National League MVP candidate Buster Posey will attempt to lead the Giants to their second World Series title in the last three years.
The winner of the National League Division Series between the Cincinnati Reds and San Francisco Giants could very well determine this year's World Series champion. This year's MLB playoff field is as difficult to handicap as any, but these are two of the most complete teams in the field.
The Reds dominated the NL Central this season, even with 2010 NL MVP Joey Votto missing 51 games with a left knee injury. They finished nine games ahead of the defending World Series champion St. Louis Cardinals and trailed the Washington Nationals by only one game for the best record in baseball.
The Giants faced a little more adversity on their way to the NL West title. San Francisco still managed to overcome Melky Cabrera's suspension and Tim Lincecum's curious season to win the division by eight games over the Los Angeles Dodgers.
The Reds are Vegas' favorite to represent the National League in this year's World Series at 4-1 odds to win it all. But the Giants have a corps of players left from their 2010 title team that are hungry to make it back to the Fall Classic.
Ahead of tonight's Game 1 at San Francisco's AT&T Park, here's a look at each team's lineup, pitching staff and the intangibles that will determine who advances to the National League Championship Series.
Votto will need to find his power stroke to get the Reds past Giants pitching.
Cincinnati Reds Lineup
2B Brandon Phillips
SS Zack Cozart
1B Joey Votto
LF Ryan Ludwick
RF Jay Bruce
3B Scott Rolen
C Ryan Hanigan
CF Drew Stubbs
P Johnny Cueto
Cincinnati's lineup doesn't seem particularly dangerous when you look at its collective stats. The team finished ninth in the NL in runs scored and team batting average during the regular season.
The Giants would do well not to pay much attention to the numbers when facing the like of Phillips, Votto, Ludwick, Bruce and Rolen. They are all veteran, professional hitters who know how to work an at-bat and take what the pitcher gives them.
Cincinnati depended heavily on the home run this year, finishing third in the National League with 172. The Reds didn't steal many bases, but their 76 percent success rate was fifth-best in the league, so this team is smart on the basepaths.
The Reds are prone to the strikeout, but their lineup is smart enough to work the count against an excellent young Giants rotation.
Pence's arrival in San Francisco was right on time.
San Francisco Giants Lineup
CF Angel Pagan
2B Marco Scutaro
3B Pablo Sandoval
C Buster Posey
RF Hunter Pence
1B Brandon Belt
LF Gregor Blanco
SS Brandon Crawford
P Matt Cain
San Francisco's lineup is built for postseason success.
The Giants finished last in the National League in home runs (103) but sixth in runs scored (718), so they thrive on the station-to-station approach to hitting that wears down opposing pitching staffs.
That said, Posey, Pence and Sandoval all have the ability to make a team pay for a mistake with a big fly.
Pagan and Scutaro are the keys to the Giants offense. Pagan's speed (29 stolen bases) and gap power (38 doubles) seem to always put him in scoring position, and Scutaro has arguably been San Francisco's most important hitter since joining the club in late July.
Scutaro has hit .362 with 44 RBI since coming over from the Colorado Rockies, and his acquisition, along with fellow newcomer Pence, has more than made up for the loss of All-Star game MVP Melky Cabrera.
The Reds need Cueto to be the NL Cy Young candidate he was for most of the season.
Cincinnati Reds Rotation
RHP Johnny Cueto
RHP Bronson Arroyo
RHP Mat Latos
LHP Sean Marshall
RHP Jose Arredondo
RHP Alfredo Simon
RHP Logan Ondrusek
RHP Jonathan Broxton
LHP Aroldis Chapman
The Reds seem to be set on going with a three-man rotation against the Giants, leaving out Homer Bailey and his recent no-hitter. That's not an altogether bad decision given how good Cueto, Arroyo and Latos have been this year.
Cueto spent most of the season as one of the leading candidates for the NL Cy Young Award. He fell out of contention with a rough stretch of starts in early September, but his last three starts were encouraging as Cincinnati got closer and closer to the playoffs.
