Speaking with the Enemy: A Look at Sunday's Giant Clash

Speaking with the Enemy: A Look at Sunday's Giant Clash

Perhaps overlooked amid several of the other huge stories going on around town, the Philadelphia Eagles, winners of three straight, are locked in a first place tie over the NFC East, and must play the Giants in New York this Sunday night. It's kind of a big deal. We see the Giants a lot, but they're a bit of a different team this season, so we asked Rick Resch from Giants Football Blog some questions about their current make-up, and what we can expect to see this week and maybe even down the road.

Donovan McNabb had one of his best games of the season the last time these teams met (you knew I was going there). If Osi Umenyiora doesn't make his presence known, and he hasn't been having his best season, do the Giants have enough of a pass rush otherwise to match up against the Eagles' explosive offense?

The Giants' pass rush has disappointed all season, and while I'd love to see it come alive Sunday night, I don't know if I can honestly predict that.  Even in a rejuvenated performance against the Cowboys, Romo was usually given enough time to find an open receiver.  I could see the Giants doing what they did against the Cowboys and lock down on the running game, making the Eagles' offense one dimensional (which might actually play into Andy Reid's hand).

Specifically on Osi, he has basically been relegated to a part time player, only getting on the field in passing situations.  He does have a nose for the big play, but he is lacking on a play-to-play basis.  Mathias Kiwanuka started in his place last week, and he is the better overall player right now.  If the Giants are going to get their pass rush going, it'll start with Justin Tuck and Kiwanuka winning their battles.

The Giants just recently lost the quarterback of their defense in Antoino Pierce, pressing second year linebacker Jonathan Goff in at middle linebacker. How did he perform in his first start last week against the Cowboys, and what are his limitations or those of the defense when he's in the game?

I thought Goff played well given that it was his first start.  He plays the run very well and is faster than I thought, although he did over-pursue the ball carrier a couple of times.  It's still too early to tell if he can be the future at MLB, but I saw more positives than negatives in his first game.  

As for the loss of Pierce: it hurts in a leadership perspective, although last week Pierce was on the sideline acting as a coach/cheerleader.  Michael Boley has stepped into Pierce's shoes as the quarterback of the defense, and I feel that he is the linebacker most suited for the role.  When healthy, Boley has been the Giants' best linebacker, Pierce included. 

The Giants rushing attack has been averaging 124.6 (10th) yards per game, which is somewhat surprising because they haven't been able to get both Brandon Jacobs and Ahmad Bradshaw going within the same 60 minutes for much of the season. Jacobs in particular has struggled. The offensive line has been healthy, so what is the problem?

This actually surprises me; I didn't know the Giants still averaged that many rushing yards.

My opinion is that there are three problems with the Giants' running game.  Jacobs seems to be running a tad bit more cautiously than in the past, although recently he looks like he's been running harder.  Bradshaw has been plagued with injuries, although he looked like his old self last week. 

Most importantly, the offensive line just hasn't been playing like it had the past couple of years.  Both Jacobs' and Bradshaw's troubles are related to the lack of holes being opened up by the offensive line. They are getting pushed around by defenses, and my only guess is that age has finally started to catch up with them.  I hope that they can keep momentum going from their performance last week, but I'd be less surprised if the Giants go into the offseason with offensive line as a top priority.

Like the Eagles, the Giants have a deep group of young receivers. Steve Smith is having what could be considered a Pro Bowl season, though I'm not sure we're talking about a dominant player here. Will he ultimately wind up the best of the bunch, and how would you describe Mario Manningham's and Hakeem Nicks' roles compared to Smith?

I am very high on the Giants' receiving core, as I believe the team has turned a weakness into a strength.  Coming into the 2010 season, wide receiver depth will be one of the Giants' greatest assets.

I think Nicks will become the best of the bunch, probably by next season.  He has deceptive speed, good strength and the best hands on the team.  He has a knack for making the big play, and he has already become a go-to weapon for Eli when he's on the field.

