Start Time: 8:00 p.m. ET
Series: Royals lead 2-1
While this series' first two games finished with lopsided scores, Friday night's contest was more typical of this year's postseason, a one-run squeaker where every crucial at-bat — and every mistake, including those by the managers — was magnified.
Tim Hudson's first pitch of the game wound up leading to the game’s first run, and both skippers pushed their luck with their starters the third time through the batting order (more on this momentarily). Ultimately, it was the Royals' bullpen that again proved the difference, dominating with 3 2/3 innings of scoreless work, while that of the Giants couldn't quite match up.
Historically, of the 129 best-of-seven postseason series that went to 2-1, the teams ahead have gone 73-56 in Game 4, a .566 winning percentage, and have prevailed in 71 percent of those series (pre-2014 data from WhoWins.com). Focusing on just the World Series yields a slightly different picture; of the 82 that went to 2-1, the teams ahead have gone just 40-41 (.494) in Game 4, possibly because the trailing teams have tended to bring back their best pitchers earlier; nonetheless, they still won the series 68 percent of the time.
Teams that played Game 1 at home — as the Royals did — have gone 19-24 (.442) in Game 4 but won 72 percent of the series. Of the last 10 World Series to be tied after two games (a span that takes us all the way back to 1992), the team that won Game 3 has won eight out 10, with the 2003 Yankees and 2013 Cardinals as the exceptions. In other words, Kansas City is in the driver's seat.
Matchups: Before Game 3, Giants manager Bruce Bochy conceded that he might consider returning with ace Madison Bumgarner on three days' rest if his team fell behind. But Bochy has decided to stick with the 37-year-old Vogelsong; Bumgarner will start Game 5.
Vogelsong's season was uneven, with ERAs above 5.00 in April, June and September, and below 3.00 in May and August. While his full-season 4.00 ERA was 13 percent worse than league average (87 ERA+), his 3.85 FIP (with underlying peripherals of 0.9 homers, 2.8 walks and 7.4 strikeouts per nine) was along the lines of his 2011 and 2012 work, as opposed to his dismal 2013. That said, he delivered a quality start just 47 percent of the time, well off the 69 percent he managed in those two seasons.
Vogelsong particularly thrived at AT&T Park, with a 3.00 ERA and 2.54 FIP thanks to an unsustainably low rate of home runs per flyball (2.1 percent vs 14.8 percent elsewhere) with stronger groundball and strikeout-to-walk ratios at home as well. That's consistent with what he's done since his 2011 reemergence: a 3.12 ERA at AT&T Park while allowing just 0.6 homers per nine, compared to a 4.51 mark with 1.3 homers per nine elsewhere.
During the regular season, Vogelsong showed a substantial platoon split, with righties batting .223/.303/.372 against him, but lefties a more robust .287/.334/.453. As a team, the Royals were weaker against righties (.261/.310/.372) than lefties (.266/.322/.387) during the regular season, but during the postseason, they've been pretty even, batting .244/.308/.388 against the former and .254/.321/.365 against the latter.
Like his regular season, Vogelsong's postseason has been up and down. In Game 4 of the Division Series against the Nationals, he yielded just two hits and one run over 5 2/3 innings, but in Game 4 of the NLCS against the Cardinals, he was chased after just three innings, having allowed seven hits and four runs. In that one, the Giants were rescued by Yusmeiro Petit, whose three scoreless innings of stellar long relief work bought time for the Giants to rally against the Cardinals' bullpen. More on Petit below.
On the Royals' side, the 31-year-old lefty Vargas put up his best season in terms of ERA, ERA+ (107), FIP (3.84), walk rate (2.0 per nine) and strikeout-to-walk ratio (3.1), doing so while delivering a quality start 60 percent of the time. He fell apart at the end of the season, though; after putting up a 3.14 ERA through Sept. 3, he allowed 18 runs and four homers in 18 innings over his final four starts, none of them quality starts.
Thanks to an unsustainable .077 batting average on balls in play, he's come up huge in the postseason. Vargas held the Angels to two runs and three hits over six innings in Game 1 of the Division Series and limited the Orioles to one run and two hits in 5 1/3 innings in Game 4 of the ALCS; all three runs he's allowed were on solo homers.
A flyballer who generally benefits from big outfields, Vargas nonetheless showed a strong home/road split in favor of the latter this year (4.53 ERA at home versus 2.73 elsewhere). That said, his peripherals were all over the map, and his FIPs were close (3.73 at home, 3.96 away); he walked 0.9 per nine at Kauffman Stadium but allowed 1.1 homers per nine there, compared to 3.3 walks per nine but 0.7 homers per nine elsewhere. He allowed just two homers to lefties in 194 plate appearances, holding them to a .266/.306/.355 line; meanwhile, righties hit .265/.311/.419 with 17 homers in 596 plate appearances. For his career, his OPS against lefties is just 56 points better (.694 to .750).
During the regular season, the Giants hit lefties (.258/.318/.390) slightly better than righties (.253/.307/.387), with Buster Posey (.304/.357/.518) and Mike Morse (.248/.316/.511) leading the way. It bears noting, however, that the former is hitting just .268/.311/.268 in 61 PA thus far this postseason, and the latter will likely be on the bench, limited to pinch-hit duty. Meanwhile, switch-hitter Pablo Sandoval hit just .199/.244/.319 against lefties, but lefties Gregor Blanco, Brandon Crawford, and Joe Panik all put up surprisingly strong numbers against same-siders, all with batting averages of at least .296, the last two with OPSes of .879 and .839, respectively.
No small concern: If Vogelsong struggles as he did in the NLCS, Bochy will have to use a very quick hook, and may well look to Petit for length. Like Vogelsong, the 29-year-old Petit is a journeyman who, after years in oblivion, has found a home on the San Francisco staff. During the regular season, when he made 12 starts and 27 relief appearances, Petit put up a 3.69 ERA and 2.78 FIP while throwing a career-high 117 innings; he whiffed 10.2 per nine and walked just 1.7.
He can be downright unhittable at times; after coming within one out of a perfect game on Sept. 6, 2013, he retired a major league record 46 in a row late this season, a stretch that included both his relief work and his move to the rotation in place of Tim Lincecum. He's been nails in long relief thus far this postseason, throwing six innings of one-hit, shutout ball in that 18-inning Division Series epic against the Nationals, plus the three in the NLCS. He has 11 strikeouts, four walks and two hits allowed in nine scoreless innings so far.
Petit held righties to a microscopic .193/.214/.296 line during the regular season, compared to .257/.312/.465 against lefties, part of an overall trend in his parts of three seasons with the Giants after a two-year absence (2010 and 2011) from the major league scene. He's at .224/.245/.340 in 368 PA against righties in that span, compared to .252/.318/.415 in 311 PA against lefties.
Third time's no charm: We've seen it in each of the past two games of the series: Both Jake Peavy and Tim Hudson seemed to be cruising along in the middle innings before things quickly unraveled. While Bochy had in mind certain matchups involving his lefty relievers, he's ignored the fact that both pitchers — and all starters in general — tend to get roughed up in their third time through the order. Peavy (.323/.387/.545 in his third time through this year) and Hudson (.303/.339/.495) were no exceptions. Vogelsong (.263/.333/.435) was only slightly worse the third time through than the second, albeit in a smaller sample size due to a generally quicker hook. Vargas (.265/.313/.440) saw his slugging percentage allowed rise by 72 points the third time through.
Mitchel Lichtman, whose Ultimate Zone Rating is one of the most commonly cited fielding metrics, has gone to great lengths to show that once you control for lineups, ballpark and pitcher quality, pitchers lose roughly one-third of a run (0.33) of effectiveness per time through the order; in their first go-through, they're better than average, in their second time they're right at their overall level of effectiveness, and by the third time, they're scuffling compared to the relief alternatives. During the regular season, it's tougher for a manager to act upon this, because doing so can burn out a bullpen; trim even one-third of an inning per start off your starters' workloads and you've created a need for 54 additional innings of relief.
In the postseason, where the extra days off allow the best pitchers to throw a much higher share of innings, that's much less of a concern, which is why managers need to go to the hook more quickly. That's why the Royals are here — think of Yost pulling Guthrie and Vargas in time in the ALCS and letting Kelvin Herrera, Wade Davis and Greg Holland do their thing.
Bullpen status: Speaking of the Royals' big three, they've now allowed just 15 hits, 13 walks and three runs in 33 innings (0.83 ERA) in the postseason, striking out 39 (10.7 per nine). While Davis and Holland should be good to go after needing just 12 and eight pitches respectively in Game 3, Herrera's availability could be in doubt after 27 pitches, only 13 of which were strikes.
During the regular season, Herrera pitched on back-to-back days after throwing at least 20 pitches just twice, first on Apr. 30 against the Blue Jays and then on Sept. 16 against the White Sox; the two runs he allowed in two-thirds of an inning in the latter were his only ones allowed after June 24. His two outings pitching on back-to-back days during the postseason came in the ALCS, after 20 and 14 pitches thrown, respectively; he threw 24 and 21 pitches in those two outings, totaling 2 2/3 scoreless innings.
Look for Yost to try to find another spot for lefty Brandon Finnegan, who came up with two big outs in the seventh on just eight pitches. If Yost needs a righty early, he could turn to Jason Frasor, who has thrown four scoreless innings in five postseason appearances thus far.
On the Giants' side, Javier Lopez's 19 pitches, Sergio Romo's 18 and Jeremy Affeldt's 13 shouldn't preclude them from return engagements, particularly in what amounts to a must-win game. Don't be surprised if Lincecum figures into the bullpen equation as well, as he was healthy enough after Wednesday's exit with lower back tightness to warm up on Friday night, though he wasn't used.