San Francisco Giants Close Down Washington Nationals in Game 4

It’d be ridiculous at this point to suggest the San Francisco Giants are lucky. Luck doesn’t win you two trophies in three years, and it doesn’t land you a spot in the National League Championship Series, which the Giants clinched with a 3-2 victory over the Washington Nationals Tuesday night at AT&T Park.

Not everyone pegged this team for another deep run. In fact, after the Giants squandered a hot start and squeaked into the second wild-card position, many dismissed them.

Funny thing though…there’s just something about this squad led by veteran skipper Bruce Bochy. The Giants seem to enjoy the feeling of their backs against a wall, to thrive when the pressure is greatest and to find the strangest, most unexpected ways to come up big.

Take Tuesday’s clincher: The Giants scored on a bases-loaded walk, a weak ground ball and a wild pitch. They would have plated a second run on a wild pitch, when an intentional ball four to Pablo Sandoval in the bottom of the seventh sailed over Washington catcher Wilson Ramos’ head.

The ball, though, caromed hard off the backstop, and Buster Posey was tagged out trying to score from third.

It didn’t matter. The Giants clung to their one-run lead with more stellar innings from their stingy bullpen and eked out another memorable, nail-gnawing win.

It began with starter Ryan Vogelsong, who in many ways embodies the unflinching resiliency of the Orange and Black. A Giants prospect once upon a time, Vogelsong was dealt to the Pittsburgh Pirates in 2001.

A Tommy John surgery and a stint in Japan later, he returned to San Francisco as a minor league free agent in 2011 and fought his way into the rotation.

The following season, Vogelsong was an October hero, posting a 1.09 ERA in four playoff starts and getting himself a ring.

Since then, the 37-year-old right-hander has been unreliable at best. His 4.00 ERA in the 2014 regular season certainly didn’t inspire overwhelming confidence as he took the mound Tuesday, with the Giants up 2-1 in the best-of-five series.

It was a must-win game for the Nationals, but it felt like one for the Giants. San Francisco did not want to go back to D.C. with the series tied and face either Stephen Strasburg or Jordan Zimmermann in an elimination contest.

Vogelsong helped ensure that wouldn’t happen, tossing 5.2 gutsy innings while giving up one run on two hits. He didn’t earn the win, though, thanks to Bryce Harper.

In the top of the seventh, with the Giants leading 2-1, Harper launched a towering home run into the water beyond the right field wall off hard-throwing Giants rookie Hunter Strickland. The bomb fired up the Washington dugout; for a moment, it looked like the loaded, 96-win Nats had some fight left in them.

Then the Giants worked their magic, loading the bases in the bottom of the frame on a pair of singles and a walk and scoring on the aforementioned wild pitch.

And that was it. Setup man Sergio Romo and closer Santiago Casilla, who have combined for six scoreless frames this postseason, tossed mostly uneventful eighth and ninth innings, and the Giants stormed the field to celebrate another trip to the NLCS.

The team they’ll face, the St. Louis Cardinals, knows a thing or two about playoff mojo. The Cards made the Fall Classic in 2011 and 2013. Add the Giants’ appearances in 2010 and 2012, and we’re looking at a fifth straight season when either San Francisco or St. Louis will represent the National League on baseball’s biggest stage.

The Cardinals are tough. They showed that by dispatching the Los Angeles Dodgers in four games in the NLDS, including two wins against sure-fire Cy Young winner Clayton Kershaw.

The Giants, though, have now won seven straight playoff series, eight if you count the wild-card playoff win against Pittsburgh that started this latest run.

They’ve already added to the legend in 2014, winning the longest game in MLB postseason history, an 18-inning marathon Oct. 4 at Nationals Park, on a towering home run by first baseman Brandon Belt.

Really, the Giants don’t need to say anything. They let their play do the talking.

They’re confident. They’re collected. They’re cohesive. And they get it done, one way or another.

Call them what you like. Just don’t call them lucky.

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Madison Bumgarner, San Francisco Giants Silence Pittsburgh Pirates 8-0 to Advance

Momentum is the next day’s starting pitcher, or so the saying goes. But for the San Francisco Giants, it’s also that day’s starting pitcher.

After ace Madison Bumgarner twirled a four-hit shutout to beat the Pittsburgh Pirates 8-0 in the NL Wild Card Game on Wednesday night, it’s hard not to think that masterful performance helped the Giants gain some momentum as they head into the Division Series against the top-seeded Washington Nationals —regardless of who will go in Game 1.

The 25-year-old added to his already-impressive postseason resume, which includes a 3.05 ERA in eight games overall, as well as two other scoreless starts, one each in the 2010 and 2012 World Series. The Giants, you might remember, won it all both years, and the left-hander was a big reason why.

