Ryan Vogelsong, Marco Scutaro and Barry (Rally) Zito will live forever in the hearts of San Francisco Giants fans, but most baseball fans will remember the 2012 NLCS as a rival to the 1997 World Series: a seven-game trudge only occasionally intruded upon by drama or tumult. At least that series 15 years ago featured a frantic finish; this finale was a washout long before a downpour had both teams itching to get off the field in the ninth inning of Game 7.
I don’t mean to imply no good baseball was played in this series. The Giants’ pitching staff acquitted itself very well, after a rather uninspiring finish to the regular season and some very troubling signals in the NLDS. They looked especially good in Game 7, when the Cardinals–process ahead of results here–did their level best to stay in a game they were destined to lose. St. Louis forced San Francisco to throw 166 pitches Monday night, in facing 39 batters. Matt Cain threw 64 of 102 pitches for strikes. The bullpen threw 42 of 64, even as rain began to make every release more difficult than its antecedent.
Yet, the Cardinals worked counts, were aggressive in the pursuit of big hits early in those encounters, and forced long at-bats once those opportunities passed. They were neither disinterested nor overwhelmed, merely outguessed and outgunned by a very good pitcher having his best season. Cain got tremendous support from Jeremy Affeldt and Santiago Casilla especially. The Cardinals saw the best of each of those men, at the worst possible time. Over the last few games, the Cardinals had an apparent power outage. While that was partially about Matt Holliday and Carlos Beltran playing at much less than 100 percent, it was mostly a reflection of San Francisco pitchers hitting corners and the bottom of the zone with otherworldly consistency. The Cardinals kill every mistake pitchers make, it seems, but in the final three games of this set, San Francisco hurlers executed with excruciating precision, and those opportunities never arose. St. Louis had just one extra-base hit, a Carlos Beltran double, in the last two games of the series.
When St. Louis was at bat, yes, there was playoff-worthy baseball played in this series. Even beyond the batter-pitcher confrontation, there was superb outfield defense from both Gregor Blanco and Angel Pagan to behold. Understated in their excellence, that pair covered the field with running, but never lunging or diving catches. They were impressive. The whole phase was.
When the Giants took to the offensive, though, it was nearly impossible to watch. Cardinals pitchers made many mistakes. Cardinals fielders made more. San Francisco scored 20 runs in the final three games, even though Buster Posey never did break out of the slump that engulfed him from the start. Marco Scutaro won the NLCS MVP award by simply having the sense to put the ball in play a lot. It’s something he does very well: he made contact on over 95 percent of all swings in 2012. Once the ball left his bat, he had only to wait.
The Cardinals misplayed balls, threw balls around, tried to scoop weakly-hit skidders and came up empty. Beltran and Holliday each cost the team a key base with lacking range or reactivity due to their nagging injuries. Jon Jay’s arm, never so much as average, seemed tired beyond help. He fired two important throws more or less into the ground in the final three games. Adam Wainwright showed understandable fatigue after about 210 innings in his first season post-Tommy John surgery. Chris Carpenter never looked like himself in his truncated comeback from thoracic outlet syndrome in September. Lance Lynn showed the ill effects of being jerked around all season, and on into October, by the team. Mike Matheny ordered a thoroughly indefensible intentional walk in Game 6. The Giants have an underrated offense led by some very well-rounded hitters (and I don’t just mean Pablo Sandoval), but they weren’t the story of the series. The Cardinals’ run-prevention machine choked, stalled, then exploded, sending shrapnel and stray throws careening off the dugout fences.
Remember this when you remember St. Louis: They had to play a winner-take-all game in Atlanta on October 5; fly home for two games October 7-8; fly to Washington for three games October 10-12; fly to San Francisco for two October 14-15; fly home for three October 17-19; and fly back to San Francisco for two October 21-22. It’s fair to point out that they had a chance to avoid the last leg of the trip entirely, but consider that gauntlet. It was pretty clear the team was feeling that weight by the time Game 6 got underway. Matt Holliday’s back stiffness might have had something to do with all that travel. The sloppiness afield definitely did.
This all traces back to MLB’s stated purpose for instituting the second Wold Card. They want winning the division to be paramount, so they make whichever playoff team doesn’t do it face this obstacle course the other playoff teams don’t have to face. That’s dumb, and drags out the postseason, and makes it hard for anyone but relief pitchers to maintain their usual level of performance. It lowers both the intrinsic quality of the games on the field, and the competitiveness of those games and series as the process moves along. This system actually encourages those wild, taut Division Series, with crummy LCS rounds thereafter.
It’s also totally illogical. If you want the regular season to be important, make it important, and keep the leagues 16 and 14 teams, respectively, and go back to two divisions and one Championship Series in each league. That’s a fix for the problem the Wild Card created for Bud Selig. If you ate barbeque, then got an irritable bowel, Bud Selig might advise you to eat more barbeque in order to cancel the effect. A wiser, better steward of the game would tell you to stop eating barbeque, dope, and would have reasoned that if the Wild Card created a problem, and the problem was worth fixing, the Wild Card might ought to go on the chopping block.
Anyway, we have what we have, and since it’s not terribly pure or productive in terms of creating good playoff baseball, we might as well just enjoy what we do get out of it, which is some terrific (if contrived) drama, and a good old-fashioned World Series. The Giants will take on the Detroit Tigers, who will play Game 1 on a tidy six days’ rest, and who will send Justin Verlander to the mound for that game against… oh my God… against Barry Zito.