Manningham's biggest problem is a common case of the butterfingers.  When he has the ball in his hands, he can be as tricky to tackle as anyone, and he does a great job of keeping his feet in bounds along the sidelines.  But he's always a candidate to drop or bobble a ball.  If he can get past the drops, he can turn into a very good NFL receiver.

Steve Smith is one of the most confusing players on the team.  He's not that fast, he's not tall and his go-to move after making a catch is the "fall down."  Yet, on third downs, it is impossible to cover him.  At least a couple times a day, I find myself saying "how can they let Smith get that open?"  Whenever Eli needs a first down, he's usually looking for Smith, who just knows how to find soft spots in the defense.

Coming into the season, I expected Smith to be relegated to slot receiver, while Nicks and Manningham would become the focus of the passing attack.  But 78 catches and almost 1,000 yards later, I have learned not to underestimate Steve Smith.  So, no, Smith does not have a dominant skill set, and he's not a prototypical number one receiver.  But it's hard to argue that a guy on pace for 104 receptions and 1305 yards is not a dominant player.

Right now, who would you say most Giants fans feel will win the NFC East?

It's funny what one big win can do for a fan base.  I think most Giants fans are pumped up by the win over the Cowboys, and having gotten a glimpse of what this team can do when firing on both sides of the ball, a newfound hope has been restored.  I'd say that most Giants fans expect to make the playoffs, and a good deal of them believe they will win the division.

Personally, given the Cowboys' tough remaining schedule, I think there's a good chance that the winner of Sunday night's battle will take home the division crown.

Let's get ahead of ourselves.  Which team would you feel more comfortable facing in a potential playoff game: Eagles or Cowboys?

Any team can beat any other team in the NFL, and for that reason, I usually don't get caught up in rooting for a certain playoff opponent.

With that said, I do think I would feel less comfortable playing a team that has knocked us out of the playoffs twice in the past three years.

The Giants have beaten the Cowboys twice, albeit in two well contested games, and their Winter struggles are well documented.  But we've all seen heavy favorites fail to win that third playoff game after sweeping the regular season series, and the Cowboys are due to bust out of their cold-weather slump.

In the end, I'd welcome either challenge.  But if I had to pick one, not knowing what the outcome of Sunday night's game will be, I would choose the Cowboys.

Prediction time: who you got on Sunday?

Obviously, I have to pick the Giants, which is why I don't like doing predictions.  So instead I'll say this:

I fully expect the Eagles' offensive line to keep Donovan McNabb clean once again.  If the Giants can get more than two sacks, I'll do naked cartwheels in Times Square.  And with a healthy DeSean Jackson and the emergence of Jeremy Maclin, no pressure would mean McNabb can pick apart the Giants' secondary.

So if the Giants' offense can come out with a balanced attack and put some points on the board, I think the Giants can win.  But if they wait till there's 4 minutes left in the first half to score, it could be a long day.

I'd say if the Giants can score more than 30 points, they should be able to win.  If the defensive line somehow plays like its 2007, things can swing in the Giants' favor.

These are some big ifs, but as I said, I have to have faith in my team.  I'll say Giants 31-30.

But I hate doing predictions.

That was Rick Resch from Giants Football Blog. You can check out our interview with Rick right here.

Aaron Altherr provides major spark in season debut to lead Phillies past Braves

Aaron Altherr provides major spark in season debut to lead Phillies past Braves

BOX SCORE

ATLANTA — The Phillies are still looking for the real Aaron Nola, but they may have found a useful bat Thursday night.

Aaron Altherr had the kind of season debut he’d dreamed about for the four months he was on the disabled list as he helped the Phillies beat the Atlanta Braves, 7-5, at Turner Field (see Instant Replay).

Altherr was one of three Phillies to hit home runs on a night when the offense awakened after generating just one run the previous two days in Miami. Altherr, who came off the disabled list earlier in the day after missing four months with a wrist injury that required surgery (see story), drove a two-run homer to left in the fifth inning. Earlier in the game, Maikel Franco and Tommy Joseph had back-to-back homers to headline a five-run first inning.

Franco leads the team with 19 homers and Joseph, hitting .375 with six homers in his last 17 games, has 14 in just 57 games with the club.