Bumgarner’s dominance unquestionably was the lead story on Wednesday, but it wasn’t the only one worth highlighting. The other story? The Giants offense came alive, notching at least one run in four of the nine innings and totaling 11 hits, 10 of which were singles.

As for that lone exception, it was a Brandon Crawford grand slam in the fourth inning, which not only broke open a scoreless tie but also was—get this—the first ever by a shortstop in postseason history, as ESPN Stats & Info notes.

First baseman Brandon Belt, who has been hot of late after dealing with various injuries and ailments that cost him all but 61 games this season, got on base a team-high four times via two walks and two hits apiece, the last of which essentially sealed the deal in the seventh.

Beyond the two Brandons, there was former MVP Buster Posey (2-for-5 with a run and an RBI), former World Series MVP Pablo Sandoval (2-for-4 with two runs and a walk) and Hunter Pence (1-for-4 with two runs and a walk). That trio of heart-of-the-lineup hitters is as battle-tested and experienced—and can be as productive—as they come.

Then there are the lesser-knowns, like Crawford and Gregor Blanco, who has slashed .284/.354/.517 since getting regular run as an injury fill-in in late August. And don’t forget rookie Joe Panik, a former first-round pick who solidified second base by hitting .327 in the second half.

Rookie second baseman Joe Panik had a team-high three hits in the Wild Card Game victory.

That type of attack is going to have to continue, which won’t be an easy task against the Nationals’ big arms, Jordan Zimmermann and Stephen Strasburg, who are likely to start Games 1 and 2.

It also won’t be easy because regular left fielder Mike Morse is fighting through an oblique injury that has hampered him since the end of August, while center fielder and leadoff man Angel Pagan—without whom the Giants went 31-35 in the regular season—is out for good due to back surgery.

The reason San Francisco’s offensive explosion in the Wild Card Game was so important, and the reason it needs to carry over into the NLDS, is that the rest of the rotation outside of Bumgarner isn’t close to what it was when the club won it all in 2010 and 2012.

There’s no Matt Cain. There’s no Tim Lincecum—well, not the version that owned the opposition in ’10 and dominated in relief during the run in ’12.

As of now, because the NLDS starts Friday afternoon at 3 p.m. ET, Bumgarner is expected to get back on the mound for Game 3 against the Nationals, according to Adam Kilgore of The Washington Post.

That leaves right-handers Jake Peavy and Tim Hudson to go in Games 1 and 2. While Peavy, 33, has been fantastic (2.17 ERA, 1.04 WHIP) in a dozen starts since joining the Giants in a July trade, his 9.27 career postseason ERA (not a typo!) is gnarly.

The 39-year-old Hudson, meanwhile, faded after a strong start and had himself a terrible second half in which he posted a 4.73 ERA and 1.45 WHIP.

Jake Peavy has allowed 35 hits and 23 earned runs in 22.1 innings in his October career.

In a way, then, the Giants’ momentum is the next day’s starting pitcher, and in the case of Peavy followed by Hudson, that’s not exactly a good thing.

But if San Francisco can somehow steal one of those first two games in Washington, then the home-field advantage will have shifted to the Giants.

And with Bumgarner in Game 3, so, too, would the momentum.

2014 MLB Wild Card Game Predictions

While there were a number of possible scenarios that could have forced a Game 163 this season, none of them played out, and the regular season wrapped up Sunday with the 10 postseason teams and their respective matchups all decided.

Things will kick off with the Kansas City Royals hosting Oakland A’s in the AL Wild Card Game on Tuesday night, followed by the NL Wild Card Game between the San Francisco Giants and Pittsburgh Pirates on Wednesday night, with the division series then kicking off Thursday.

Can the Oakland A’s Win the AL West?

Although the game is under protest by the Oakland A’s and manager Bob Melvin, as it stands now, the LA Angels own a 4-3, 10th inning walk-off win against their division rivals. This translates to an 80-53 record for the Angels and a two-game lead over the A’s at 78-55.

The game is under protest due to a ninth inning obstruction call that went against Oakland and was upheld by umpire Greg Gibson and crew chief Gerry Davis. Howie Kendrick collected the game-winning RBI with a sacrifice fly in the 10th off A’s reliever Ryan Cook (1-2).

The A’s did put up quite a fight in the game, typical of their outstanding season. After struggling through the first three innings, staff ace Sonny Gray retired the next 12 batters to finish with seven innings, allowing three runs off six hits and three walks. Gray’s season record is an impressive 13-7 with 3.03 ERA and 1.21 WHIP over 178 innings pitched.

But the A’s are struggling as a team since the All Star break. They are 19-19 since the break and have lost 11 of their last 17. The A’s still maintain a 5-1/2 game lead on the top Wild Card spot over Detroit and Seattle. LA has won seven of ten and appear to be the hot team right now, although the loss of staff ace Garrett Richards could diminish their chances of staying on top.

