SweetSpot: San Francisco Giants

Here's a number that may or may not surprise you. We know how great the Royals' late-inning bullpen group has been all season. Indeed, the Royals are 65-4 when leading entering the seventh inning.

But the Giants, even though Sergio Romo lost his closer's job during the season after a string of bad outings, weren't far behind, going 62-6 when leading entering the seventh inning.

In other words, the Giants have a very good, if less heralded, bullpen. Brian Wilson, the bearded closer on the 2010 champs, received his share of attention, but the bullpen has largely flown under the radar through the years. Romo, Santiago Casilla, Jeremy Affeldt and Javier Lopez have all been with the Giants since their first World Series run together in 2010, and the bullpen collectively has been superb in the postseason over three postseasons: 11-2 with a 2.40 ERA, .182 batting average allowed, 126 strikeouts, 37 walks and just 11 home runs in 127 1/3 innings.

[+] EnlargeCasilla
Thearon W. Henderson/Getty ImagesSantiago Casilla may not be a classic closer, but he's just one asset in a deep Giants bullpen.
One of the misconceptions about the Giants through the years is that this is a team built around its starting pitching. That's understandable: The Giants have had Tim Lincecum, a two-time Cy Young winner; Matt Cain, who allowed just one unearned run in three postseason starts in 2010; and, of course, Madison Bumgarner, who has a 2.67 ERA in his postseason career. The starting pitching has been brilliant during these postseason runs, with a 2.62 ERA and .214 average allowed in the 41 playoff games the Giants have played since 2010, and the rotation was outstanding in 2010, when Lincecum was still one of the best pitchers in the league.

But that postseason performance has served to obscure the Giants' regular-season strengths in 2012 and 2014. Using wins above average from Baseball-Reference.com, look at the Giants' rankings during the regular season:

Starting pitchers: 0.3 (20th in majors)
Relief pitchers: 2.0 (5th in majors)
Position players: 1.5 (11th in majors)

Starting pitchers: -1.6 (18th)
Relief pitchers: -2.5 (24th)
Position players: 10.9 (3rd)

Starting pitchers: 7.8 (3rd)
Relief pitchers: 4.2 (1st)
Position players: 5.9 (8th)

Although the 2012 team actually had a strong group of position players -- the Giants led the National League in runs scored on the road -- you could argue that the strength of the 2014 team has been the bullpen.

Maybe the most amazing thing is that general manager Brian Sabean has been able to keep these guys together so long -- and that they've remained healthy and productive for five seasons. How many relievers are still on the same team they were on in 2010, let alone still pitching well? And give manager Bruce Bochy credit for his bullpen management; the Giants have reached the World Series with three different closers -- Wilson in 2010, Romo in 2012 and now Casilla in 2014.

Bullpens are notoriously fickle -- dominant one year, mediocre the next -- and teams often don't like to spend money on relievers. Sabean has been willing to invest in this group: The Giants were fifth in the majors in payroll spent on relievers (although approximately 14th in percentage of overall payroll). Even though these guys are all in their 30s, Sabean has kept them around, re-signing Affeldt as a free agent after 2012 and Lopez after 2013. Romo is a free agent after this season, and considering he just had his worst season, it will be interesting to see whether the Giants bring him back.

The most underrated guy of this underrated group may be Casilla. Since 2010, he ranks third in the majors behind only Craig Kimbrel and Koji Uehara in ERA among pitchers with at least 250 innings. (Romo is 10th.) Maybe he's underrated because while his ERA is 2.10, his FIP -- fielding independent pitching -- is 3.47. He doesn't have the dominant strikeout rates like Kimbrel or the impeccable control of Uehara. One reason for the difference between his actual ERA and that expected ERA is that Casilla's hard sinker generates ground balls but fewer strikeouts. But Casilla's batting average on balls in play has been consistently low for long enough now that it should no longer be considered a fluke. He just generates weaker contract. He's also unique for a reliever in that he's a true four-pitch pitcher with his sinker, four-seam fastball, curveball and slider. He even throws an occasional changeup.

Bochy showed in Game 5 of the NLCS, however, that he won't necessarily live and die with Casilla. When the Cardinals loaded the bases with two outs and sent up left-handed pinch hitter Oscar Taveras, Bochy countered with Affeldt, who induced the comebacker to thwart the rally and set up Travis Ishikawa's series-winning home run.

As for the World Series, the Royals' top three power guys are Eric Hosmer, Alex Gordon and Mike Moustakas, all left-handed batters, so expect to see plenty of Affeldt and Lopez. While Affeldt can be used for multiple-inning stints, Lopez is a true matchup guy. Affeldt is working on a string of 18 consecutive scoreless postseason appearances going back to 2010. Lopez has made 20 postseason appearances for the Giants and allowed just three hits and one run in 10 2/3 innings (.088 average).

If the Giants go on to win the World Series, I expect this underrated group of four to end up playing a huge role, maybe even outshining their Kansas City counterparts.
Kelvin Herrera, Wade Davis, Greg HollandGetty Images, AP PhotoKelvin Herrera, Wade Davis and Greg Holland have combined for a 1.05 ERA in the postseason.

As we've seen so far in the postseason, good luck beating the Kansas City Royals late in the game. Their late-game trio of Kelvin Herrera, Wade Davis and Greg Holland were dominant in the regular season -- all posted ERAs under 1.50, making them the first team since the 1907 Cubs with three pitchers who threw at least 50 innings with an ERA under 1.50 -- and they've been dominant in the postseason, allowing just three runs in 25.2 innings, a 1.05 ERA.

There is one big difference between the regular season and the postseason, however: With all the extra days off, Royals manager Ned Yost can use his big three more often. In going 8-0 in the playoffs, the Royals have played 80 innings; Herrera, Davis and Holland have combined to pitch 32 percent of Kansas City's innings. In the regular season, they combined for just 14 percent of Kansas City's innings.

That shows how the postseason is a different beast than the regular season, although that percentage is higher in part because the Royals haven't been behind late in postseason games, except in the wild-card game. Still, the Royals should be able to concentrate more innings into Herrera, Davis and Holland, and you have to think that if the Giants are going win the World Series, they'll have to beat these guys at least once.

So: How do you beat them? Let's take a look at each reliever and see whether we can find a weakness (even if it's small). All stats include the postseason.

Kelvin Herrera
vs. LHB: .246/.318/.299
vs. RHB: .181/.265/.221

Pitch selection: Fastball 75 percent, changeup 19 percent, curveball 6 percent

Key stat: Hasn't allowed a home run all season.

You'd think that a guy who hasn't a home run throws low in the zone, but that's not the case with Herrera, who pumps fastballs that touch 100 mph up in the zone. You can see from the heat map why his fastball is so tough to hit:

Kelvin HerreraESPN Stats & Information

Herrera actually throws two kinds of fastballs: a four-seamer and a two-seamer with a little sink to it. About two-thirds of his fastballs are of the four-seam variety. Herrera's strikeout rate actually isn't that high for a reliever -- he's at 25 percent, while Davis and Holland are both above 35 percent -- but 51 percent of his balls in play are ground balls, even though he throws up in the zone.

How to attack Herrera? He almost always throws a fastball on the first pitch -- 89 percent of the time, saving his changeup and occasional curveball after he gets ahead in the count. Batters have hit .387 when putting the first pitch in play. Trouble is, opponents know to be aggressive against Herrera, as he has the highest first-pitch swing percentage of any pitcher on the Kansas City staff. It's easy to say "swing at the first pitch," but harder to execute when it's a 99 mph fastball up and in or up and away.

Herrera had a gopherball problem last year when he allowed nine home runs through July. It looks like that was primarily an issue of location: more fastballs down the middle. Compared to 2013, his fastball location has gone to the upper corner of the zone.

So the best bet is to be aggressive early in the count and hope Herrera leaves one of those heaters down in the zone. Lefties did fare a little better against him, which could help the Giants as six of their eight position players hit from the left side (or switch-hit).

Wade Davis
vs. LHB: .183/.270/.218
vs. RHB: .120/.182/.148

Pitch selection: Fastball 63 percent, curveball 18 percent, cutter 18 percent

Key stat: Has allowed just seven extra-base hits, including no home runs.

Acquired with James Shields in the Wil Myers trade with Tampa Bay, Davis had pitched well out of the bullpen for the Rays in 2012, struggled when moved into the starting rotation in 2013, but had one of the best relief seasons in recent memory after going back to the bullpen. His fastball velocity jumped from the low 90s as a starter to an average of 95.5 mph this year. His cutter has so much movement that our system actually classifies it as a slider. It's a true swing-and-miss pitch as opposed to most cutters, which tend to induce weaker contact but not strikeouts. Overall, batters hit just .121 against it, with no extra-base hits in 66 at-bats.

Since the Giants have so many left-handed hitters, here's how Davis attacks left-handers with his fastball:

Wade DavisESPN Stats & Information

Left-handers hit .217/.323/.253 against Davis' fastball -- so it's not like they suddenly turned into Barry Bonds against it. Still, they reached base nearly one-third of the time against the pitch. While opponents tended to be aggressive early in the count against Herrera, that wasn't the case with Davis; only 19 of his first pitches have been put in play all season -- and batters went 1-for-19. It appears the best chance of beating Davis is hoping his command is a little off and he either falls into a fastball count or issues a walk.

