When good pitching meets good hitting, always bet on the pitching. This is especially true in the playoffs, as the Giants proved when they won the World Series two years ago. Relying on a patchwork offense that year, the Giants cruised past the hitting-heavy Rangers in five games because their stellar pitching overpowered Josh Hamilton and company.
If the Giants expect to make a run at a second World Series title in three years, it will again require solid pitching, but more importantly, dominance from their ace. In past years, that was Tim Lincecum,who tossed a masterful two-hit shutout in the 2010 NLDS and defeated Cliff Lee twice in the World Series. But now, as the Giants sit on a 7.5-game lead with a little more than two weeks left in the regular season, Matt Cain is San Francisco’s most crucial player heading into the postseason.
It’s not that the offense is short on key players. Buster Posey is one of the top three MVP candidates in the National League, Angel Pagan admirably stepped up when Melky Cabrera was suspended and Marco Scutaro and Hunter Pence have each given the offense a needed boost. If Pablo Sandoval were to get hot in October, that could catapult the offense into “formidable” territory.
But anyone of these hitters could slump throughout the playoffs, and the Giants wouldn’t necessarily miss a beat. If Cain were to struggle, however, that would most likely assure a quick exit.
If an offensive star falters, seven (or eight, if there’s a designated hitter) other players in the lineup can step up—a reality that is reflected in the postseason awards.
In the last 10 World Series, eight position players were named MVP. Of those players, Manny Ramirez, who won it in 2004, is the only superstar. Troy Glaus, who was World Series MVP in 2002, is the only other one who could be considered his team’s best offensive player at the time.
The rest of the list is comprised of names like Edgar Renteria and Mike Lowell—players who had notable roles in the regular-season success of their teams, but who were more complementary pieces. With a seven-game series being such a small window, however, it just takes a couple key hits to lead one’s team to a World Series title.
Pitching doesn’t work quite the same way. One rocky start by the ace can be a lot more harmful than an 0-for-4 by the cleanup hitter. If the starting pitcher gives up six runs in four innings, his team will likely lose the game, meaning they can only lose two other times before facing elimination.
A great relief performance won't make up for the starter's debacle, but if a top hitter strikes out every at-bat, the rest of the offense still has dozens of chances to produce throughout the series.
Not only is a bad pitching performance costly because every playoff game is so critical, but considering how often an ace is called upon to pitch in the playoffs, his performance throughout the postseason is paramount to his team’s success.
If necessary, the Game 1 starter can pitch three times in a series. In a seven-game span, that’s considerably more chances to affect the outcome than during any seven-game stretch of the regular season. It would be comparable to inserting the team’s best hitter in the lineup twice (say, batting third and seventh) to give him more chances to drive in runs—which, of course, isn't an option.
So, if the Giants make a deep run in the playoffs, Matt Cain will be the one taking the mound in Game 1 of the NLCS, and likely for Game 1 of the World Series. If a series pushes to a seventh game, count on seeing Cain on the hill on short rest. And they will have gotten that far in the first place because of Cain's dominating performance throughout the playoffs.