Sunday, October 14, 2012

The San Francisco Giants face the St Louis Cardinals in Game One of the National League Championship Series tonight at AT&T Park. Game time is slated for 5 PM PDT (8 PM EDT). The Cardinals overcame the Washington Nationals with a four-run rally in the ninth inning of the fifth game in their division series Friday night to advance to the NLCS.

While the Giants have the home-field advantage in this series and are themselves riding the momentum of their historic comeback win at Cincinnati, the defending world champions are a team no one wants to face right now. Their recent history of back-from-the-dead rallies, which extends all the way to last year's division-series win over the once-mighty Philadelphia Phillies, now borders on the uncanny. The "Wild Cards" did to the Nats what the Reds attempted to do to the Giants in their own Game Five, and every player on manager Mike Matheny's roster, no matter how obscure he may be, seems perfectly capable of summoning up whatever heroics are needed to win at any given moment. In short, the Cardinals are playing a lot like the Giants are right now, and we do not like it, not one little bit.

Madison Bumgarner opens the series on the mound for the Giants against St Louis' Lance Lynn. "Bum" hasn't put back-to-back quality starts together since mid-August, but if recent history holds he is due for a rebound after last week's substandard outing against the Reds. He was exceptionally effective at the 'Bell this year: 10-3, 2.38, 1.02 WHIP. While he lost his only start against the Cardinals at home-- that was the game where Bruce Bochy batted him eighth-- he pitched well enough to win but got no help. As for Lynn, the Giants beat him in his only start against San Francisco; this was at Busch Stadium in August, where Buster Posey's first-inning three-run homer held up in a 4-2 win. He's a big righthander and he won 18 games this year; used three times, all in relief, by Matheny against Washington, he was shelled for three homers, four hits, two walks, and three earned runs in three-plus innings. Tonight marks his first postseason start, and things can only get better from his perspective.

The party line at the moment lists Ryan Vogelsong as the Giants' Game Two starter tomorrow night, with Matt Cain opening on the road Wednesday. The home/road split would appear to be a wash for both pitchers; each won the same number of games home or away, with a run-plus better ERA at home, which matches the league average. Cain had two mediocre starts against the Redbirds, one in each park; Vogelsong was beneficiary of 15 runs in his one appearance at St Louis. The intriguing choice is Game Four's, where Tim Lincecum now has to be considered for the turn instead of Barry Zito. Trick is, Lincecum is also likely a much more effective reliever than is Zito, and if a starter gets in trouble early in these first three games, Boch, whoyagonnacall?

On the field, the Giants are stronger up the middle with Posey, Marco Scutaro, Brandon Crawford, and Angel Pagan, although Yadier Molina is a great catcher who can hit, and centerfielder Jon Jay is a real player. St Louis has the edge on the corners, especially the outfield with Carlos Beltran and Matt Holliday. On paper the Giants' starting pitchers are more impressive, but based on performance it's a wash, though the Giants' quality likely goes deeper. Both have good bullpens; Matheny's is not at the level of Dusty Baker's, though. Probably the biggest concern for the Giants on the field is Brandon (1-for-13 with 7 strikeouts) Belt; though "Boch" won't do it, we'd like to see Sandoval over at first and Joaquin Arias take a turn at third. There really isn't a backup first baseman on the roster other than Aubrey (.192) Huff; the Cards' Allen Craig, who ably replaced Lance Berkman, who ably replaced Albert Pujols, makes us look kinda puny here.

It's the Yankees and Detroit in the American League, which is a win for fans of classy uniforms if nothing else. The Tigers beat 'em in twelve crazy innings last night, and the Bombers lost 'way more than a game: Derek Jeter finally broke his oft-twisted left ankle in the twelfth as he tripped fielding a ground ball. He left the field to a standing O from a crowd that had just had its figurative teeth ripped out by a Detroit rally moments earlier. New York, down 4-0 in the ninth, had sent it into extras with two two-run homers from Ichiro Suzuki and Raul Ibanez... Three times the Cardinals were one strike away from elimination at Washington Friday night. After losing a 2-1 heartbreaker on Thursday which tied the series at 2-2, St Louis fell behind quickly 6-0 (sound familiar?) and began chipping away. They got it to 6-5 in the top of the eighth, then saw the Nationals score a deflating insurance run in the bottom. Heroes of that ninth-inning rally included the "Who?" Brothers, Daniel Descalso and Pete Kozma, each with a two-RBI single after Beltran had set the table with a leadoff double. Terribly tough break for Dave Johnson's Nationals, and yeah, this means no live-and-in-person NLCS games for us.

It's not our intention to bash Dusty Baker, one of the greatest managers in San Francisco Giants history, even inadvertently. Prior to the first division series game we noted Johnnie B. was sabotaging his own offense by batting Drew Stubbs and Zach Covart back-to-back at the top of the order. Well, if we had bothered to research any games after June, we'd have seen
that Dusty had long since moved the more-than-worthy Brandon Phillips to the leadoff spot and dropped Stubbs to eighth. Batting at the bottom of the order, considering his great speed, arm, and defense, Stubbs is a fine player and was a big help to his team as they ran away with the division title. They'll be back.    

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