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Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Cards must stabilize rotation

Bernie Bytes: Cards must stabilize rotation

For all of the hullabaloo over Matt Holliday’s wipeout slide of Marco Scutaro in NLCS Game 2, the Giants won because Ryan Vogelsong outpitched Chris Carpenter.
I’m just as guilty as anyone for whipping up the Holliday-Scutaro narrative; it made for a good if predictable piece of postseason drama. But now that the imbroglio has calmed, let’s get down to a more serious factor that will go a long way in determining the winner of this series.
That would be starting pitching. And that would also be obvious. But the first two games set the template. In Game 1, the Cardinals jumped an ineffective Madison Bumgarner for six early runs and a 6-0 lead. Cardinals starter Lance Lynn got blown up in the fourth inning, with the Giants scoring four runs.
With considerable assistance from a conga line of STL relievers, the six-run lead gave the Cardinals a chance to survive Lynn’s rapid deterioration. It isn’t that Lynn was good; it’s just that Bumgarner was worse. At least Lynn held off the Giants long enough to permit his offense a chance to pound out the 6-0 lead.
The Giants weren’t able to quite pull themselves out of the ditch after Bumgarner dropped them into the 6-0 hole. In that context, starting pitching was the deciding factor in Game 1, even with Lynn getting run off in the fourth.
In Game 2, Vogelsong gave the Giants a seven-inning lifeline that made all of the difference. The Giants’ rotation has an excellent reputation, but this group hasn’t quite pitched up to the level of that rep this season.
In the first six games of the 2012 postseason, the Giants’ starters contributed only 26.1 innings, and allowed 33 hits, 12 walks, seven homers and 19 earned runs for a ghastly 6.49 ERA. The short stints had manager Bruce Bochy tapping into his bullpen early, and at some point Giants relievers would snap under the burden.
And then came Vogelsong in G2. The Cardinals had early chances to break him but went 0 for 6 with runners in scoring position over the first three innings, with cleanup hitter Allen Craig and No. 5 hitter Yadier Molina each going 0-2.
Vogelsong eased his way out of the early difficulty and allowed only one hit (and no walks) over his final four innings. The Cardinals helped him out with an impatient approach in the fourth and fifth innings; Vogelsong needed only 20 pitches to get six outs.
Vogelsong delivered the team’s first quality start of the 2012 postseason and was the No. 1 reason for San Francisco’s 7-1 triumph.
This leads us into Game 3, and an attractive matchup between the Giants’ Matt Cain and the Cardinals’ Kyle Lohse.
Disclaimer: with stormy weather in the forecast, we have no idea if Game 3 will start on time, or if it will be played at all. We have no idea if Game 3 will begin on schedule, only to be shut down for a lengthy rain delay that would likely lead to the removal of both starting pitchers and turn the affair into a bullpen battle. But for purposes of discussion, let’s assume that Game 3 is played under normal circumstances.
It’s imperative for the Cardinals to get their rotation tracked again. The last three starts have been traumatic. With Adam Wainwright, Lynn and Carpenter combining for only 10 innings (and shredded for a 10.80 ERA) the St. Louis 'pen had to supply 16 innings.
The relievers were magnificent, with a 1.69 ERA. In the wins over Washington in NLDS Game 5 and San Francisco in NLCS Game 1, manager Mike Matheny went to the bullpen 12 times.
And the relievers came through in spectacular fashion, making it possible for the Cardinals to rally from six runs down in Washington, and to keep the Giants in check in Game 1. In those two wins, the Cardinals bullpen pitched 12 innings and allowed one run for an 0.75 ERA. Nationals-Giants hitters went 6 for 42 (.143) with three walks against STL relievers.
In the team’s first five postseason games, Cardinals starters had a 1.73 ERA. They were a little light on innings (26 in five games) but the pitching was outstanding. That continued a late-season trend. Over the final 25 games of the regular season, the Cardinals’ rotation had 18 quality starts and a 3.09 ERA.
It’s important to stabilize the rotation, and Lohse gets the first crack at it in Game 3, with Wainwright set for Game 4 on Thursday. The Cardinals went bullpen-heavy in last year’s NLCS against Milwaukee. Their relievers actually pitched more innings than the starters, 29 to 24. While this STL bullpen is capable of doing that, I don’t think Matheny wants to go there.
Quick Hits:
• Matt Cain is one of the NL’s best starters. But as is often the case with Giants starters, Cain has been more hittable away from the pitcher paradise that is AT&T Park in San Francisco. Cain had a 2.03 home ERA and a 3.56 road ERA. His fielding-independent ERA was 2.76 at home, and 4.28 on the road. For perspective, Cain’s road FIP of 4.28 ranked 46th among 66th qualifying NL starters.
• There were significant differences in Cain home/road strikeout and walk rates. In San Francisco, hitters had a combined onbase-slugging percentage of .548 against Cain; in his road starts their OPS was .718. Cain gave up 0.57 homers per nine innings at home, and 1.16 homers per 9 on the road. Cain is still quite good away from AT&T, but he’s also more vulnerable.
• The Giants have displayed admirable professionalism and restraint in their continuing reaction to Holliday’s takedown of Scutaro. We shouldn’t be surprised by this; under manager Bruce Bochy the Giants are one of the classiest teams in baseball. They play the game the right way. Their standards for professionalism are high. The players respect the game, and their opponents.
• It would be easy for the Giants to take the Holliday mistake and turn it into a concocted, laughably transparent controversy. But they haven’t done that. Led by Scutaro himself, the Giants have avoided hysteria. They have declined to engage in the predictable victimization and martyrdom that we’d undoubtedly see from a team like the Cincinnati Reds. The Reds never hesitated to exploit even the smallest slight or offense (real or imagined) to whip up a manufactured storm.
• Had Holliday taken out Reds 2B Brandon Phillips the way he did Scutaro, I’m guessing the Reds would be depicting Holliday as a virtual criminal and a baseball terrorist. Reds manager Dusty Baker would have floated the idea of a conspiracy. He would be calling for a Holliday suspension. He may even have demanded a federal investigation. And the Reds would have found a way to blame Holliday’s tackle on Tony La Russa.
• There was this quote from Giants’ reliever Jeremy Affeldt, a teammate of Holliday’s in Colorado: “I know Matt Holliday very well. He’s a good friend of mine and he’s not a malicious person. When we saw the takeout, it was like, ‘Matt, that’s a little aggressive,’ but I saw him running off and I can read his facial expressions pretty good and I think he felt bad. I don’t think there was any talk about hitting him. The whole retaliation thing for me, I’m not really focused on that. The goal is to win seven and go to the World Series.”
• That’s the perfect response. If the Giants want “revenge” they achieve it by winning. Just as they did in Game 2. They made a statement by beating the Cardinals 7-1. They didn’t put poison into a volatile brew by throwing at Holliday. No, the Giants kicked butt on the field, and on the scoreboard. And that’s another example of why I admire them.
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Thanks for reading …

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