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The Strike Zone

NLCS Game 1 preview: Cardinals at Giants

At just 23 years old, Madison Bumgarner is already pitching in his fifth postseason series. (John G. Mabanglo/EPA/Landov)

Cardinals at Giants

Series: NLCS, Game 1

Time: 8 PM EST

TV: Fox

Starters: Lance Lynn (1-1, 7.36 ERA) vs. Madison Bumgarner (0-1, 8.31 ERA)

The National League Championship Series features two teams that made unprecedented comebacks in the Division Series. The Cardinals drew most of the attention by digging out of a 6-0 hole in Game 5, the largest deficit ever overcome in a double-elimination game, and battling back from being down to their last strike and still two runs behind.

However, the Giants made history of their own by becoming the first team to win three games on the road after losing the first two at home and win a best-of-five series.

The resiliency both clubs showed in the Division Series could make the early games of this best-of-seven NLCS mere exposition for what could be another exciting plot twist later in the week. The games all count the same, though, and as exciting as comebacks can be, both teams would surely like to win this series without needing one.

Because both teams had to battle back in the Division Series, the pitching matchup for Game 1 of the NLCS is the product of necessity rather than strategy. The Giants most likely would prefer not to be leading with Madison Bumgarner, who has just one quality start in his last eight turns, while the Cardinals are turning to Lance Lynn only because Jaime Garcia is ineligible for this series after being taken off the Division Series roster mid-series due to an apparent shoulder injury.

Lynn has had an odd season. Moved into the rotation late in spring training after it became clear that Chris Carpenter was unable to pitch, he went 10-2 with a 2.42 ERA in his first 13 starts, but just 3-3 with a 5.89 ERA over his next 12, at which point (late August) he was demoted to the bullpen. He was hit hard in six relief outings (6.43 ERA, .400 BABIP), but when Jake Westbrook went down with a season-ending oblique strain in mid-September, Lynnn returned to the rotation and went 4-0 with a 2.19 ERA and a 10.9 K/9 in four starts. The playoffs found him back in the bullpen. He struck out six men in 3 1/3 innings in the Division Series, but also gave up three home runs, including Jayson Werth’s walk-off shot in Game 4.

Werth was the only batter Lynn faced that game, so while he’s technically starting this game on just two day’s rest, you could consider that 13-pitch outing his between-start throwing session. His previous outing came on Monday, when he threw 50 pitches. Lynn started against the Giants in his major league debut last June, but his only appearance against them this year was a start in St. Louis in early August in which he allowed four runs in six innings and took the loss. Lynn has never pitched at AT&T Park. No one on the Giants’ postseason roster has had more than six plate appearances against Lynn in his career.

Given all of that, it’s difficult to know what to expect from Lynn. What to expect of Bumgarner is easier to suss out, though San Francisco might prefer the mystery. Bumgarner gave up four runs in 4 1/3 innings in his Game 2 start in the Division Series. Over his last eight starts, including that one, Bumgarner has gone 2-5 with a 6.15 ERA and 1.71 WHIP. The only one of those eight starts that was quality came at home against the last-place Rockies, a team that averaged 3.4 runs scored per game on the road this season. In this game, Bumgarner will face a team that has averaged 6.3 runs scored per game in the postseason despite facing the Braves and Nationals, which boast two of the best pitching staffs in the league. He had two solid starts against the Cardinals before his recent slump, but that seems like the work of a different pitcher right now.

Unless this game proves to be a rout, which is not out of the question given that Bumgarner’s last start was a 9-0 Giants loss, expect the bullpens, both of which are well rested, to factor in heavily. That, too, favors St. Louis. Leaving out Lynn, the Cardinals’ bullpen has been charged with just three runs in 21 innings this far this postseason, good for a 1.28 ERA.

-- By Cliff Corcoran

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