By the end of the day on Tuesday, the curtain could be closed on postseason baseball in the Bay Area.
Both the Oakland A's and the San Francisco Giants are facing elimination in their respective division series, and what's worse is that both clubs must win three straight games to make it to the next round. The A's are facing an 0-2 deficit against the Detroit Tigers, and the Giants are facing an 0-2 deficit against the Cincinnati Reds.
Comebacks from 0-2 deficits in the divisional round are rare. The last time we saw a club erase one was all the way back in 2003, when the Boston Red Sox rebounded to knock off the A's. Coincidentally, the A's were also the victims of the last 0-2 comeback before that one, as the New York Yankees got the better of them in 2001.
With history and many other things working against the A's and Giants, which of them actually has a legitimate chance of surviving long enough to advance to the next round? Which of these clubs can actually do the (nearly) impossible?
This, my friends, calls for an immediate discussion.
Why the A's Can Pull It Off
This year's one-time-only 2-3 format for the divisional round didn't do the A's any favors. They finished with the second-best record in the American League this season, but the format demanded that the A's head to Detroit to visit a Tigers team that finished with six fewer wins than them during the regular season.
For the Tigers, it was too perfect. They took two of three from the A's the last time they visited Detroit, and overall they went 50-31 at home during the regular season, tied for the second-best home record in baseball. Winning two straight from the A's wasn't necessarily easy, but the Tigers got it done.
The bright side: The A's now get to play potentially three straight home games, and they too are a different team at home.
The A's also went 50-31 at home this season. For the most part, their strong showing at O.co Coliseum this season can be chalked up to the fact that their pitching was so much better at home than it was on the road.
On the road, Oakland pitchers had a 3.95 ERA and an opponents' OPS of .730. At home, A's pitchers posted a 3.08 ERA and held opposing hitters to a .640 OPS. They surrendered only 66 home runs at home, third-fewest among AL teams.
The A's will start rookie right-hander A.J. Griffin in Game 4 if they win Game 3 on Tuesday. He was also quite good at home this year, posting a 3.21 ERA and holding opponents to a .570 OPS. By comparison, hitters had a .690 OPS against Griffin when he pitched on the road.
Fellow rookie right-hander Jarrod Parker will get the ball again in Game 5 on Thursday if the A's make it that far, and he's yet another A's pitcher who enjoyed great success at home. He posted a 2.61 ERA in 15 home starts, in which he held hitters to a .630 OPS.
Keep in mind that Oakland's starting pitchers have already done good work in this series. Parker allowed only two earned runs in 6.1 innings against Justin Verlander in Game 1, and Tommy Milone allowed one earned run in six innings against Doug Fister in Game 2. These are signs that A's pitchers already know how to tame Tigers hitters, and now A's pitchers are going to be in their element over (hopefully) the next three days.
Granted, Oakland's bullpen didn't show so well in Game 2, as Sean Doolittle, Ryan Cook and Grant Balfour combined to surrender four runs on six hits and a walk in only 2.2 innings. Bob Melvin was able to rely on the three of them more than any of his other relievers during the regular season, and they let him down.
However, the odds of lightning striking twice in regards to the bullpen are slim. Doolittle and Balfour were both money at home this year, and Cook entered the postseason with 14 straight scoreless appearances under his belt.
So if the A's do pull off a major comeback, it will be largely because of their pitching. The A's were one of the top pitching teams in all of baseball during the regular season, but their arms were particularly deadly at home within the confines of O.co Coliseum.
The team as a whole was particularly deadly at home as well, in no small part because it was able to feed off the energy of the home crowd. The A's started drawing pretty well toward the end of the season, and all the extra fans helped amplify what was already a rowdy environment.
It wasn't an accident that the A's won eight of their last nine home games during the regular season. All they have to do now is win three straight at home, and that's not exactly unheard of for them.
Why the Giants Can Pull It Off
The Giants would love to be in the A's shoes. If they had their druthers, they'd be taking their 0-2 deficit back home to AT&T Park.
They're not. They're taking it to Great American Ballpark, a place where the Reds went 50-31 this season. It's also a place where pitchers go to die, which isn't good news for Ryan Vogelsong and Barry Zito, who are lined up to start Games 3 and 4.
