The San Francisco Giants face the St Louis Cardinals in Game Two of the National League Championship Series this evening at AT&T Park. Game time is slated for 5 PM PDT (8 PM EDT). The Cardinals beat the Giants, 6-4, last night, scoring early and hanging on late to take the early series advantage.
Regardless of wins, losses, hits, misses, or dramatic postseason comebacks, one big ugly issue is plaguing the Giants right now and it hasn't changed since the first Cincinnati game. This team, which relies and has always relied on quality starting pitching, isn't getting any. Madison Bumgarner was the most recent example last night; unable to complete the fourth inning, he was tagged for six runs and the loss despite a most worthy Giants comeback. And "Bum's" outing was typical. The best start any Giants pitcher has put down so far in this demolition derby was Ryan Vogelsong's five innings a week ago. The ripple effect caused by this meltdown puts so much pressure on manager Bruce Bochy that's he's likely to remove even an effective starter early for a pinch-hitter, as he did in that Vogelsong outing. It affects everyone on the team, and if it is not corrected, there is little likelihood of the Giants' reaching the World Series, let alone winning it.
Once again, the Giants pitcher who transformed the game was Tim Lincecum. Taking over in relief in the fifth after the Giants had rallied from 6-0 to 6-4, "The Freak" oversaw the transition of this game from a rowdy hitters' competition into a tight pitchers' duel. And unlike last week, Bochy didn't ask for five innings. Lincecum was lifted after two scoreless, and that tells us he's being saved for a starting role, probably in Game Four. Don't get us wrong; we love Timmy, and we love what he did, but when two scoreless innings are your major boasting point, your starters simply ain't gettin' the job done.
Four familiar names led the Cardinals' two offensive incursions; David Freese and Carlos Beltran are well-known postseason heroes already, while Daniel Descalso and Pete Kozma have become the "Bucky Dent and Brian Doyle" of late. Freese's two-run rocket off Bumgarner opened the scoring in the second, and the Glimmer Twins opened the fourth with back-to-back doubles. As George Kontos began limbering up in the Giants bullpen, Bumgarner managed to retire opposing pitcher Lance Lynn before Jon Jay singled to score Kozma and Beltran launched a cannon shot halfway to Ukiah. The Cardinals got only one more baserunner for the night against Lincecum and four studly Giants relievers, but thanks to their own stout bullpen they didn't need him.
It's cold comfort indeed for Giants fans that St Louis' own starter couldn't survive the fourth, either. But the sparkling answer-back rally featuring four straight hits by left-handed batters did wake up the crowd and make a real ballgame out of what looked like impending disaster. Lynn seemed to have things well in hand when he retired Pablo Sandoval and Buster Posey after Marco Scutaro's modest leadoff single, the Giants' first hit. But then Hunter Pence, whose wild-eyed "Ray Lewis-style" pregame rants have energized his teammates but also underscored his struggles at the plate, bounced one through the right side to move up Scutaro. Another struggler, Brandon Belt, chipped a Texas Leaguer into shallow center for an RBI single. Then came the lumber: a scorching gapper from Gregor Blanco that cleared the bases for a stand-up triple, and a down-the-line RBI double from Brandon Crawford. Up came Aubrey Huff to pinch-hit, suddenly representing the go-ahead run. He drew a walk, which got Lynn out of the game, and had Descalso not then made a great diving stop on Angel Pagan's sharp grounder up the middle, which forced Huff at second to end the inning, we may have opened this screed with a quite different lead. But he did, and we didn't.
The Giants stranded Scutaro and Posey in the fifth, and then things settled down to a brisk (except for the numerous pitching changes) four-inning pitchers' duel. It's likely most of the games in this series will be decided relatively early on, and that takes us back to our main thesis: beginning with Vogelsong tonight, the Giants' starters need to go deep into these games. Chris Carpenter, whom the Cardinals have tabbed to oppose Vogelsong, has a long history of doing just that. The Giants beat the Reds in the final two because they hit Cincinnati's starters harder than the Reds could hit theirs; we can't presume that same luxury will be available against St Louis, who still have Adam Wainwright waiting behind Carpenter. After all, Lincecum's Game Four start may not mean all that much if the Giants are down three games by that point. Capiche?