SweetSpot: Ryan Vogelsong

Quick thoughts ...
  • With Max Scherzer ending negotiations with the Tigers until after the season, it appears he (and agent Scott Boras) will head into free agency. Reports indicated Scherzer was offered less than teammate Justin Verlander, who signed an extension last spring that averages $25.7 million per season over seven years. If Scherzer was offered a deal at $24 million per year, we'd be looking at a six-year, $144 million. Even if Scherzer repeats his Cy Young season, I'm not sure he'd get much more than that on the free agent market. He's not to going to get the $30.7 million AAV that Clayton Kershaw received from the Dodgers because (A) He's not Clayton Kershaw; and (B) Scherzer is four years older. Scherzer has had one great season; while it wouldn't shock me to see him have a similar season, even a little regression back to his career norms means he's unlikely to get a $24-25 million AAV contract. You do have to like his confidence and belief in himself, however, to have another big year.
  • How big of a loss is Geovany Soto to the Rangers? It could have bigger impact than you might expect at first glance. You really don't want to play J.P. Arencibia on a regular basis considering he hit .194 with a .227 OBP last season. Over the past two seasons he's struck out 256 times while drawing just 36 walks, making him one of the least disciplined hitters in major league history. He has 11 strikeouts and one walk in spring training. Even with his decent defense, that made him a replacement-level player. Robinson Chirinos is hitting .444 this spring and he had a big year with the bat in the minors in 2010, but he hit a lukewarm .257/.356/.400 at Triple-A Round Rock last year. Still, don't be surprised if he ends up at least splitting time with Arencibia until Soto returns. Say this about last year's catcher, A.J. Pierzynski: He's never great but he is durable.
  • The Mariners released Scott Baker, as they had to notify him by today whether or not made the big league roster. This means Randy Wolf will almost certainly be in the Opening day rotation, which will probably turn out as bad as it sounds. He's given up six home runs in 19 spring innings with just nine strikeouts. Good luck.
  • I found this interesting: Dexter Fowler sort of criticized the Rockies for trading him to the Astros, saying "I don’t even know who’s the GM. I think everybody over there is still wondering who really is the GM," referring to Dan O'Dowd and Bill Geivett, who split GM duties in Colorado. I agree with Fowler: The Rockies basically traded Fowler to free up money to sign Justin Morneau and Morneau is a worse player than Fowler. It leaves the Rockies without an everyday center fielder -- Corey Dickerson, Drew Stubbs, Charlie Blackmon and Brandon Barnes will share the job in some format -- and they could have moved slow-footed right fielder Michael Cuddyer to first base.
  • You never want to read too much into spring training stats, but the Giants have to be concerned about the spring performances of starters Ryan Vogelsong (33 hits in 19 innings, 12 strikeouts) and Tim Lincecum (25 hits and 14 runs in 19 1/3 innings, just 11 strikeouts). Yes, the ball tends to fly in those Arizona spring parks but you're also not facing a full slate of major league hitters.
Throughout July, we're presenting 30 deals in 30 days: the best trade-deadline deal ever made by each team. We wrap up with the NL West.

THE TEAM: San Francisco Giants

THE YEAR: 2001

THE SITUATION: Barry Bonds was on his way to setting the all-time single-season home run record, but on the morning of July 31, the Giants woke up in third place in the NL West, four games behind the division-leading Dodgers and 2.5 games behind the Diamondbacks. They had allowed 33 more runs than the Dodgers and 57 more than the Diamondbacks and were on the search for some pitching help.

The Pirates were once again non-contenders. Jason Schmidt, who they had acquired from the Braves in 1996 for Denny Neagle, was 6-6 with a 4.61 ERA and owned a career mark of 49-53 and was an impending free agent.


THE TRADE: The Giants acquired Schmidt and outfielder John Vander Wal for Ryan Vogelsong and Armando Rios. Vogelsong had pitched in 13 games in relief for the Giants but had posted a 2.79 ERA in 10 starts at Triple-A Fresno. Rios was a platoon outfielder hitting .259/.330/.465 with the Giants.

THE AFTERMATH: Schmidt was excellent down the stretch, going 7-1 with a 3.39 ERA in 11 starts. The Giants would win 90 games but fall two games short of the Diamondbacks for the division crown. However, they would re-sign Schmidt that winter in what would be a five-year, $41 million deal. He'd finally max out his potential and become one of the better starters in the majors, going 71-36 with a 3.35 ERA over those five seasons, valued at 21.6 WAR, 12th best among pitchers from 2002 to 2006.

The Giants reached the World Series in 2002 and Schmidt had his best season in 2003, leading the NL in ERA and WHIP and finishing second in the Cy Young vote as the Giants returned to the postseason. He would sign a three-year, $47 million free-agent contract with the Dodgers after 2006 but hurt his shoulder after three starts and would make just 10 starts in his Dodgers career.

Rios played two games for the Pirates in 2002 before getting injured and 76 the next season. His last season in the majors was 2003 and he later admitted to PED use and was mentioned in the Mitchell report. Vogelsong went 10-19 with a 6.00 ERA in his Pirates career ... resurfacing years later with the Giants where he turned into a postseason hero in 2012.


 
The San Francisco Giants are built around their starting rotation.

That would seem more a statement of fact than an assertion of opinion.

After all, conventional wisdom tells us the rotation carried the Giants to a World Series title in 2010 and then another in 2012.

But if that is a statement of fact, then here's an opinion: The Giants, despite their current half-game lead over Arizona in the National League West, are in trouble. Because this is not a championship-caliber rotation right now.

The past two games in Toronto exposed an issue that has plagued the Giants the past two seasons: The Giants don't pitch nearly as well on the road. Facing a Blue Jays lineup that batted Mark DeRosa, who has a .302 slugging percentage since 2010, cleanup on Tuesday and J.P. Arencibia and his .252 on-base percentage cleanup on Wednesday, Barry Zito and then Ryan Vogelsong got battered around as the Blue Jays put up 21 runs in the two games. Zito allowed 12 hits and eight runs Tuesday; Vogelsong allowed eight runs in just two innings in Wednesday's 11-3 loss.

Vogelsong's bad outing was the latest in a string of bad outings for him. Among 110 qualified starters, Vogelsong's 8.06 ERA ranks 110th. Vogelsong gave up two more home runs to the Blue Jays, running his season total to 11 in just 41.1 innings. Chris Quick looked at Vogelsong's home-run problems before this start and found, not surprisingly, that several of them came on pitches up in the strike zone. This long blast by Arencibia wasn't off a pitch up in the zone, but it was left out over the middle of the plate; Adam Lind's two-run homer in the first also came off a pitch down the middle.

As Chris wrote,
And that, to me, is the biggest knock on Vogelsong so far this season. His command has been un-Vogelsong-like. We're used to seeing Vogelsong surgically dissect hitters like this. Not so much the guy that’s chucking neck-high fastballs above. ... Like most pitchers, Vogelsong needs to locate in order to succeed. And only time will tell if his current dingeritis is a sign of cracks in the facade, or if he’ll eventually find his release point or arm-slot or whatever and start throwing the ball where he wants to.

It's possible Vogelsong's next start is in jeopardy:


But Vogelsong isn't the only culprit in the rotation. Madison Bumgarner has been outstanding but the rotation still ranks just 20th in the majors with a 4.41 ERA. Heck, the Marlins' starters have pitched just 13 fewer innings but allowed 23 fewer runs.

It's when you dig even deeper, however, that the problems become more severe. Giants starters have a 5.01 ERA on the road, 23rd in the majors. Here, a comparison to 2012:

Home
2012: 3.09 ERA, 3rd in majors
2013: 3.98 ERA, 17th in majors

Road
2012: 4.45, 18th in majors
2013: 5.01, 23rd in majors

As you can see, the Giants weren't that great on the road last season, either. But this season, they're not dominating at home. And that's where we get back to that first sentence: The Giants have transformed into an offensive team, a fact obscured somewhat by playing in a park that favors pitchers to a large degree.