In the regular season, the Giants were very aggressive on first pitches, with the third-highest first-pitch swing percentage in the majors (of course, maybe that's slightly skewed by Pablo Sandoval). We've seen that approach work at times during the postseason, but we've seen other times -- including from Sandoval -- when they've shown more patience. Against Davis, it appears that's the approach: Get ahead in the count and try to avoid seeing the cutter and curveball.

Greg Holland
vs. LHB: .170/.253/.237
vs. RHB: .153/.221/.198

Pitch selection: Fastball 54 percent, slider 41 percent, splitter 3 percent, curveball 2 percent

Key stat: Has walked five batters in eight postseason innings.

Holland is your basic power fastball/power slider closer. His four-seam fastball averages 95.6 mph and touches 98-99. Against right-handers, he tends to throw it up in the zone, both in and away, while against left-handers he throws it away, but up and down the zone. It's a pitch without a lot of movement, but batters haven't exactly teed off on it.

His slider is his big two-strike wipeout pitch, as batters hit .133 against it with 72 strikeouts in 125 plate appearances ending in the pitch. What makes the slider so good is that it's just as effective against left-handers as it is right-handers (lefties hit just .106 against it, although with two of the three home runs Holland has allowed).

Greg HollandESPN Stats & Information

Holland hasn't had good control so far in the postseason with five walks, so the best approach is to be patient against him. He throws his fastball 75 percent of the time on the first pitch, so it will be interesting to see how he goes after Giants hitters, considering they do like to swing at that first pitch. But if he throws too many first-pitch sliders, he runs the risk of falling behind in the count and then his fastball becomes less effective -- he had 19 walks and 19 strikeouts in plate appearances ending with that pitch, so it's not a pitch he can just wind up and blow past hitters.

How to beat these guys? Obviously, nobody has done it much this season. The best hope appears to be a walk and a bloop, if you can somehow sneak in a hit against that Kansas City outfield. There's a reason these guys were one of the best bullpen trios we've ever seen.
I guess somebody needs to say it: This isn't exactly the 1927 Yankees battling the 1975 Big Red Machine.

The Kansas City Royals won 89 games during the regular season and the San Francisco Giants won 88, the fourth-fewest combined wins in World Series history, behind only 1981, 1918 and 1973. But 1981 was a strike season and the 1918 season was shortened due to World War I. That leaves only the 1973 matchup between the 94-win A's and 82-win Mets with a lower win total. At least that matchup featured two teams that won division titles. Neither the Royals nor Giants won their division, making this the second all wild-card World Series showdown and the first between two teams with fewer than 90 wins (the Angels and Giants met in 2002 but those were 99- and 95-win teams).

You can even make the argument that the Royals and Giants made the playoffs simply because of geography. The Royals won just two more games than the Mariners, who had to play in the tougher division with the Angels and A's. The Giants had the fifth-best record in the National League and got to play in a division with the two worst teams in baseball. Do they win 88 games if they're in the NL Central? The Giants had the easiest strength of schedule in the majors.

[+] EnlargeTravis Ishikawa
Thearon W. Henderson/Getty ImagesUnlikely hero Travis Ishikawa launched the Giants into the World Series with a walk-off home run in NLCS Game 5.
So these aren't great teams. So this is arguably the worst World Series matchup ever, as far as quality of teams. Giants fans can disagree, but if this was a great team, why did the Giants put themselves in the dice roll of a wild-card game? Why couldn't they beat out the Dodgers for the division title? Royals fans can point out that their team has won eight postseason games in a row, but if the Royals are a great team, why did they put themselves in the dice roll of a wild-card game? Why couldn't they win two more games and beat out the Tigers for the division title?

In the regular season, the Royals were ninth in the AL in runs scored and fourth in runs allowed. The Giants were fifth in runs scored and sixth in runs allowed. There's a reason neither team won 90 games.

Now, that said: This should be a fun World Series between two evenly matched teams with intriguing reasons to root for each. The Royals, for so long the hapless Royals, are a likable bunch of young players, speed demons and defensive geniuses with that awesome bullpen that puts the fear into opposing teams and fans. You get the feeling that if you don't beat them in six innings you're not going to win. Everybody starts anew in the postseason and the Royals have played some of the most exciting baseball we've seen in years in going 8-0 in the playoffs. They overcame a 7-3 deficit to beat the A's in the wild-card game and then beat the 98-win Angels and 96-win Orioles. They deserve to be here.

The Giants, hoping to make their mark on history with their third World Series title in five years, are a likable group of veterans we've grown to appreciate in recent Octobers, from the pudgy free-swinging Pablo Sandoval to the stoic backstop Buster Posey to the spastic and joyful Hunter Pence. You get the feeling that if the game is close they'll find a way to beat you, whether it's due to an opponent's mistake or manager Bruce Bochy making the right move at the right time; after all, they're a remarkable 30-11 in the postseason since 2010. They beat the Pirates on the road in the wild-card game and then beat the 96-win Nationals and 90-win Cardinals. They deserve to be here.

In a year that clearly lacked one dominant team, maybe it shouldn't be a surprise we ended up with this unlikeliest of matchups. There are two takes on this. As Morris from Pittsburgh said in my chat Friday:
"Wow, awesome postseason so far. But am I the only one who didn't really want to see a 5 seed take on a 4 seed in the World Series? I realize anything can happen in a short series ... but I didn't want anything to happen."

Or as Perry from Monterey wrote in:

"So, if you want to find the 'best team,' why doesn't baseball do like the Premier League and have each team play each other team the same amount of times, and the team with the best record anointed the champion? Each team plays the other 29 teams six times, 3 at home, 3 on the road, and after 174 games, we have a champion? You didn't see the Giants crying like this after having the best record in BB in 2000 and 2003 and losing to the wild card team in the NLDS? Or Cards' fans complaining after [they] won the series with 83 wins or as a wild card?"

No matter your take on baseball's postseason format, we can all agree: Let's have a great World Series. It will be tough to match the excitement of the first two rounds that were full of extra-inning drama, one-run games (we're on pace to have the highest percentage of one-run games ever in a single postseason) and walk-off home runs. It's the showdown of the "just learned how to win" Royals versus the "knowing how to win since 2010" Giants.

Just give me six or seven games with more Lorenzo Cain diving catches and Travis Ishikawa home runs and Royals stolen bases and Madison Bumgarner sliders and Yordano Ventura fastballs and Buster Posey clutch hits. Do that and I'll forget that neither of these teams won 90 games.video

Chat wrap: Let's talk playoffs

October, 17, 2014
Oct 17
Special edition baseball chat! Click here to check out Friday's chat wrap.
While both the ALCS and NLCS were short series both were amazingly exciting. The Royals won in 10 innings, scored twice in the ninth to win 6-4 and then won two games 2-1. The Giants' five-game win over the Cardinals may have been even more exciting. To recap:

Game 1 -- Giants win 3-0 behind Madison Bumgarner. This was the worst game of the series and it was a sterling performance by an ace.

Game 2 -- Cardinals win 5-4 on Kolten Wong's walk-off home run, becoming the first team to hit home runs in the seventh, eighth and ninth innings in a postseason game.

Game 3 -- Giants win 5-4 in 10 innings, the winning run scoring on a wild throw on a bunt.

Game 4 -- Giants win 6-4 after trailing 4-1 early on.

Game 5 -- Giants tie it in the eighth, win 6-3 on Travis Ishikawa's three-run walk-off home run.

Our SweetSpot colleague Mark Simon suggested doing a list of the best postseason best-of-7 series that went five games or fewer.

Certainly, most "classic" series have to go six or seven games to reach that definition. How many sweeps or five-game series are remembered as great series? I'd suggest most short series are remembered for a moment (Kirk Gibson's home run in the five-game 1988 World Series) or significance of the series (the 2004 Red Sox sweeping the Cardinals, for example) more than the series itself. A short series obviously lacks the drama that builds as you go six or seven games.

But here are five great best-of-7 series that went four or five games:

5. 2002 NLCS: Giants over Cardinals in five

A good series, maybe lacking one big moment or memorable game, although Game 4 was close. Also known as the series Tony La Russa refused to challenge Barry Bonds, who drew 10 walks.

Game 1 -- Giants win 9-6.

Game 2 -- Giants win 4-1.

Game 3 -- Cardinals win 5-4, overcoming Bonds' three-run homer and three walks.

Game 4 -- Giants win 4-2, breaking a 2-2 tie in the eighth when Bonds is intentionally walked with two outs and Benito Santiago follows with a two-run homer. Robb Nen strikes out Albert Pujols and J.D. Drew to end it with the tying run on third.

Game 5 -- Giants win 2-1 with runs in the eighth and ninth, Kenny Lofton delivering the two-out walk-off single.

4. 1988 World Series: Dodgers over A's in five.

The Gibson home run elevates the series but there were a couple other good games as well.

Game 1 -- Gibson's two-run, two-out walk-off home run off Dennis Eckersley wins it 5-4 for the underdog Dodgers.

Game 2 -- Orel Hershiser spins a three-hit shutout in a 6-0 win.

Game 3 -- Mark McGwire wins it 2-1 with a walk-off home run in the ninth.

