With the Major League Baseball regular season winding down into its last week, there are frenetic finishes found in the divisions everywhere, ranging from the AL West with Texas and Oakland, to the AL Central with Detroit and Chicago and the NL East with Washington and Atlanta.
Combine that with the second wild-card this year and every team appears to be in the running for the last spot. But there is one team that is on cruise control and can afford the luxury of not pushing any of their starters: the San Francisco Giants.
However, there is one glaring weakness shrouding the Giants' playoff aspirations right now, and that is the playoff rotation. After Matt Cain, the ace pitcher that owns a perfect game this year and didn't allow a single earned run in the Giants' postseason run in 2010, there is chaos.
Madison Bumgarner appears to be slowing down in the second half due to tiredness, posting a 4.84 ERA in September and a strikeout-to-walk ratio of 2.11, much different from his season K/BB rate of 3.98.
Tim Lincecum, while improving in the second half, lowering his ERA to under 5.00 (albeit briefly) and maintaining a high strikeout rate, just isn't the pitcher he was in 2010 and certainly won't magically re-appear, at least not this year.
One can toss out a good luck/bad luck, BABIP (batting average of balls in play) this, BABIP that argument, but he just isn't as efficient and has trouble locating the fastball in all situations.
Even with Bumgarner's and Lincecum's recent struggles, they have the postseason experience to warrant starting honors. It is the next two pitchers in the previously vaunted starting rotation that are providing the dilemma.
One of those is Barry Zito, the pitcher ridiculed for his inability to live up to his enormous contract but that has been pitching spectacularly of late (although when looking into the stats, he is relatively the same pitcher).
The other feel-good story is Ryan Vogelsong, who had a phenomenal first half followed by a disastrous seven-start stretch where he couldn't get anyone out due to lack of command and plain stubbornness with his fastball.
So who starts Game 4? Give it to the man asked to sit out the entire 2010 playoffs searching for redemption, or keep the pitcher who wasn't even pitching in the MLB just two years ago a chance to continue that storybook ending?
The answer is both. It doesn't matter who starts; both will be able to pitch in the same game. Right now, even with Vogelsong's strong last two starts, neither pitcher is good enough to get through six to seven innings unscathed against the high-octane offenses of the Cincinnati Reds or Washington Nationals.
Keeping both starters in to face the lineup only twice will limit the damage. Pitching either Zito/Vogelsong for the first three or four innings and the other the latter three or four will work.
It may seem a little outlandish but it isn't out of the question of having a tag-along pitcher. The Colorado Rockies did it this year (with little success, but that's mostly a testament to how bad their pitching is) and it would behoove the Giants not to at least try.
In reality, all the Giants need is to have one pitcher get hot. Matt Cain is the ace and Bumgarner's regular-season totals back him as a solid No. 2, but the most important aspect of their success will be whether Lincecum, Zito or Vogelsong can pitch well.
It doesn't matter who is starting or who isn't. Both Zito and Vogelsong will have opportunities to shine. Fortunately and somewhat surprisingly, they won't have to be perfect because the offense has shown its ability to carry the team, something that hasn't been said since the 2002 playoffs.
The Giants are hoping this one ends like 2010 instead.
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