San Francisco general manager Brian Sabean loves to add veterans during midseason. Instead of making a big splash in the winter, he evaluates the team's weaknesses and then makes his move. In 2010, he added outfielders Pat Burrell and Cody Ross. In 2011, he traded for Carlos Beltran. Last year, he picked up Hunter Pence and Marco Scutaro.

But if he properly assesses things this year, I believe Sabean should be on the search for a starting pitcher. Certainly, I expect Matt Cain to turn things around. Vogelsong will be given a fairly long leash, I suspect, given his track record of the past two seasons, but is certainly the guy on the hot seat right now. The Giants are likely to keep Zito and Tim Lincecum, even given their superficially OK ERAs, but those two are hardly strengths right now.

The Giants can certainly still win the West. But right now it will have to be the hitters and the bullpen that will have to carry the load.

 
We've had a brawl, we've had upsets, we've had dramatic late-inning rallies and, thanks to one big swing from David Wright, we now get a monumental showdown between bitter enemies Canada and the United States to stay alive in the World Baseball Classic.

OK, maybe it's not quite Sidney Crosby and the Canadians taking on Ryan Miller and the Americans in the 2010 gold-medal hockey game at the Vancouver Olympics, and maybe Canada and the U.S. aren't exactly enemies on the diamond, but Sunday's game at Chase Field in Phoenix is probably the biggest baseball game for Canadians since the Blue Jays won their second straight World Series in 1993.

Baseball fans in the U.S. are still warming up to the whole idea of this tournament, and while a major goal is to help increase popularity of the sport in countries such as Brazil and China and Italy and the Netherlands, don't be fooled: The organizers want U.S. fans to get as passionate about the World Baseball Classic as those in Japan and Latin America. In large part because second-round games will be held in Miami, with the semifinals and finals in San Francisco, and the organizers want sold-out ballparks -- something more likely to happen if the U.S. keeps advancing.

With that possibly in mind, the U.S. was given a soft pool. While the Dominican Republic, Venezuela and Puerto Rico were all placed together in Pool C, the U.S. drew lighter-weights Mexico, Canada and Italy. But when Italy beat Mexico and Canada, and then Mexico upset the U.S. on Friday night, it suddenly put pressure on the U.S. to win its final two games of pool play. Joe Torre's squad was actually helped when Canada beat Mexico earlier Saturday -- a game that featured a bench-clearing brawl in the ninth inning -- meaning the Americans now controlled their destiny.

That destiny took a turn for the worse when the surprising Italians took a 2-0 lead against Ryan Vogelsong, who didn't have his usual excellent fastball command. Most of the Italian players are from the U.S., including big leaguers Anthony Rizzo, Chris Denorfia and Nick Punto, but cleanup hitter Alex Liddi of the Mariners was born and raised in Italy and 23-year-old starting pitcher Luca Panerati is an Italian who played a few years in the Reds system, topping out in A-ball. Panerati nevertheless shut down the U.S. with his 86 mph fastball and offspeed pitches, leaving after three scoreless innings; he can tell his grandkids someday about the time he shut down a lineup of major league All-Stars. But the U.S. rallied with five runs in the fifth inning, capped by Wright's two-out grand slam off Matt Torra, an American who pitched in Triple-A for Tampa Bay’s organization last year.

[+] EnlargeDavid Wright
Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY SportsDavid Wright turned one around from Italy's Matt Torra for the key fifth-inning grand slam.
That 6-2 win means U.S. versus Canada, winners move on to Miami, losers go home (or back to spring training). Considering the way this tournament has gone -- Italy advancing, Venezuela out after losing its first two games, 2009 runner-up South Korea failing to advance out of the first round, the Netherlands beating Cuba in a second-round game -- don't count out the Canadians.

First, their lineup has some guys you've heard of: Former MVPs Joey Votto and Justin Morneau. Mariners outfielder Michael Saunders went 4-for-4 in the 10-3 win over Mexico. The lineup was hurt by Brett Lawrie's injury in spring training and we’ll have to see if Pete Orr and Rene Tosoni, ejected after the brawl, will be suspended or not; the pitching is thin without guys such as Ryan Dempster, Scott Diamond and Erik Bedard participating. Still, Pirates prospect Jameson Taillon will start against the U.S., and while he hasn't reached the major leagues yet (he pitched in Double-A last year), he has major league stuff, ranking as Keith Law No. 20 preseason prospect. He's certainly capable of shutting down the U.S. lineup for his 65-pitch limit. After that, however, Canada's pitching thins out in a hurry, with Brewers closer John Axford and Phillies reliever Phillippe Aumont the two biggest names in the bullpen.

The U.S. will start Derek Holland, a good strategic move by Torre to get the lefty Holland in there to try to neutralize Votto, Morneau and Saunders. With Ross Detwiler throwing four scoreless innings of relief against Italy, that means the U.S. bullpen is well-rested. Look for Torre to use lefties Jeremy Affeldt and Glen Perkins against the middle of the lineup in the middle innings, and he still has Craig Kimbrel waiting to get some action.

The U.S. will be heavy favorite to advance. To use another Olympic hockey analogy, the Americans are the Soviets. Do the Canadians have a miracle in store? I'll be watching to find out. After all, it's about time we settle this border war with Canada.
Justin Verlander, Prince Fielder, Clayton Kershaw and Mike Trout aren't on the United States roster, and their absence means a lot of fans don't care about the World Baseball Classic -- certainly not enough to spend a Friday evening in early March watching a baseball game between a largely no-name Mexico team and a still-star-laden U.S. team.

But this tournament isn't for fans who so willingly dismiss it. It's not even so much for fans in the United States, who are more focused on their professional teams or the impending NCAA basketball tournament. Earlier in the day, MLB reported that one-third of all television sets in Japan had watched the first-round games involving the Japanese team. I'm sure its dramatic comeback win over Taiwan on Friday morning rated even higher. Fans in Puerto Rico cheered on their team to a victory over Spain. Fans in Venezuela and the Dominican Republic care intensely about how their teams fare.

And Chase Field in Phoenix was nearly full for Friday's Mexico-U.S. game -- with maybe half that crowd rooting for Mexico. Those fans certainly cared that Mexico pulled off the huge 5-2 upset victory, essentially avoiding elimination after Thursday's heartbreaking ninth-inning loss to Italy. The players on the Mexican team certainly cared.

The Mexico lineup is pretty weak outside of Dodgers first baseman Adrian Gonzalez. Jorge Cantu hit fifth and he spent all of last year in Triple-A. Karim Garcia is still around and he hasn't played in the majors since 2004. But R.A. Dickey's knuckleball wasn't effective, a leadoff bloop single led to two runs in the first inning and Gonzalez torched a 73 mph knuckler to center field for a two-run homer in the third.