Game 4 -- The Dodgers win 4-3 to beat Dave Stewart.

Game 5 -- Hershiser wins 5-2 with another complete game.

3. 2000 World Series: Yankees over Mets in five.

This is remembered either for the Roger Clemens-Mike Piazza bat-throwing incident or merely as the fourth title in five seasons for the Yankees. But most forget that the Subway Series featured five good games.

Game 1 -- Also known to Mets fans as The Timo Perez Game. Perez was thrown out at home in the sixth inning on Todd Zeile's double off the top of the wall, hesitating after thinking it was a home run (with Derek Jeter making a great relay). That preserved a 0-0 tie. The Yankees took a 2-0 lead, the Mets scored three times in the seventh but Armando Benitez coughed up the tying run in the ninth and the Yankees eventually won 4-3 in 12 innings.

Game 2 -- Yankees win 6-5 as the Mets scored five in the ninth to make it interesting. But fondly remembered for Clemens-Piazza incident.

Game 3 -- Mets win 4-2 with two runs in the eighth.

Game 4 -- Yankees win 3-2 as Jeter leads off the game with a home run and Mariano Rivera gets the two-inning save.

Game 5 -- Yankees win 4-2 with two runs in the ninth as Bobby Valentine leaves Al Leiter in for 142 pitches.

2. 1969 World Series: Mets over Orioles in five.

The Miracle Mets shock the 109-win Orioles.

Game 1 -- Orioles win 4-1.

Game 2 -- Jerry Koosman takes a no-hitter into the seventh and the Mets win 2-1 with a run in the top of the ninth. Brooks Robinson grounds out with two on in the bottom of the ninth.

Game 3 -- Mets win 5-0 as Tommie Agee makes two spectacular plays in the outfield.

Game 4 -- The Mets take a 1-0 lead into the ninth but the Orioles tie it. Ron Swoboda's diving catch prevented further damage, however, and the Mets won it in the bottom of the ninth when the Orioles threw away a sacrifice bunt that hit batter/runner J.C. Martin.

Game 5 -- After trailing 3-0, Mets win 5-3 with two runs in the bottom of the eighth. Little-known backup infielder Al Weis also hits a game-tying home run in the seventh.

1. 2005 World Series: White Sox over Astros in four.

First, you have the historical element of the White Sox winning their first World Series since 1917 -- yes, they had gone even longer than the Red Sox without winning a World Series. But all four games were exciting.

Game 1 -- White Sox win 5-3, knocking out Roger Clemens after two innings and adding an insurance run in the eighth.

Game 2 -- Astros score twice in the top of the ninth to tie but then Scott Podsednik -- who hadn't homered in 507 at-bats in the regular season -- hit a walk-off homer against Brad Lidge to win 7-6.

Game 3 -- White Sox win 7-5 in 14 innings, taking the lead on Geoff Blum's home run.

Game 4 -- White Sox win 1-0 behind Freddy Garcia and a run in the eighth off Lidge.

I'd say this NLCS ranks right up there, maybe second-best of the "short" series, and maybe the most exciting best-of-seven five-game series ever played.

Glorious ending to a great NLCS

October, 16, 2014
Oct 16

For going only five games, it was one heck of a series. Five key moments from the San Francisco Giants' 6-3 series-clinching win over the St. Louis Cardinals in the National League Championship Series:

1. Travis Ishikawa sends the Giants to the World Series.

You could spend two thousand words dissecting Cardinals manager Mike Matheny's decision to bring in Michael Wacha, a guy who hadn't pitched in three weeks and had made just a few shaky outings since coming back from a midseason shoulder injury, with the Cardinals' season on the line.

Foremost, give credit to Ishikawa for a great at-bat. After Pablo Sandoval singled and then Brandon Belt drew a four-pitch walk with one out, it would have been easy and perhaps wise for Ishikawa to take a 2-0 pitch. Instead, he sat fastball and drilled a screaming line drive over the brick wall in right field, sending his teammates climbing over the dugout railing for that awesome home-plate celebration and the home fans into a loud, joyous frenzy.

Anyway, Bruce Bochy was one step ahead of Matheny in the ninth. When Matheny pinch-hit Oscar Taveras for Peter Bourjos with the bases loaded in the top of the ninth, Bochy had the guts to take out closer Santiago Casilla -- who hadn't given up a run in a month -- and bring in Jeremy Affeldt for the lefty-lefty matchup.

With relievers warming up in the bullpen in the bottom of the inning, Matheny could have brought in Randy Choate to face Belt. With Ishikawa up, he couldn't bring in Choate because he knew Bochy would have countered with Juan Perez. Apparently, using Trevor Rosenthal never crossed his mind. Or maybe it should have.

But what a moment. Ishikawa became just the fourth player to hit a walk-off home run to send his team to the World Series, following Chris Chambliss (1976 Yankees), Aaron Boone (2003 Yankees) and Magglio Ordonez (2006 Tigers).

2. Michael Morse goes boom.

Morse missed nearly all of September and the division series with an oblique injury, losing his left-field job to Travis Ishikawa even though he's back on the roster for this series. He hadn't homered since Aug. 15. Baseball.

Another bullpen move by Mike Matheny backfired. Adam Wainwright had plowed through the fifth, sixth and seventh innings -- nine up, nine down. He had thrown 97 pitches, but with a pinch-hitter for Madison Bumgarner and then the top of the order due up, it made sense to go to the bullpen. Neshek just threw a terrible pitch, a flat 1-1 slider over the plate that Morse drilled into the left-field corner and waved fair, Carlton Fisk-style.

3. Wainwright strikes out the side in the sixth.

Sixth inning, one-run lead, Buster Posey, Pablo Sandoval and Hunter Pence up for that all-important third time facing Wainwright. This looked like a potential game- and series-deciding inning, when the Giants could put away the Cardinals for 2014 and starting loaded the clubhouse with champagne and beer.

All three batters went back to the bench, all swinging and missing on curveballs. Early on, it seemed Wainwright was using his curveball more early in the count and then going to his fastball. As Olney tweeted, this led to fewer swings-and-misses, since fastballs are put in play more often than offspeed pitches. Then Wainwright showed why he's Wainwright: He's one of the smartest pitchers in the game. In going through game logs over the season, it's impossible to pick up any kind of consistent pattern to either his percentage of different types of pitches thrown in game. And while his curveball is certainly his favorite wipeout pitch, he doesn't live solely with the curveball with two strikes: He threw it 46 percent of the time in the regular season but also threw his fastball 30 percent and slider 22 percent. Just enough doubt that hitters can't sit on the curve.

But he threw it three times in this inning and got three K's. Then he pitched a one-two-three seventh. He pitched like an ace.

4. Matt Adams and Tony Cruz go yard in the fourth.

One of the inevitable storylines that develop during every postseason is when a starting pitcher throws a good game or two and then everybody starts writing and tweeting and commentating about how clutch he is in the playoffs or that he's a big-game pitcher or just knows how to pitch well in October. Heck, I've written this or suggested it; one reason I picked the Oakland A's to beat the Kansas City Royals in the wild-card game, for example, was that Jon Lester had a history of postseason success, then he gave up six runs (well, his manager also left him in too long).

So that was the story heading into this game. Madison Bumgarner had started three games in this postseason, allowed no runs in two of them and pitched well in the third only to be undone by his own throwing error. Bumgarner had also pitched seven scoreless innings in his World Series start in 2012 and eight scoreless innings in a 2010 World Series start. Thus, Bumgarner is super clutch and all that. But that ignored that he did also have some bad postseason starts on his résumé.

As locked in as he looked in those three other outings, it's difficult for any pitcher to great every time out. Leading 2-1 after Joe Panik's two-run homer in the bottom of third, Bumgarner gave up a home run to Adams on a 1-2 curveball (sound familiar, Dodgers fans?) and then another with two outs to light-hitting backup catcher Tony Cruz, a bad 0-1 slider that he hung out over the plate and Cruz lined out to left.

Give Adams credit: Bumgarner had gone 32 starts without allowing a home run to a left-handed batter (Carlos Gonzalez of the Rockies hit the only one off him this season).

5. Jhonny Peralta lines into a 5-4 double play in the first.

If you're going to get to Bumgarner, the first inning is often your best bet. He allowed a .320 average and 5.73 ERA in the first inning during the regular season. Now, some of that is a result of usually facing at least three good hitters, but he also allowed eight home runs in the first inning and no more than three in any other frame.

Anyway, the Cardinals teed up on Bumgarner early on. Matt Carpenter lined out to shortstop. Jon Jay and Matt Holliday reached on hard-hit singles to bring up Peralta, hitting .185 with one RBI in his first eight postseason games. Peralta had grounded into two crucial double plays in Game 4 but this time he drilled a 1-0 fastball that appeared headed into left field ... only to have Pablo Sandoval, continuing to do his best Brooks Robinson impersonation, make a leaping grab (yes, he got a few inches off the ground) and then make a quick throw to second to catch Jay. Huge baserunning mistake there by Jay, even if he took only one step to third. It was one step that led to an inning-ending play and a missed opportunity to take an early lead off Bumgarner.

