Once again the San Francisco Giants are heavy underdogs, this time to the Washington Nationals in the National League Division Series, beginning Friday in Washington DC. Stephen Strasburg squares off against Jake Peavy in the opener of the best-of-five games, with the series set to return to AT&T Park on Monday for at least one game.
Because the Nationals ended the season with more victories (96) than any other National League team, they not only have home field advantage, but it is assumed they are the better team. I would beg to differ with those who believe that the Nats are the better team, but not on the basis of win/loss records.
I actually think the Giants stack up pretty well against the club which won the NL East. Stephen Strasburg, he of the minuscule September ERA and 4-1 record during the final month of the season, is starting for Washington and he’ll be facing Jake Peavy, the Giants’ key acquisition just before the trade deadline. I want to do a comparison of the starting lineups and Friday’s starting pitchers, along with the managers, and try to determine if I can accurately predict a winner for the first game. Here are the pitchers:
Strasburg is the face and name of the franchise so he gets the nod over the more experienced Jordan Zimmermann to start. In 2014 Strasburg went 14-11 with a 3.14 ERA and tied for the National League lead with 242 strikeouts. This will be Strasburg’s first start in a postseason game. Two years ago, the last time the Nationals went to the playoffs, Strasburg had been shut down by the team, as a precaution against possibly straining his recently repaired elbow.
Jul 4, 2012; Washington, DC, USA; Washington Nationals shortstop Ian Desmond (20) forces out San Francisco Giants third baseman Pablo Sandoval (48) and throws to first to complete a double play during the fourth inning at Nationals Park. Mandatory Credit: Brad Mills-US PRESSWIRE
Conversely, Jake Peavy (7-13, 3.73 ERA with Boston and San Francisco) was on the winning side of a world series as recently as last October, when the Boston Red Sox defeated the St. Louis Cardinals in seven games, so his level of experience is more aligned with that of his teammates, many of whom have two championship rings. So experience is the first reason why I like the Giants’ chances in this first game.
On paper, Strasburg is the favorite, but the last time the Giants faced him in late August, San Francisco pummeled him for five runs on seven hits in three innings. Strasburg’s numbers are also better, but Peavy has undergone a transformation since joining the Giants. Strasburg, like his manager, lacks experience on the big stage, and Peavy has it. Edge: Giants
Having been there and done that, especially in games that have weight attached to them, the Giants feel that these games are fun and that they enjoy the intense level of competition, and therefore they naturally do well in them. Not all players respond this way to pressure; many end up struggling to maintain concentration because they know the stakes are that much higher and the spotlight that much brighter.
I will go in order from catcher onwards for the purposes of this comparison. Wilson Ramos (11HR, 47 RBI, .267) goes up against former MVP Buster Posey (.311, 22 HR, 89 RBIs), he of the two world series rings. It doesn’t matter who the Nationals put behind the dish, Posey would get the nod. Edge: Giants
First base: Adam LaRoche (494 AB, 26 HR, 92 RBIs, .259 avg) opposes Brandon Belt (.243, 12, 27), just off his third stint on the disabled list. Had Belt had a full season under his belt, I might have considered this position to be a push. Even though Belt has been hot, he is still getting his batting eye back. Edge: Nationals
Asdrubal Cabrera (.241, 14, 61 with Indians and Nationals) goes up against Joe Panik (.305, 1, 18), the rookie who has done such a sterling job replacing Marco Scutaro for the Giants. Again, the numbers and the experience might give the nod to Asdrubal, but I am going to go with Panik instead. The reason is that this kid has earned the moniker, Joe Cool, because of his ability to handle the adversity of the big leagues with so much aplomb. He had three hits in the frenetic atmosphere of PNC Park Wednesday night. Edge: Giants
Shortstop: Ian Desmond (.255, 24, 91) is the go-to guy in Washington, with his 91 RBI’s and all. Brandon Crawford (.246, 10, 69) has been brilliant at times, but has 21 errors, which is too many. His 69 RBIs, ten triples and ten homers are all admirable, as was his grand slam in the wild card game, but the nod has to go to Desmond. Edge: Nationals
Third base is intriguing because Anthony Rendon’s (.287, 21, 83, 39 2Bs, NL-high 111 runs) numbers are so good. Pablo Sandoval (.279, 16, 73), AKA The Panda, does everything at the highest peak of performance, especially on the field, and he does have that three-homer game in the world series, but when I see Rendon is leading the league in runs with 111, I am impressed. Edge: Push
Left field: Bryce Harper (.273, 13, 32) goes against Travis Ishikawa (.252, 3, 18), a fill-in for Michael Morse, whose status is day-to-day. Harper has not had the numbers the Nationals might have liked, but he only played in around 100 games so his numbers are down. Ishikawa has very limited experience in left field, but he did hit a big fly off of Strasburg in that game in August. Edge: Nationals
Center field is next, where Denard Span (.302, 5 HRs, 37 RBIs, 31 SBs, 39 2Bs, tied for NL lead with 184 hits) is stacked up against Gregor Blanco (.260, 5HRs, 38 RBIs), filling in for Angel Pagan, out for the season with back surgery. Blanco has had big hits in the 2012 Series and has played superior defense, but Span is tied for the NL lead for hits with 184. Edge: Nationals
Right field is Jayson Werth: (.292, 16, 82) against Hunter Pence (.277, 20, 74) and as you can see, the numbers are very close. I have always had tremendous respect for Werth from his days with Philadelphia, but there is no one in baseball who plays the game like Hunter Pence. No. One. Edge: Giants
Sep 10, 2014; San Francisco, CA, USA; San Francisco Giants right fielder Hunter Pence (8) high fives a teammate after scoring a run against the Arizona Diamondbacks during the seventh inning at AT&T Park. Mandatory Credit: Kelley L Cox-USA TODAY Sports
Manager: Matt Williams was a great ball player, and he is one of the most well-liked and respected men in baseball, but he has never managed in the playoffs. Bruce Bochy is the master, with two world series rings in the past five seasons and the same core of players with which to go after number three. Edge: Giants
There are ten categories with the Nationals capturing four, the Giants five, with one push. That does not mean that the Giants are guaranteed a win, it just means that the game is not as one-sided as the East-Coast media might have us believe.
I know the Nationals had the best record in September, I know that Strasburg is very much on his game, but I also know the value of experience and have seen the results firsthand, as recently as Wednesday night in Pittsburgh.
And this time around, the Giants get more than one game to make a statement. Expect a Giants win in the opener.
Jul 22, 2014; Philadelphia, PA, USA; San Francisco Giants catcher Buster Posey (28) hits a home run in the 9th inning to tie the score at 5-5 with the Philadelphia Phillies at Citizens Bank Park. Mandatory Credit: Eileen Blass-USA TODAY Sports