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2014 NL Wild-Card: Brandon Crawford is San Francisco Giants’ X-Factor

By John Shea
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The biggest names on each roster will take the stage under the national spotlight in the 2014 NL Wild-Card Game tonight, but for the San Francisco Giants to win their seventh straight winner-take-all game, no player is more vital than Brandon Crawford. The Giants slick-fielding shortstop quietly posted stellar numbers in September after a dismal August, slashing a .365/.388/.541 batting line to help propel his club to the postseason. For the Giants to advance past the Pittsburgh Pirates in a frenzied PNC Park on Wednesday night, Crawford needs to supply some offense at the bottom of the lineup.

Of the 25 players the Giants will carry on their wild card roster, 13 of them have been here before, Crawford included. This is a team that knows how to get it done under high-packed pressure situations. The same could be said for the Pirates, too. Pittsburgh shelled Johnny Cueto and the Cincinnati Reds in last year’s wild card game, and will look to achieve a sequel effort against Madison Bumgarner tonight (18-10, 2.98 ERA).

Sep 17, 2014; Phoenix, AZ, USA; San Francisco Giants pitcher Madison Bumgarner throws in the sixth inning against the Arizona Diamondbacks at Chase Field. The Giants defeated the Diamondbacks 4-2. Mandatory Credit: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

The biggest key for the Giants to stave off a deafening uproar of enthusiasm from a reawakened Pittsburgh fan-base is to score early, which would supply Bumgarner with the run support he needs to settle down in an adrenaline-fueled situation. Make no mistake: Bumgarner is built for this type of atmosphere. His road record proves it. No pitcher in the big leagues won more road games than Bumgarner in 2014 (11). The Giants ace is also 18-1 on the season when his team supplies three runs of support or more.

The first inning will be crucial for the Giants in this game. If the orange and black can slap an early run on the board against Edinson Volquez (13-7, 3.04 ERA), they could be well on their way to a Friday showdown with the Washington Nationals. San Francisco was 65-18 when scoring the game’s first run during the regular season, compared to just 23-56 when failing to do so. That stat is critical given Bumgarner’s first inning struggles. The hard-throwing southpaw owns a highly inefficient 5.73 ERA in first-inning action this season.

Buster Posey and Pablo Sandoval have done the most damage in the Giants lineup against Volquez. Posey has posted a .556 average with five hits, including two doubles, in nine official at-bats against the Pirates starter whereas Sandoval has been similarly dominant, recording six hits, including three doubles, in 13 plate appearances (.462 avg.). The Giants will need their mashers to crush Volquez when he makes mistakes up in the zone, but they’ll also need sizable contribution from the bottom of the order.

Crawford hasn’t had much success against Volquez, recording just three hits in 20 career at-bats with seven strikeouts, but has been one of the Giants best hitters with runners-in-scoring-position (RISP) all season. The eighth-place hitter owns a .310 average with 10 extra-base hits and 57 RBI in 126 at-bats with RISP this season. His ability to drive in runs with ducks on the pond could be the difference between the Giants celebrating tonight or going home.

Crawford has been outrageously clutch for the Giants in 2014, posting a stellar .350 average with 25 RBI in 60 at-bats with RISP and two-outs. He is, without a doubt, the Giants’ secret weapon in a game of this magnitude. It’s true that Volquez hasn’t had much of an issue getting Crawford out, but that simply gives the Pirates hurler more reason to concentrate on Posey, Sandoval and Hunter Pence.

Sep 1, 2014; Denver, CO, USA; San Francisco Giants shortstop Brandon Crawford (35) hits an RBI double in the fifth inning against the Colorado Rockies at Coors Field. Mandatory Credit: Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports

Volquez has been solid during the season’s second half, especially at home, but he remains one of the most wild pitchers in all of baseball. Volquez led the National League with 15 wild pitches this year. He also yielded 17 home runs, which equates to roughly one four-bagger allowed per 11.3 innings pitched.

Volquez likes to tie hitters up by targeting the inside half of the plate with movement tailing in. According to Gammons Daily, hitters are slugging just .377 off inside pitches from Volquez, but his reliance on the two-seam fastball won’t impress most Giants, including Crawford, who owns a .477 slugging percentage on inside fastballs.

The difference in this game could very well ride on Crawford’s bat, especially in the late innings. So, while the media limelight focuses on Andrew McCutchen, Posey, Bumgarner and Volquez, it could be the Giants shortstop that quietly sends everyone to the turnstiles at PNC Park.

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