Other thoughts:
  • Pool D is really interesting now. It could all come down to run differential to see which two teams advance to the second round. If we assume the U.S. beats Italy on Saturday, and the U.S. and Mexico both beat Canada, then Italy, the U.S. and Mexico all finish 2-1. But Italy mercy-ruled Canada in a 14-4 victory, putting pressure on the U.S. lineup to do some damage in its next two games. The eighth inning could prove a key for the U.S., as Tim Collins and Steve Cishek worked out of a second-and-third, nobody-out jam.
  • After Dickey's performance, fans will be crying that Verlander or Kershaw or David Price aren't here. First off, Dickey wanted to be here and those guys didn't. Second, Dickey earned his invite as much as those guys would have, coming off his National League Cy Young Award. He just didn't have a good night. That's what happens in a tournament, not much different than what happens in the postseason: Anything can happen.
  • Joe Torre’s lineup left a little to be desired. He hit Jimmy Rollins and Brandon Phillips 1-2, because they're fast and they hit at the top of the order for their regular teams. He hit Eric Hosmer sixth, pushing Giancarlo Stanton -- who only led the NL in slugging percentage -- all the way down to seventh, and Adam Jones, he of the 32 home runs last year, batting eighth. Stanton and Jones are better hitters than Rollins, Phillips and Hosmer. Torre might have been playing the hot hand with Hosmer, who had hit .391 in spring training with the Royals, and maybe he wanted to spread out his three left-handed hitters (switch-hitter Rollins, Joe Mauer and Hosmer). Still, a little more creativity would have had something like David Wright, Mauer, Ryan Braun, Stanton, Jones, Rollins, Phillips, Hosmer and catcher J.P. Arencibia.
  • Dodgers third baseman Luis Cruz had two key at-bats for Mexico. In the first inning, he delivered a sacrifice fly that was also deep enough to move Ramiro Pena to third, and Pena scored on Gonzalez's sac fly. In the fifth, after Eduardo Arredondo slapped an Ichiro-like double down the left-field line off Twins closer Glen Perkins and was bunted to third, Cruz delivered another sac fly.
  • Pitchers are allowed a maximum of 65 pitches in first-round games, but Yovani Gallardo was on a 50-pitch limit for Mexico. He looked sharp, allowing two hits and striking out four in 3.1 innings, but that meant Mexico had to rely on its bullpen, a day after using four relievers in that 6-5 loss to Italy. Royals righty Luis Mendoza escaped a jam in the fifth after walking the first two batters, striking out Arencibia on a nice 0-2 slider and then retiring Rollins and Phillips on ground balls. Oliver Perez got a key out in the sixth and Oscar Villareal pitched a scoreless seventh. The U.S. scored once off Cardinals reliever Fernando Salas in the eighth, and Giants closer Sergio Romo closed it out.
  • The Giants were undoubtedly nervous seeing Romo come in. They had apparently requested that Romo not appear in consecutive games, and manager Bruce Bochy has always been very cautious with his use of Romo. He threw 26 pitches Thursday, but this was a must-win game for Mexico. Saving him for Saturday's game against Canada doesn't make any sense if you lose this game. A reliever can't appear three consecutive days, so Romo is unavailable now for Canada.
  • Ryan Vogelsong starts for the U.S. against Italy, and while the Italian team is mostly comprised of U.S.-born players -- including several major leaguers -- they will start an actual pitcher from Italy: Luca Panerati, a left-hander who was in the Reds' system from 2008-11, never advancing past Class A. Last year, he pitched in the Italian Baseball League. Now he gets to face a team of the best players in the world. This is what the World Baseball Classic is all about.

OK, there's no Mike Trout or Buster Posey or Justin Verlander or Andrew McCutchen, but Team USA's provisional roster for the World Baseball Classic looks pretty strong. How about this lineup:

RF Ben Zobrist
C Joe Mauer
LF Ryan Braun
DH Giancarlo Stanton
3B David Wright
1B Mark Teixeira
CF Adam Jones
SS Jimmy Rollins
2B Brandon Phillips
P R.A. Dickey

You have on-base ability at the top of the lineup in Zobrist and Mauer, follow that up with two of the best power hitters in the game, have another good OBP guy in Wright hitting fifth, switch-hitting Teixeira in the 6-hole, a 30-homer guy batting seventh, and then speed and more power at the bottom of the lineup. On paper, it's a lineup that should score plenty of runs.

It seems a little better than the 2009 lineup that lost twice to Venezuela and once to Puerto Rico in pool play and then to Japan in the semifinals. Pitching and defense were the big culprits in the U.S. struggles. Puerto Rico beat up Jake Peavy in an 11-1 loss. In a 10-6 loss to Venezuela, Jeremy Guthrie allowed six runs in the second inning, with Adam Dunn -- playing first base -- making a crucial throwing error that led to four unearned runs. Still, Guthrie got knocked around by a Venezuelan team that included, yes, Miguel Cabrera and Magglio Ordonez, but also Endy Chavez hitting leadoff, Cesar Izturis hitting second and Jose Lopez hitting third. In the semifinal loss to Japan, the lineup included Dunn in right field, Mark DeRosa at first base and Rollins hitting third (although he did go 4-for-4), but Roy Oswalt got knocked out in the fourth inning after giving up six runs, with Wright, Derek Jeter and Brian Roberts all making errors.

So that puts the pressure on the four U.S. starters named to the provisional roster: Dickey, Kris Medlen, Ryan Vogelsong and Derek Holland. Clearly, Dickey and Medlen line up as the top two guys, but the U.S. used four starters last tournament, so all four probably will get at least one game.

Starters are held to strict pitch counts in the tournament, so the pitching staff will include these nine relievers: Jeremy Affeldt, Mitchell Boggs, Steve Cishek, Tim Collins, Luke Gregerson, Craig Kimbrel, Chris Perez, Glen Perkins and Vinnie Pestano. That's a pretty strong group, with three lefties and some power arms at the back in Boggs and Pestano and with the game's best closer in Kimbrel ready to shut down any lead.

The bench includes Jonathan Lucroy, J.P. Arencibia, Shane Victorino and Willie Bloomquist.

What's interesting is that Team USA, to be managed by Joe Torre, announced just 27 players. Considering final rosters will include 28 players, it appears as if Torre and USA Baseball had trouble convincing enough players to join the fun. Or maybe they're leaving that final spot open ... you know, just in case, somebody wants to change his mind.

On paper, the U.S. should rate as the favorite with its power and a nice one-two punch in Dickey and Medlen. (Rosters for other countries will be announced at 4 p.m. ET.) But Japan won the first two World Baseball Classics, and the U.S. didn't even make the semifinals in the 2006 tournament, losing twice in Round 2. In fact, the U.S. history is pretty dismal. Look at its record:

Teams beaten: Mexico, South Africa, Japan, Canada, Venezuela, the Netherlands, Puerto Rico
Teams lost to: Canada, South Korea, Mexico, Venezuela, Puerto Rico, Venezuela, Japan

That's a 7-7 record, with three of the wins against noted baseball powers South Africa, Canada and the Netherlands.

The World Baseball Classic is a big deal everywhere but in the U.S., it seems. I like it, even if it is a little bit of a gimmick.

Gimmick or not, however, it's time for the U.S. team to do better.


DETROIT -- We can go silly overanalyzing three baseball games, so let’s keep it simple: The Detroit Tigers are a stars-and-scrubs team. If the stars aren’t delivering, it’s going to be an uphill climb. And now that climb is Mount Everest.

In Game 1, Justin Verlander didn’t deliver. In Game 2, Prince Fielder grounded into a crucial double play with the score 0-0 in the seventh inning. In Game 3 on Saturday night at Comerica Park, Fielder and Miguel Cabrera both had their chances. With two on in the first, Fielder grounded into a 4-6-3 double play, with Giants shortstop Brandon Crawford nicely turning two as Cabrera barreled down on him. In the fifth, Cabrera batted with the bases loaded, two out and the Tigers down two runs, but Ryan Vogelsong induced Cabrera to pop out to shortstop.

When that ball fell harmlessly into Crawford’s glove, the air was sucked out of Comerica. You had the feeling the game -- and perhaps the World Series -- ended there, with the best hitter in baseball unable to knock in runs the Tigers desperately needed. Oh, Comerica tried to come to life a couple times after that -- when Anibal Sanchez struck out Angel Pagan to end the top of the seventh and when Cabrera led off the bottom of the eighth -- but the fans were muted by the cold air and wind and the big, fat zero on the scoreboard.