Although the acquisition of starter John Lester from Boston has certainly improved the A’s pitching staff and their team overall, the loss of Yoenis Cespedes has hurt the offense. In 24 games with the Red Sox, Cespedes is batting .280 with four doubles, four home runs and 20 RBI’s. Although not staggering numbers by any stretch, the A’s could use his bat right now.

Derek Norris is leading the team offensively with a .270 BA. Josh Donaldson is leading in power numbers with 26 homers and 88 RBI’s, but is only batting .255. The offense will have to pick it up in September to support the pitching staff if they want to challenge the Angels for the AL West crown.

Yusmeiro Petit Comes a Strike Away From a Perfect Game

Yusmeiro Petit of the San Francisco Giants followed in the footsteps of Armando Galarraga, Mike Mussina, Brian Holman and Dave Stieb as pitchers who have lost a perfect game with one out left. Down to the last strike on Eric Chavez of the Arizona Diamondbacks, Chavez then lined a single to right field. Hunter Pence, the Giants right fielder, had no real chance at the ball.

 Petit, 28, has a chance of following Galarraga into the vault of ‘Where Are They Now?’ Petit has bounced around the majors for a while now, and actually spent the best part of the past few years in the minors. He pitched all of one game for the Giants last year, and this was his 4thgame, and 3rd start, for San Fran this year. Overall, he’s pitched 251 major-league innings and has a 5.37 ERA and 1.43 WHiP. Basically, he’s shown that he is a marginal MLB pitcher so far

Yet, on a Friday night, with the Giants out of the pennant race, he had a game to write about. He threw an efficient 95 pitches in 9 innings. Of those 95 pitches, he threw 69 strikes. He struck out 7 hitters. He tossed 21 first strikes to the 28 batters he faced. He was as perfect as you could be, until the very last batter. In fact, Chavez was only the 2nd batter to even get to a three-ball count on Petit.

While Petit had a game for the ages, the sad thing is that within 48 hours, it will be forgotten. The only reason that Galarraga’s is even remembered is because Jim Joyce blew the call at first base that would have guaranteed Galarraga’s perfect game. For Petit, that just wasn’t the case. He lost his perfect game fair and square. Most likely, this was his one chance at being immortal, at being known for all-time. Now, he will fade away like every pitcher that had a really good game late in the season when it didn’t matter for a team out of the race.

Pittsburgh Pirates Have Giant Role Reversal

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It’s Freaky Friday at AT&T Park in San Francisco, and no, Tim Lincecum is not on the mound. For those of you unfamiliar with the film Freaky Friday, it’s about a mother and daughter who wake up one Friday to find that they have switched personalities.

Enter the first place Pittsburgh Pirates (74-52), a team without a winning season since 1992. With 36 games remaining, the Pirates can secure their first winning record in 21 years even if they finish an abysmal 8-28.

Enter the last place San Francisco Giants (56-70), winners of two of the past three World Series titles, 18.5 games behind the Dodgers.

Talk about a role reversal.

Since about 2009, the year Lincecum won his second consecutive Cy Young Award, the Giants have been known for their stellar pitching staff. From 2009-2012, the Giants amassed a 3.51 ERA. The Giants finished first in the NL with a 3.36 ERA in 2010 and won their first championship in San Francisco history. That year, the Pirates’ 5.00 ERA was worst in the NL and Pittsburgh finished in last place with 105 losses.

This year, everything’s been turned on its head. The Giants’ 4.15 ERA is 12th in the NL, while the Pirates rank first with a pristine ERA of 3.18.

What about the offense? Many experts have concluded over the past several seasons that the Giants offense was mediocre at best, and that the key to the team’s success was its stellar pitching staff. While that may be true to some extent, a closer look at the numbers suggests otherwise.

The Giants finished just over league average with a .724 in OPS (on base percentage plus slugging percentage, a statistic once simply referred to as “production”) in 2012. The Rockies, Brewers, Cardinals, Nationals, Diamondbacks, and Reds finished 2012 with superior OPS’s, in that order (with the Rockies on top). Many people consider these teams to be strong offensive clubs year after year.

OPS+ is a statistic like OPS, but it takes ballparks into account. For example, the Rockies play half their games at Coors Field, a ballpark where the ball flies over the fence with regularity. To the opposite extreme, the Giants’ home ballpark is the least conducive to homeruns. Although the Giants had just the seventh best OPS in the NL in 2012, only the Angels, Yankees, and Cardinals finished with higher OPS+’s, and the Angels and Yankees had the benefit of a DH, instead of a starting pitcher, in the lineup.

The 2012 Giants also had a superior OPS+ over the Tigers and Rangers, two teams often considered elite offensive clubs. Once again, keep in mind those clubs benefitted from a DH, not a pitcher, in the lineup.

