NLDS Preview: Giants vs. Reds

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You can’t predict baseball, but you can at least lay out the parameters. So let’s take a look at what the Giants and Reds have in store for us in the National League Division Series.

The Teams

San Francisco Giants (94-68) vs. Cincinnati Reds (97-65)

The Matchups

Game 1 Saturday in San Francisco: Johnny Cueto vs. Matt Cain
Game 2 Sunday in San Francisco: Bronson Arroyo vs. Madison Bumgarner
Game 3 Tuesday in Cincinnati: Undecided vs. Mat Latos
Game 4 (if necessary) Wednesday in Cincinnati
Game 5 (if necessary) Thursday in Cincinnati

Analysis: You have to like the Giants’ chances in Game 1, as Cain has a 2.62 ERA at home dating back to 2009. Only eight pitchers have been better during the same timespan. I’m not crazy about Arroyo going in Game 2, but Bumgarner allowed four earned runs or more in five out of his final seven starts. And that would worry me a bit if I was a Giants fan.

We know who the Reds will put out there for the first three games, but Bruce Bochy hasn’t announced who will start Game 3 because he has left open the possibility that Tim Lincecum, Barry Zito and Ryan Vogelsong will pitch in relief at some point during the first two games of the series. It’s likely that Homer Bailey will start Game 4 for the Reds and while he was excellent down the stretch (including a no-hitter against the Pirates on September 28), he had a 5.16 ERA in 17 starts at home this year. Meanwhile, his 2.32 ERA on the road was the best among qualified starters. But enough of my second-guessing.

The Storylines

  • The Reds took the season series 4-3 while outscoring the Giants 28-21.
  • It’s critical for the Giants to get at least one, maybe both, of the games at AT&T Park, as the Reds finished tied with the Cardinals and Nationals for the best home record (50-31) in the National League.
  • This might surprise you, but the Giants actually outscored the Reds (718-669) during the regular season. Of course, Dusty Baker relied on Drew Stubbs (.277 on-base percentage) and Zack Cozart (.288 on-base percentage) out of the top two spots in the order for the majority of the season. Oh, and the Reds only got 111 games out of Joey Votto. To be fair, Brandon Phillips has batted primarily out of the leadoff spot since Votto returned from the disabled list. He’s no on-base machine, but that’s still a pretty significant improvement for the top of the order.
  • When Melky Cabrera was suspended for testing positive for synthetic testosterone, there were plenty of folks who were ready to write the Giants off as a potential playoff team. But they went 30-15 over their final 45 games. Buster Posey has led the charge in his first season back from a devastating ankle injury, winning his first career batting crown* while emerging as one of the favorites for National League MVP, but Marco Scutaro and Angel Pagan have also been pretty good. Hunter Pence somehow managed 45 RBI in 59 games after coming over from the Phillies, despite batting just .219/.287/.384 with a .671 OPS. Pablo Sandoval finally showed some pop down the stretch, so perhaps he’s finally back on track from hamate bone surgery. Still, relying on Gregor Blanco and Xavier Nady in left field has to catch up with the Giants at some point, doesn’t it?
  • What are we going to get from Lincecum? He finished the season with a 5.18 ERA, the fourth-highest among qualified starters. And while he had better results during the second half (3.83 ERA), he walked 40 batters in 89 1/3 innings, including 22 in 35 innings in September. He had a 6.43 ERA on the road this season while allowing 16 homers in 84 innings, so a start at Great American Ballpark could be good news for the Reds.
  • Joey Votto doesn’t have a home run since June 24, but he batted .316/.505/.421 with eight doubles and a 20/28 K/BB ratio over 105 plate appearances after returning from knee surgery. While the Reds would sure love for him to provide some power alongside the likes of Jay Bruce and Ryan Ludwick, he’s still one of the toughest outs in the game. It says something when you lead the league in walks despite missing two months.
  • The Giants were fourth in the National League this season with 118 stolen bases (that number includes 13 from Melky Cabrera) while the Reds were 14th with 87 swipes. It’s fair to expect the Giants to be a bit more active on the basepaths, but remember that Ryan Hanigan threw out attempted basestealers at a major-league best rate of 48 percent this season.
  • Buoyed by strong performances by Aroldis Chapman, Sean Marshall and Jonathan Broxton, Reds relievers finished first in the majors this season with a 2.65 ERA. And that’s despite losing closer Ryan Madson to Tommy John surgery during spring training. Meanwhile, the Giants were eighth in the National League with a 3.56 bullpen ERA. Bruce Bochy has relied on multiple relievers out of the closer role since Brian Wilson had Tommy John surgery, including Santiago Casilla, Sergio Romo, Javier Lopez and Jeremy Affeldt. I don’t think this matchup is as stark as the numbers would have you believe, but I would rather be on the side with Chapman assuming he’s over his recent shoulder fatigue.

Prediction

Boy, this is a tough one. I really think this has the chance to be the most competitive division series matchup. If the Reds can get one of the two games in San Francisco, they should have the advantage coming home. And I think they’ll pull it off. The Reds might be the best all-around team in the entire playoffs.

REDS WIN THE SERIES 3-2

Joe Girardi won’t use Masahiro Tanaka in Game 7

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The Yankees and Astros are set for Game 7 of the American League Championship Series on Saturday, and neither team will hold back as they seek a World Series berth. The Astros are prepared to back starter Charlie Morton with any able-bodied pitcher in their ranks — including Justin Verlander, though A.J. Hinch said it would be a “dream scenario” to get anything more from his ace — while the Yankees are prepared to utilize all but a few of their arms. One pitcher you won’t see? Right-hander Masahiro Tanaka, who last took the hill for the Yankees during their Game 5 shutout on Wednesday.

Tanaka expended 103 pitches over seven scoreless innings in his last start, fending off the Astros with three hits, a walk and eight strikeouts. He hasn’t pitched on fewer than three days of rest all year, and even with a do-or-die scenario facing the Yankees on Saturday night, manager Joe Girardi doesn’t want to compromise his starter’s ability to stay rested and ready for the World Series.

Girardi will also play it safe with fellow right-hander Sonny Gray, who dominated in a five-inning performance in Game 4. All other pitchers should be available and ready to go, though the club is hoping for a lengthy outing from veteran starter CC Sabathia. Sabathia is no stranger to the postseason: over eight separate playoff runs, he touts one championship title and a collective 4.24 ERA in 123 innings. He held the Astros scoreless in his Game 3 start, blanking them over six innings on three hits, four walks and five strikeouts for an eventual 8-1 win.

Even without Tanaka or Gray likely to take the mound for Game 7, the Yankees will enter the series finale with history on their side. Per MLB.com, they have a 4-3 road record in Game 7s and are 6-7 in all 13 Game 7 finales to date. The Astros, on the other hand, dropped their first and only Game 7 clincher back in 2004, when the Cardinals capped the NLCS with a 5-2 win in St. Louis. The teams are scheduled to face off for the first-ever Game 7 at Minute Maid Park on Saturday at 8:00 PM ET.