ATLANTA -- There was so much to love about this series, it would be easy to miss what might have been the best thing: the best team won.
Following a tremendously entertaining four-game National League Division Series win over the Braves, Giants manager Bruce Bochy said after Monday's 3-2 win that "if you're a baseball fan, you had to love this series." And he was right, of course. The series was dramatic and exciting, even when it got a bit sloppy.
In addition to all the drama, though, take a minute to be thankful that the right team emerged victorious, setting up a sensational NL Championship Series. Sure, a Phillies-Braves NLCS would have had some appeal. But it's hard not to enjoy what awaits us all: the two best teams in the NL will play for the pennant, starting on Saturday.
"We're playing pretty good," said Giants pitcher Jonathan Sanchez. "The two teams match up. They've got offense, they've got defense, they've got pitching, and we've got those things. It's just about who plays better."
Sometimes it doesn't work out that way. Sometimes a team will get hot in a short series or two. It's one of the beauties of baseball, that nearly any team can win a playoff series, and it's led to some of the game's most memorable moments and series. But it's also beautiful when the better team advances and gets to show off what it's got in another round.
That happened in the Giants-Braves series, and it happened in the Phillies-Reds series. The two home teams, the teams with the two best records in the league, advanced. But it's more than that since the best record doesn't always tell the best team.
While regular-season records tell you a lot, they don't tell you everything. In the case of this NLDS, the regular-season records were in fact a bit misleading. The Giants' 92-70 is not the same as the Braves' 91-71. Not at all. This San Francisco club is much better than its record indicates. It's a better team than the one it just beat, by more than a game.
Likewise, in a short and taut series, the Giants were only two runs better than the Braves. Yet even within the series, the Braves got weaker. They lost closer Billy Wagner on top of all of their other injuries, while the Giants remained relatively healthy. Atlanta would have been compromised even further than it had been if it had advanced to the NLCS. The Giants should put up a much better fight and will have a better chance to win the pennant.
And isn't that what we want as baseball fans? The best possible competition? The right storyline may not be advancing, since it would have been a treat to see Bobby Cox advance deep into October in his final season. But the right team is.
San Francisco's record by month in 2010
* -- including playoffs
"[The Phillies] have got got a lineup that can really swing it," said Giants outfielder Cody Ross. "We have a really good pitching staff, and they have a really good pitching staff. We have some guys who can swing it, too. These games are going to be close. They're going to be nail-biters. We're looking forward to it."
The key is this: the team that the Giants will field on Saturday at Citizens Bank Park is as good as, or better than, any iteration of the 2010 Giants that anyone has seen this year. Tim Lincecum got right in his last time out. The bullpen looked like itself on Monday after a couple of hiccups early in the series. And the lineup, while not terrifying, is better than what the Giants fielded for much of the first three months of the season.
From July 1 -- the day the Giants traded Bengie Molina and opened up their catching job for Buster Posey -- through the NLDS, San Francisco is 55-34. That's the true measure of what this team is and what it should be able to do. The Giants are still not a great offensive team, but they're improved.
Stats in the 2010 NLDS for the Giants' four starting pitchers
And their pitching ... oh, the pitching. For all the hype about the Phillies' top three starters, they're not that much better than the Giants' top three. San Francisco has a clear edge at the No. 4 spot, whether that spot goes to Madison Bumgarner or Barry Zito. And there's no doubt the Giants' bullpen is better.
The offense went cold against the Braves, which isn't a great sign going forward. But it's still the kind of lineup that can break out in October, because it's always capable of hitting a home run or two or three. And again, it's a better lineup than Atlanta's.
By comparison, since Chipper Jones' last game of the season on Aug. 10, the Braves went 27-26, including the playoffs. They're just not the same team as the one that looked so good in the first half.
"At full strength, I think we were better than the Giants," Jones said. "Unfortunately, we couldn't prove that. They went out there and beat us on the field, and that's all that matters. But in our heart of hearts, we can feel like we were a little short-handed and not able to play up to our potential."
It's a real tribute to the Braves that they got so far while battered and beaten up. It's a credit to Cox, his players and the front office that a team that endured so much even got to play in the postseason. It would have been inspirational, to say the least, if they'd survived another round.
But it wouldn't have been the better team, and it wouldn't have been the better series.