Arroyo has had an excellent bounce-back season following a terrible 2011, and Latos has been everything the Reds hoped he would be when they gave up a handful of top minor league prospects to acquire him from the San Diego Padres last offseason.
San Francisco's lineup is heavily right-handed, so throwing out their three best and most experienced right-handed pitchers is a smart approach for manager Dusty Baker.
Baker also benefits from having the best bullpen in the majors, led by flame-throwing closer Chapman. The Reds shut Chapman down for nearly a month late in the season when he experienced shoulder soreness, but he appears to be fully recovered.
Cincinnati led the National League with a 2.65 bullpen ERA and .219 batting average against. If the Giants can't get a lead early, they'll have a difficult time coming back against this group.
Which Lincecum shows up will be the key to San Francisco's World Series hopes.
San Francisco Giants Rotation
RHP Matt Cain
LHP Madison Bumgarner
RHP Tim Lincecum
RHP Santiago Casilla
LHP Jeremy Affeldt
LHP Javier Lopez
RHP Guillermo Mota
LHP Jose Mijares
RHP Sergio Romo (Closer)
Giants manager Bruce Bochy should feel completely confident running out the three starters that led San Francisco to its 2010 championship. However, Bumgarner and Lincecum give Bochy cause for concern heading into the postseason.
Bumgarner is the bigger question mark, as he finished the 2012 season with a miserable September. In five starts he posted a 5.47 ERA and inexplicable .302 batting average against.
Lincecum's entire season has mostly been a disaster, and he's rarely looked like the same pitcher who won back-to-back NL Cy Young Awards. After showing some encouraging signs in late July and August, he posted a 4.63 ERA in six September starts.
If the concerns about the rotation weren't scary enough, Bochy has the burden of managing one of the worst bullpens in the playoffs with no true No. 1 closer.
San Francisco's 3.56 bullpen ERA is almost a full run greater than Cincinnati's, and the .265 batting average against was 11th-best in the NL. The Giants finished second to the Reds in saves with 53, but that number was divided among an inconsistent group consisting of Casilla, Affeldt, Lopez and Romo.
The Giants had moved to a closer-by-committee approach by the end of the season, which is not the type of uncertainty a team needs entering postseason play.
Rolen's grinding, never-say-die style is indicative of the entire Reds roster.
The Cincinnati Reds have to be the most overlooked pennant favorite ever heading into the playoffs.
Don't believe me?
Ask Reds pitcher Homer Bailey how he feels about the national media's perception of the NL Central champs.
The Washington Nationals have stolen headlines all year with their somewhat surprising success, the controversy around Stephen Strasburg being shut down before the playoffs and rookie Bryce Harper's long-awaited arrival in the big leagues.
As the reigning World Series champs, everyone wondered how the St. Louis Cardinals would do in their first season without Albert Pujols and Tony La Russa.
The Giants, of course, have dominated the headlines of late with their midseason trade activity, Melky Cabrera's PED suspension, Tim Lincecum's struggles and Buster Posey's push toward the NL MVP.
Meanwhile, the Reds quietly plugged along this year, toiling in relative Midwestern anonymity. Votto's injury and the surprising contributions of rookie Todd Frazier got them some publicity, but Cincinnati was clearly not the media darling that its national playoff peers were in 2012.
The Reds seem to embrace the "nobody believed in us" label (to borrow a phrase made famous in sports writing by Grantland founder Bill Simmons), which is fitting for a team managed by Dusty Baker. He's never been shy about pointing out perceived slights to his team or players, as we most recently found out when La Russa left Cueto off the National League All-Star roster in July.
Now that Cincinnati has reached the postseason, the spotlight won't be able to avoid it anymore. I'm sure the Reds players will play with a chip on their shoulder, suggesting that the baseball world still isn't paying close enough attention.
Bochy deserves a ton of credit for steering his team through controversy and adversity.
The Giants have endured a season full of adversity and uncertainty while attempting to make it back to the postseason after missing the dance in 2011.