Turn about is fair play: After Sandoval doubled and Hunter Pence walked with no outs in the fourth, Brandon Belt drilled a liner right to second baseman Kolten Wong and Sandoval made the same mistake as Jay, taking a step to third. If anything, Sandoval's baserunner miscue was worse since it was a low line drive.

Side note: While we've seen some good defensive plays in this series, most notably from Sandoval and Kolten Wong, it has been a series of mistakes, especially in comparison to the crisp baseball the Royals played in the ALCS. (Think of the two dropped fly balls in Game 4, Matt Adams' defensive miscues, missed bunts and wild pitches, and Travis Ishikawa's bad read in the third inning in this game that led to the Cardinals' first run.)
Man, we had a lot of stuff going on in this game. Both starters got knocked out early, 13 pitchers were used altogether, the Giants had another unlikely rally, the fans were loud, Hunter Pence signs were everywhere, the sky was beautiful and it was an exciting baseball game. Maybe not the best-played, but definitely exciting. The Giants haven't hit a home run in the series but they pulled out a 6-4 victory, and now all the Cardinals have to do is find a way to beat Madison Bumgarner to stay alive in the series. Good luck.

Five key moments from this one:

1. Giants don't get ball out of the infield, but score twice.

The bottom of sixth also will be known as the "Matt Adams inning," which is a little unfair because Adams didn't make a debatable managerial decision or walk a guy who hit .170 this season.

The inning began with the Cardinals up 4-3 and Mike Matheny removing reliever Carlos Martinez and putting in catcher Tony Cruz for A.J. Pierzynski in a double-switch (Martinez would have led off the seventh). The question: Should Matheny have removed Martinez? He had pitched the fifth in only 17 pitches and didn't pitch in Game 3. He has started at times this season, so he certainly is capable of pitching multiple innings. However, check these numbers:

Pitches 1-25: .255/.317/.342
Pitches 26-50: .289/.431/.400

I'm not sure how instructive those numbers are. For one thing, I don't have the exact breakdown of, say, through 30 or 35 pitches. And most of those pitches beyond 25 came during his seven appearances as a starter.

The Giants had lefties Travis Ishikawa and Brandon Crawford up, followed by the pitcher's spot, and then two more lefties at the top of the order. So Matheny instead brought in rookie Marco Gonzales, who walked 21 in 34.1 regular-season innings but had walked just one in 5.1 innings in the postseason. Matheny went with that matchup, and it's hard to argue against the decision.

Gonzales just didn't do the job. Bruce Bochy pinch hit Juan Perez for Ishikawa and he drew a walk. Crawford singled. Pinch hitter Matt Duffy sacrificed the runners over. Gregor Blanco then grounded to the drawn-in Adams at first base, but Adams stumbled a bit and took an extra step before making a bad throw home that the speedy Perez beat without a tag. A good play does get Perez, who was running on contact. But Adams didn't make a good play.

Then Adams made another bad play. With runners now at the corners and the game tied, Joe Panik grounded a ball that took Adams to first base. He tagged the base, didn't appear to look at Crawford at third and threw a changeup to second base, off-line. Crawford scored, Blanco was safe at second and Giants led 5-4. Two runs without getting the ball out of the infield.

2. Buster Posey is good.

The inning wasn't over. Seth Maness came in and Posey lined an RBI base hit to left. Posey is good. Had a nice little game: 2-for-3, walk, sac fly. He doesn't have an extra-base hit in nine postseason games but he's batting .333, getting on base and playing his usual solid defense behind the plate.

3. Yusmeiro Petit keeps the Giants close.

The hero of the 18-inning win over the Nationals in the division series when he threw six innings of one-hit baseball in relief, Petit was once again brilliant, allowing just one hit over his 47 pitches.

Petit spent the season going back and forth between the rotation (12 starts) and bullpen (27 appearances). He gained some notoriety when he broke the major league record for consecutive batters retired at 46 (set over several relief appearances and one start). He pitched in the rotation in September when the Giants bumped the struggling Tim Lincecum to relief, but Petit returned to the pen for the postseason.

Despite his 250-pound girth, he's not a hard thrower. Among 148 pitchers who threw 100 innings, he ranked 132nd in average fastball velocity at 88.8 mph. But here's the amazing stat about him: He ranked fifth out of those 148 pitchers in swing-and-miss percentage, behind only Francisco Liriano, Tyson Ross, Chris Sale and Masahiro Tanaka and just ahead of Clayton Kershaw and Felix Hernandez. In other words, he has some deceiving stuff even without the big velocity.

His curveball is his big swing-and-miss weapon, as batters swung at it 62 percent of the time and missed 47 percent. Batters hit .189 against it. Still, he has to get to the curveball, and he does an excellent job of painting the corners with his four-seam fastball, cutter, slider and changeup. He's what you might call a journeyman, but Petit had a good year and came up as the big man in this game.

4. Affeldt, Lopez, Romo, Casilla.

These four longtime Giants relievers got the final four outs. The Giants have had a different closer in each of their three postseason runs -- Brian Wilson in 2010, Sergio Romo in 2012 and Santiago Casilla this year -- but these four have been there all three seasons. Casilla had pitched 11.2 hitless innings in a row before Jon Jay singled with two outs in the ninth.

5. Early offense.

In the first six half-innings, the leadoff batter reached base all six times with a hit -- four doubles and two singles. Two of those doubles glanced off the gloves of center fielders Jay and Blanco on plays that were ruled hits but ... well, let's just say they were plays that Lorenzo Cain makes. Anyway, both pitchers were giving up hard hits but both managers seemed a little slow to the bullpen, even though the Giants had starters Yusmeiro Petit and Tim Lincecum down there while the Cardinals had Michael Wacha, Gonzales and Martinez, all of whom started at times during the season.

Vogelsong, who had never allowed more than one run in his five previous postseason starts, was finally gone after Kolten Wong's two-out home run in the third made it 4-1 for the Cardinals, with Bochy pinch-hitting for him in the bottom of the third. And, really, it could have been worse as Pablo Sandoval started two nice 5-4-3 double plays to help prevent further damage.

Matheny's decision with Shelby Miller was more curious. After giving up three hits, a walk and two runs in the third, he was the second batter up in the fourth inning. The Giants would have two lefties, the pitcher, and then two more lefties batting in the fourth. So why not pinch hit for Miller in the top of the inning? Especially since Matheny lifted Miller for Randy Choate after he walked Brandon Crawford and the top of the order coming up.

If we read something into this, it's that Matheny doesn't have confidence to use Wacha in a close game, which is understandable since Wacha hadn't performed well in September after returning from shoulder injury and hadn't pitched since Sept. 26. That only raises the question of why he's on the roster if he's not used in the early innings of a game where the starter is struggling.

Oh, give credit to the hitters. They were stinging the ball. And Wong? I'd love to buy stock in his future.

Hey, extra innings! A game that was 4-0 after one inning and looked like it would be a snoozefest turned into another exciting game decided by one run. The Giants won it 5-4 in 10 innings to take the series lead. Five key moments:

1. Bad bunt, good bunt, bad throw.

It wasn't a pretty half-inning of baseball but the Giants will take it. Randy Choate has one of biggest platoon splits in baseball. The sidearming southpaw is tough against left-handed batters but nearly unusable against right-handed, who had a .458 OBP against him this year and .431 over the past three seasons. He was brought in to face Brandon Crawford, but walked him, Crawford laying off a 3-2 sinker. Give Crawford credit here. He hit .320 with a .395 OBP against lefties this season; some have credited his spring training work with Barry Bonds in helping him improve against left-handed pitches. The numbers are probably a one-season fluke but he does do a good job standing in there. But Choate has to throw him a strike there. No excuses.

That brought up light-hitting outfielder Juan Perez, a right-handed batter. I can see why Matheny left in Choate, since Perez was going to bunt, and two left-handed batters were on deck. Except Perez bunted the first two pitches foul, fouled off two pitches and then lined a base hit to left. Considering Choate's issues against righties, you could argue that Perez should have been swinging away anyway, especially since Choate against Gregor Blanco or Joe Panik is a matchup advantage for St. Louis.

Anyway, that created an obvious bunt situation for Blanco, who put down a good bunt and Choate's throw to second baseman Kolten Wong sailed into the bullpen to score the winning run.

2. Pablo Sandoval's sweet play keeps it tied.

With Jon Jay running on the pitch with two outs in the top of the 10th, Matt Holliday hit a hard grounder down the third-base line. Yes, Sandoval was shading to the line, but it was still an excellent play. With the left fielder played well off the line, Jay likely scores if Sandoval doesn't make the play.

3. Randal Grichuk ties it up against Tim Hudson.

Even as Hudson was left in for the seventh inning, people were questioning the decision to leave him in. Even though his pitch count was still less than 90, he'd given up two runs in the fourth on Kolten Wong's triple, hit John Lackey in the fifth only to get a double play and then allowed a run in the sixth. Grichuk hit a first-pitch cut fastball out to left and the Cardinals, down 4-0 after the first, were now tied.

This appeared to be a direct reflection of the poor performance of the Giants bullpen in Game 2. Bochy had been using Hunter Strickland as an option in this area of the game to bridge the gap to his two lefties, Sergio Romo and closer Santiago Casilla, but Strickland gave up his fourth home run of the postseason in Game 2, and it's pretty easy to assume Bochy had lost confidence in him at this point.