The final score: Giants 2, Tigers 0, the Giants now 27 outs from a World Series sweep after becoming the first team with consecutive shutouts in the World Series since the 1966 Orioles.

Cabrera and Fielder are now 3-for-19 in the series, without an extra-base hit and with one RBI that came in Game 1, trailing by six runs. (Austin Jackson has a .500 OBP in the series, so it's not like they've been hitting with the bases empty every time.)

"I wouldn’t say it’s pressing," Fielder said after the game. "That’s just a word you use when you’re not playing well."

I happen to agree with Fielder. There will be a lot of opinions out there tomorrow or if the Tigers go down in Game 4 that Cabrera and Fielder pressed or choked or whatever label you wish to apply. Teams struggle for short stretches like this all the time in the regular season, of course; such stretches are unremarkable in the midst of 162 games. The difference is in the regular season there's a next day. For Fielder and Cabrera, there's only one more tomorrow to snap out of their mini-slumps.

* * * *

Vogelsong wasn’t near as dominant in this start as in his two in the National League Championship Series against the Cardinals, when he allowed just eight hits and three walks in 14 innings, but he scuffled through 104 pitches in 5.2 innings and got the big outs when he needed them -- the Fielder double play in the first, a Quintin Berry double play in the third, the Cabrera popup. He gave up five hits, walked four and struck out three. Here’s how rare his outing was: Since 1990, a starting pitcher has had four walks and three strikeouts in a postseason game 25 times; each time the starter allowed at least one run and the average was 3.2 runs allowed.

[+] EnlargeMiguel Cabrera
H. Darr Beiser/USA TODAY Sports Triple Crown winner Miguel Cabrera, popping out to end the fifth, is 2-for-9 in the World Series.
So give props to Vogelsong for making pitches when he had to, but the Tigers also missed their opportunities. This gets a little to the stars-and-scrubs description of the Tigers: Once you get past Jackson, Cabrera and Fielder, there just isn’t much to fear in the Detroit lineup. This is best exemplified by the Nos. 2 and 5 hitters, Berry and Delmon Young.

I’ve written enough about Young, so I’ll skip him other than to mention he had a .279 OBP against right-handed pitchers in the regular season. Berry, back in the lineup with a right-handed pitcher starting, was a nice story this year: Essentially an organizational player, signed last November as a minor league free agent, he’d been let go by the Phillies, Mets and Reds in his career. Called up in late May after an injury, he had a hot few weeks and Jim Leyland and the Tigers kind of fell in love with him. He can run (21-for-21 in stolen bases) and his glove was a big improvement over the likes of Young and Brennan Boesch in the outfield.

But Berry has no business batting second in a World Series game. Since July 1, he hit .224/.285/.312 (BA/OBP/SLG), which is probably a fair assessment of his abilities. OK, he can run and none of other Tigers except Jackson and Omar Infante can. But he killed the Tigers in Game 3: the double play, striking out with the bases loaded and one out ahead of Cabrera’s popup, and then striking out feebly against a Tim Lincecum changeup in the seventh (OK, a lot of hitters have done that through the years).

Look, Berry is the kind of underdog you root for, but he was exposed in this game.

* * * *

Give credit to Sanchez for a strong performance. Unfortunately, he had one bad inning -- the second, when he seemed to lose his fastball command. He walked Hunter Pence on four straight pitches to start the frame, which isn’t easy to do. That began a laborious 31-pitch inning, with the key hit being Gregor Blanco’s one-out triple to deep right-center on a 3-2 slider. With two outs, Sanchez fell behind Crawford with a first-pitch changeup and Crawford then lined a 1-1 fastball just in front of Jackson for the Giants’ second run.

* * * *

Speaking of Crawford, he turned two nice double plays and made a diving stop and throw to take a hit away from Cabrera to begin the eighth. He did make an error later that inning, but he’s played an outstanding shortstop throughout the playoffs. Looks like a kid who will be winning some Gold Gloves in the future.

* * * *

Finally, kudos to the Giants’ new secret weapon: relief pitcher Lincecum, who threw 2.1 hitless innings with three strikeouts. His dominant performance allowed Bochy to easily bridge the gap to closer Sergio Romo with just one middle reliever. It certainly makes managing a little easier when you can minimize the use of your bullpen (you never know which guy may not have it that night) and not worry about LOOGYs and ROOGYs. Old school, baby.

* * * *

There isn't much to analyze now. Blanked in two consecutive games, the Tigers now have to face Giants ace Matt Cain. Before Game 1, I thought the key decision looming over the series was Bochy's decision to start the struggling Madison Bumgarner in Game 2, which meant Cain would be lined up for just one start. Well, now Cain has a chance to pitch the clinching game of a World Series. The Giants have won six in a row and their starters have a 0.47 ERA over that span.

The Tigers turn to Max Scherzer, who is certainly capable of a big game. He's allowed just two runs in his two playoff starts, although he was pulled in the sixth inning both games with his pitch counts in the 90s. Even if he shuts down the Giants, Leyland will likely need some length from his bullpen. It's certainly possible and a win means Verlander in Game 5 and then Tigers fans can start dreaming of the impossible ...
  • As punchless as the Tigers looked in San Francisco, keep in mind they had a great home record in the regular season. Their 12-win spread at home versus road tied the Cardinals for biggest in the majors. They're 4-0 at home in the postseason. Miguel Cabrera hit .332/.403/.692 at home with 28 of his 44 home runs versus .327/.384/.529. Prince Fielder hit 18 of his 30 homers at home and slugged .577 versus .483 on the road. As a team, the Tigers hit .278 with a .793 OPS at home compared to .258 with a .722 OPS on the road. Comerica Park has a reputation as a pitcher's park, but that's not really true. While there is a lot of space in center and deep right-center, it's a fair park from the lines to the alleys.
  • Hector Sanchez draws the start at designated hitter for the Giants, an indication of how weak their bench is. Sanchez hit .280 and has some doubles power, but drew just five walks in 227 PAs for a .295 OBP. Of course, the Tigers will move Delmon Young back to DH after two games "playing" left field. Young hit .247/.279/.370 versus right-handers, so he loses the platoon edge he had against Barry Zito and Madison Bumgarner. Vogelsong had a noticeable platoon split (.653 OPS versus righties, .722 versus lefties), so I would expect him to be very careful with Fielder and go after Young if the situation permits it.
  • The Tigers will play their right-handed lineup, which means Andy Dirks and Quintin Berry back in the outfield. Both had two pinch-hit at-bats in San Francisco, but both obviously haven't played much in over a week, since the ALCS. They'll have to shake off the rust. Dirks has a .560 OPS in the postseason, Berry .636, so both guys need to find a way to contribute.
  • Getting ahead in the count is important for any pitcher, but Vogelsong has been nearly unhittable when he does so in the postseason. From ESPN Stats & Info: Opposing hitters are 2-for-34 in pitcher's counts and 3-for-36 with two strikes. If you saw Vogelsong dominate the Cardinals in the NLCS, you saw a pitcher able to get his fastball moving inside on right-handed hitters. Over his last six starts, batters are hitting just .192 in plate appearances ending with a fastball -- without a home run.
  • Obviously, the pressure will be on Jim Leyland to make all the right moves with his bullpen tonight. I didn't think he left Fister in too long the other night -- the advantage from going to Fister to Octavio Dotel to face Hunter Pence would have been minor -- but you obviously have less room for error down two games. Will he trust Drew Smyly again versus the Giants' lefties in the middle innings, or would he bring in Phil Coke instead of waiting to use Coke as his closer? Sanchez will hit eighth with Brandon Crawford ninth, so that will break up the Brandon Belt-Gregor Blanco-Crawford lefty trio, making it a little more difficult for the Tigers to match.
  • I think for the Tigers to win tonight that Fielder has to deliver. He has one extra-base in the postseason (a home run, although Coco Crisp also stole another one from him) and only three walks. He needs to be a little more patient and if that means taking your walks, you have to take your walks. Right now he's been getting himself out at times.