A lot of people will rush to tell you that the Giants won six more games than Detroit this year; that they have home-field advantage; and that the mojo they showed in winning three straight elimination games twice in a fortnight outweighs the extra rest for the Tigers. All three of those things are excellent examples of what you should ignore when looking at this series as a fan or an analyst.
First of all, hang on a minute with the records. Let’s not pretend that’s apples to apples. The Tigers played in the worst division of the AL, it’s true, but they still faced a much tougher set of opponents than did the Giants. It should be easy to agree on the 10 best teams not headed to the World Series this season: Yankees, Rangers, Angels, Nationals, Reds, Braves, Rays, Cardinals, Athletics, White Sox. Put them in whatever order you want, but those are the 10 best other clubs in baseball. Detroit played that group 68 times, and went 37-31. San Francisco played the same set 38 times, and went 17-21. It gets better. The five WORST teams in baseball were the Astros, Cubs, Rockies, Indians and Twins. The Giants played that group 34 times, and went 28-6. The Tigers played them 42 times, and went 22-20. Take out the bottom-feeders, and the Giants would barely have been a .500 team. The Tigers may have won fewer games, but their season was a greater accomplishment.
Home-field advantage in baseball is tiny, but to the extent that it exists, you wonder who really has it in this series. With Verlander facing Zito in Game 1, you have to give a huge edge to Detroit, and if they get that win, the Giants have to start thinking about winning a game or two to get it back to San Francisco. Meanwhile, this season, the Giants were just two wins better at home than away. They scored 36 more runs than they allowed at home, 33 more away. Detroit, on the other hand, was 12 wins better at home, outscoring opponents by 64 runs there, outscored by eight runs elsewhere. Once Verlander steals home-field from the Giants, the Tigers have to feel like there would be a real chance to put San Francisco permanently in the rearview with three straight home wins.
That leaves momentum, and I’ll sum up my counterargument there like this: Even two innings into Barry Zito’s big reemergence the other night, how would you have felt knowing he would start Game 1 of the Series? In fact, the Giants ostensibly have no plans to use Madison Bumgarner in a starting role in the Series, and are agonizing over the choice between Ryan Vogelsong (on short rest) and Tim Lincecum for Game 2. They say momentum in baseball is tomorrow’s starting pitcher. The Giants can’t possibly have momentum, because they don’t even know the identity of that guy.
On the other hand, what the Giants do have is a far superior bullpen to that of Detroit. We have reached the time of year at which matchups and relief depth matter a lot. San Francisco has it. Detroit does not. The Tigers’ starters have been sterling this autumn, and might well continue that, but Detroit’s hopes for winning the Series are all in that basket. The Giants can bring Bumgarner and/or Lincecum in for long relief, depending upon how they set up. They have tons of matchup options, in lefties Affeldt and Javier Lopez and righties Casilla and George Kontos. Prince Fielder and Miguel Cabrera should not face opposite-handed relievers in any high-leverage spot in this series. Unlike Jim Leyland, Bruce Bochy has a reliable, even dominant closer, Sergio Romo.
The Tigers basically have Phil Coke and Drew Smyly as southpaw pen men, and it looks like Coke is the de facto closer of the moment. Jose Valverde seems to think he’s fixed a mechanical flaw that made him so mashable in the early playoffs. Here’s hoping so, because he seems to be screaming Byung-Hyun Kim right now. At any rate, what it means is that Brandon Belt should see plenty of right-handed pitching in this series, and the Giants will probably not feel the prick of their self-inflicted wound–holding Melky Cabrera out of the proceedings–as sharply as they might have against another club. The Giants also have a major matchup advantage again, the same one they had against the Cardinals: They put the ball in play a lot, and the Tigers defense is a liability. That was an understatement. Let me try again. The Tigers defense is a nightmare I think will cost them one game in this series, even if it be the only one they lose.
We should discuss, briefly, how the DH plays into things here. One small thing it will do for the Giants is to facilitate more liberal matchups play by Bochy in the games on the road. It might also get Verlander out an inning early in Game 1, although honestly, I doubt it. One large thing it will do for them is put Delmon Young in left field for at least a game, or so say the reports. If you thought Matt Holliday with a bad back was a defensive liability, wait until you see Delmon Young try his hand. I can’t help but recall Ron Washington putting Vlad Guerrero in right field for Game 1 of the Series in 2010, and Guerrero committing two errors and allowing two pretty lazy doubles and the Rangers losing with Cliff Lee on the mound. Gaining the DH would be more valuable to San Francisco if they had a rusty batting champion who probably wouldn’t be ready to play the field, but of course, they haven’t got that.
I laid out reasons to think the Tigers were as good or better than the Giants during the regular season above, but of course, all that matters now is who will be better for the next 10 days. I think it’s still Detroit. The disarray in the Giants rotation makes the Series extremely tough to predict, and it’s tough to reconcile the performance of all non-Cain starters for San Francisco lately with what we think we know about them. Since Bochy is giving the ball to Zito to kick things off, though, and because the Fall Classic doesn’t allow much time for sorting out these problems, I’m not feeling a huge dilemma. Tigers in six, winning games 1, 4, 5 and 6. Even if you have a feeling it might go another way, that has to be the way to bet.Next post: Pablo Sandoval (Sort of) Predictably Ignites San Francisco Giants, Justin Verlander Unpredictably Falls Flat
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