Either the New York Mets or the San Francisco Giants will end a season of great expectations with a disappointing first-round playoff loss. Those high stakes - and that small margin for error - have Giants GM Brian Sabean worried.
"The series scares me," Sabean said. "I think the biggest reason is that (both) teams are very powerful. The 97 wins and the homefield advantage doesn't mean (anything) until we get out of the first round."
San Francisco takes on the Mets in the best-of-five division series beginning Wednesday at Pacific Bell Park. The Giants' 97 victories gave them baseball's best record, the NL West title and the right to open the playoffs with the first postseason game at their beautiful new park.
Those victories also put what Barry Bonds called "a big responsibility" on their postseason play. San Francisco, which also had baseball's best home record, would be embarrassed by an early playoff exit.
Despite their lofty record, the Giants are in unfamiliar territory. They haven't won a postseason game in manager Dusty Baker's eight-year tenure and have made the playoffs just once previously, in 1997.
The Mets, with consecutive postseason appearances for the first time in team history and baseball's fifth-biggest payroll at $89.8 million, might need to win the series in order for manager Bobby Valentine and GM Steve Phillips to keep their jobs.
"The Mets are a very experienced and deep ballclub," Sabean said. "Coming in here for the first two games won't bother them at all, and we know how tough they are at home. This is going to be hard fought. It certainly to me is a coin flip."
Pitching is likely the key in a series matching two strong staffs in this baseball era of homers and 20-run games. Each team has five starters who won at least 11 games this season, and quality bullpens.
"I know going into the series that there aren't going to be a lot of runs scored," said Al Leiter, who will start Game 2 for the Mets. "I always have to assume that as a starter."
San Francisco has such a deep, effective starting rotation that Baker is still agonizing over how to use it, and the Giants' bullpen is deep even with Monday's news that seldom-used, oft-injured relievers John Johnstone and Joe Nathan won't pitch in the postseason.
Nathan, who has pitched in just 20 games after failing to crack the rotation, had arthroscopic surgery on his right shoulder Monday in Los Angeles. The team's medical staff also said it's doubtful that Johnstone, nursing a sore lower back that's kept him out since Sept. 11, will pitch again this year.
Miguel Del Toro is expected to take Johnstone's spot in the bullpen.
The Mets' first trip to San Francisco this season wasn't a pleasant one - and not just because Giants fans love to boo the Mets more than any team except the Dodgers.