SAN FRANCISCO -- This was the Madison Bumgarner Giants fans saw most of the season: the pitcher with impeccable control, the ability to get inside on right-handed batters, generate ground balls and change speeds. This was the pitcher who had become one of the best young left-handers in the game, not the guy who had struggled in recent weeks.

Bumgarner justified manager Bruce Bochy’s faith in choosing him to start Game 2 over Tim Lincecum or Ryan Vogelsong, leading the Giants to a 2-0 victory and sweep of the first two games. He threw seven shutout innings, an efficient 86 pitches with eight strikeouts and just two hits allowed, one of those being an infield single. It was a dominant effort.

Amazingly, the day before, Bumgarner himself didn’t seem to know what to expect. Through his first 25 starts he had a 2.83 ERA and had allowed a .218 opponents' average. But he had struggled since an August start against the Dodgers when he threw 123 pitches. Since then he’d posted a 6.85 ERA. His fastball velocity had dipped and he appeared fatigued in his previous playoff start, against the Cardinals. Batters had feasted off his fastball, hitting .400 against it his past nine starts.

Before Game 1, he hesitantly suggested he and pitching coach Dave Righetti had resolved his issues. “I think we were going through some mechanical issues that -- just some small things that might have affected my arm and made it more difficult to throw, and I think that’s really all it was,” he said. “I think we’ve got it fixed. Like I said before, there’s no way to tell 100 percent until you get out there and get going game speed.”

I think we’re 100 percent sure now.

* * * *

Doug Fister -- despite taking a line drive off his head in the second inning -- matched Bumgarner zero for zero through six innings, albeit with one caveat: not with the same efficiency.

That set up the key decision of the game. With Hunter Pence leading off the bottom of the seventh, Fister had thrown 108 pitches. Pence hits right-handed, followed by three lefties. Jim Leyland had right-hander Octavio Dotel and rookie lefty Drew Smyly warming up. If Leyland brings in Dotel -- probably his best option against right-handed hitters -- it’s probably for just one hitter with the string of lefties due up.

Leyland decided to leave in Fister for one more batter; he’d thrown more than 108 pitches seven times, so it wasn’t uncharted territory. Pence had flied out twice against him and has looked feeble most of the postseason. There were certainly cries on Twitter suggesting Leyland should have pulled Fister. I see it both ways. I can certainly see Leyland’s desire to hold back Dotel to possibly face Marco Scutaro and Buster Posey later in the game. It's easy to criticize Leyland since the decision didn't work out and in this day and age few managers want to lose game when a starter is over 100 pitches.

[+] EnlargeGregor Blanco
Robert Hanashiro/USA TODAYThis little thing -- Gregor Blanco's bunt staying fair -- led to the only run the Giants needed in Game 2.
On his 114th pitch, Fister left a 2-2 slider over the middle of the plate and Pence grounded a base hit past Miguel Cabrera.

That brought in Smyly, who walked Brandon Belt on a 3-2 slider up out of the zone. Gregor Blanco then placed a bunt down the third-base line, the ball rolling to a stop on the dirt between the grass and the baseline. Catcher Gerald Laird had no option but to let the ball go; it was just a perfect bunt by Blanco. Brandon Crawford grounded into a double play but that scored the game’s first run.

Leyland did have another option there. Use Phil Coke instead of Smyly. Coke, of course, had defaulted into the closer's role after Jose Valverde's postseason implosion and pitched well in the American League Championship Series against the Yankees. Normally, the seventh inning -- especially against the left-handers -- would have been Coke's inning, followed by Joaquin Benoit and Valverde. Instead, Leyland trusted a rookie with little experience pitching in relief. Coke did finally get into the game -- in the eighth, with the Tigers now trailing 2-0.

"Probably if Valverde was ready, probably would have had Coke in that situation, but Smyly did fine," Leyland said. "He got a little bit wild there, but he got a couple big outs. He got the double-play ball and gave us our shot at it."

A 114th pitch. A slider meant to be a few inches outside left over the plate. A perfect bunt. The little things.

* * * *

One more little thing that can matter: sliding. In the top of the second with none out, Prince Fielder was hit by a pitch and Delmon Young doubled just inside the third-base bag. As the ball bounced away from left fielder Blanco, third-base coach Gene Lamont waved home Fielder. First, the wave. With nobody out, you had better be pretty sure Fielder is going to score. In fact, you had better be just about absolutely sure Fielder is going to score.

According to sabermetrician Tom Tango’s run-scoring matrix, an average team would be expected to score about 2.05 runs with runners at second and third and no outs; with a runner on second and one out, the average run production is about 0.7 runs. That data is from 1993 through 2010, so the run-scoring environment is a little lower now, and of course you would have to adjust based on upcoming hitters and so forth. Still, Lamont’s decision was about a 1.3-run decision. Fair or not, he made the wrong one.

Blanco’s relay throw actually airmailed shortstop Crawford, but Scutaro -- him again! -- was backing up and threw home to catcher Posey, and replays showed he tagged Fielder on his shoe and/or rump just before he slid across the plate. If Fielder had slid to the back part of the plate, he probably would've been safe, as Posey would have had to stretch to make the tag. That’s asking a lot from Fielder, however; he's not paid to slide expertly into home plate. Yes, the next two Tigers hitters popped out and struck out, so maybe Fielder wouldn’t have scored, but it’s kind of like time travel: That play changes everything that potentially comes after.

Then, in the top of the fourth, Omar Infante was picked off first and caught at second. With a better slide -- he dragged his foot behind him -- he might have been called safe.

Those two plays exemplified the first two games of the series: The Giants made plays and the Tigers didn't. Pablo Sandoval snagged a Cabrera line drive; Cabrera didn't have the range on Pence's base hit. Scutaro made the relay, Fielder didn't make the slide. Smyly couldn't execute the 3-2 slider that he walked Belt on, Fielder grounded into a 1-6-3 double play after Cabrera had led off the seventh with a walk.

Right now, like Bumgarner's pitches on a perfect San Francisco October evening, everything is working for the Giants.

It’s time to add another chapter to the Ryan Vogelsong story. Top prospect. Trade. Injuries. Career in jeopardy. Three years in Japan. Triple-A roster filler. Reclamation project. All-Star.

And now, postseason hero.

The Giants gave Vogelsong an early 5-0 lead after battering Chris Carpenter in the first two innings, and Vogelsong took over from there, taking a no-hitter through two outs in the fifth, allowing just one run and striking out a career-high nine batters. The bullpen held on for a 5-1 victory, and the stage is set for a dramatic seventh game in the NLCS.

Vogelsong was tremendous, pounding the Cardinals’ right-handed batters inside with his two-seam fastball that rides in, and -- when it’s moving especially well like it was on this night -- dips down, leading to hitters swinging over the top of pitches. It may have been the best movement Vogelsong had all season: Eight of the nine strikeouts were swinging strikeouts.

It was the third straight outstanding postseason start for Vogelsong. Against the Reds in the Division Series with the Giants down two games to none, he allowed one run in five innings, keeping the team close during Homer Bailey's no-hit bid. In Game 2 of this series, after the Cardinals had won the opener, he allowed one run in seven innings.

