Those who picked the San Francisco Giants to win the National League pennant and/or the World Series presumably based that prediction on the team's starting pitching.
As we know, pitching powered the Giants in 2010 on their way to a World Series championship. But what was a strength two seasons ago is now looking like a problem.
During the 2010 regular season, San Francisco had a 3.36 team ERA, the best in MLB. In the NLDS versus the Atlanta Braves, Giants pitchers compiled a 1.66 ERA. Against the Phillies in the NLCS, they had a 3.06 ERA. Facing the Texas Rangers in the World Series, their ERA was 2.45.
In 2012, the Giants are still built around pitching. San Francisco finished with a 3.68 ERA, ranking seventh in the majors. A career-worst performance from Tim Lincecum (10-15, 5.18 ERA) had much to do with that drop among the league leaders.
But with Matt Cain and Madison Bumgarner at the top of the Giants' playoff rotation, the team's chances of advancing through the postseason looked good.
Manager Bruce Bochy had some decisions to make for his remaining two starters but ultimately opted for Ryan Vogelsong and Barry Zito based on their regular-season performance and how each pitcher was throwing going into the playoffs.
Six games into the 2012 postseason, however, the Giants' starting pitching hasn't performed up to its high standards. San Francisco's team ERA is 4.42, thanks to the starters compiling a 6.49 ERA in 26.1 innings. None of the Giants' starting four has made it out of the sixth inning thus far.
Bochy has to be particularly worried about Bumgarner, who's been terrible in his two postseason starts.
That required the Giants to use five relievers through the rest of the game, though they were excellent in pitching 5.1 hitless innings. (According to the Mercury News' Alex Pavlovic, that tied a postseason record and set a League Championship Series record.)
Bumgarner's poor outing follows up his one start in the NLDS, during which he allowed four runs and seven hits in 4.1 innings. Six relievers had to pitch through the rest of the game after the starting pitcher was chased early.
Faced with that kind of performance from Bumgarner, Bochy was understandably reluctant to commit to him as the starting pitcher for Game 5 of the NLCS, which would be his next scheduled appearance.
"We'll talk about it, where Bum's at," Bochy said to reporters after Game 1, including Pavlovic. "He came out with good stuff. It dropped a little bit."
For Detroit Tigers manager Jim Leyland, "we'll talk about it" resulted in him sidelining his struggling closer, Jose Valverde, for Game 2 of the ALCS versus the New York Yankees. So that phrasing from Bochy might not bode well for Bumgarner.
Is the left-hander hurt? Bumgarner said he didn't have much life on the ball, and his stuff wasn't "where it usually is." Is he fighting an injury or battling poor mechanics?
Lincecum would appear to be a replacement option after pitching two hitless, scoreless innings of relief on Sunday. That gives him 8.1 innings this postseason, during which he's allowed only one run. But if Bochy decides to add Lincecum to the playoff rotation, he would probably pitch in Game 4, for which the Giants haven't named a starter yet.
Given how Bumgarner is pitching, however, Bochy might want to save Lincecum as a "piggyback starter" that can come in and pitch long relief if the lefty can't make it through the fourth or fifth inning again.
But that would require starting Barry Zito in Game 4, and Bochy might not want to do that in light of how he pitched in the NLDS versus the Cincinnati Reds. Zito couldn't make it through the third inning, giving up two runs, four hits and four walks.
Bochy has to be looking at his rotation and wondered what happened. Cain has a 5.06 ERA after two starts in the NLDS. We've already gone over Bumgarner's performance, but his postseason ERA is 11.25. Zito is carrying a 6.75 ERA after his lone playoff start.
That leaves Vogelsong as the one standout starter for the Giants in the playoffs so far. He allowed one run and three hits in his NLDS start, yet lasted only five innings. San Francisco will need that sort of performance from him yet again, but he'll likely have to go deeper into the game to give the bullpen some rest.
However, with the way the Giants' relief corps is pitching right now, maybe the best path to victory goes through the bullpen. The San Francisco lineup just has to provide a lead to protect.
That's probably not going to be easy against the Cardinals' Game 2 starter, Chris Carpenter. But the Giants and their fans aren't accustomed to doing things the easy way in the postseason.
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