Just as San Francisco was anxiously anticipating the return of catcher Buster Posey after he missed most of 2011 with a broken leg, the Giants were dealt another crushing blow.
It was discovered early in spring training that closer Brian Wilson would miss the entire 2012 season following Tommy John surgery to repair his right elbow, forcing the team to go with a closer-by-committee approach from Opening Day.
Then there was the mysterious regression of staff ace Tim Lincecum, the worst starting pitcher in Major League Baseball for the entire first half of the season. Lincecum got drastically better after the All-Star break, but then San Francisco lost left fielder Melky Cabrera to a 50-game suspension for using performance-enhancing drugs.
If all that weren't enough, the Giants tried desperately to keep pace with their archrival Los Angeles Dodgers, who went on a spending spree for the ages in an attempt to steal the NL West this season.
Despite all of that, Bruce Bochy managed to keep his team focused on the game between the lines.
The Giants got off to a slow start this year, at one point trailing the Dodgers by 7.5 games in the NL West standings. They managed to turn that deficit almost completely around, winning the division by a comfortable eight games.
All of the drama has created an environment in San Francisco that makes the Giants feel like there is no obstacle they can't overcome. In addition to the world-beating attitude, the core of this roster was crucial to the team's 2010 World Series run, so they have the benefit of recent playoff success on their side.
Johnny Cueto will be at his best in Game 1 at San Francisco.
Game 1 shapes up to be a pitching duel between Cueto and Cain, two right-handers who took turns leading the NL Cy Young Award discussion at various points of the season. While neither is likely to receive the award, their performances tonight will remind viewers that they are two of the best young pitchers in all of baseball.
Cueto looked more like his dominant self in his last three starts of the season, and his ERA was slightly better on the road this season (2.77 versus 2.79 at home). Many of San Francisco's best hitters are right-handed, so this shapes up to be a favorable matchup for Cueto.
Look for him to give the Reds seven strong innings before turning the game over to his bullpen.
Game 1 Prediction: Reds 3, Giants 1
Bumgarner will be at his best in Game 2 despite a miserable September.
Although Game 2 starters Bronson Arroyo and Madison Bumgarner haven't had Cy Young-caliber seasons, both pitchers have had varying levels of success against the opposition.
Arroyo posted an impressive 2.45 ERA in two no-decisions against the Giants this year. That number is a bit deceiving, however, as he surrendered 16 hits in 11 innings pitched against San Francisco, allowing an alarming .348 batting average against.
Bumgarner was spectacular in his lone start against Cincinnati, pitching a complete game, one-hit shutout on June 28. That performance, along with his 2.38 ERA at AT&T Park, lead me to believe that he'll deliver similar results on Sunday night.
Game 2 Prediction: Giants 5, Reds 1
The Reds' bats will come alive when they return home for Game 3 of the NLDS.
When the Reds return home to hitter-friendly Great American Ball Park for Game 3 of the NLDS against the Giants, their bats will come alive. Led by 2012 home run and RBI leader Jay Bruce, Cincinnati will tee off against Giants starter Tim Lincecum and his 6.43 road ERA.
Meanwhile, Reds starter Mat Latos will continue his success at home, where he's posted a 3.18 ERA, three-quarters of a run better than his 3.93 ERA on the road. San Francisco's lineup will benefit from the change of venue as well, but it won't be enough to earn the victory.
Game 3 Prediction: Reds 7, Giants 4
The Reds will be all smiles after they close out the Giants at home in Game 4.
The Reds will have Cueto back on the mound with a chance to close out the series at home. Look for him to thrive off the energy of the home crowd and the chance to pitch his team into the National League Championship Series.
His counterpart, Cain—who's 0-2 with a 5.54 ERA and .296 batting average against versus Cincinnati this year—will not be able to repeat his solid Game 1 performance. The Reds hitters will continue to have his number as the Giants succumb to the NL Central champs in a series that won't be all that close, despite how evenly matched the two teams appear to be on paper.
Game 4 and Series Prediction: Reds 5, Giants 2. Cincinnati wins the series 3-1.