It’s just another example of the unpredictable nature of the baseball postseason: A few weeks ago, it appeared Vogelsong may be the odd man out in the Giants’ rotation. Through Aug. 8, Vogelsong’s 2.27 ERA lead the National League. Then came a rough patch. The Nationals pounded him for eight runs in 2 2/3 innings; the Padres knocked him out after three innings; the Braves hit three home runs off him; the Diamondbacks twice knocked him out in the fourth inning. In a seven-start stretch, he averaged barely four innings per start, posted a 10.31 ERA and gave up a .366 batting average.

But this is baseball. Just like that, Vogelsong turned it around, pitched well in his final three regular-season starts and now is the Giants player most responsible for getting them one win away from the World Series.

* * * *

Sports writers love to create storylines and something akin to mythological treatment of players whenever possible. One of those themes heading into this series was Carpenter as a postseason warrior, a pitcher who can dig deep into his soul to deliver October greatness, a modern-day Bob Gibson. Even though he had been injured most of the season, making just three starts, he was still that guy with the 9-2 career postseason record, the guy who beat Roy Halladay 1-0 last year and won Game 7 of the World Series. When he pitched 5 2/3 scoreless innings to beat the Nationals, that image was further reinforced.

Instead, he’s now had two straight poor starts matched up against Vogelsong, struggling to hit his spots and make big pitches when he’s had to. You can chalk it up to a pitcher who maybe isn’t quite 100 percent, but it’s also possible that Carpenter’s luck was just due to turn against him. He wouldn’t be the first pitcher to have this happen to him. Jack Morris, for example, is remembered for that Game 7 performance in 1991 and two wins in the 1984 World Series, but he lost three games in the 1992 postseason and has a career 3.80 ERA. Morris didn’t have a magical ability to ramp it up in the postseason; he had one magical performance.

* * * *

OK, Game 7, Kyle Lohse versus Matt Cain. Speaking of postseason magic, Cain memorably allowed just one unearned run in three postseason starts in 2010. This year, he’s allowed nine runs in 17 1/3 innings and failed to pitch out of the sixth in two of his three starts. The exciting thing about this matchup is both teams are rolling out the guy their managers deemed their No. 1; we don’t often get that in Game 7s anymore, due to the somewhat random alignment of pitching rotations and series length.

Defense will be key. You’ve seen some shaky defense from the Cardinals as is. Pete Kozma and David Freese are both liabilities on the left side of the infield, and with Carlos Beltran battling a sore knee and Matt Holliday fighting back stiffness (he didn’t play in Game 6) the range in the outfield corners is also problematic. When Allen Craig plays left, the defense is probably downgraded another notch. In fact, if you go position by position, you’d probably give the Giants the obvious edge at five spots, even at best at center field and second base, and the Cardinals winning only behind the plate with Yadier Molina.

This hasn’t really been an exciting series, with scores of 7-1, 8-3, 5-0 and 6-1 and no one-run games. Most of the games were decided early. I expect Game 7 to reverse that trend and be a low-scoring affair, with the bullpens playing key roles. The Giants should be in good shape if they can get the ball to closer Sergio Romo with a lead against those Cardinals right-handed batters. He held right-handers to a .192 average during the regular season with a 57/6 SO/BB ratio. Even though he rarely cracks 90 mph with his fastball, the movement he gets on the changeup makes him tough. I give him the slight edge over Jason Motte, who served up nine home runs, although Mike Matheny’s willingness to use Motte for more than three outs is a potential advantage.

In the end, I predict ... well, who can predict what will happen? This is postseason baseball.
Marco ScutaroJayne Kamin-Oncea/US PresswireSt. Louis' Matt Holliday looks on after his slide injured the Giants' Marco Scutaro in Game 2.
Two snapshots from the San Francisco Giants’ 7-1 victory against the St. Louis Cardinals in Game 2 of the NLCS that evened the series at a win apiece.

1. Top of the first inning, Matt Holliday on first base, Carlos Beltran on second base with one out, Allen Craig hits a relatively slow chopper to shortstop Brandon Crawford. Holliday takes out second baseman Marco Scutaro with a vicious late slide that extends well beyond second base, leaving Scutaro sprawled in pain on the ground. After watching the replay, it seems amazing Scutaro didn’t tear up his knee on the slide, which I would characterize as hard-nosed baseball, but a little more on the side of "cheap" than merely "aggressive."

(In the initial postgame interviews on FOX, both Angel Pagan and Ryan Vogelsong were diplomatic about Holliday's slide, saying they hadn't seen the replay yet. During an in-game interview during the broadcast, Matt Cain said he thought it looked like a late slide.)

2. Bottom of the fourth inning, Giants up 2-1, two outs and the bases loaded for Scutaro after Chris Carpenter had delicately pitched around Pagan with first base open. With the count 1-1, Scutaro lines a 91 mph sinking fastball over shortstop to score two runs, and when Holliday booted the ball, a third run scored.

Scutaro would remain in the game for another inning before finally leaving with a sore left hip that required a trip to the hospital for X-rays. Tough? Sure. But in reviewing Scutaro’s career, not exactly surprising.

Scutaro is one of those great baseball stories that make this game so appealing. Originally signed by the Indians out of Venezuela in 1994, Scutaro first reached Triple-A in 1997. From there, it only took him six years to land a regular job in the big leagues. The Indians traded him to the Brewers, who would eventually put him on waivers. The Mets would claim him and give him a couple cups of coffee in 2002 and 2003, but they’d eventually put him waivers so they could play guys like Daniel Garcia, Wilson Delgado and Joe McEwing.

The A’s claimed him and in 2004 -- now 28 years old -- he accumulated 477 plate appearances, starting much of the year at second base when Mark Ellis got injured and missed the entire season. He played a lot for the A’s the next three seasons, never really earning a regular starting job, but finding ways to get in the lineup. It wasn't until 2008, when he was traded to the Blue Jays, that he finally batted 500 times in a season. He was 32 years old and his career was just taking off.

Scutaro began this season year with the Rockies, but hit an uninspiring .271/.324/.361 with them. The Giants acquired him to shore up their problems at second base and he hit .362/.385/.473 in 61 games with San Francisco, becoming a key to the team’s surge on offense after the All-Star break. As Carpenter found out, he’s a tough out in bases-loaded situation because he’s that rare player who brings an old-school approach to the plate -- he puts the ball in play. He struck out in 7.2 percent of his plate appearances, the best rate in the majors, and swung and missed on just 5 percent of his swings, again the best rate in the majors.

Scutaro’s base hit was the game’s key play. Now the Giants hope they haven’t lost a key player.

* * * *

Vogelsong became the first Giants starter to last six innings in this year’s postseason, going an outstanding seven innings and allowing just four hits and two walks. Vogelsong normally gets more fly balls than groundball outs, but got eight groundball outs and three in the air. He also got five infield popouts, a sign that he was able to get inside on the Cardinals' hitters, such as when he jammed Holliday on a foul pop to first base in the fifth. Asked about pitching inside after the game, Vogelsong deflected that question by saying he just saw Buster Posey's glove and kept hitting it.

Here’s a look at Vogelsong’s Hot Zones during the season:
* * * *

The Cardinals’ defense had several miscues. Carpenter’s error on Crawford’s chopper helped extend that fourth inning. On the play, first baseman Craig originally charged the ball, but hustled back to first when he saw Carpenter had it. He never got his feet and missed Carpenter’s throw. Holliday’s error let in another run, and later David Freese and Holliday misplayed Aubrey Huff’s fly ball down the left-field line into a single, leading to two more runs in the eighth. Keep an eye on that St. Louis defense moving forward, especially the play of Freese and Craig at the corners.

