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2012 NLCS: Why the Giants Will Win NL Pennant If They Can Get Back to AT&T Park

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2012 NLCS: Why the Giants Will Win NL Pennant If They Can Get Back to AT&T Park

To survive the National League Championship Series against the St. Louis Cardinals, all the San Francisco Giants have to do is click their heels three times and repeat, "There's no place like home."

...And they're also going to need a clutch start from Barry Zito in Game 5 of the series on Friday night at Busch Stadium. It's up to him to save the Giants' season.

That right there is a notion that's liable to have Giants fans shaking their heads and going, "Oy..."

Indeed. The name Barry Zito and the words "clutch start" haven't gone hand-in-hand ever since the 2002 AL Cy Young winner arrived in San Francisco back in 2007. For that matter, it boggles the mind that Friday's outing will only be Zito's second postseason start in a Giants uniform.

Are Zito's chances of turning in a solid performance against the Cardinals' righty-heavy lineup any good? Can Giants fans allow themselves to hope for the best?

Well, you know what they say: Hope for the best, but plan for the worst.

As I wrote late Thursday night, the saying definitely applies in Zito's case.

He'll hold his own if he's commanding his pitches in the strike zone and keeping the likes of Matt Holliday, Allen Craig and maybe Carlos Beltran guessing for what's coming next. But you just never know with Zito. He has a way of missing the strike zone and leaving too many pitches up in the zone when he doesn't have his best command.

You know, kinda like what happened in his start in Game 4 of the NLDS against the Cincinnati Reds. The Giants won the game, but with little help from Zito.

Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images
"Try throwing with my right hand? OK, got it."

But let's say Zito turns in a solid performance, perhaps something akin to his winning effort against the Cardinals at Busch Stadium back on August 7. Let's say he pitches the Giants to a win to shift the series back to San Francisco. What then?

If that happens, I've got the Giants down for a comeback. And in pen, too. If they can somehow find their way back to AT&T Park for Games 6 and 7 on Sunday and Monday, they will punch their ticket to the World Series.

All we're talking about here is a three-game win streak. That's a trick the Giants pulled off 15 times during the regular season, and they did it again against the Reds in the NLDS in impressive fashion. The Reds looked like they were a far superior team to the Giants in the first two games of the series, and then the Giants marched right into the Reds' house and beat them in three straight games.

Granted, home cooking hasn't tasted so good for the Giants in this postseason. The fans have turned out in droves and have been characteristically wild, but the Giants have won only one of the four games they've played at AT&T Park. 

However, two of the losses were Madison Bumgarner's fault. He allowed a total of 10 earned runs in eight innings in the two starts he made in San Francisco in this postseason. He has since been demoted to the bullpen, and one presumes that Bruce Bochy won't call his number unless he absolutely has to (i.e. in relief of a struggling Zito in Game 5). He won't be given a chance to kill the Giants in Game 6 and 7.

No, the Giants will have much better pitchers to turn to instead.

If the Giants extend the series on Friday night, they will send Ryan Vogelsong to the mound against Chris Carpenter in Game 6 on Sunday. Vogelsong has been the Giants' best starting pitcher in this postseason, allowing only two earned runs in 12 innings of work. The last time he was on the mound, he beat Carpenter in Game 2 at AT&T Park with seven innings of one-run ball.

Vogelsong's performance should not have come as much of a surprise. He was pitching very well at the end of the season after going through a brutal stretch in August and September, and pitching well at AT&T Park was very much a habit of his throughout the regular season. He held hitters to a .653 OPS and ended up compiling a 2.86 ERA in 15 home starts.

Factor in the start he made against them in the regular season, and Vogelsong has limited the Cardinals to just one run and seven hits in 14 innings of work. His ability to command both sides of the plate and to get hitters out with pitches within the strike zone is a perfect recipe for success against such a patient lineup—the Cardinals did, after all, lead all of baseball in OBP this year.

Elsa/Getty Images
Matt Cain is exactly who the Giants want toeing the rubber for them in Game 7 if they can get that far.

