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NLCS Game 5 preview: Giants at Cardinals

Barry Zito Barry Zito will try to keep the Giants alive and send the series back to San Francisco. (Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images)

Giants at Cardinals

Series: NLCS Game 5, Cardinals lead 3-1

Time: 8:00 PM ET

TV: Fox

Starters: Barry Zito (15-8, 4.15 ERA) vs. Lance Lynn (18-7, 3.78 ERA)

Adam Wainwright threw his strongest start of the postseason in NLCS Game 4, lasting seven innings and allowing just one run. A potent Cardinals offense didn't miss a beat with Carlos Beltran on the bench, chasing Tim Lincecum early and bashing out a series-high eight runs. Now the Cardinals are one win away from their second straight trip to the World Series and their fourth pennant in the last nine seasons, and they have a shot to sew things up without making a return trip to San Francisco.

Attempting to close things out for the Redbirds is Lynn, who lasted just 3 2/3 innings and allowed four runs in his first postseason start in Game 1 after making four relief appearances in the wild-card and Division Series rounds. Overall he has allowed seven runs in 7 1/3 postseason innings, with three homers and four walks offsetting his nine strikeouts. The 25-year-old righty put up impressive numbers in his first season as a major league starter, ranking third in strikeout rate (9.2 per nine) and fourth in wins (thank to a league-high 6.1 runs per game of offensive support), but his 183 2/3 innings (including the postseason) are a career high; his previous mark was 164 in 2010, while last year he threw just 120 thanks to his late-season bullpen stint.

Due to a combination of his mounting workload and declining performance — a 7.31 ERA and just 4.7 innings per start over a six-start stretch from July 27 through Aug. 24 — Lynn was sent to the bullpen, but he did close the season with four starts and a 2.19 ERA. All of which is to say that fatigue may be a factor at this point, but it hasn't been that long since he enjoyed success.

As far as his repertoire goes, Lynn relies heavily on a four-seam fastball averaging 94.0 mph. Against lefties, he mixes in a sinker, curve and changeup; against righties, he swaps out the latter for a cutter, and gets far more swings and misses across the board. He showed a significant platoon split this year: .237/.271/.353 against righties with an eye-popping 111/11 strikeout-to-walk ratio, .272/.384/.456 against lefties with a 69/53 ratio. As if that isn't enough, his groundball and infield fly rates were far better against righties as well. Against a lineup where only Brandon Belt, Gregor Blanco and Brandon Crawford are natural lefties, that should help his cause. That said, in his one regular season start against the Giants on Aug. 7, he was hit for four runs in six innings, including a three-run homer by Buster Posey.

To extend their season, the Giants turn to the 34-year-old Zito, who was chased after just 2 2/3 innings by the Reds back on Oct. 10. Zito posted his best won-loss record in six seasons as a Giant, but that was thanks to 4.8 runs per game of offensive support, which ranked 10th in the league among ERA qualifiers. His 84 ERA+ was 16 percent worse than league average and the league's third-worst among qualifiers (Lincecum's 67 was the worst). Zito closed the season on something of a roll; the Giants won each of his final 11 starts, and he allowed three runs or fewer in his final five, but basically, he was the world's most expensive fifth starter.

Due to a four-seam fastball that averages a pedestrian 84.4 mph, Zito relies more heavily on a slider, a sinker, a curve and a changeup, the latter exclusively to righties. Not surprisingly, he doesn't get a whole lot of swings and misses, and struck out just 5.6 per nine, the sixth-lowest rate among NL starters. He's got a huge platoon split (.209/.259/.299 with just two homers in 196 PA against lefties, .281/.355/.468 with 18 homers in 437 PA against righties), making him a poor matchup against St. Louis' righty-heavy mid-lineup hitters. That said, the split is uncharacteristically wide; from 2009-2011, the difference was just 106 points worth of OPS. Zito doesn't get many groundballs; he gets by generating a ton of popups, whether in San Francisco's AT&T Park or elsewhere (13.3 percent at home, 11.7 percent on the road), so his home/road ERA split wasn't very wide (4.00 versus 4.34). His only outing against the Cardinals came opposite Lynn on Aug. 7, with two Allen Craig solo homers the only runs he surrendered over 6 2/3 innings. Craig has three homers in 11 career plate appearances against Zito, but the only other current Cardinal to connect even once against him is Matt Holliday, who has two homers in 35 PA. Within the small sample size, Zito has done a very good job against the switch-hitting Beltran (.227/.261/.318 in 46 PA), but just six of those PA have come over the past four seasons, so even less should be read into those than usual.

Beltran sat out Thursday's game after suffering a knee strain on Wednesday, but he could be back in the lineup in Game 5. Game 3 hero Matt Carpenter went 1-for-3 with two walks and two runs scored on Thursday; he played first base, with Craig shifting to rightfield. For the Giants, the big question is whether Hector Sanchez will return to catch Zito, whom he caught in 25 of 33 starts this year; in his first start of the NLCS, he went 0-for-4 with three strikeouts while Posey played first base and Belt sat. Posey has been fed such a steady diet of low-and-away stuff by St. Louis pitchers that he hasn't pulled a ball in the air yet and is just 2-for-14 with three walks and no extra-base hits. Moved up to third in the order for the first time all year for Game 4, he'll have to hope he fares better behind Angel Pagan and Marco Scutaro, the two Giants who have gotten on base consistently in this series; they have 14 of the team's 34 hits, including four of their 10 extra base hits.

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