* * * *

Cain will start for the Giants in Game 3, but manager Bruce Bochy hasn’t announced his starters beyond that, other than saying you can expect Tim Lincecum and Barry Zito in some order -- which apparently means we shouldn’t expect Madison Bumgarner the rest of the series. Considering the extent to which the Cardinals pummel left-handers, any start by Zito or an obviously gassed Bumgarner looks like a bad option at this time. Bochy will have to consider turning the Zito game into a bullpen game -- hope you get three innings out of him and then get him out at the first sign of trouble after that. (Which is why I would start Lincecum in Game 4; if you need to deploy your entire bullpen in Game 5, at least you get a day off before Game 6.)
That was one of the more entertaining games of the postseason, a classic pitching duel of sorts, with some interesting strategic decisions and some missed opportunities. The Cincinnati Reds will be kicking themselves for not taking advantage of one of the best-pitched games in Reds postseason history and the San Francisco Giants will be wondering how they’re still alive in a game where they got three hits in 10 innings and struck out 16 times. For the rest of us, we’ll get more baseball!

Some thoughts on the Giants’ 2-1 victory:

  • As dominant as Aroldis Chapman was in the ninth inning, getting two strikeouts while throwing just 15 pitches, I was a little surprised he didn’t come back out for the 10th inning. Chapman pitched more than one inning eight times this season, but only twice after becoming the closer, a 1.2-inning save May 27 and a four-out save Aug. 10. Factoring in the shoulder fatigue that sidelined Chapman for 11 days in September, maybe Reds manager Dusty Baker is wary about using Chapman for more than an inning. The trouble is it’s a big drop-off from Chapman to Jonathan Broxton. Of course, it’s a big drop from Chapman to just about any reliever not named Craig Kimbrel.
  • As is, despite giving up two singles to start the inning, Broxton would have escaped the 10th if not for shoddy Reds defense. After he struck out Brandon Belt and Xavier Nady, Ryan Hanigan's passed ball allowed the runners to move up and then Scott Rolen mishandled Joaquin Arias' chopper to third base. The sloppy defense in this postseason continues. Giants manager Bruce Bochy made a couple interesting choices that inning: He let Belt swing away with two on and no out. I would say most managers would have bunted there about 99 percent of the time. I didn’t mind the call. Belt has never had a sacrifice bunt in his brief career and he was the Giants' best chance to deliver a hit. Bochy then let pitcher Sergio Romo hit with runners at first and second. Again, I liked the call. Romo is the Giants’ best reliever; Bochy had used the other relievers you might want to use. Plus, Bochy had used up his bench; only backup catcher Hector Sanchez was left.
  • Xavier Nady and Xavier Paul. Discuss. Or not. Man, these two benches are horrible.
  • Keith Law and Eric Karabell talked about an interesting point on the Baseball Today podcast today, wondering if the Yankees aren’t better off moving up Robinson Cano in the order. He hit cleanup on Monday, and was left in the on-deck circle as Alex Rodriguez made the final out. Keith’s point is that batting lineups don’t matter all that much, but one obvious benefit of stacking your best hitters at the top is you may get them one more plate appearance. That’s the problem with the Reds batting Zack Cozart and his .288 OBP second. He made the final out, leaving Joey Votto on deck.
  • Not to bury Homer Bailey's awesome start. You can see why he pitched a no-hitter two starts ago as he took a no-hitter to two outs in the sixth (although the Giants had scored on a hit-by-pitch, walk and two sacrifices). The walk to No. 8 Brandon Crawford proved especially painful and kudos to pitcher Ryan Vogelsong for a good bunt and Angel Pagan for delivering the sac fly. Considering Bailey had thrown just 88 pitches, you can argue that Baker took him out too early. I can't fault Baker for handing the game to the best bullpen in baseball, but the Giants couldn't touch Bailey on this night.
  • Bailey’s game score of 80 was the fourth highest in Reds postseason history, behind Hod Eller’s 89 in Game 5 of the 1919 World Series against a team that wasn’t trying to win (9 IP, 3 H, 0 R, 1 BB, 9 SO) and Ross Grimsley’s 84 in Game 4 of the 1972 NLCS (9 IP, 2 H, 1 R, 1 BB, 5 SO). Jose Rijo’s win to clinch the sweep of the A’s in the 1990 World Series (8.1 IP, 2 H, 1 R, 3 BB, 9 SO) scores a 91. And, yes, this was just an excuse to mention Hod Eller.
  • Brandon Phillips' hustle effort in the first inning when he got thrown out at third base is one of those plays described as a “baserunning error” if you don’t make it but “heads-up baseball” if you do. The argument against trying to get the extra base is that with zero outs there is a little reward if you do make it (you’re already in scoring position) but a huge penalty if you get caught. As it turned out, Vogelsong labored through a 30-pitch inning and Phillips’ hustle cost the Reds a potential big inning.
  • Vogelsong did a nice job of settling down after that inning. He walked Votto and Ryan Ludwick in the third, but got Jay Bruce on a fly to left. Bruce swung at the first pitch, which isn’t necessarily the worst idea if he thinks a pitcher is going to groove something after two walks. Bochy hit for Vogelsong leading off the sixth, again not a bad idea considering the circumstances. Vogelsong had thrown 95 pitches, the Reds had Votto and Bruce due up the next inning and the Giants were still hitless at the time. It was the one opportunity Bochy knew he could use Aubrey Huff against a right-hander, without the possibility of the Reds bringing in Sean Marshall or Chapman. Huff just isn’t a big weapon right now.
  • As I write this, the Reds haven’t announced their Game 4 starter. It could be Johnny Cueto, but that seems unlikely. It could be Mat Latos, three days after throwing 57 pitches in Game 1. It could be Mike Leake, but to activate him they’d have to replace Cueto, which would make him ineligible for the National League Championship Series, should the Reds advance. If they go with Latos, that would likely mean starting Bronson Arroyo on three days’ rest in a potential Game 5. No easy calls here, but I’d probably go Latos and Arroyo, and rely on the deepest bullpen in the league. The Giants counter with Barry Zito -- and you know Bochy will have a quick hook. The Reds had a .770 OPS against left-handers compared to .710 versus righties, so if Zito struggles early don’t be surprised to see Tim Lincecum again in relief. Should be a good chess match yet again.

 

Ten struggling players to watch

September, 3, 2012
9/03/12
2:25
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As we head into the September stretch run, let's examine 10 players on playoff contenders who had big first halves -- most of these guys were All-Stars -- but have struggled of late.

1. Mark Trumbo, Angels

He was a deserving All-Star after a monster first half, but he's been terrible since late July: .208/.265/.268 in his last 38 games, with just three home runs and zero (zero!) doubles. Remarkably, he's got just one double in last 68 games. His strikeout rate also spiked in August (43 K's with just seven walks), As Trumbo morphs back into Dave Kingman, dare I say the Angels would be better off with Vernon Wells in left field?

2-3. Michael Bourn and Dan Uggla, Braves

Bourn also earned an All-Star spot after a .311/.366/.451 first half, but the numbers have dipped to .236/.326/.335 in the second half. Braves fans are annoyed with Uggla's .208 average, but he does lead the National League with 80 walks, so his .340 on-base percentage is still acceptable. Still, he's hitting .182 in the second half as his batting average on balls in play has dropped from .286 to .239.

4. Carlos Pena, Rays

Joe Maddon has finally benched Pena against left-handers (with Jeff Keppinger playing first base), but if you have to wonder if he should remain in the lineup against right-handers. He's hit .171/.287/.293 since the All-Star break, and only marginally better against righties -- .188/.305/.304. Maybe it's time just to play Keppinger there every day.

5. Curtis Granderson, Yankees

His all-or-nothing approach has turned into a lot of nothing of late -- .174 since July 28. He does have six home runs and 21 RBIs in that span but he's also scored just 13 runs and the Yankees are 16-17 in the 33 games he's played. There's a reason the Orioles are stilling hanging close.

