Bronson Arroyo wasn’t exactly the worst starting pitcher in baseball last season. I mean, he did take the mound 32 times and pitched 199 innings, so he at least fit the description of "veteran innings eater."
But the rest of his numbers screamed "career in jeopardy": 5.07 ERA, 46 home runs allowed (tied for the third-most ever in one season), only 108 strikeouts. In fact, at the start of spring training, Arroyo wasn’t guaranteed a spot in the Cincinnati Reds' rotation, not with the club wanting to convert Aroldis Chapman from reliever to starter. But when new closer Ryan Madson tore a ligament in his elbow in late March, the Reds decided to keep Chapman in the bullpen.
That guaranteed Arroyo a job and the 35-year-old improved across the board: More strikeouts, fewer walks, far fewer home runs allowed (26). He pitched at least six innings in 25 of his 32 starts and never allowed more than five runs in a game, finishing 12-10 with a 3.74 ERA.
Dusty Baker, showing faith in his veteran over first-time playoff performers Mat Latos and Homer Bailey, named Arroyo his Game 2 starter and Arroyo delivered one of the best outings of his career, seven masterful shutout innings with just one hit allowed. He struck out four in a row, retired the first 14 batters and got eight straight ground-ball outs at one point.
Arroyo doesn’t throw hard, topping out at 90 mph, but changes speeds -- he threw pitches ranging from 71 mph to 90 mph -- from pitch to pitch. He will slightly change his arm angle, and when he’s on, he’s fun to watch with that old-school, Juan Marichal-like leg kick. He’s a reminder that velocity is a wonderful thing, but it’s not the only thing when it comes to pitching.
While Arroyo dominated on the mound, Reds hitters dominated at the plate. San Francisco Giants starter Madison Bumgarner had pitched a one-hit shutout against the Reds in June -- the only left-hander to pitch a shutout against the Reds in the past two seasons. The Reds chased him in the fifth inning and then piled on five runs in the eighth against the bullpen for a 9-0 victory and 2-0 series lead.
But the story of the night was Arroyo. What has been the big change from year to year? In 2011, left-handed batters absolutely hammered Arroyo, batting .317/.365/.611 with 27 home runs. No starter can survive giving up a .600 slugging percentage to his opposite side. Arroyo limited lefties to a more acceptable .287/.325/.469 line in 2012. We can see the key to his improvement pretty easily by looking at his fastball location against left-handers:
Even for a pitcher who doesn't rely on blowing hitters away with his fastball, command of that pitch is necessary to set up all the off-speed stuff. The heat maps show what happened in 2011: Fastballs over the plate and fastballs up in the zone. This year, he was back where he needs to be, pounding the outside corner.
"It's always fun to get a victory in a playoff game," Arroyo said in his postgame TV interview, although it was his first victory in 12 career playoff appearances (including three previous starts with the Red Sox and Reds). "But, yeah, it's amazing to go out there deep into a ballgame, get an opportunity to kind of do what you do in your craft and have it work out they way it did."
With the series heading to Cincinnati, the Giants are obviously in trouble as the Reds try to win their first playoff series since 1995. Teams have come back from losing the first two games of a Division Series -- the 2001 Yankees against the A's and the 1995 Mariners against the Yankees, but they had Game 5 at home while the Mariners had all three at home. The Giants will have to win three on the road.
To make matters more difficult, the Giants' rotation isn't humming down the stretch like it was in 2010, when it had one of the great Septembers in baseball history (2.36 ERA). This year, the rotation had a 4.08 ERA the final month. Game 3 starter Ryan Vogelsong had an awful seven-start run in August and September but pitched better in his final three outings, allowing one earned run in 17 innings.
Three in a row? It has been done. But three-and-out is much more likely.