The San Francisco Giants meet the only surviving National League division winner, the St. Louis Cardinals, Saturday night, in the first game of the National League Championship Series, a rematch of the 2012 NLCS.
Though seemingly countless reasons exist as to why the Giants should be concerned going into St. Louis, there are seven that stand out as being particularly problematic.
San Francisco, already winners of two series, in which it was predicted that they would lose, must find a way to overcome these-and other-issues, if they are to once again wrestle the division crown from the Cards, so as to advance to the world series. Underdogs every step of the way, here are the most urgent needs that the Giants must address.
To begin the Cardinals are starting Adam Wainwright, the ace of the Cardinals’ staff, and the guy Mike Matheny relies on to give his team its best chance. Wainwright, a twenty game winner this season, and said to be experiencing elbow tendonitis, was 5-0 with a 1.38 ERA in September. The last time he faced the Giants in July, at AT&T Park, he threw seven-and-two-thirds innings of shutout ball. If these numbers represent someone with an elbow issue, then the Giants are fortunate that he is not in top form.
Next, there is Mike Matheny himself, former catcher for both St. Louis and San Francisco, who played for Bruce Bochy the season that he retired. Matheny has led the Cards to the NLCS the past three seasons, losing to the Giants in 2012, beating the Dodgers last year, and trying to even the score against the Giants by taking the series this year.
With three NLCS appearances in three years, Matheny’s reputation precedes him. It was obvious in his first playoff experience, that he had a knack for managing and would be a formidable opponent. He knows his players and he knows what they can accomplish; by the same token, his players toil endlessly for him and are clear about their roles.
Oct 3, 2014; Los Angeles, CA, USA; St. Louis Cardinals catcher Yadier Molina (4) speaks with starting pitcher Adam Wainwright (50) during the second inning against the Los Angeles Dodgers in game one of the 2014 NLDS playoff baseball game at Dodger Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Richard Mackson-USA TODAY Sports
Third, no discussion of individual players can take place until San Francisco’s offensive malaise has been addressed. After scoring eight runs in the wild card game against the Pittsburgh Pirates, the Giants scored a total of nine runs in the four games of the NLCS, exactly 2.25 runs per game. They are about to confront the explosive Cards who are not likely to allow themselves to get beat in the series by a team that can only score two runs a game.
From the leadoff batter, down through the pitcher, each hitter must find the best possible avenue to get on base, and then fight for every ninety feet, so as to never miss the opportunity to squeeze out another run. Having demonstrated the prototype against the Nationals, the final game of the series, in which the Giants scored on a bases-loaded walk, a grounder to the right side, and a wild pitch, they need to be able to hit “replay” and repeat the performance.
Call it small ball if you will, but it played a big role against the Nationals.
It may be called “small ball,” but it played a pretty big role in the finale against the Nats.
The fourth concern for the upcoming series, better be Matt Carpenter. He hit six extra base hits, three doubles and three home runs, in the four-game series with Los Angeles. This sounds eerily reminiscent of Cody Ross, except that he was one of the good guys. There is no way to predict who is going to step up; the only recourse is to uses the tools of the trade and keep the ball low and away, a la Sergio Romo.
Number five is Madison Bumgarner, who is slated to start the opener on Friday. The last time he started a game against the Cardinals was at AT&T Park, July 3rd, when he surrendered five runs, on six hits while walking three and throwing 100 pitches, 63 of them for strikes. Bumgarner also took the loss in the 4-1 Nationals win in the third game of the NLDS.
Number six is Buster Posey, who has not had an extra-base hit in the postseason so far. Posey is the one guy that the Giants always set up on the pedestal, because he demands of much of himself. As goes Posey, frequently go the Giants. When he is on his offensive game, the Giants are unstoppable.
Finally, the odds are simply too great against the Giants being able to repeat as world champions, because they have already won twice in the past four years. Every single component of a team must be on point in order for it to go all the way. Six of the teams that started off in the playoffs are gone; only the final four remain and what that one team will have to accomplish in the next few weeks defies description. The odds dictate that the Giants’ chances got used up in 2010 and 2012.
Seven plausible reasons seem enough to write off the Giants, but are they all so realistic?
Yes, Wainwright is the Cardinals’ ace, but he is hittable. In 28 at-bats, Hunter Pence is batting .286; in 13 at-bats, Brandon Crawford is hitting .308, and in those same thirteen at-bats, Pablo Sandoval is batting.385.
Oct 2, 2014; Washington, DC, USA; San Francisco Giants shortstop Brandon Crawford watches from behind the batting cage during baseball workouts at Nationals Park. The Washington Nationals will play the San Francisco Giants Friday in Game 1 of the National League Division Series. Mandatory Credit: H.Darr Beiser-USA TODAY Sports
Put it all together and you get a game like the one in June, when Wainwright faced the Giants, at Busch Stadium, as the league’s ERA leader. San Francisco pulverized him for seven runs on eight hits, the big blast, a three-run home run off of Hunter Pence. Wainwright was also rocked by the Dodgers in the NLDS, surrendering six runs on eleven hits.
Mike Matheny is a formidable opponent, make no mistake about that. One would be foolish to suggest the Matheny is not capable of winning the series. Rather than slight the Cardinals’ manager, this is simply about Bochy being the winningest active manager in the National League.
His four appearances for San Diego, his three with the Giants, and most importantly, his two world championships, make him highly qualified for the Hall of Fame. Some day Mike Matheny may get there too, but for now the nod has to go to Bochy
As for the buzz saw, otherwise known as the Washington Nationals’ pitching staff, yes the Giants’ bats were quiet. Dominant pitching can cool off a team’s bats and capitalize on mistakes. The sign of a championship team is that it does not stay down for long. Much of this same group of Giants were part of that adversity in 2012, when they were down three games to one to these same Cardinals.
Having experienced being in that deficit, and noting the difficulty of extracting the team from it, makes the Giants recognize how critically important it is to avoid a similar situation. That’s the advantage of having been in the postseason before-twice-a team gains a wealth of knowledge that it can then make use of the next time it needs to.
Matt Carpenter pulled a Cody Ross, all right, and that’s going to happen in the playoffs. Considering that in 1,785 plate appearances, Carpenter had hit only 25 homers, or one every 71 plate appearances, for him to have hit three in four games defies the odds. After averaging seven extra base-hits per month, over the course of the season, It’s not reasonable to expect that he can duplicate his offensive prowess against the Giants.
Madison Bumgarner did stumble at AT&T Park on those two occasions mentioned above, but the last time he faced the Cards in St. Louis, May 30, he shut them out for seven innings in the same game in which Wainwright gave up seven runs. Bumgarner will perform well on the road.
As for Buster Posey, he has nine hits in 25 at-bats, which is a .360 batting average. With an average like that, we can let Hunter Pence and Pablo Sandoval hit the round trippers. Posey’s principle job is not to hit home runs, but to guide the pitching corps. With the staff ERA at 1.04 during the first five playoff games, it wold appear that Posey is doing his job.
Finally the odds. When asked why they perform so well in tense games in the playoffs, Hunter pence replied it was because they were so much fun to play in.
And that explains why the Giants will compete favorably with the Cards, because it is so much fun.
June 30, 2013; Denver, CO, USA; San Francisco Giants right fielder Hunter Pence (8) reacts to his home run against the Colorado Rockies at Coors Field. Mandatory Credit: Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports