NLCS Game 1 preview: Bumgarner, Wainwright meet in battle of aces
Start Time: 8:00 p.m. ET
Status: As mentioned in yesterday’s ALCS preview, in the 161 previous best-of-seven series in major league history (the LCS from 1985 to 2013 and the World Series from 1905 to 1918 and 1922 to 2013), the winner of Game 1 went on to win the series in 104 of them, or 64.6 percent. That advantage is derived entirely from the resulting 1-0 lead in the series. If the remaining games were determined by coin flips, the team up 1-0 would wind up winning the series roughly 65 percent of the time. Game 1 offers no additional strategic advantage regarding the eventual outcome of the series, but that alone is significant.
It’s worth noting one more time that these two teams have alternated National League pennants since 2010, with the Giants winning in even years and the Cardinals in odd years. They have met once before in the NLCS in that span, with San Francisco winning the 2012 NLCS in seven games despite losing Game 1 and falling behind 3-1 after Game 4. These two teams also met in the 2002 and 1987 NLCS, with the Giants winning in five games in '02 and the Cardinals winning in seven games in '87 despite Giants slugger Jeffrey Leonard, who hit four home runs in the '87 NLCS, winning the series MVP award.
Those two series are irrelevant here, but the St. Louis coaching staff remembers them. Cardinals manager Mike Matheny was the St. Louis catcher in the '02 NLCS, while third base coach Jose Oquendo and bench coach Mike Aldrete played rightfield for the Cardinals and Giants, respectively, in the '87 NLCS.
Matchups: The big question heading into this game concerns the health of Adam Wainwright’s elbow. Wainwright dismissed those concerns in his press conference on Friday, calling them "overblown." But he simultaneously admitted that he re-aggravated an area "on the backside" of his elbow that he had initially injured in June, and that the injury contributed to his poor performance in Game 1 of the Division Series against the Dodgers, when he gave up six runs in 4 1/3 innings. Wainwright described his elbow as "on the mend" and said he’d be fine to pitch this game, but those comments don’t sound as reassuring as Wainwright may have meant them to be.
Still, he will be making this start on seven days of rest. When Wainwright hurt his elbow initially, he skipped a start, had ten days off, then allowed just two runs in 30 2/3 innings over his next four starts. One of those four starts, coincidentally, saw him toss seven scoreless innings against the Giants. Wainwright’s only other start against the Giants this season came at home before the elbow injury and saw him give up seven runs in 4 1/3 innings.
Given the consistency of the Giants’ roster, San Francisco’s hitters are a familiar lot to Wainwright, and he has handled them well for the most part, particularly Buster Posey, who he has held to two singles and a walk in 15 plate appearances. Hunter Pence, who leads the Giants with 54 plate appearances against Wainwright, does have three career home runs and a .519 slugging percentage against the St. Louis ace. Meanwhile, rookie second baseman Joe Panik went 2-for-3 against Wainwright this year, and opposing starter Madison Bumgarner — who is 0-for-5 with a walk this postseason but hit .258/.286/.470 with four home runs during the regular season — is 3-for-6 lifetime against Wainwright.
In contrast to Wainwright, Bumgarner has pitched up to his ace designation thus far this postseason, shutting out the Pirates on four hits while striking out ten in the Wild-Card Game, then turning in a quality start marred only by his own throwing error in Game 3 of the Division Series against the Nationals, the Giants’ only loss to this point in the postseason. Bumgarner allowed just four baserunners through the first six innings of that game, only one of whom reached second base, but he got into early trouble in the seventh and overthrew third base in a vain attempt to get the lead runner on a sacrifice bunt, allowing two runs to score.
Like Wainwright, Bumgarner made two starts against his NLCS opponent during the regular season, a good one on the road (7 IP, 3 H, 0 R, 1 BB, 10 K), and a bad one at home (5 IP, 5 R). On the season, Bumgarner went 11-4 with a 2.22 ERA on the road (compared to 7-6 with a 4.03 at home). All of the above suggests that the Giants have the edge in this battle of aces.
Hot Hands: One thing I left out above is that the two St. Louis hitters who have had the most success against Bumgarner in his career are also the two hottest Cardinals batters heading into this series. Matt Carpenter went 6-for-16 with three doubles and three home runs in the Division Series against the Dodgers and is 3-for-5 with two doubles and a walk in his limited exposure to Bumgarner. Carpenter’s slugging overshadowed the fact that Jon Jay went 5-for-11 with a walk in the Division Series, leading the Cardinals in batting average (.455) and on-base percentage (.571). Jay has been almost as successful against Bumgarner in his career, going 6-for-14 (.429) with a walk and three doubles against the Giants’ ace.
In contrast to the Cardinals, the Giants do not have a single hitter with an OPS above .900 or a slugging percentage above .500 through the first four games of this postseason (Brandon Belt, who has one of their two home runs, leads the team in both categories at .893 and .476). That echoes the regular season, in which Posey led the Giants with a .854 OPS and .490 slugging percentage.
Rosters/Lineups: As expected, the Giants have added leftfielder Michael Morse to their NLCS roster, dropping rookie outfielder Gary Brown, who struck out in his only at-bat this postseaon, a pinch-hitting appearance in Game 2 of the NLDS. We also do not yet know if Morse will actually start Game 1 or simply be available as a pinch-hitter, but it’s worth noting that he is 6-for-19 (.316) with a double and two home runs in his career against Wainwright.
The Cardinals, meanwhile, have dropped lefty reliever Sam Freeman, who walked the only two men he faced in the NLDS, and replaced him with a third catcher, veteran A.J. Pierzynski. Pierzynski will provide an extra lefthanded bat off the bench and make Matheny less hesitant to pinch-run for Yadier Molina, knowing that he will still have an extra catcher on the bench after putting his backup in the game.