These OPS+ statistics suggest that a team’s home ballpark has a lot more to do with offensive numbers than people realize. One more example: the Rockies led the NL in OPS in 2012, yet they were ninth (below league average!) in OPS+.

Of course, the same thing could hold true for pitching. ERA+ is a statistic like ERA, except that it takes ballparks into account. Recall that the Giants led the NL in ERA in 2010 (3.36) while the Pirates finished last (5.00 ERA). Surprisingly, considering the team’s offensive discrepancies, the Giants also led the league in ERA+ (17% better than league average) while the Pirates also finished last (20% below league average).

These matching ERA’s and ERA+’s aren’t always the case. The Giants finished fifth in NL ERA in 2012 (3.68), but were 10th in ERA+. This year, Colorado is second-to-last in NL ERA (4.22), but sixth best in ERA+.

It’s important to take a team’s home ballpark into account before making any conclusions about their ability.

So how are the Giants and Pirates really doing this year? Well, Pittsburgh leads the NL in ERA (3.18) and they’re third in ERA+ (12% better than league average). The Giants, however, are 12th worst in ERA (4.15) and dead last in ERA+ (20% worse than league average). Like the 105-loss 2010 Pirates, this year’s Giants are 20% worse than league average in ERA+.

Offensively, the Pirates are just under league average with a .703 OPS, but they’re fifth best in OPS+, 4% better than league average. The Giants are 11th in NL OPS (.692), but third in OPS+ (7% better than league average), suggesting that once again their home ballpark is robbing them of offensive production. Shockingly, it could be the Giants’ offense, not their pitching, that’s keeping them from losing 105 games this year (it could still happen, but they’d have to finish 1-36, which seems…unlikely).

The Pirates feature above average offense and top-tier pitching this season, much like the Giants of the recent past. It’s likely they’ll make the playoffs this year, either as a division winner or as one of the two Wild Card teams. They lead the Cardinals by one game in the Central, the Cardinals lead the Reds by one game for the first Wild Card spot, and the Reds lead the Diamondbacks by seven games for the second Wild Card spot, so the technically Pirates hold a nine game edge over the D-Backs for the final playoff spot.

It’s unlikely, however, that anyone in Pittsburgh is breathing easy. In 2011 and 2012 the Pirates seemed like contenders, or at least a team capable of finishing over .500, only to fade down the stretch. This year, the Pirates were 51-30 through 81 games—or one half of the 162-game season—and they’re just 23-22 since. However, even if the Pirates finish 18-18—.500—a meaningful number in Pittsburgh indeed, they would have earned 92 wins, the same number of wins it took for the Giants to win their division, and eventually the World Series, in 2010.

With so many statistical parallels to the 2010 and 2012 World Series winners, the 2013 Pirates are in great position—not to emulate the Giants in some freaky fashion—but rather to usurp them from power, and become baseball’s kings with rings.

Barry Zito Clears Waivers; Does Anybody Want Him?

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Barry Zito has officially cleared waivers. Therefore, the San Fracisco Giants can trade him to any team that wants him. The question remains is this: Who the hell wants Barry Zito? Is there a market for him, and will a contender take a chance on bringing him in?

Zito, 35, is making $20 million this year, thanks to the mega-contract he signed with the Giants after the 2006 season. Therefore, he is owed roughly $5 million more for the year. Also, the Giants hold a team option on him for next year, which can be bought out for $7 million. Thus, any team that wants Zito will have to deal with the $12 million owed to him, or negotiate with the Giants to see if they’ll pick up some, or all, of it.

 But, is Zito even worth acquiring even if the Giants are willing to pay the lion’s share of his remaining money? It is no secret that Zito has been extremely disappointing in his time with the Giants. Since signing that deal, he has gone 62-77 with a 4.57 ERA and 1.435 WHiP. This year, he is even worse, as he’s 4-8 with a 5.40 ERA and 1.712 WHiP. And his stats are only that good because he’s been pretty decent at home. On the road, he is 0-7 with a 9.50 ERA and 2.352 WHiP.

Let me restate that, he is 0-7 on the road with a 9.50 ERA and 2.352 WHiP! That means you get him away from a pitcher friendly park like San Francisco’s, he is absolute dog crap. He’s only been able to last 41.2 innings in his 10 road starts while giving up 8 home runs. If you are a team looking for a starter, or even just a lefty to use in the bullpen, why would you get someone like Zito who has shown a complete inability to pitch outside the confines of his current home field.

My advice to other teams is to stay away from Zito. It is doubtful he’ll help you out, and will more likely hurt your team. If you are intrigued enough to think that he might have something left in the tank and be a viable starter next year, fine. Let the Giants buy him out in the offseason and bring him into spring training as a non-roster invitee. If he is able to show something there, then sign him to a small contract. However, if you are in contention right now, do yourself a favor. Stay the hell away from Barry Zito.