher's triple in the bottom of the third. Padres outfield defense, especially in a unit numbering Ryan Ludwick or Chris Denorfia or Scott Hairston, might be best described as a desperate affair. It's hard to blame Bud Black for selecting that trio, given his desperate quest for runs, but it came with a penalty, which Mat Latos paid.

Black would also come under fire from the studio for failing to get tactical in the sixth inning after Adrian Gonzalez and Ludwick reached base to lead off. Bobby Valentine can chime in here with the obvious, since bunting with Yorvit Torrealba down by two is obvious enough. Both runners were station-to-station runners, and Torrealba is a GIDP threat (3.53 NetDP and a 16 percent GIDP rate). But that's assuming Torrealba can get it down, or that Gonzo can beat a throw aimed to get the lead runner. Predictably enough to some folks' way of thinking, Torrealba hit into the double play, and the Pads were as dead as ever on the scoreboard.

If swinging away and gunning for a bigger inning was the plan, it would have been better to see Black reach for either of his best-available lefty batters as Santiago Casilla's first batter faced. Both Will Venable and Matt Stairs were riding pine for the lefty Sanchez's start, and how many two-on, no-out situations were the Pads going to get? Stairs and Venable are both fly-ball hitters, both are very difficult to double up, and both boast significant platoon advantages worth dropping on Casilla for his first batter. Unfortunately, one may as well howl at the moon these days. We're in an age of tactical paralysis where offense is concerned. Pinch-hitting for position players, even with expanded rosters in September, just isn't something most managers go for much.

Whatever complaints Black's skippering on this day might engender, Bruce Bochy did his damnedest as far as in-game tactics, working for matchups on the mound and managing the offensive side of his lineup card every bit as aggressively. Pulling Jose Guillen after six innings in the field and three at-bats at the plate is exactly the way you'd want to see a manager handle a weak defender, but that was just one of three defensive-minded tweaks Bochy made in-game once he had a lead to work with. Bochy took his own shot at getting a third run in the seventh, but A-Gonz spoiled Eugenio Velez's bunt attempt by gunning Pablo Sandoval. Of course, using a pinch-runner for the slow-footed Sandoval might have helped matters.

It ended up not mattering—Buster Posey delivered that critical third run in the eighth with a solo homer, and Brian Wilson nailed down the save. I'll leave lamenting the Pads' fate to others, sad as it might be. As much as the Giants wound up winning by virtue of the quality of top talents, sure, they also won by not sitting still. As frequently flogged as he might be by statheads of several stripes, Brian Sabean's attentive shoring up of his roster with in-season reinforcements wouldn't necessarily make for a great playbook. However, the team that had Casilla and Javier Lopez and Ramon Ramirez holding Sunday's lead, the one that featured Posey and Pat Burrell slugging for them, that isn't the same club they opened the year with. If at any point within either the pen or the lineup the Giants had simply settled, their affairs would be already, by somebody else. That they didn't has them matched up with the afternoon's other relieved victor out in Atlanta.

*: Unless you're TBS, of course. The network decided to stick many people with the tedium of a Yankees/Red Sox game featuring just one playoff team instead of possibly two, and with the outcome not even certain to determine home-field advantage in the American League. Cable viewers had to settle for seeing the Red Sox avenge themselves by denying the Yankees while the Rays dragged out their own desultory denouement to 12 innings against the Royals.