If Vogelsong hands the Giants a win in Game 6, they'll hand the ball to staff ace Matt Cain in Game 7. Cain is very much capable of duplicating Vogelsong's recipe for success against the Cardinals, and he indeed did so in his start in Game 3. Even though Cain lost Game 3, the only bad pitch he made was a hanging slider on the inner half of the plate that Matt Carpenter deposited beyond the right field wall. 

Beyond that, Cain was in control of the game. He wasn't punching hitters out, but he was pitching to contact effectively. Some of the hits he gave up were products of bad luck more than they were of bad pitching.

Cain is a great pitcher no matter where he's pitching, but he's a particularly great pitcher at AT&T Park. He held hitters to a .548 OPS and posted a sparkling 2.03 ERA in the 15 starts he made at home.

The Giants can count on good pitching if they get the ball to Vogelsong and Cain. Where it's a little more shaky is whether they can count on getting enough runs from their offense.

Outside of its seven-run explosion in Game 2, San Francisco's offense has been a non-factor in the NLCS. Angel Pagan and Marco Scutaro have done an excellent job of getting on base and creating opportunities for the middle of the lineup, but the Cardinals have danced around San Francisco's big boppers better than even they probably thought they would.

It helps that they've had absolutely no incentive to give Buster Posey anything to hit. He got nothing to hit when Hunter Pence was protecting him in the lineup in the first three games of the series, and for good reason, seeing as how Pence had collected only one hit in his first 11 at-bats of the series.

Posey didn't get anything to hit with Pablo Sandoval protecting him in the lineup in Game 4, and that also made sense. Sandoval had collected just three hits in the first three games of the series, and all of them were singles.

However, the Cardinals may have to show both Sandoval and Pence a little more respect after both went deep in Game 4. Their homers didn't end up meaning much in the grand scheme of things, but they served as reminders that Pence and Sandoval are above-average hitters most days.

Ezra Shaw/Getty Images
Only Mike Trout posted a higher True Average (TAv) than Buster Posey in 2012.

If Pence and Sandoval continue to take good cuts, the Cardinals will have no choice but to go after Posey. And when pitchers go after Posey, bad things tend to happen. He had the highest average in the majors this year, and he also produced the biggest hit of the series for the Giants in the NLDS against the Reds, launching a back-breaking grand slam off Mat Latos in Game 5.

Bear in mind that it's not as if the Giants will be going up against unhittable starting pitchers if the series does end up shifting back to San Francisco. Carpenter has been human in the two starts he's made in these playoffs, and he wasn't even able to survive the fifth inning against the Giants in Game 2.

Kyle Lohse, who would toe the rubber for the Cardinals in Game 7, was lucky to make it through five innings in Game 3. He walked five hitters and gave up seven hits in 5.2 innings. He had runners all over the place, yet he limited the damage to one run by getting a couple double plays and avoiding Posey. Lohse walked him twice, including once intentionally.

The Houdini act Lohse pulled in Game 3 could have easily fallen apart at the seams. If Pence and Sandoval wake up after homering in Game 4, Lohse certainly won't get away with a Houdini act again if it all comes down to a winner-take-all Game 7 at AT&T Park on Monday.

All the Giants have to do is get the series that far, and they'll be happy they did. I can feel it in my bones (particularly in my femurs for some reason).

But, again, I recognize that the Giants' fortunes are all riding on Zito's left arm. And if he struggles, the Giants won't have Lincecum hanging out in the bullpen to come bail him out. Instead, they'll have Bumgarner.

Yeah, it's going to take more than a little bit of good fortune for the Giants to come out on top in Game 5. There's no point in pretending that the cards aren't stacked against them (see what I did there?).

If the Giants do win Game 5 and go on to win Games 6 and 7, however, it will be the most Giants thing ever.

Torture, man. Torture.

 

Note: Stats courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com unless otherwise noted.

 

If you want to talk baseball, hit me up on Twitter.

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