So ... what to do? With Hudson facing the 7-8-9 hitters (A.J. Pierzynski, Grichuk and the pitcher's spot), I can understand Bochy wanting to coax another inning out of Hudson. He probably doesn't have much confidence in Romo against left-handers, so you can see a scenario where he wanted Hudson to get through the seventh against three weak hitters, Jeremy Affeldt or Javier Lopez to face Matt Carpenter and Jon Jay, Romo to face Matt Holliday and then Casilla in the ninth. That all sounds great until it doesn't. And the fact that Bochy immediately removed Hudson after the home run shows that he was on a short leash anyway. But a leash one batter too long.

(Of course, this also gets to why Tim Lincecum is even on the roster. If Yusmeiro Petit is the long man of choice, what is Lincecum's role besides good-luck charm or, I guess, mop-up guy in a blowout game?)

4. Cardinals intentionally walk Brandon Belt, Travis Ishikawa clears the bases.

Some early strategizing in this one. With the Giants already up 1-0 in the first after Hunter Pence's RBI double, they had runners on second and third with two outs. Mike Matheny elected to put Belt on first to pitch to Ishikawa. The basis for the move is pretty simple: Belt is a better hitter than Ishikawa. But the difference may be small, Ishikawa hadn't been struggling (he was 5-for-18 in the postseason) and there was no platoon advantage to be gained. In general terms, it's not a move you normally see in the regular season.

Sure enough, Matheny hadn't called for an intentional walk all season in the first inning. He had issued just four intentional walks with runners on second and third and two outs all season in any inning. Did they compare to this case?

April 17: Jose Lobaton, second inning. This allowed Adam Wainwright to face the pitcher and he got out of the jam.

May 18: Evan Gattis, ninth inning. Trevor Rosenthal walked Gattis to pitch to Jordan Shafer, trying to hold a one-run lead. Matheny went against the platoon advantage here to get to a weaker batter. This one backfired as Shafer walked and Rosenthal then threw a wild pitch as the Cardinals lost.

June 10: Matt Joyce, fourth inning. Wainwright walked Joyce to face the right-handed Logan Forsythe, who lined out (Wainwright went on to pitch a 1-0 shutout).

July 6: Casey McGehee, sixth inning. Nick Greenwood walked McGehee to get to Marcell Ozuna, two right-handed batters. So kind of an odd one. Didn't work as Ozuna singled.

So three of those were a little more conventional. Still, the point is this: Matheny probably overthought this one, doing something he hadn't done all season. Of course, if Lackey gets Ishikawa it looks like a great decision.

Instead, Ishikawa launched a blast to right field on a first-pitch two-seam fastball, a grand slam on most days, but the ball got caught up in the swirling winds and drifted to right-center. The ball ended up at the base of the wall in deep right-center, catchable except Grichuk had already backed off to play the carom and thus drawing the John Lackey face from John Lackey.

5. Lackey settles down.

After Grichuk failed to come up with Ishikawa's drive, Lackey's outstretched arms showed his, umm, displeasure. As Lackey is wont to due. Anyway, we never got the Meltdown Face as Lackey kept the Cardinals in the game.

The NLCS is a battle of two teams that know how to win! But somebody will have to lose! Game 1 was all about Madison Bumgarner as he pitched the San Francisco Giants to a 3-0 victory over the St. Louis Cardinals. Five key moments:

1. Madison Bumgarner, road warrior.
Madison BumgarnerDilip Vishwanat/Getty ImagesMadison Bumgarner's stuff has been especially dominating this October.

The Giants have a 1.14 ERA in six postseason games so far -- of course, Bumgarner has pitched three of those and allowed just three runs, two of those coming on his own throwing error against the Nationals.

In this game, he was dominant from the start, mixing his 92-95 mph two-seam and four-seam fastballs with that beautiful sweeping slider, curveball and an occasional changeup. He threw first-pitch strikes to 20 of the 29 batters he faced and Bochy had enough confidence to leave him in there in the eighth inning even though the top of the lineup was up and Bumgarner was over 100 pitches. But he struck out Matt Carpenter swinging on a nice 1-2 curveball -- the pitch Clayton Kershaw didn't throw Carpenter -- and then got Randal Grichuk and his night was over after 7 2/3 scoreless frames and 112 pitches.

There's no denying that Bumgarner looks locked in right now. While everyone is praising his postseason dominance, he did have two bad starts back in the 2012 playoffs, so he's not necessarily a sure thing his next start.

But is there anybody else you'd want starting a big game right now?

2. Adam Wainwright pulled in the fifth inning.

There was a lot of talk before the game about Wainwright's tender elbow, an issue that first popped up in June although not reported until recently. He struggled in August but was better in September and than bad in his Division Series start against the Dodgers. The elbow was either a worrisome issue or not, depending on what you read or what Wainwright and manager Mike Matheny said or what you wanted to believe.

Wainwright threw 36 pitches in the second inning and 98 before leaving with two outs in the fifth inning. Over the course of the regular season, he threw his fastball 42 percent of the time, but threw it just 24 times in this start. That could be the elbow or it could simply be a different approach to a Giants team that is pretty aggressive in its approach. Either way, he clearly lacked his putaway stuff: He had 27 pitches with two strikes and induced just one swing-and-miss, and that was from Bumgarner.

Remember, Wainwright has carried a huge workload the past two seasons. He led the majors in innings pitched in 2013 with 241 2/3 and then tacked on another 35 high-stress innings in the postseason. This year, he threw 227 innings in the regular season. Tack on a tender elbow and his productivity the rest of this series may be a problem for the Cardinals.

The Cardinals also elected to carry 11 pitchers this round instead of the 12 they carried against the Dodgers (adding A.J. Pierzynski for Sam Freeman), but one of those is Michael Wacha, who returned in September after missing several months with a shoulder injury. He didn't pitch in the Dodgers series and Wainwright's early exit would have seemed like the time to test Wacha, but maybe Matheny is reluctant to use him.

3. No balk called on Bumgarner.

The Cardinals loved the seventh inning against Clayton Kershaw and, sure enough, Yadier Molina and Jon Jay singled with one out, bringing the tying run to the plate. Bumgarner had been cruising until then but he was approaching 100 pitches. Sound familiar?

Kolten Wong grounded a dribbler to first base, with Brandon Belt flipping to Bumgarner. There was a collision as Bumgarner tagged Wong on the knee and Wong was called out. Matheny asked for a review and the play was upheld. For starters, Wong was running inside the baseline instead of the running lane (not that anybody runs in the running lane). Plus, Bumgarner tagged Wong an instant before the collision. It's just not a play where obstruction is going to be called. (By the way, another example of why we need a double bag at first base, so Wong can actually run to the base via the running lane.)

Anyway, that's two outs and brought up the pitcher's slot. The Cardinals' lack of even a decent right-handed bat on the bench was highlighted here as Matheny's best option was apparently backup catcher Tony Cruz and his .200 average. The Cardinals appeared to catch a break when Bumgarner clearly flinched with his right foot a split second before stepping off the mound. It wasn't much of a flinch but it still constituted the start of his motion. It should have been a balk and a run for the Cardinals.

4. Giants benefit from sloppy Cardinals defense.

First, Carpenter booted a Gregor Blanco grounder in the second inning to score one run and then Wong bobbled what should have been a double-play ground ball, allowing Buster Posey to plate the Giants' third run with a sacrifice fly instead of should have been the third out of the inning.

The Cardinals haven't received the defensive recognition of the Royals, but they made a good living with the gloves during the season, ranking second only to the Reds in Defensive Runs Saved (the Royals were third). The Cardinals aren't the flashiest of defensive teams; Baseball Info Solutions video scouts every play and credited the Cardinals with 281 "Good Fielding Plays," just 28th in the majors. What the Cardinals do is make all the routine plays. They were near the top of the majors in fewest errors and ranked second-best in fewest "Defensive Misplays" according to BIS (behind only the Orioles).

As much as Wainwright struggled, with a little tighter defense behind him he leaves trailing 1-0 in this game instead of 3-0.

5. Travis Ishikawa makes diving catch in left field.

As widely noted, Ishikawa had made just three career starts in left field -- all in the final week of the season -- before moving there for the postseason. Mike Morse was placed back on the roster for this series after missing the wild-card game and the Division Series with an oblique strain, but Bochy has elected to stick with Ishikawa out there.

For one thing, despite his lack of experience out there, he's probably better than the lead-footed Morse and it showed when he made a nice catch on Molina's line drive in the fourth with Jhonny Peralta on first.

Five NLCS keys for the Cardinals

October, 11, 2014
Oct 11
The St. Louis Cardinals are back in the NLCS for the fourth straight season, the first team to reach an LCS four years in a row since the 1998-2001 Yankees. Here are five keys to watch:

1. No fear against southpaws.

The Cardinals' slaying of Clayton Kershaw (for the second straight year, no less) will go down in baseball lore as one of the great playoff feats. The Cardinals' success was at least partially due to favorable fortune: Kershaw’s expected fielding-independent pitching (xFIP) for the two games in which he yielded 11 runs was a minuscule 1.78 and even better than his regular-season xFIP of 2.08. But the Cardinals -- with a platoon advantage in rookie right fielder Randal Grichuk and surprising competency from lefty-swinging Jon Jay -- are legitimately better this year (.319 wOBA) than they were last year against left-handers and indeed better than they were this season against right-handers (.303 wOBA). That -- and of course the confidence that comes with twice beating baseball's best pitcher -- somewhat neutralizes the threat of the Giants' best pitcher, Madison Bumgarner, who lasted only five innings against the Cardinals back on July 3, as well as their two LOOGys.

