Even after winning Tuesday's Game 3 in their NLDS with the Cincinnati Reds, the San Francisco Giants still face elimination on Wednesday (Oct. 10) in Game 4, down 2-1 in the series. A loss today ends the Giants' promising 2012 season.
Back in February or March—even in April—if you had told a Giants fan that the season could end up riding on the left arm of Barry Zito, what sort of reaction might you have gotten?
Would that fan have dropped to their knees in horror, clutching at your clothes or hands while pleading with you to take back what you said?
Would he wrap his arms around his stomach and lurch forward, ready to dry-heave? Perhaps he would just hold his hands over his ears, shaking his head "no" with such fervor that he'd become dizzy or nauseous?
OK, maybe that's a slight exaggeration. But maybe not, because Zito had been that bad during the first five years of his Giants career. His record was 43-51 with a 4.55 ERA in 146 starts. During the 2010 postseason that led to a World Series championship, you might recall, Zito wasn't even on the playoff roster.
In 2012, however, Zito had his best season in a Giants uniform. He finished with a 15-8 record and 4.15 ERA. In his final five starts of the season, Zito went 5-0 with a 2.39 ERA. Only Matt Cain was better, with a 3-0 record and 1.68 ERA in his last five appearances.
That's surely why Zito got the nod from Giants manager Bruce Bochy over Tim Lincecum for a spot on San Francisco's starting rotation in their NLDS vs. the Cincinnati Reds.
Zito has conveyed at least some form of reliability this season while Lincecum has been too volatile to trust in a playoff series—especially in a best-of-five circumstance like the NLDS.
Even Ryan Vogelsong, despite a shaky September, allowed one earned run in his final three starts of the season. Thus, he got a spot in the rotation and started Game 3 on Tuesday.
Lincecum suffered through a 10-15 season during which he compiled a 5.18 ERA. He ranked 85th among the 88 starting pitchers who pitched enough innings to qualify for the ERA title. Before the All-Star break, Lincecum was ranked last among qualifiers with a 6.42 ERA.
Though he appeared to be turning himself around during the second half of the season with a good August (3.90 ERA in five starts), Lincecum faltered again in September. In his final two starts of the season, he gave up 12 runs (11 earned) in 10 innings, allowing four home runs. That surely planted a seed of doubt in Bochy's mind going into the playoffs.
Lincecum could end up playing a key role in Game 4 if Zito is ineffective early, however. Obviously, he has a starting pitcher's stamina and can pitch multiple innings if needed. That might be necessary anyway as the Giants had to use four relievers in Game 3. Jeremy Affeldt and Sergio Romo each had to pitch two innings. Lincecum could be an important bridge between Zito and the late-inning relievers.
Bochy might also be preparing for that by deciding to start Hector Sanchez at catcher in Game 4, according to the Mercury News' Alex Pavlovic.
Not only does that allow the Giants to put Buster Posey at first base in place of the ineffective Brandon Belt (1-for-9 with four strikeouts in the first three games), but Zito and Lincecum seem to be more comfortable working with Sanchez behind the plate.
Sanchez caught 143.1 of Zito's 184.1 innings this season, while Lincecum had a better 4.87 ERA compared to the 5.46 mark he had with Posey. Even if the Giants' season wasn't on the line in Game 4, this might be the right move for Bochy to make.
But should Bochy have gone with Lincecum in his playoff rotation? It might be easier to make that assessment after seeing how Zito pitches on Wednesday. However, Vogelsong only allowed one run in his five innings during Game 3. He certainly looked like the right decision with that performance.
Above all, it doesn't matter if Lincecum was in the rotation or not because the Giants lineup isn't scoring enough runs to support any starting pitcher. In three games, San Francisco has scored four runs. They're fortunate that this series isn't already over with that kind of offensive production.
Still, Lincecum is a nice weapon to have out of the bullpen for long relief in Game 4. Or if he doesn't pitch on Wednesday and the Giants force a Game 5, he can support Matt Cain in the NLDS clincher.
Though he was far from the Giants' best pitcher this season, Lincecum could still end up being the team's most crucial arm if San Francisco is to advance in the NL playoffs.
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