Giants-Pirates Wild Card Rundown

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If the 2010 Giants were “Torture”, then the 2014 Giants are “Vomiting In My Mouth a Little”. The Giants just finished a thoroughly frustrating roller coaster ride of a season where they combined stretches of utter dominance with weeks where they barely resembled a major league team. One week they’d look like a 100-win behemoth, the next they’d look like the local beer league softball team who had somehow stumbled drunk onto a real baseball field. On June 8, the Giants sat at 43-21, ten games up on the Dodgers, and looked primed to cruise to the NL West division title and maybe even their first 100-win season since 2003.

Then things fell apart. The Giants went 22-30 in June and July and coughed up their lead to the Dodgers faster than you could say “Yasiel Puig bat flip”. Hitters stopped hitting, closer Sergio Romo shat the mound in epic fashion (particularly in one nightmare weekend against Colorado), Angel Pagan and Matt Cain got hurt, and Tim Lincecum continued to disintegrate. By August, it looked like the Giants were ready to fall out of contention altogether, sinking to 63-57 at the summer’s lowest point.

Luckily, the team rebounded, as Buster Posey regained his MVP bat, midseason acquisition Jake Peavy dominated upon his arrival, and rookie Joe Panik gave the Giants some much-needed .300 hitting after the team had gotten zilch from second base all year. The Giants chugged into the playoffs a mess, with an up-and-down offense and only two truly reliable starting pitchers, but they made it, and they’re hoping that the small sample size magic of postseason baseball can bring them their third World Series title in five seasons.

It’d be tempting to blame the Giants’ struggles this year on injuries again. Angel Pagan missed a huge chunk of the season again with a back injury, Matt Cain went down at midseason with bone chips in his arm, and Brandon Belt played in only 61 games after having his thumb broken with a pitch and then suffering from a concussion. Mike Morse also missed most of September with an oblique injury. So, yeah, the Giants dealt with their fare share of injuries for the second year in a row, and that certainly didn’t help them.

Except that I just don’t think that the injuries merit all that much blame for the Giants’ crappy mid-summer play when all is said and done. The Angels, Orioles, Nationals, and Cardinals all suffered a number of injuries yet sailed into the playoffs. Hell, the Dodgers went without Clayton Kershaw for three weeks and they turned out just fine. Let’s make a quick list of little facts that probably had a lot more to do with the Giants stumbling to the finish line after their hot start.

-Tim Lincecum was, frankly, terrible…again. His 74 ERA+ would have been dead worst in the NL if he had enough innings to qualify. That’s a 73 ERA+ over the past three years, folks.

-Mike Morse, brought in for his power, hit 13 home runs through June 5. He hit just three more after that.

-Sergio Romo started blowing leads like it was a fad in May, and was booted from the closer role. He regained his effectiveness when used as a ROOGY, but I’m not sure anybody really trusts him in a more expanded role anymore.

-Tim Hudson was brilliant to begin the season, but his ERA in the second half was 4.73, and 8.72 in September. It appears as if the BABIP monster bit him in the butt hard, and he’s a shaky option as a postseason starter right now.

-The bench, for the most part, contributed next to nothing all season. Gregor Blanco was a solid fourth outfielder, but he was pressed into regular service with Pagan out and he’ll be the team’s regular center fielder in the playoffs. Other than Blanco, there was a whole lot of nothing, as bench players hit .234/.295/.313 on the year. Joaquin Arias, Tyler Colvin, and Juan Perez, in particular, provided little at the plate.

The Giants will have Gregor Blanco and Travis Ishikawa as starting outfielders, and either Ryan Vogelsong or Yusmeiro Petit as their fourth starter should they advance in the playoffs. Gulp. Basically, if the Giants want to win it all, they’re going to have to do a lot of odds-defying, and they’ll have to conjure up some serious magic juju. Hey, it happened before, first in 2010 when Cody Ross hit like Joe Dimaggio for three weeks and then again in 2012 when the Cardinals forgot how to field baseballs and Barry Zito became a world-beater for two starts. Anything is possible.

The Giants do have to be confident going into tomorrow, with their unqualified ace, Madison Bumgarner, going up against the Pirates in Pittsburgh in the NL Wild Card game. Not only is Bum the team’s best pitcher, he was extra-tough on the road this year, going 11-4 with a 2.22 ERA. He also has a history of big game success, having made dominant starts in both the 2010 and 2012 World Series. One of Bumgarner’s worst starts came at home against the Pirates in July, but that was back at the point when the Giants were giving games away like kittens.

On the flip side, the Pirates will be going with Edinson Volquez, and the Giants have to be somewhat encouraged by this. Volquez had a solid year, but he’s just a season removed from being one of the worst pitchers in baseball, and his control problems are well-documented.

He posted a shiny 3.05 ERA this season, but his 4.15 FIP suggest that something was rotten in Denmark, namely that Volquez was getting very lucky on balls in play and in the air. He did post the best walk rate of his career, but I’d much rather face him in a do-or-die than, say, Gerrit Cole. Also, for what it’s worth, Volquez got lit up in his only postseason appearance back in 2010.

The Pirate offense is worrisome. They finished fourth in the NL in runs, they boast one of the most dynamic hitters in baseball in Andrew McCutchen, they had five hitters post an OPS+ over 120, and they’ve been red hot for the past month. However, they were worse against left-handed starters this year, and of course Bumgarner is one of the best around.

The Giants have an imposing middle of the order with Posey, Pablo Sandoval, Hunter Pence, and Brandon Belt, and can trade body blows with the Pirates should this turn into a slugfest. The Giants finished right behind the Pirates in total runs scored despite playing in a park even less friendly on hitters. Let’s put it this way: I’d rather be going against the Pirates’ lineup with Bumgarner than against the Giants’ bats with Volquez.

Well, I’ve got my Costco-size tub of antacids ready for guzzling tomorrow. This is the part where being a baseball fan ceases to be enjoyable and instead becomes an exercise in psychosis. If the Giants have anything at stake in October, I’m pretty sure I’m a frightening person to be around. If Juan Perez makes an at-bat with the game on the line tomorrow night, I shouldn’t be allowed around sharp objects. It’s a catch-22: if the Giants keep winning, they get closer and closer to another championship, but that merely prolongs the deterioration of my mental well-being.

The Pirates are tough cookies but Bumgarner has been a road warrior his whole career and the Giants have had their bats going for the past few weeks. I think the Giants will get a bunch of runs off of Volquez early and then, because they can never do things the easy way, barely hold on for a 5-4 victory and a date with the Nationals.

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