Bumgarner will need to be dominant
Tell me if you heard this before: The San Francisco Giants are unbelievably resilient.
Well, the truth is that they are.
After winning the World Series a few short years ago with a feisty, quick-to-recover group of players, the 2012 Giants have looked even more so this postseason.
After getting upended to start the National League Divisional Series by the Cincinnati Reds 2-0, the San Francisco Giants did something no other team has done in the history of the MLB—won three straight road games to win the best-of-five NLDS. And that was after the team was outscored 14-2 in the first two games.
Now entering the NLCS against the somewhat surprising, but defending World Champion St. Louis Cardinals, the Giants will look to set off on the right foot by exploiting some of the Cardinals' weaknesses.
It is not often that the past two World Series winners square off in the postseason, especially in the league's championship series, so the atmosphere is sure to be electric. But the best-of-seven will start off Sunday night at AT&T Park in San Francisco.
Here are five keys the Giants need to hit to secure a Game 1 victory against the Cards.
He was terrific in the NLDS
After a subpar season, especially by his usual prolific standards, Lincecum finished 10-15 on the season to the tune of a 5.18 ERA. Manager Bruce Bochy had a decision to make. Keep him in the rotation for the playoffs or put him in a role he had rarely seen before in the bullpen?
"The Freak" didn't throw a prima donna fit like many would do; he simply relished the thought that he could help in any way.
Thus far, Lincecum has been amazing in the reliever role.
The two-time Cy Young Award winner has had his number called twice this postseason, going 1-0 in those two appearances. He has allowed one run in 6.1 innings, with eight strikeouts.
If Bumgarner stumbles out of the gate, Bochy will have no problem putting Lincecum in for an extended long-man role in Game 1.
Along with that, if he does pitch an inning or two tonight, it will not hinder his chances at pitching in Game 4, a game that Bochy has yet to name a starter for.
The Freak has extra incentive. Watch out.
The Giants' MVP candidate Buster Posey had an absolutely stellar season. The All-World player hit .336 with 24 HRs and 103 RBIs this season, solidifying his name as the league's best catcher.
Posey hit a season-saving grand slam in Game 5 of the NLDS, one which gave the Giants a comfortable 6-0 lead. That, along with his penchant for throwing out runners on base à la Games 3 and 5, are the reasons that Posey will be counted on to show up big in Game 1 of the NLCS.
He did come up big in the Divisional Series at times, but all-in-all, only hit .211 with a .318 on-base percentage during the five-game series.
It is a necessity that he jump-start the Giants' offense in front of the home crowd Sunday night. Getting ahead 1-0 will be crucial to their chances of getting into the World Series, and will be a refreshing change of pace for a team that loves to come from behind.
Instead of being resilient, they should attempt to be remarkably proficient.
At least for the fan's sake.
Master of systematic playcalling
It's as though a higher calling has touched manager Bruce Bochy, not only this postseason, but in postseasons past as well.
The "Master of Puppets" has been unconsciously good at pitching changes, whether bullpen or starting, his entire career. And that has followed him into every postseason the Giants have been in with Bochy as the manager.
Without a whisper of doubt or second thought, Bochy sat ace pitcher Tim Lincecum in the NLDS. He moved him to the bullpen for the always entertaining Barry Zito, a move which could have backfired and ended the Giants' season, but fortunately did not.
He got the best out of Lincecum out of the bullpen and used mastery with his bullpen to secure an NLDS win.
His ability to make critical decisions and uncanny talent to utilize nearly every player on the bench to perfection makes Bochy one of the best managers in the game.
Now going into the NLCS, Bochy must decide on several things: Do you dare pitch to one of the best hitters in postseason history, Carlos Beltran? How do you use Zito now? Allow Bumgarner to throw the fastball consistently against the struggling Matt Holliday?
Knowing how courageous (and seemingly fortunate) Bochy is, it will work out for the savvy manager.
Bumgarner needs to step up
Bumgarner, along with the rest of the San Francisco starters, have faltered in the playoffs thus far.
In Game 2 of the Divisional Series, Bumgarner was knocked out early, allowing four runs on seven hits in only 4.1 innings. This came after a lackluster September as well.
In five starts in September, Bumgarner looked anything but his June self, going 2-2 and allowing 16 earned runs in five starts.
In the two games that Bumgarner has squared against the Cards this season, he has lost both, allowing seven earned runs and striking out 10. More than half of those strikeouts (seven), came from his fastball, something that will need to be located well to get past the scrappy hitters in the Cardinals lineup.
Madison will, however, need to be wary when throwing his fastball to the likes of Beltran and Holliday, the only two hitters the Cards have that can change a game with one swing. Mixing his pitches to these hitters will be essential.
Bochy's ability to pick the right reliever at the right time can only last so long. Getting a workman's performance out of Madison Bumgarner will go a long way to earning a Game 1 win.
Intangibles and heart
While we all know names like Buster Posey, Pablo Sandoval, Tim Lincecum and Matt Cain, it is players like Brandon Belt and Marco Scutaro that may be the deciding factors to Game 1.
While Scutaro and Belt were borderline atrocious in the NLDS (.150 and .077, respectively), they came up big on many occasions during the regular season.
Belt, who hit .275 with seven HRs and 56 RBIs on the season, hit his stride mostly during the second half, hitting .293. He is not asked to be a big-time producer by any means, but he is asked to be a steady one.
He struck out seven times during the NLDS, and most times led the Reds to pitching around Buster Posey or not allowing him to see any pitches worth hitting. He must establish some semblance of his regular season self to add protection to the big boppers in the lineup.
Scutaro, who was acquired at the trade deadline, was brilliant during the regular season, hitting .307 with seven HRs and 74 RBIs. As he entered the playoffs, eyes were all over him to add something extra to the semi-struggling offense. That simply didn't happen.
Scutaro must use his experience, leadership and wherewithal to propel and spark the inept looking offense of the Giants to a Game 1 win.
The intangibles, and the fact that the game is at home, will give the Giants the extra push they've been searching for this postseason.