Tim Lincecum gave fans of the San Francisco Giants reason to hope. He really did.
In the first eight games of the Giants' run through the postseason, Lincecum allowed only one earned run in 8.1 innings of work out of the club's bullpen. Perhaps his start in Game 4 of the National League Championship Series against the St. Louis Cardinals would yield favorable results as well.
Um, no. Not quite.
Lincecum lasted only 4.2 innings against the Cardinals on Thursday night at Busch Stadium, coughing up four earned runs on six hits and three walks. His control was erratic from the moment he threw his first pitch, and he was ultimately chased from the game by a Yadier Molina RBI single in the fifth inning. The Cardinals ended up coasting to an 8-3 victory to take a commanding 3-1 series lead.
The 2008 and 2009 National League Cy Young Award winner couldn't get it done for the Giants in Game 4. To survive, they'll need the 2002 American League Cy Young winner to get it done in Game 5.
It's your turn, Barry Zito. Lose Game 5, and the Cardinals go to the World Series. Win Game 5, and the Giants live to fight another day.
Oh, and should we mention that all will be forgiven if you win Game 5? Even things like the seven-year, $126 million contract that you've never lived up to?
That's how big this start is for Zito. If ever there was a chance for him to validate his Giants career, this is it.
So what are his chances like?
If you've been monitoring Zito's career with the Giants over these last few years, this verdict should come as no real surprise.
Honestly, his chances are kind of mixed.
On a surface level, Zito's chances certainly aren't great. He was only able to give the Giants 2.2 innings in Game 4 of the NLDS against the Cincinnati Reds, giving up two earned runs on four hits and four walks. The Giants managed to win the game thanks to an assist from none other than Lincecum, but Zito pitched poorly enough to cost him his spot in Bruce Bochy's rotation—for a time, anyway.
Beyond that, there's also the reality that the Cardinals tend to kill left-handed pitchers. Per FanGraphs, they finished third in MLB with a .787 OPS against lefty pitchers, which makes sense seeing as how their lineup is loaded with dangerous right-handed hitters like Matt Holliday, Allen Craig, Yadier Molina and David Freese. If his wounded knee allows him to play, Carlos Beltran will be taking his cuts against Zito from the right side of the plate as well.
The names I just rambled off are scary enough if you're a Giants fan, but it gets worse. Craig has three homers in just 10 career at-bats against Zito. Holliday has taken him deep twice. Freese has a .944 OPS in his career against Zito. Molina has an .840 OPS against him.
If you're a Giants fan looking for some good news, I recommend thinking back to the date of August 7, 2012. Something encouraging happened on that date.
On that day, Lincecum pitched 6.2 solid innings against the Cardinals at Busch Stadium, allowing only two earned runs that both came courtesy of solo home runs off the bat of Allen Craig (#Wrench). Zito scattered six hits besides those and struck out four.
How did Zito do it?
Mainly by competing within the strike zone. If you head over to BrooksBaseball.net and check out Zito's out-distribution from that August start, you'll see that pretty much every out he recorded was in or around the strike zone. He didn't let the Cardinals' patience get the better of him, and he got them out with the pitches that he wanted to make.
Ryan Vogelsong pulled the same trick against the Cardinals in Game 2 of the series. His seven-inning performance was a clinic on how to pitch to the Cardinals, as he established command of both sides of the plate and then got St. Louis hitters out with pitches that they couldn't resist but could do nothing with.
Though he wasn't able to walk away with a win to show for it, Matt Cain also put forth a strong performance against the Cardinals in Wednesday's Game 4. The only real mistake he made was the slider that he hung on the inside corner to Matt Carpenter that ended up beyond the right-field wall.
I wrote about Lincecum's prospects for facing the Cardinals on Wednesday, noting that they weren't very good because of his tendency to rely on expanding the zone to get outs. He was going to need better fastball command than usual, and he was going to have to use his heater to control both sides of the plate.
Even if Lincecum managed to do that, he wasn't going to be able to cruise to a victory so easily. He was going to need to be able to get strikes in the zone with his secondary pitches as well. Throwing changeups in the dirt with two strikes wasn't going to work so well against these Cardinals.
Lincecum was even more wild on Thursday than I anticipated. It didn't help that he was going up against a lineup that was simply a bad match for his pitching style. Lincecum didn't make the Cardinals battle like Vogelsong and Cain were able to do. Instead, the Cardinals made him battle.
I made a quip in my article that it was better for the Giants to be in Lincecum's hands than in Zito's, but I have to admit that I didn't actually put much thought into it. I just said it because, you know, nobody ever complains when Zito is used as a piñata. Even he has to be used to it at this point.
The truth is that Zito is actually a better matchup for the Cardinals than Lincecum was, and that has everything to do with his ability to pitch well within the strike zone when he has command of all of his pitches. His start against them back in August proved as much.
Zito will be in good shape if he can use his fastball and changeup to command the outside part of the plate against their right-handed hitters, occasionally busting them inside with cutters. When he figures they have him figured out, he can start going to his curveball more frequently.
As good as this sounds in theory, there's always one worry where Zito is concerned: He doesn't always know where his pitches are going.
This was very much the case against the Reds in Game 4 of the NLDS, as Zito shot himself in the foot with three straight walks in the first inning and was eventually forced into throwing 76 pitches before he could even get out of the third. Only 44 of those went for strikes.
If the Reds, who posted a mediocre .315 OBP during the regular season, could work Zito that hard, then one can only imagine what the Cardinals will do to him him if he doesn't have his best command. The Cardinals did, after all, lead all of baseball with a .338 OBP. They didn't always put runs on the board, but making pitchers battle was something they did a lot better than most.
If Zito is even a little off, disaster could easily ensue. And the issue with Zito, of course, is that there's no telling when he's going to be even a little off. He had 13 games during the regular season when he walked one or fewer batters and 14 in which he walked at least three.
Zito may indeed be a better matchup for the Cardinals than Lincecum was, but nobody should go so far as to think that Zito has the advantage. He's too unpredictable, and the Cardinals are too good of an offensive team.
They've certainly been the best offensive team in this pitching-dominated postseason. The .733 OPS the Cardinals are sporting in the playoffs may not look all that flashy at first glance, but it's the best OPS of any of the three teams still standing by a pretty wide margin.
It would be great to see Zito slay some demons on the Busch Stadium mound on Friday night. He's been a bad pitcher for the Giants, but at no point has he been a bad guy. You just get the sense that he's owed a big win after all he's been through.
And maybe he is. But he's not getting it on Friday night.
Note: Stats courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com unless otherwise noted.
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