Altherr, who batted fifth behind Franco and Joseph, also had two hard singles in the game.

“He had a really good night in his debut,” manager Pete Mackanin said. “He provided a spark for us. He added to the offense. So I'm happy for that. It's good to get a win. We scored some runs, finally.”

Altherr was projected to be a starter in the Phillies’ opening day outfield until he suffered the wrist injury in spring training. He spent the last four months in Clearwater, rehabbing and, well, dreaming of a night like this.

“Definitely, especially sitting around thinking about how that first game's going to be being back,” he said. “For it to be like this, it was definitely special and I have to thank the Lord above for getting me back here as fast as He could.

“I was hoping to get a home run in the first game, but I definitely wasn't expecting it. Just hopeful. To have it happen like that was definitely awesome.

“It definitely surprised me a little bit because I hadn't really been driving the ball like I had wanted to down in my rehab stints. I'm just glad to know I've got [the power] in there somewhere.”

The Phillies hit all three of their home runs and scored all their runs against Atlanta right-hander Matt Wisler. He received a ticket to Triple A after the game.

The Phillies batted around against Wisler and scored five runs in the first inning. That was a welcome cushion for Nola, who desperately needed a win after failing to get one in his previous seven starts. The right-hander did manage to earn his first win since June 5, but it wasn’t exactly pretty. He lasted just five innings and threw a whopping 95 pitches as he continued to experience command issues that have been plaguing him in recent weeks.

Nola gave up eight hits and three runs. He walked three and hit a batter. That’s not Aaron Nola’s game. At least it wasn’t in his first 12 starts this season. He recorded a 2.65 ERA over that span and walked just 15 while striking out 85. He has walked 14 in his last eight starts.

“He's not the same guy,” Mackanin said. “He's just struggling with command once again. He's not dotting his fastball like he normally does. His curveball is erratic. He needs to get back on track.

“Sometimes it's harder to pitch when you have a big lead. You know you don't want to blow it. That can affect a pitcher as well. You have to have that mental toughness either way, whether it's a one-run game or an 8-0 game. You don't want to pitch poorly. There's a tendency, well, you have a five-run lead, should I throw more fastballs and challenge? But it was good to see he got a win. I'm happy for that. That should help him. He just needs to get to where he was. He's not there yet.”

Nola described his outing as “fairly OK,” which was probably right on. He got the win, but overall was not sharp. He allowed three runs in the fifth inning.

“I ran into some jams there,” he said. “I left some balls over the plate for them to hit. They took them the other way. The plan was to try to hit the outside part of the plate and they took it away.

“I feel like I have the command for the most part, but there’s some areas I still need to get better at and work to get better at.”

The Phillies used four relievers to close out the game. Edubray Ramos and Hector Neris pitched well. David Hernandez and Jeanmar Gomez did not. Gomez allowed three base runners and a run, but still managed to get the save. Hernandez allowed a hit and a pair of two-out walks before giving up an RBI double. A number of scouts from teams looking for bullpen help were on hand. Hernandez and Gomez probably did not help their trade value. Four days before the deadline, starter Jeremy Hellickson is still the Phillie most likely to be dealt.

Best of MLB: Sale loses in White Sox return, Chapman saves Cubs' 3-1 win

Best of MLB: Sale loses in White Sox return, Chapman saves Cubs' 3-1 win

CHICAGO -- Chris Sale returned from his jersey-trashing suspension and threw six effective innings, but John Lackey outpitched him and Aroldis Chapman got the final four outs to save the Cubs' 3-1 victory over the White Sox in Chicago's rivalry series Thursday night.

Sale (14-4) was greeted with smiles and hugs from his teammates following a five-day ban for tearing up 1976-style uniforms he didn't want to wear before his previous scheduled start. He had command issues, but worked out of trouble while allowing two runs and six hits.

Lackey (8-7) allowed one run in six innings for his first win since June 8. Chapman, in his second appearance since being acquired from the Yankees, struck out two and consistently hit 102 mph in his first save for his new team.