The transition to Great American Ballpark is good news, however, for the Giants' hitters. They desperately need a wake-up call, and a trip to Cincinnati may be just what the doctor ordered.
Per ESPN.com's Park Factors, GABP rated as the eighth-best hitters' park in baseball this season. It rated as the second-best home-run haven in baseball.
Familiarity with GABP was only worth so much for Cincinnati pitchers this year. Reds hurlers posted a higher ERA at home than they did on the road, not to mention a higher opponents' OPS. It didn't help that Reds pitchers surrendered 40 more home runs at home than they did on the road.
With Bailey on the mound and Great American Ballpark's fences just waiting to be tamed, the cards would seem to be in the Giants' favor for getting some offensive momentum going.
And boy, do they need it. The Giants were limited to only two runs in the first two games of the series, and they were shut out on just two hits in Game 2.
Leadoff man Angel Pagan definitely needs a boost, as he collected only one hit in nine at-bats in Games 1 and 2. Fortunately for him, he's returning to a venue where he hit two home runs and posted a 1.000 OPS in three games earlier this season.
Buster Posey also enjoyed himself the last time the Giants visited Cincinnati, as he posted a 1.117 OPS in the three games the Giants played at GABP earlier in the season.
In Game 3, the Giants need to get at least three runs. If they can get that many, they'll be setting Vogelsong up for success, as he posted a record of 12-1 this season when he got at least three runs of support.
Any run support will do for Barry Zito. The Giants just need him to do whatever it is he's been doing since early August, as they haven't lost a Zito start since way back on August 2.
If the Giants steal Games 3 and 4, they'll be able to start Matt Cain in Game 5. He didn't pitch so well in Game 1, but he's the ace. If he has everything working, he's fully capable of stringing together seven or eight dominant innings.
The Giants are definitely up against it, but you can rest assured that they haven't counted themselves out just yet.
Why Oakland's Fate Is Already Sealed
As mentioned above, if the A's come back in their series against the Tigers, it will be mainly because of their pitching.
Unfortunately, that's a door that swings both ways. Tigers pitchers are as welcome to take advantage of O.co Coliseum's pitching-friendly nature as A's pitchers are.
This is a frightening notion for the A's, as the pitchers they're slated to face over the next three days are tough enough to begin with.
Anibal Sanchez will toe the rubber for the Tigers in Game 3. While the A's did get to him for five earned runs in 5.2 innings the last time they faced him in September, Sanchez ended the season as one of Detroit's more reliable starting pitchers. He posted a 2.15 ERA in his last eight starts of the regular season, holding hitters to a .565 OPS in the process.
Bear in mind that Sanchez will be going up against a pitcher in Anderson in Game 3 who has his share of question marks. Anderson hasn't started since September 19 in Detroit, when he was undone by a strained right oblique. He'll be putting this injury to the test on Tuesday night.
Case in point, Scherzer compiled a 1.29 ERA and struck out 60 hitters in only 49 innings in seven starts between August and September. He was undone by shoulder fatigue in the middle of the month, but the word from the Tigers' official website is that Scherzer felt "great" in a recent bullpen session.
In the event that the A's get the better of both Sanchez and Scherzer, they won't be out of the woods if the series goes to Game 5 on Thursday. They'll have to face Justin Verlander, and they know full well just how thoroughly he dominated them in Game 1. He struck out 11 in seven innings, giving up nothing after Coco Crisp's leadoff home run.
Detroit's pitchers aren't going to make life easier for Oakland's hitters. Nor will the Coliseum itself, which punished A's hitters almost as much as it awarded A's pitchers during the regular season. Oakland's slugging percentage was 23 points lower at home than it was on the road.
Even if the A's do get their bats going, they won't necessarily be home free. Detroit's bats haven't really woken up in this series, either, and it may be just a matter of time before they do. Specifically, Austin Jackson and Prince Fielder haven't really made their presences felt just yet. If history is any indication, that won't last long.
And remember, the Tigers proved last year that they can win a clinching game on the road, as they beat the Yankees at Yankee Stadium in Game 5 of the 2011 ALDS to advance to the ALCS.