2. Big Matt attack.

Matt Carpenter had a Ruthian series against the Dodgers, averaging 4.5 total bases per game and leading all league-division championship players with .886 Win-Probability Added. The unheralded Matt "Big City" Adams blasted his way to a .400 on-base percentage, .500 slugging percentage and the Kershaw-crushing, Game 4-winning home run, upstaging "Big Country" Matt Holliday. Holliday was relatively quiet in the NLDS (.313 OBP, .467 SLG), but if the Giants divert their attention to Carpenter too much, they may give Holliday a chance to wreak havoc; he evidently sees at least two of the Giants’ starters really well, with a .452 OBP in 31 plate appearances against Tim Hudson and a .475 OBP in 40 PAs against Jake Peavy.

3. Health of the horses.

Adam Wainwright admitted to some elbow discomfort after going only 4 1/3 innings in Game 1 of the NLDS. He's scheduled to pitch the opener of the NLCS, but the Cardinals will be in trouble if the injury impedes his performance. Not only are they counting on their ace, who was third in the league in 2014 with a 2.88 FIP, to start at least twice, the pitcher who would replace him -- Michael Wacha -- is in even more questionable health. Wainwright's younger doppelganger was the MVP of the 2013 NLCS but didn't see any action in this year’s NLDS due apparently to lingering concerns about his shoulder, which cost him time during the summer. He made the roster, but Matheny may again be reticent to use him.

4. Smart baserunning.

The Cardinals had the majors' lowest ratio of stolen and extra bases taken to outs made on the bases (including caught stealing) during the regular season (1.90). In the NLDS against the Dodgers, however, they were more judicious, attempting no stolen bases and advancing twice on wild pitches without getting thrown out on the bases. They needed every out then, when they outscored the Dodgers by a mere three runs, and they will again against the Giants.

5. Bold relief.

Closer Trevor Rosenthal may cause Cardinals fans to hold their breath in the ninth inning, but he's the best that manager Mike Matheny has. So Matheny shouldn't be afraid to use him in high-leverage situations, including tie games. There's no use in saving your best reliever for an inning that may never come, as Matheny has done on occasion.

Matt Philip writes about the Cardinals at Fungoes.net.

Five NLCS keys for the Giants

October, 11, 2014
Oct 11
We've watched the San Francisco Giants pull wins out of thin air all season long, but how much longer can they survive while failing to drive in runners in scoring position and allowing game-tying Ruthian home runs to Bryce Harper? Here are the five keys to the Giants' success in the NLCS against the St. Louis Cardinals:

1. Get more production out of the top of the order.

During San Francisco's championship run in 2012, the Angel Pagan/Marco Scutaro 1-2 tandem at the top of the order played a huge role in their offensive success. However, both Pagan and Scutaro are sidelined with injuries, giving way to Gregor Blanco and Joe Panik to lead things off for the Giants. As well as those two have filled in for the injured starters during the regular season, that type of production has not showed up yet in the postseason. Blanco and Panik hit a combined .162 in the division series against the Nationals, so the Giants will need improved production out of the top of the order.

2. Hit with runners in scoring position.

In four games in the NLDS, the Giants went only 5-for-40 (.125) with runners in scoring position, and scored only nine runs. The last time they got a hit that actually scored a run was Brandon Belt's 18th-inning go-ahead home run in Game 2 of the series -- 18 innings ago. This team always seems to find ways to score (sacrifice flies, errors, wild pitches, etc.), but they are running into a Cardinals team that has a knack for doing the exact same thing in October. Even if Michael Morse is able to return from an oblique injury, this lineup simply is not intimidating, so they will need to find a way to cash in on scoring opportunities.

3. Capitalize against right-handed starters.

The Cardinals announced that they will roll out their same rotation from the NLDS against the Dodgers, lining up Adam Wainwright, Lance Lynn, John Lackey and Shelby Miller. The fact that all four starters are right-handed is great news for the Giants. San Francisco struggled against lefty starters in the regular season, finishing with a .500 record of 30-30 when southpaws started. The Giants will have to score against the starters, as Mike Matheny will surely lean on left-handed relievers Marco Gonzales and Randy Choate late in games.

4. Continued dominance from the bullpen.

While the Giants' rotation appears to be in great shape, both Jake Peavy and Ryan Vogelsong failed to make it out of the sixth inning in their respective NLDS starts. Thus, the Giants' bullpen must be able to lock down games in the late innings. This process will start with Bruce Bochy taking some responsibility away from rookie flamethrower Hunter Strickland. While he appeared untouchable during his regular-season stint in September, his invincibility quickly vanished in October, as the Nationals touched him up for three home runs in three innings -- including two monstrous home runs off the bat of Harper. The Giants had the third-best bullpen ERA in the league (3.01) in the regular season, so look for Bochy to stick to the formula that worked for 162 games, relying more on Jeremy Affeldt, Javier Lopez, Sergio Romo and Santiago Casilla in big spots as opposed to an electric, yet unproven rookie in Strickland.

5. Contain the Cardinals' power surge.

After finishing last in the National League in home runs in the regular season, the Cardinals seem to have found their power stroke in October, because, well, they're the Cardinals. Matt Carpenter hit three of St. Louis' seven home runs on his way to a .375 average in the NLDS. Jon Jay hit .455 and Matt Holliday and Matt Adams combined for 7 RBIs of their own -- even Kolten Wong hit a timely home run. As much as the Giants have struggled to score runs, it will be imperative that their pitching shut down a streaking Cardinals lineup.

Andrew Tweedy writes about the Giants at West Coast Bias.

Defensive storylines for the NLCS

October, 10, 2014
Oct 10
The San Francisco Giants-St. Louis Cardinals matchup may not have the pizazz of the Baltimore Orioles and Kansas City Royals in terms of outstanding defensive play, but there are a number of interesting things worth keeping an eye on.

Both teams are well positioned
"Baseball Tonight"'s Alex Cora and Eduardo Perez have often sung the praises of St. Louis Cardinals coach Jose Oquendo when it comes to infield positioning. Buster Olney has previously written about catcher Yadier Molina's acumen in this area.

The payoff for that has come this season, as the Cardinals infield defense improved by 50 Defensive Runs Saved from last season and was one of the keys to the team leading the majors in that stat.

Shortstop Jhonny Peralta isn't flashy, but he's made plays consistently all season. He ranks third among shortstops with 17 Defensive Runs Saved after never having ranked in the top 15 in any previous season.

Likewise, the Giants infield defense (with help from bench coach Ron Wotus) improved by 24 Runs Saved from 2013 to 2014, with third baseman Pablo Sandoval and shortstop Brandon Crawford accounting for 15 of those.

Neither the Giants nor the Cardinals use defensive shifts often, relatively speaking. But they ranked third- and fourth-best in the majors respectively when it came to the effectiveness of the shifts they used (using Runs Saved per 100 shifts as our evaluation tool).

There will be an interesting cat-and-mouse game at play for the Giants when it comes to deciding whether to shift for Matt Adams and Peralta.

Adams was among the game' best at hitting against the shift. He hit 99 groundballs and short liners against shifted defenses this season and hit .303 on them. Peralta also fared well, hitting 27 groundballs and short liners against shifts, netting nine base hits (he hit .189 on grounders and short liners against non-shifted defenses).

How the Giants handle hard slides
Remember Matt Holliday's hard slide into Marco Scutaro in Game 2 of the 2012 NLCS?

Given the stakes in this series, it wouldn't be surprising to see the Cardinals get aggressive with some of their slides attempting to break up double plays. The Giants seem well equipped to handle that. Rookie second baseman Joe Panik actually rated first among second basemen, converting 48 of a possible 61 double-play opportunities in which he was either the fielder or the pivot man.

Crawford also rates above average in converting double plays as both a relay and pivot man.

Molina's great, but Posey has notable advantage
Molina is the standard by which all catchers should be measured and will certainly impact the way this series is played (though the Giants rank last in the NL in stolen bases).

But Giants catcher Buster Posey has him in one stat.

Posey ranked second-best in the majors at getting called strikes on pitches that were in the strike zone (in other words, getting strikes when he should be getting strikes), with an 88 percent success rate. He also rate slightly above average at stealing strikes (getting strikes on pitches outside the zone).

Using our tools to evaluate PitchF/X data, we were able to compute that Posey ranked fifth in the majors in "Extra Strikes" for his pitchers. Remember how angry Nationals hitters got throughout the NLDS? Cardinals hitters may have to contain their emotions in this series.

Key player off the bench: Peter Bourjos
The Cardinals have a defensive weapon on their bench in super-speedy Peter Bourjos, who can come in and play center field late in games, with Jon Jay shifting to left field to replace Matt Holliday. Mike Matheny made that move in Game 3 and Game 4 of the NLDS and for good reason.