Kris Bryant, who homered against Sale in the All-Star Game, hit an RBI double off the center field wall in the first inning (see full recap). 

Diaz's homer helps Cardinals beat Marlins and Fernandez, 5-4
MIAMI -- Aledmys Diaz homered, doubled and drove in three runs against childhood pal Jose Fernandez, helping the St. Louis Cardinals beat the Miami Marlins 5-4 Thursday.

Fernandez gave up five runs in five innings and fell to 26-2 at Marlins Park.

Miami's Dee Gordon, the 2015 NL batting and stolen bases champion, returned from an 80-game suspension for failing a drug test and went 0 for 4. Ichiro Suzuki doubled as a pinch hitter in the seventh for Miami and needs two hits for 3,000.

Diaz and Matt Holliday homered in the third inning against Fernandez (12-5), who had never previously given up more than one homer in a home game. His only other loss at Marlins Park came on opening day this year against Detroit.

Michael Wacha (6-7) allowed three runs in six innings, and three relievers completed an eight-hitter. Seung Hwan Oh pitched around a one-out single in the ninth for his seventh save (see full recap). 

Familia falters again, Rockies rally for 2-1 win over Mets
NEW YORK -- Mets steady closer Jeurys Familia stumbled for a second straight game, allowing two runs in the ninth inning as the Colorado Rockies beat New York 2-1 Thursday for their seventh win in eight games.

Less than 24 hours after Familia's streak of 52 consecutive regular-season saves was snapped, the right-hander entered in the top of the ninth with a 1-0 lead, and couldn't hold it.

Trevor Story had a leadoff single and stole second. After fellow rookie David Dahl walked, Daniel Descalso bunted up the first base line. Mets catcher Rene Rivera watched as the ball spun toward foul territory but it stopped fair, loading the bases with no out.

With one out, Familia (2-3) got pinch-hitter Cristhian Adames to hit a slow grounder to the right side. First baseman James Loney booted the ball and Story scored to make it 1-all. Familia then threw a wild pitch, allowing Dahl to cross the plate with the go-ahead run (see full recap).

Instant Replay: Phillies 7, Braves 5

Instant Replay: Phillies 7, Braves 5

BOX SCORE

ATLANTA — Aaron Nola picked up his first win since June 5 as the Phillies beat the Atlanta Braves, 7-5, at Turner Field on Thursday night.

Nola was supported by some strong offense. After scoring just one run in losing the previous two games in Miami, the Phils erupted for five runs in the first inning. They hit three homers in the game.

The Phillies had been winless in Nola’s previous seven starts.

The Phillies are 47-57.

The Braves have the worst record in the majors at 35-67.

Starting pitching report
Despite leaving with a 7-3 lead after five innings, Nola was not particularly sharp. He gave up eight hits (one was a fly ball that was lost in the twilight sky), walked three and hit a batter. He needed 95 pitches to get through the five innings.

Nola is 6-9 with a 4.78 ERA in 20 starts.

Atlanta’s Matt Wisler gave up seven hits and seven runs in five innings. Five of the runs came in the first inning when the Phillies batted around. Wisler allowed two homers, two singles and walked two in the inning.

Bullpen report
David Hernandez was the first Phillies reliever out of the bullpen. He struggled. But Edubray Ramos, Hector Neris and Jeanmar Gomez combined to close it out.

Gomez allowed two hits, a walk and a run in the ninth, but earned his 27th save.

At the plate
Aaron Altherr, activated off the disabled list earlier in the day (see story), had a big night in his first game of the season with the big club. He hit the ball hard all night and had three hits, including a two-run homer in the fifth.

Maikel Franco and Tommy Joseph hit back-to-back homers in the first inning. Franco’s was a three-run shot. He leads the club with 19 homers. Joseph has 14 homers in 57 games.

Adonis Garcia had two hits and two RBIs for the Braves.

Transaction 
Peter Bourjos was placed on the disabled list and Altherr was activated (see story).

Up next
The series continues Friday night. Vince Velasquez (8-2, 3.34) pitches against Atlanta right-hander Tyrell Jenkins (0-2, 6.17).