They have three chances to win a clinching game on the road in this series.
Why San Francisco's Fate Is Already Sealed
Technically, the Giants are still alive. If there is hope for them, it's in the fact that their bats could wake up in Cincinnati and the fact that they could do worse for saviors than Vogelsong and Zito.
In reality, all signs point toward the Giants being categorically doomed.
The Reds dominated Games 1 and 2 of this series in San Francisco in just about every way imaginable. Cincinnati's arms, bats and gloves have all been better in this series to this point. Game 2, in particular, was one of the most one-sided affairs in the postseason in recent memory. The Giants looked utterly helpless against Bronson Arroyo, and Madison Bumgarner proved incapable of keeping Cincinnati's hitters at bay.
Now these same hitters get to return to a place where they combined to hit .256/.325/.436 with 103 home runs during the regular season. Among National League teams, only the Milwaukee Brewers hit more home runs at home than the Reds.
Is now a bad time to mention that Joey Votto is heating up? He collected three hits in Game 2, marking his first three-hit game since late June. He may finally be figuring things out after spending so many weeks on the disabled list recovering from knee surgery.
As for Cincinnati's pitching, Reds pitchers really weren't all that bad at home despite the offense-friendly conditions. They did give up a ton of home runs at home this season, but they managed to maintain a solid 3.51 ERA at Great American Ballpark anyway.
As much as Homer Bailey struggled in Cincinnati this season, the Giants would be fools to view him as fresh meat. Bailey turned a corner in a big way once August turned into September, posting a 1.85 ERA in his final seven starts. In those, he held hitters to a .463 OPS, a figure boosted in part by his no-hitter in Pittsburgh in his penultimate start.
With the Giants set to face tough pitching and tough hitting in Cincinnati, they could be in for more of the same. They're going up against a team that has played better baseball than they have, and there's little that suggests that this Reds team is about to stop playing great baseball.
A three-game losing streak at home for these Reds is highly unlikely. And if you factor in the reality that the Reds haven't won a postseason game at home since 1995, you might say they're due.
Whose Side Is History On?
The A's know what it's like to be on the losing side of an 0-2 comeback, as they were victimized twice by such comebacks in the early 2000s.
On the bright side, if there's one thing the A's can learn from the past four 0-2 comebacks (which were nicely recounted by B/R FC Joel Reuter), it's that going home to get the comeback started is very much ideal.
When the Red Sox came back to beat the A's in the 2003 ALDS, they won Games 3 and 4 at home before beating the A's in Game 5 in Oakland. They got on a roll at home, and they were able to see it though to the next round.
When the Red Sox beat the Cleveland Indians in the 1999 ALDS, they did the same thing. They dropped the first two games of the series in Cleveland, came back to win two straight and then won Game 5 in Cleveland with a little help from Pedro Martinez.
Unfortunately for the Giants, there's no precedent for what they're trying to do against the Reds.
The only team to ever come back from an 0-2 deficit in the divisional round after losing the first two games at home was the Yankees in 2001 against the A's. They lost the first two games at home, but then won Games 3 and 4 in Oakland before returning home to take Game 5.
The dilemma is that the Giants don't get to return home to San Francisco if they win Games 3 and 4 in Cincinnati. They'll have to win Game 5 in Cincinnati too.
Want to know how many times the Reds lost three straight games at home during the regular season?
The A's are trying to do something that's been done before. The Giants are trying to do something that is quite unprecedented.
The Grand Conclusion
If you want my opinion, the Giants are every bit as good as the A's. Probably even a little better.
But they don't have nearly the same chance of scoring a comeback in their series against the Reds as the A's do in their series against the Tigers.
Which club has a better shot at a comeback?
The A's, on the other hand, at least get to return home. They don't necessarily have the edge in either of the next two pitching matchups, but if we've learned anything from A's home games over the last few months, it's that it doesn't really matter what kind of disadvantages the A's may be dealing with when they're playing at home. There's no game they can't win at the Coliseum.
Bay Area fans have two great teams to pull for right now, but A's fans have more reasons to hope than Giants fans.
Note: Stats courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com unless otherwise noted.
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