Jays numbers improved greatly this season, as he seems much more comfortable going back on balls. He's the better option in left field, as Holliday’s best defensive days have long passed.

No, not for players -- that's a tired old assumption that should be discarded with the leftovers sitting in your fridge since the Brewers were still mathematically alive.

I'm talking managers.

Take Buck Showalter.

[+] EnlargeBuck Showalter
Kim Klement/USA TODAY SportsBuck Showalter has learned over the years to trust your bullpen in the postseason.
In his first postseason, which was with the Yankees in 1995, he suddenly lost faith in his closer, John Wetteland, after he'd faced four batters in Game 4 of the ALDS against the Mariners. All had reached base, topped off by Edgar Martinez's grand slam. In Game 5, he let a fatigued David Cone walk in the tying run in the eighth inning on his 147th pitch of game. He didn't yet trust a rookie reliever named Mariano Rivera, even though he'd pitched well in the series and kept the game tied in the eighth. So he brought in Game 3 starter Jack McDowell, who couldn't hold the lead the Yankees had taken in the top of the 11th. (Really, this article is just an excuse to link to this video. And just because: Here's the grand slam.)

Then, while managing the Diamondbacks in 1999, Randy Johnson took a 4-4 tie into the ninth inning. Yes, it's Randy Johnson. But he'd faced 32 batters. Showalter let him face four more. Three got on, and then Edgardo Alfonzo hit a grand slam off a reliever named Bobby Chouinard.

Showalter learned: Trust your bullpen. We saw quick hooks in the Orioles' series against the Tigers. Yes, some of that is a function of not having a Cone or Johnson to overextend, plus a deep bullpen you can rely upon, but I believe Showalter has learned not to let your starter go too deep. He's also showed the willingness to stick with the hot hand. He used Andrew Miller twice against the Tigers to get five outs and once in the sixth inning (earlier than he had used him all season).

Bruce Bochy managed the Padres to four playoff appearances before the Giants hired him. He's learned that you can't manage the playoffs like you do the regular season, whether it's putting Tim Lincecum in the bullpen like he did in 2012 or pulling a starter with a 3-1 lead in the third inning like he did with Barry Zito that same year. I was actually a little surprised he let Ryan Vogelsong start the sixth inning against the Nationals in Game 4 the other night, but he did pull him with two outs and nobody on to bring on Javier Lopez to face Adam LaRoche.

Mike Matheny is now in his third postseason, but for the most part still seems to take a regular-season approach to managing his starters. He lost Game 5 of the World Series last year when the Red Sox scored twice off Adam Wainwright in the seventh to win 3-1 and then had a surprisingly slow hook with Michael Wacha in Game 6 (he allowed six runs). He got five good innings out of Shelby Miller in Game 4 against the Dodgers and then had a bit of a slow hook in the sixth inning. The Cardinals got three outs that inning -- two on a double play and the third when Andre Ethier got caught off third; that inning easily could have exploded in their faces, in part because Miller was left in too long.

Ned Yost? Yost certainly has a plan: Get a lead and then hand the ball in the seventh inning or later to Kelvin Herrera, Wade Davis and Greg Holland. The problem with him is if that plan doesn't unfold exactly like that, what does he do? His bullpen is deeper than those three with the emergence of Brandon Finnegan, the solid Jason Frasor and even starter Danny Duffy. He doesn't have to rely on his starters to go six or seven innings every game. It will be interesting in particular to see if he rides James Shields, who has scuffled in his two postseason starts. Yost has the bullpen depth to go to it early, especially if he's willing to extend his best relievers for more than three outs like Showalter did with Miller.

All this gets back to what I wrote Wednesday about when to remove a starter. All four of these teams have good bullpens. All four managers should be using them as much as possible. On paper, we should have two low-scoring series. The key innings may very well be those precarious sixth and seventh innings when the starter is getting tired and it's too early for your closer. How these four managers handle those innings will play play a key role.

Oh, and if you're facing a lose-and-go-home game and it's tied in the seventh inning, I recommend not using your 10th-best pitcher.
The most important decision a manager has to make in any individual postseason game usually involves when to pull his starting pitcher. There can be other important decisions -- whether to bench your best hitter, for example, or whether to bring in your sixth-best reliever in a tie game in the seventh inning -- but baseball games revolve around pitching, and it's the starter who has to carry the biggest workload.

The question, then: When should a manager remove his starter?

Obviously, there are myriad influencing factors in any game: how the starter feels, his pitch count, how many days of rest he's pitching on, the score of the game, how tired or rested the bullpen is, the quality of the relievers, the state of the series and so on.

So we're talking in broad terms here. One of the hot topics among sabermetric writers and analysts this offseason has been the idea that starters generally do worse the third time through a batting order. The batters have seen him twice by then, plus the starter is getting tired. It's certainly no coincidence that both times Clayton Kershaw blew up against the Cardinals came in his third time through the order as he approached and went beyond 100 pitches.

Here are the numbers we're talking about, all starting pitchers in 2014:

First time through the order: .246/.304/.377
Second time through the order: .256/.313/.395
Third time through the order: .268/.327/.421

[+] EnlargeDon Mattingly, Zack Greinke
Stephen Dunn/Getty ImagesNothing spurs debate in the postseason like a manager's call to the bullpen.
The most hardcore sabermetricians will advocate for a quick hook; overall, relievers have lower ERAs than starters, so the theory is that going to your bullpen over a tiring starter is the way to go. Dave Cameron of FanGraphs wrote a piece the other day praising Buck Showalter for his quick hooks in the Orioles' series win over the Tigers. Buster Olney wrote a few days ago that there's no perfect time to remove a starter.

And it's hard to say that there should be a hard and fast rule. If managers always managed like that, we wouldn't have had Jack Morris pitching his 10-inning shutout in the 1991 World Series or Chris Carpenter beating Roy Halladay 1-0 in Game 5 of the 2011 NL Division Series or any number of great postseason performances. You have to allow for a manager to adjust to what's going on in the game.

Anyway, I thought it would be interesting to look back and see how World Series winners have managed their rotations in recent years.

2013 -- John Farrell, Red Sox (16 total games)
Average batters faced: 24.2
Long outings (28+ BF): 3
Short outings (20 or fewer BF): 5

Farrell did extend his starters a few times, but all were in games when the Red Sox had big leads: 6-1, 8-1 and 12-2 were the finals of those three games. The Red Sox won three of the five short outings, including Game 4 of the World Series when he pinch-hit for Clay Buchholz with the score tied 1-1 in the top of the fifth. There were some extenuating circumstances as Buchholz was pitching through a sore shoulder that was limiting his velocity. But Farrell also pulled Jake Peavy after 74 pitches in the sixth inning of Game 4 of the division series. The Red Sox were down 1-0 and Peavy hadn't walked a batter; they ended up winning 3-1. In Game 5 of the ALCS, he pulled Jon Lester after 24 batters in the sixth inning with a 4-1 lead. Lester was at 98 pitches and there were two runners on, but Farrell didn't wait.

2012 -- Bruce Bochy, Giants (16 total games)
Average batters faced: 23.7
Long outings: 3
Short outings: 4

Two of the long outings came with big leads. The one exception was Matt Cain in Game 4 of the World Series, when he faced 28 batters. He was at 102 pitches and had retired the side in order in the seventh, but Bochy pulled him with the game tied. The Giants would win in 10 innings.

The Giants won two of the short outings. In Game 3 of the division series (the Giants were down two games to none), Ryan Vogelsong was removed after 20 batters (and five innings). The game was tied 1-1 and Vogelsong led off the sixth; plus he was at 95 pitches, so that was strongly dictated by circumstances. In Game 4, Bochy removed Barry Zito in the third inning, after 20 batters faced. The Giants were ahead 3-2 at the time. Bochy's decision was certainly influenced by Zito's four walks, but he took him with two outs and a runner on first, not the most threatening of moments. In the same game, Dusty Baker left in Mike Leake to give up two more runs in the fifth inning and the next game he left in Mat Latos to give up six runs, including a grand slam to Buster Posey the third time through the order.

2011 -- Tony La Russa, Cardinals (18 total games)
Average batters faced: 22.0
Long outings: 3
Short outings: 6

La Russa had a very quick hook throughout this postseason, with five other outings of 23 or fewer batters. Two of the long outings were from Chris Carpenter, including that memorable duel with Halladay, when he faced 31 batters. In the ninth inning, La Russa left him in to face Chase Utley, Hunter Pence and Ryan Howard. He probably shouldn't have, but it worked out. Sometimes it does.

It's possible La Russa adapted after losing Game 3 of that division series. Jaime Garcia took a 0-0 tie into the seventh inning but gave up a single, intentional walk and a two-out, three-run homer to Ben Francisco (pinch-hitting for Cole Hamels, so he was the 27th batter Garcia had faced). After that, La Russa was determined not to let his starters lose a game late.

2010 -- Bruce Bochy, Giants (15 total games)
Average batters faced: 25.7
Long outings: 6
Short outings: 2

Bochy rode his starters longer this postseason, as he also had four starts with 27 batters faced. In Game 1 of the division series, he let Tim Lincecum finish off a 1-0, 14-strikeout gem with 119 pitches and 30 BF. In Game 5 of the World Series, leading 3-1, he let Lincecum face the 9-1-2 batters in the eighth inning, but Lincecum retired the side.

