Sunday October 12th, 2014

The first game of the NLCS has gone to the Giants. Behind a dominant effort from staff ace Madison Bumgarner, San Francisco blanked the Cardinals in St. Louis to take the series opener, 3-0. Bumgarner fired 7 2/3 scoreless innings, giving up just four hits and walking one while striking out seven as he outdueled Adam Wainwright and continues his sterling postseason run. As for the Cardinals, their bats were silenced after an NLDS against the Dodgers that saw them crank seven homers in four games.

Some thoughts from the game:

1. Bumgarner masterful

Of all the aces who have been a part of these playoffs — Clayton Kershaw, Stephen Strasburg, Max Scherzer, etc. — it's been Bumgarner who's shined the brightest. Saturday night's scoreless effort improved his ERA this postseason to 0.76 in 23 2/3 innings, with only 14 hits and three walks allowed. He's struck out 23. He hasn't allowed a run in 16 2/3 innings on the road, and has had only one inning all postseason in which he's allowed any runs at all, that coming back in Game 3 of the NLDS against the Nationals.

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Against St. Louis, Bumgarner used a wicked combination of four-seam fastballs, two-seamers, sliders and curveballs to keep the Cardinals off balance. Only twice did a St. Louis hitter reach base to start an inning. The Cardinals had a runner get to second base or past it just four times and never had more than one runner in scoring position until the seventh inning. In that frame, Bumgarner gave up back-to-back singles with one out to Yadier Molina and Jon Jay, then got Kolten Wong to ground out and pinch-hitter Tony Cruz to strike out to get out of trouble.

Bumgarner's brilliant night is just the latest in a tremendous run for Giants pitching, which has a collective 1.14 ERA so far this postseason. That's helped make up for a less-than-peak offense, which scratched out just three runs in Game 1 and has scored a grand total of 16 runs in six games.

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2. Wainwright struggles again

While the Giants' ace was unhittable, the Cardinals' No. 1 was anything but. Wainwright labored through 4 2/3 innings, needing 98 pitches to record 14 outs, and allowed three runs, two earned. The right-hander walked three and struck out two, just the third time this year he's allowed more free passes than he's collected strikeouts in a game, in a disappointing effort that won't reduce any anxiety over his supposedly balky right elbow.

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Before Saturday's game, Wainwright said that he had been experiencing some issues with his arm, particularly a spot on the "backside" near the elbow. It's an injury he originally suffered in June and re-aggravated before his NLDS Game 1 start against the Dodgers. Los Angeles pummeled him for six runs in 4 1/3 innings in that game, and Wainwright looked no sharper this time around. After a 1-2-3 first inning, Wainwright bogged down in the second, giving up two runs and needing 36 pitches to get through the frame. Another run scored in the third, and his night ended in the fifth after a pair of walks to Pablo Sandoval and Brandon Belt.

To be fair to Wainwright, the bad night wasn't entirely his fault, as his defense failed him on numerous occasions. San Francisco collected its two runs in the second on a double that popped out of Randal Grichuk's glove in right field, a walk, a single, a bloop RBI hit by Travis Ishikawa and an error by Matt Carpenter on a sharply hit groundball. In the third, with two on and none out,  Wong botched a potential double play when a grounder hit the heel of his glove and bounced out. The Cardinals got the force out at second but were left with runners on first and third with one out. The next batter, Belt, lifted a fly ball to center to drive the run in from third.

For now, the Cardinals will have to wait and see how Wainwright feels coming out of Saturday's start. His velocity was right around his average, as he sat at 91 MPH with his fastball and 88 with his cutter. Instead, it was his control that deserted him, as Wainwright routinely failed to hit his spots, throw strikes when needed or put batters away in two-strike counts. The Cardinals were able to survive Wainwright's disaster start against Kershaw and the Dodgers, but they can't count on that kind of comeback every time out. They need their ace to find his Cy Young-caliber form, and quickly.

3. Giants' offense struggling

For as much as Wainwright was off his game, the Giants weren't able to take much advantage of it. Picking up only three runs in Game 1, San Francisco is now averaging a mere 2.7 runs per game so far in the playoffs. The Giants have only two postseason homers — Crawford's grand slam in the Wild-Card Game and Belt's game-winning blast in Game 2 of the NLDS — and threw away numerous chances in Game 1 to pile on the runs, going 2-for-11 with runners in scoring position.

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While it's unlikely that Bruce Bochy will make any drastic changes with his team ahead 1-0, the Giants need far more out of the top of their lineup if they want to advance. Gregor Blanco went 0-for-5 in the leadoff spot and is now 2-for-27 in the playoffs. Joe Panik, hitting second, has just two hits in his last 19 at-bats. Unfortunately for the Giants, Bochy lacks any realistic options to either Blanco or Panik. San Francisco will simply have to stick with that pairing up top and hope they can fight their way out of their slumps.

One possibility to energize the lineup is Michael Morse, who is on the NLCS roster after sitting out the Wild-Card Game and NLDS with an oblique injury. Morse didn't start or get an at-bat during Game 1, but Bochy could turn to him in left for Game 2. Morse also has good numbers against Game 2 starter Lance Lynn, albeit in a small sample size, with four singles in seven at-bats.

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