Saturday, October 11, 2014

The San Francisco Giants face the St Louis Cardinals in Game One of the National League Championship Series at Busch Stadium in St Louis tonight. Game time is slated for 7 PM CDT (8 PM EDT).

It will be Madison Bumgarner, the Giants' unquestioned ace, against Adam Wainwright, the Cards' 20-game-winner, in a battle of best against best. "Bum" will be working on standard four days' rest after his Monday start against Washington, while it's been a week since Wainwright started his last game-- the NLDS opener at LA where he was shelled through five innings. Those among us who would take heart from that last performance had best quit kidding ourselves.

Bruce Bochy and Cardinals skipper Mike Matheny have already announced starters for tomorrow's second game as well-- Jake Peavy and Lance Lynn. Beyond that it's mostly speculation, though a battle of aging veterans between Tim Hudson and John Lackey could well inaugurate the San Francisco portion of the series when it moves west next week.

As expected, the Giants are also working on some playing roster and lineup adjustments. Aware that the team's outfield and bench against Washington were pitifully weak, limiting the team to nine runs scored in four games, "Boch" has indicated Michael Morse will be added to the roster today, probably at the expense of Juan Perez. The plan is to keep Morse on the bench tonight as a late-inning power threat, but starting in left field against Lynn tomorrow would certainly be a possibility.  The Giants' success against St Louis two years ago was due as much to a potent offense as to Barry Zito's and Ryan Vogelsong's pitching. This 2014 team, without Angel Pagan, has yet to show it can deliver consistent big-inning offense. Surviving Washington was one thing, but can anybody's pitchers expect to hold the likes of Matt Carpenter, Jon Jay, Matt Holliday, and Matt Adams to a combined 7-for-72 as they did against the Nats' Jayson Werth, Denard Span, Adam LaRoche, and Ian Desmond?

Wainwright started one game (Four) of the 2012 NLCS against the Giants, allowing one run on four hits and benefiting big-time as the Cards battered Tim Lincecum and several relievers for 8 runs on 12 hits. Lynn did not fare as well over two starts. His poor start in Game One was picked up by his teammates, who built a quick lead and held on after he frittered two-thirds of it away over four innings. In Game Five, with the Cards ready to clinch in front of the home crowd  he again imploded in the fourth, giving Zito the four-run cushion he needed to turn the series around. The Redbirds' other two starters from that series, Chris Carpenter and Kyle Lohse, are long gone. Replacing them are Lackey, veteran of many a post-season skirmish, and young Shelby Miller. Both are right-handers and both pitched well in NLDS games against the Dodgers.

Bumgarner's experience against the Cards from the 2012 series is an entirely negative one. He started that opener against Lynn and didn't survive the fourth, falling behind 6-0 in a game the Giants lost 6-4. As you'll remember, "Boch" didn't let him near the pitching mound again in that series; in fact. Zito's heroic Game Five start was as Bumgarner's replacement, while Ryan Vogelsong and Matt Cain started two games each. At the time, the story was that "Bum," who had just turned 23, was worn out and arm-weary from his first full-length season and postseason. (Certainly the layoff ultimately helped both pitcher and team, as Game Two of the World Series against Detroit proved conclusively.)  Whether or not a more seasoned Bumgarner will be fine on four days' rest is something we'll be looking for early and often as the action begins tonight. His last two outings were excellent, if that's any indicator. The only other pitcher from that 2012 club likely to start in this series is Vogelsong, who won two games (Two and Six) while allowing just one run in each.  It's debatable whether that sort of history informs Bochy's decisions. He has already stated he wants to get Tim Lincecum involved in this series, but with Yusmeiro Petit also showing some serious "cred" of late, it's hard to see Timmy making a start. Most likely, he'll be in ready reserve in case a starter falters early, a role he prepared for, and one that was not needed, in the Washington series.

We can expect "Boch" will trot out the same lineup that opened at Washington. Whether the batting order gets shuffled or not is always fun to consider, though rarely does it happen with this team. Given the anemic run production in the NLDS, and the paucity of alternatives, we'd like to see the Giants try front-loading this thing: Pence, Panik, Posey, Sandoval, Belt, Crawford, Ishikawa, Blanco, and the pitchers' spot.  Something needs to change right away, and scoring more than a few runs in this series opener is and ought to be an imperative. The Giants like to get off first and set the tone for a series in these openers. Well, boys, it's time to reset the tone-- because nine runs in four games against this bunch is likely to get us swept!

Morse's injury and the time it's taken him to recover, if indeed he has, finally drove us to get the medical-dictionary definition of "oblique," and it ain't a happy one. The obliques are vertical abdominal muscles on either side of the torso extending downward at an angle greater than 90 degrees (hence the "oblique" reference).  At our age we're certain we've strained at least one, and probably both, sets of these over the past few years, generally when overreaching, twisting, stretching, or doing some sort of contortion best left to a man Morse's age or younger. We can only imagine the effort it must take to strain the oblique muscles of a conditioned professional athlete. And it's painful even to contemplate what it must feel like to run full speed, swing a bat with full strength, or stretch and dive after a ball while recovering from such an injury. More than the injury itself, it's the nagging concern of re-injury, at any time, which hovers in the back of the mind as the player returns to action. And compensating for pain in such a central locus of the body threatens strained, stretched, and even torn muscles in other loci. This reminds us, most uncomfortably, of the "strained groin" suffered by Eric Wright, outstanding cornerback for the 49ers, back in 1985. An All-Pro with talent worthy of Canton, Wright was never the same afterward; even after "full recovery" he unconsciously favored that sensitive, high-stress area-- for a football player, especially on defense, what is more critical than being able to swivel back and forth on one's hips?-- until he stress-fractured the adjacent pubic bone and was forced into retirement. Our concern is that the oblique carries the same high-stress importance to a baseball player as the groin area does to a football player.  Obviously we want Morse in the lineup as soon as possible, and preferably swinging the bat as he did in May. But we also want him to be able to continue his career after 2014...  The Kansas City Royals are the absolute terror of extra innings. Last night they survived a late Baltimore rally, blew a bases-loaded-nobody-out chance in the ninth, and then put three across in the tenth, enough to survive a last-ditch Oriole attempt that scored one and got the winning run to the plate before expiring. In five postseason games KC has won them all, four of them in extras. They now hold the home-field advantage in the ALCS, and even with a split today can go home to Kauffmann Stadium and win out.

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