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edanddom
10/04
**: And THAT is why the MLB Network is hands down worth the cost of DirecTV, even if you have to cut down a few trees to get a signal. The matchups are fantastic in both leagues. It's especially interesting that the Giants and Braves are so similar in those made-for-TV dramatic ways: ROY candidates Posey vs Heyward, Bay Area heroes Zito vs Hudson, Young Aces Lincecum vs Hanson, Veteran Wanderers (and Ex-Tigers) Torres vs Infante, Comeback Stories Huff vs Glaus, Dominating Closers Wilson vs Wagner. This really has a lot going for it and will be exciting to watch unfold... if you have a DVR and can record the games during the daytime!
mhmosher
10/04
Totally agree. MLB Network is awesome and the fact is, if you're a satellite subscriber, Dish Network doesn't give a damn about sports programming or baseball in general. I switched four years ago for this exact reason. By the way, the switch over takes about an hour....the installer just uses your cables from Dish and installs a new dish and receivers. It's quick and easy.
uptick
10/04
I did the same thing 4 years ago...and this year, at long last, virtually every game was in HD
davelamb
10/04
I'm kind of hoping that the silver lining to the Giants' loss on Saturday is that Zito watches the NLDS from the bench
nateetan
10/04
And that's basically the way that every game has gone for the Giants defensively. If they have the lead, Burrell and Guillen are nearly always gone after their third AB.
JOEVAND
10/04
Excellent coverage of the Braves-Phils game yesterday. As a longtime Braves fan, I did headstands when Baez came in to get hammered! Thanks to Uncle Cholly for handing us the wild card. Hope to pay him back in the NLCS!
georgeforeman03
10/04
Personally, I'd rather beat them in the NLCS....
Mountainhawk
10/04
Given the choices, I think it was to the Phils advantage to lose that game. Otherwise if the Padres win, they face the Giants in the short series, which is the only team in the playoffs that can go nearly toe to toe with Hamels, Halladay, Oswalt. Getting the Giants in a 7 game series is a much better result for the Phils, assuming the two LDS go as expected.
ckahrl
10/04
I'm a little reluctant to jump to the conclusion that facing Sanchez too is really a benefit.
harderj
10/04
Is your assumption that the Giants will go with Lincecum, Zito, and Cain in the first round (and therefore Sanchez is the fourth starter the Phils would face)? I'm with the other poster above who hopes it's not Zito...either Bumgarner or Sanchez seems a better choice (albeit Sanchez might not be adequately rested). How important is varying righty/lefty starters in the playoffs? That is, if you were the Giants, what order would you start them? I'd think Lincecum, Cain, Sanchez, and Bumgarner would be my four, but that's two righties, then two lefties.
joelefkowitz
10/04
But if the Phillies and Giants win game 162, then the Phils are guaranteed to face a team that has already burned its number one starter (and possibly number two also, if the Braves lose their 163rd game, and they face the NL West Wild Card).
formersd
10/04
Painful as a Padre fan to watch that game. Latos was actually pretty lucky to only give up 2 runs, he was giving up line shots all over for the first 3-4 innings.
ckahrl
10/04
Yep, the 'chalk shot' that inspired renewed calls for replay ranking high among them.
formersd
10/04
The way that ball bounced, it sure seemed like it hit the bullpen mound to me. I'm not sure replay would have been able to overturn that.
harderj
10/04
formersd, are you talking about the bottom of the first leadoff double by Andres Torres that clearly kicked up chalk? If so, I'm not sure how the bullpen mound comes into play... On a side note, did anyone notice the umpire in the first game of the series (maybe the same one who blew the third base call yesterday) who kept refusing to give a new ball to Buster Posey, insisting on throwing it to the pitcher himself? And last night's home plate ump refusing to check checked-swing calls with the first base ump when Posey requested (Giants announcers Mike Krukow and Duane Kuiper said it happened a number of times)? Just showing the rookie who's boss?
davelamb
10/04
The home plate ump was also trying to do his best Enrico Palazzo impersonation with some of those delayed emphatic strike calls.
formersd
10/04
That's McClelland, Padre broadcaster frequently comment on how long he takes to signal the call. It's always the HP Umpires option to ask for an appeal. All the ones I saw Posey ask for were clearly checks. Definitely not the first time I've seen HP Umpire deny appeals. Maybe I'm just seeing the 1st inning play through Padre fan lenses, but the ball clearly straightens out after the hop. If it was on the line, it should trail into the corner. The straightening bounce makes me think it ticked off the bullpen mound which has to be in foul territory.
harderj
10/05
Wow, not to be confrontational, but this makes me wonder whether we were watching the same (re-)play? What I saw was (iirc) a 2-strike hit down the left field line by switch hitter Andres Torres, hitting from the left side. The ball was in the air over third base and initially hit the ground on the left edge of the mislabeled "foul" line. Super slo-mo replays showed a puff of chalk clearly rising as the ball hit the ground, which means it was a fair ball. Whether it kicked into the field at that point or not is kind of immaterial (I don't recall it doing so, but rather heading further toward the stands down the left field line...otherwise why the foul call?) And, I sure didn't see the ball get anywhere close to the bullpen mound on that play. There was another one that Torres pulled down the right field line, maybe even in the same at bat before eventually singling and getting stranded, but that was clearly foul. Is that what you're referring to, or did we see a different replay of the non-double?
deckweb
10/04
"Unless you're TBS, of course. The network decided to stick many people with the tedium of a Yankees/Red Sox game featuring just one playoff team instead of possibly two, and with the outcome not even certain to determine home-field advantage in the American League." Fox did the same thing on Saturday unless you lived in one of the 4 NL team markets. And as much as I like MLB Network, they planned on showing Yanks/Sox Friday night before the game was rained out. A great weekend of interesting baseball masked by the networks cramming "the greatest rivalry in sports" down our throats. All-in-all a pretty sad commentary on what these networks think of game of baseball. Past (and portential) ratings trumps all.
dodgerken222
10/04
Saturday afternoon has become an annual rite of aggravation for this DirecTV subscriber. I never see pennant race games on the next-to-last day of the season, instead being forced by Fox to watch (although I don't) the incredibly tedious elongated games of the Yankees-Red Sox bore-a-thon when the game is basically meaningless. I've followed the Dodgers for 50 years, and I didn't get to see Steve Finley's grand slam a few years ago. Even worse was one year when there were some pennant race games and Fox showed a TOTALLY meaningless game between the Cards and Cubs so "fans" could watch the two immortals Sammy Sosa and Mark McGwire try to hit "long" balls.
jasonbradleymill
10/05
Amen. I was surprised that the Giants-Padres game was on in my market of Tucson / Phoenix on Saturday. I thought that TBS would televise Giants-Padres on Sunday for sure. How obtuse of the network to televise a far less relevant and ultimately boring Yankees-Red Sox game on Sunday.
rawagman
10/05
Rogers surprised us all up in Toronto by pre-empting Women's Beach Volleyball for the SF-SD tilt on Sunday immediately following the conclusion of Cito Gaston's career in Minnesota.
dodgerken222
10/05
Pre-empting Women's Beach Volleyball. I hate it when that happens.