6. James McDonald, Pirates

Everything has fallen apart for McDonald in the second half. After walking just 31 hitters in 110 innings before the All-Star break, he's walked 31 in 51.2 innings since the break. On Sunday, he allowed four home runs. Opponents have pounded his fastball in the second half: .321/.422/.620 with 10 home runs in 137 at-bats.

7. C.J. Wilson, Angels

He won his last start against Boston, ending an 11-start winless streak, but even that required 108 pitches through six innings as he allowed eight hits and three runs. This could be a string of bad luck; in the first half, righties had a .246 average on balls in play but that's rocketed up to .333 in the second half. His strikeout rate and K/BB ratio have actually improved in the second half and after looking through his heat maps, I don't see an obvious issue going on here. Wilson isn't the Angels starter to watch, however: The rotation combined for a 5.37 ERA in August.

8. Ryan Vogelsong, Giants

In his first 21 starts, allowed more than three runs just twice (four runs both times). But in his last four starts he allowed eight runs, eight hits and three runs in an abbreviated three-inning sting, three runs (all home runs) and then four runs in six innings against the Astros. The Giants start Monday with a fairly comfortable 4.5-game lead over the Dodgers, but they'd feel more comfortable with Vogelsong got back on track.

9. Yu Darvish, Rangers

He's fanned 10 in back-to-back starts, so maybe he's back (the second start on Aug. 28 coming on 10 days of rest). His second half ERA remains an inflated 5.71, however. With Darvish, it's all about limiting the walks. The strikeout is phenomenal and he's allowed 13 home runs in 154.2 innings, a pretty good rate for pitching half his games in Texas. If the past two starts are an indicator of what he'll do down the stretch, he may slot in as the Rangers' No. 2 postseason starter behind Matt Harrison.

10. Lance Lynn, Cardinals

Already banished to the bullpen after five straight poor starts, Mike Matheny at least expected he'd be adding another power arm to a staff looking for relief depth in front of closer Jason Motte. But Lynn -- a first-half All-Star -- has struggled in his first three relief appearances, picking up the loss on Sunday when he allowed four hits and two runs in one innings. Remember, Lynn was a big key to the Cardinals' postseason run a year ago, especially in the NLCS when he pitched 5.1 scoreless innings against the Brewers.

Bumgarner wins as Giants bum for runs

August, 21, 2012
8/21/12
1:49
AM ET


Yes, you can never have enough pitching. You win with it, you lose to it, you can’t live without it and, if the margins are narrow enough, you live and die with every pitch. Welcome to Bruce Bochy’s world in a Melky-free world. And welcome to the reason why he can thank his lucky stars that he’s the man managing a rotation with Matt Cain, Ryan Vogelsong and Monday night’s starter against the Dodgers, Madison Bumgarner.

Bumgarner was in perfect command against the evil SoCal boys in blue, mowing them down through eight scoreless frames while whiffing 10 in San Francisco's 2-1 victory. Just another day at the office for one of the Giants’ rotation horses, his 18th quality start on the season, and a reminder that this club is far from done where the National League West race is concerned.

But there’s more to it than that. This summer, with all the talk of extending or overextending young superstar prospects on the mound during a pennant race, Bumgarner is a great example of the wisdom of not letting expectations set your timetable where young pitching is concerned. Coming into 2010, Bumgarner was supposed to be all that, flame-throwing southpaw’d greatness in cleats at the tender age of 20. And then he wasn’t -- he wasn’t throwing hard, having lost five miles per hour off his heat from his minor league days. He wasn’t mowing people down. He wasn’t greatness in cleats, or street shoes or flip-flops.

He also wasn’t hurt, although preseason conditioning turned out to be an issue. But from that seeming disappointment, Bumgarner has significantly changed his repertoire from what he was when he was a top prospect. His velocity has remained in low-90s territory, but he has come to rely more and more on a devastating slider that has helped him boost his swings-and-misses to a 16 percent clip despite whatever it was he lost on his fastball. He’s arguably a better pitcher as a result. He’s also only just turned 23, and more than a year younger than Stephen Strasburg.

That deafening silence you hear over Bumgarner’s birth certificate is the concern over his workload. Because without starting pitching, the Giants could be done. But if Tim Lincecum really does get his kinks ironed out, they may have four horses to ride all the way to the end.

If we can credit Bochy for helping keep Bumgarner saddled up and delivering, we might also credit Bochy for always being willing to wangle some extra way to score to make good on the slender margins his pitchers provide. Whatever the talent Bochy is working with, and even whatever the defensive sacrifices he might have to make behind that starting staff.

Picking between Justin Christian and Gregor Blanco to start in Melky Cabrera’s place in the outfield is sure to make you ask where Nate Schierholtz got to (Philadelphia), and what’s behind Door No. 3, but we’ll see what Bochy’s willing to risk in the weeks to come. If general manager Brian Sabean swings a waiver deal for a veteran bat, don’t be surprised -- it’s the sort of move he has been able to pull off in the past, and again, with this kind of pitching, a little bit of offense goes a long way.

Bochy is so hungry for runs, he’s even platooning at shortstop lately, spotting Joaquin Arias’ single-riffic plinky-ness for Brandon Crawford against the league’s lefties. Platooning at a key up-the-middle position like short? That might work considering Arias’ .818 OPS against lefties in about 200 big-league plate appearances, but it’s also slightly more risky this season than in years past, because the Giants are no longer leading the league in strikeout rate, instead whiffing opponents a very league-average 20 percent of the time. That means more balls in play, and more chances the defense could cost you. The Giants are a little above-average in defensive efficiency (.696, vs. the NL-standard .690), but it’s still a risk.

Then again, this is the manager who helped the Giants win it all in 2010 by coming up with one of the craziest platoons of recent memory: Splitting at-bats between first baseman Travis Ishikawa and center fielder Aaron Rowand in the lineup across first base and the outfield in July through Aug. 14, while moving Andres Torres and Aubrey Huff around to accommodate them. Rotating in Ishikawa helped launch a 27-13 Giants run that preceded their deals for Jose Guillen and Cody Ross. It had less to do with Ishikawa’s greatness than it did with working with what Bochy had at his disposal and getting enough runs to win with an incredible pitching staff.

In short, Bochy has got a well-earned rep as a lineup MacGyver: Give the man some used gum, a pencil and a Topps card to be named later, and he might just give you an edge, part of the reason why Chris Jaffe’s excellent book "Evaluating Baseball’s Managers" described him as one of the most underrated skippers in baseball history.

One of the things Jaffe suggested in his book was the Achilles’ heel that Bochy’s teams had back in San Diego when he managed the Padres was that they tended to be short on pitching. Happily for him and for the Giants, thanks to Madison Bumgarner & Co. that’s one problem this year’s Giants don’t have.

PHOTO OF THE DAY
Madison BumgarnerJayne Kamin-Oncea/US PresswireOn nights like Madison Bumgarner had on Monday against the Dodgers, two runs will do.
Christina Kahrl covers baseball for ESPN.com. You can follow her on Twitter.
Tuesday's Baseball Today Podcast featured Eric Karabell, myself and a guy who loves to eat.

1. Adam Richman of "Man vs. Food" fame joined the podcast to discuss his new show, "Adam Richman's Best Sandwich in America," which made Eric very hungry and desiring something that includes pork. Adam also talks about rooting for the Yankees and his favorite ballpark foods.

2. Ryan Dempster and Anibal Sanchez both struggled. Zack Greinke has struggled. What do they all have in common?

3. We again invoke the name of Stephen Strasburg. But if he's shut down, are the Nationals still the team to beat?

4. Will Manny Machado help the chemistry in the Orioles' clubhouse? We attempt to discuss.

5. A preview of Tuesday's games, including a battle of Cy Young candidates in San Francisco.

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