Bochy also had two interesting quick hooks, however. In Game 4 of the NLCS against the Phillies, he removed rookie lefty Madison Bumgarner in the fifth inning after 20 BF, a 2-1 lead and two runners on. The move backfired at first, as Santiago Casilla allowed the two inherited runners to score plus one of his own, but the Giants rallied to win 6-5. The critical one came in the clinching Game 6 when he removed Jonathan Sanchez in the third inning of a 2-2 game. Sanchez had walked a batter and hit a batter. Jeremy Affeldt got out of the jam and Bumgarner would pitch two scoreless innings, Lincecum would retire a batter and Brian Wilson got a five-out save.

That was some unconventional managing and it helped the Giants win the series. But to manage like that, Bochy had to have a plan of attack ready in place in case Sanchez faltered.

2009 -- Joe Girardi, Yankees (15 total games)
Average batters faced: 25.9
Long outings: 4
Short outings: 1

Girardi was pretty much by the book. All four long outings came from CC Sabathia, and the short one was a blow-up A.J. Burnett start in the World Series (two innings, six runs). He did have a quicker hook on Andy Pettitte, but that was in part because Pettitte made some starts on three days' rest.

* * *

Is there anything to learn from this? In the five postseasons from 2009 to 2013, there were 175 postseason games (so 350 total team games). There were 72 "long outings" of 28 or more batters faced -- 21 percent of all games. You'd think the team with the long outing would win most of those games, right? After all, you're usually leaving in a pitcher that long only if he's been pitching well or has a big lead. The long-outing teams were 47-25 (.652), but the starting pitcher lost 17 of those 25 games. Not all of those were bad losses -- Halladay faced 32 batters in losing to Carpenter, for example.

But some were bad decisions. In the 2011 division series, Charlie Manuel left in Cliff Lee to face the Cardinals' 2-3-4 hitters for a fourth time in a 4-4 game. Allen Craig tripled and Albert Pujols singled and the Cardinals won 5-4. (Meanwhile, La Russa yanked Carpenter after 16 BF and the bullpen threw six shutout innings.) In Game 1 of the 2011 division series, the Brewers led the Diamondbacks 2-0. Kirk Gibson let Ian Kennedy face Prince Fielder a fourth time and Fielder hit a two-run homer, cementing the game for Milwaukee.

By the way, in the Oakland-Kansas City wild-card game, holding a 7-3 lead in the eighth, A's manager Bob Melvin let Jon Lester face the first four batters a fourth time. Three of them reached base.

Looking ahead, we know Buck Showalter will have quick hooks and Ned Yost will go to his back-end trio if he's leading in the seventh inning. (The fifth and sixth innings will be Yost's test.) Bochy isn't afraid to pull a starter quickly -- Vogelsong and Peavy faced 21 in their starts against the Nationals, both leaving with leads -- although he'll go longer with Bumgarner.

That leaves Mike Matheny as the key guy in this area. For the most part, he's pretty by the book. In the 34 postseason games he's managed, only twice (Adam Wainwright both times) has a starter gone beyond 27 BF. But one of those was Game 5 of last year's World Series, when the Red Sox scored twice in the seventh to take a 3-1 lead -- with the 26th and 28th batters Wainwright had faced knocking in the runs. He also left in Michael Wacha in Game 6 to give up six runs when a quicker hook in a must-win game was necessary.

Of course, none of this touches on that gray area around 24 batters faced -- that crucial sixth- or seventh-inning time when a starter is tiring and managers are loath to use their setup guys too early. But that's another article.

It's hard to believe: Once again, a Washington Nationals season ended in part because they were unwilling to use Stephen Strasburg. I think we're figuring out why the San Francisco Giants and St. Louis Cardinals keep winning these playoff series against their National League opponents. Five key moments from the Giants' 3-2, series-clinching win over the Nationals -- their seventh postseason series win a row:

1. What was Matt Williams thinking?

OK, I didn't want to spend the postseason ripping managerial moves, so, yes, give credit to the Giants for scraping across the go-ahead run in the seventh inning. But Matt Williams made a series of moves that defied logic. As my colleague Christina Kahrl e-mailed me, a "gruesome series of manager-achieved mismatches."

The game was tied 2-2 after Bryce Harper's home run in the top of the inning. The Nationals' season is on the line. Do they use Stephen Strasburg, who was still available in relief -- in an "emergency only," according to Williams postgame, but doesn't "the season is on the line" qualify? No. Do they use Tyler Clippard, their excellent setup guy? No. Do they use closer Drew Storen? No. Rafael Soriano or Craig Stammen? Nope. Instead he uses Matt Thornton and Aaron Barrett, arguably his sixth- and seventh-best options left at that point.

Using Thornton to start the inning was at least defensible, with two lefties starting the inning. But after Joe Panik singled, you cannot let Thornton face Buster Posey, who has a career OPS 155 points higher against lefties. Posey singled, drilling a line drive to center. Now Williams goes to the pen ... and brings in Barrett, a rookie who walked 20 batters in 40 2/3 innings. It's your biggest moment of the season and you bring in a rookie who has trouble throwing strikes with two runners on? With your entire stable of late-inning relievers and Strasburg still available? And you thought Ned Yost mismanaged that sixth inning against the A's. ...

OK, OK, the players have to do the job. Barrett didn't. But the manager's job is to put the right players in the right situation. Pence walked on a 3-2 fastball. Pablo Sandoval -- ohh, now batting from his much stronger left side because Thornton had been used to start the inning -- was now up. Barrett chunked a fastball in the dirt to score Panik. With the count 3-1, the Nats decided to put Sandoval on and Barrett threw another wild pitch, saved only when the ball rebounded right to Wilson Ramos, who made a perfect throw to Barrett to nail Posey. (The play was reviewed and upheld.)

The Nationals lost 3-2 in a game decided late, while their two best relievers and the starter who led the league in strikeouts and was available were left rotting in the bullpen, unused. You cannot go down like that.

2. Bryce Harper makes ball go far.

In the end, the Nationals didn't hit and that's what ultimately lost the series, not one horrific inning of relief pitcher selection. They had four hits in this game and scored nine runs in four games (or five, counting all 18 innings of Game 2). The one hitter who showed up was Harper, who crushed a Hunter Strickland into McCovey Cove, a beautiful moon shot for the kayakers to chase after.

For a few minutes there, it looked like the Nationals were going to come back and get a Game 5 back in Washington.

3. The bloop, the error, the bunt, the walk, the groundout.
BlancoAP Photo/Ben MargotGregor Blanco could afford to cheer: He just plated one of the Giants' runs without a hit.

OK, that's five moments, not one. But that's how the Giants scored two runs to take a 2-0 lead in the second inning. It could have been disastrous, but Gio Gonzalez got Posey on a hard grounder to third to end the inning with runners on second and third. If that ball gets through, Williams is crushed for not getting Strasburg or another reliever up earlier to face the right-handed Posey. (Well, Williams found another for the media to crush him.)

Brandon Crawford's flare to left and Gonzalez's error on Juan Perez's comebacker got the inning going, but it was Vogelsong's bunt that keyed the inning. ESPN researcher Mark Simon wrote here in September how Anthony Rendon was arguably the best among third basemen in fielding bunts this season and he was charging on the play so it should have been his play, but it appeared Gonzalez got in the way. Regardless, a miscommunication from the Nationals loaded the bases and Gonzalez walked leadoff hitter Gregor Blanco on four pitches to force in the first run. Panik then grounded an 0-2 fastball to first -- not a hit, but two-strike contact to score a run, reminiscent of what the Giants did so well in 2012 and what other postseason teams often fail to do.

Anyway, two unearned runs without hitting the ball hard. That's how you scored runs in this series.

4. Hunter Pence makes great catch.

With Ryan Vogelsong on the ropes after a shaky fifth inning -- his fastball velocity had dropped from 93-94 in the first couple of innings down to his regular-season average of 90-91 -- Rendon lined out to Pence leading off the sixth and then Jayson Werth drove a long fly to the wall in right field. Pence raced and stumbled after it as only Pence can in his awkward but effective style, blindly reached his glove up, caught the ball and crashed into the chain-link fence in front of the wide-eyed fans in the seating area.

Fabulous. But not unexpected. It's kind of been the Year of Pence. He played all 162 games for the second season in a row, made the All-Star team, got his scooter back after somebody stole it and became a national phenomenon as fans in ballparks across the country began trolling him with fun signs.

Gives us those Hunter Pence faces, Giants fans.

5. Giants miss opportunity to break it open.

Bases loaded, fifth inning, one out, Giants up 2-1: Despite Sandoval being a much better hitter from the left side, Matt Williams left in righty Tanner Roark to pitch to him, an interesting call with Belt on deck and considering that Roark isn't a big ground-ball pitcher (and even less so against left-handed batters). In fact, among 88 qualified starters, Roark ranked 83rd in ground-ball percentage against left-handed batters, so a double play wasn't likely. He's also not a big strikeout guy. But Roark got his guy with that terrific 2-0 changeup and then Jerry Blevins got Belt on a 1-2 curveball.