Let me preface what I'm about to say with a disclaimer: I'd still rather be the Cincinnati Reds right now than the San Francisco Giants.
Regardless of circumstance, simple math tells us that a 2-1 advantage in a playoff series is always better than a 2-1 deficit. Always.
That said, there is a frightful visage hovering on Cincinnati's horizon. His name is Matt Cain and he's the single best starting pitcher still standing in this best-of-five NLDS. And if the Giants can survive their second consecutive elimination on Wednesday, Cain awaits the Reds in Game 5.
Just like that, the comeback wheel churn-eth...
Once upon a time we might have debated whether Cain or Cincinnati's Johnny Cueto deserved the "best starter" label in this series. Cueto, after all, boasted a career-best 3.47 SO:BB ratio this season to go along with his 19 wins and 2.78 ERA.
Perhaps more important in the context of a potential Game 5 showdown, Cueto was stellar at home this year (10-3, 2.79 ERA, 5.71 SO:BB ratio) while Cain, as is typical for him, struggled at times on the road.
But the Johnny Cueto described above is not the Johnny Cueto available to Cincinnati in this series. As you probably well know, Cueto suffered back spasms in the first inning of Game 1 and his status for the rest of this round remains uncertain.
Even if Cueto can recover in time for a second start, you'd be hard pressed to argue that he's a better pitcher than Cain given those parameters. Making matters even worse for the Reds, emergency Game 1 reliever Mat Latos—the team's second-best starter for much of the year—is reportedly battling an illness.
So to review: Cueto is hurting, Latos is hurling and Cain is coming off a year in which he did this...
16-5, 2.79 ERA, 3.78 SO:BB, 3.40 FIP
And don't try to poke holes in that statistical profile with some recency-inspired rhapsody about Cain's poor outing against these Reds in Game 1. A five-inning sample size tells us almost nothing when compared to a year—and a career—of front-line results.
So where does all this leave the Giants?
Well, they have hope. Game 4 is still a dicey proposition, but no dicier than a Game 3 in which San Francisco managed just one hit in seven innings off Reds starter Homer Bailey and still managed to escape victorious.
The Giants send Barry Zito to the hill on Wednesday hoping the veteran can quiet Cincinnati's hobbled offense much like Ryan Vogelsong did on Tuesday. Zito isn't anyone's idea of Plan A—as his 4.34 road ERA will attest—but with Cincinnati still unsure of who'll they'll counter with, San Francisco can at least take some comfort in the certainty of its situation.
Better than that, the Giants enter Game 4 knowing that the pressure rests on the hometown Reds—a team that hasn't won a postseason series in 17 years—and that they still have one delightfully potent bullet in their chamber: Matthew Thomas Cain.
That's a heck of a lot better than things looked on Tuesday morning, a day that began with the Giants in retreat.
Now the blueprint is clear.
Survive Game 4. Get the ball to Cain. Make Cincinnati sweat.