Previewing the NLDS between the NL Central champion Reds and NL West champion Giants, beginning Saturday in San Francisco:
Player To Watch: Tim Lincecum
That there was even a question whether Lincecum would be in the Giants' playoff rotation shows how far he fell this season. The righthander is, after all, a two-time NL Cy Young winner who was 4-1 with a 2.43 ERA during San Francisco's 2010 World Series run. But he had an unsightly 6.42 ERA in 18 starts entering the All-Star break.
He improved tremendously in the second half (3.83 ERA in 15 starts) to keep his spot in the rotation. At his best, Lincecum can still dominate a game, but he hasn't completed more than 6 1/3 innings in any of his final nine starts. He had 75 career starts of at least seven innings and no more than two earned runs from 2007 through 2011 -- an average of 15 per year -- but he had only six such outings in 2012, the last of which came on July 31.
Which Lincecum will show up in the NLDS? Giants manager Bruce Bochy is sticking his neck out to give Lincecum the ball, because it means either Ryan Vogelsong or Barry Zito won't get a start; Vogelsong had a 3.37 ERA for the season and rebounded from a rough patch in late summer to allow just one earned run in his final 17 innings while Zito ended the year by allowing eight earned runs in his final 30 2/3 innings (2.35 ERA).
Key Matchup: Javier Lopez vs. Joey Votto
A major boon to the Giants' 2010 World Series run was Lopez's shutdown work on the Phillies' Ryan Howard and Chase Utley in the NLCS, when Howard went 1-for-5 with three strikeouts and Utley was 0-for-5 with a strikeout. Now Lopez will undoubtedly be charged with dispatching Votto in the seventh and eighth innings.
In seven career plate appearances against Lopez, Votto is 0-for-5 with two walks and two strikeouts. (The Giants, notably, have a second lefty for late game use in Jeremy Affeldt, against whom Votto is 1-for-5 with a double, two walks and three strikeouts.)
Votto, however, isn't Utley and especially not Howard, who struggles mightily against lefties. While he is undoubtedly a better hitter against righties (1.109 OPS) than he is against lefties (.887), here's some perspective: that lefty-only OPS would still rank fifth in the NL behind only Ryan Braun, Buster Posey, Andrew McCutchen and Aramis Ramirez and just ahead of David Wright.
Votto has been less effective against lefties since returning from his knee surgery in early September -- .217 average, .333 on-base percentage and .348 slugging -- but that could also be a fluke of a small sample size, as he's only had 27 such plate appearances in the season's final month.
Stat To Know: Runs scored and allowed.
Our preconceptions: The Giants have a great rotation, play in a pitcher-friendly ballpark and score just enough runs to get by; the Reds outscore everyone by crushing homers in their bandbox while getting just enough pitching to win.
Wrong and wrong. Yes, the Giants did hit the fewest homers in the majors this season and the Reds were third in the NL, but the ingredients of their run differentials -- +81 for the Reds, +69 for the Giants -- are not what most expect. San Francisco scored 49 more runs than Cincinnati, which allowed 61 fewer than the Giants.
Roster Snapshot: Bullpen depth
Both lost their intended closer for the season early on -- Brian Wilson for the Giants, Ryan Madson for the Reds -- yet both clubs have been reliable in the late innings. Cincinnati has the sport's best ERA in the seventh inning or later (2.84), not to mention the third-best bullpen strikeout rate in baseball history (9.90 K/9), whileSan Francisco ranks 11th in seventh-or-later ERA (3.36).
The Reds are 71-8 when leading after six innings (.899 winning percentage), while the Giants are 73-5 (.936) thanks to the double-threat of Santiago Casilla (2.84 ERA, 25 saves) and Sergio Romo (1.79 ERA, 14 saves).
Cincinnati's advantage, however, is in the singular dominance of Arolids Chapman (1.51 ERA, 38 saves, 15.3 K/9) and in its depth. It can fill the final three innings with Chapman, Sean Marshall (2.51 ERA) and Jonathan Broxton (2.82 ERA), but it also has Jose Arredondo (2.95 ERA), Alfredo Simon (2.66 ERA) and Sam LeCure (3.14 ERA) as a strong bridge pitching in the fifth, sixth or seventh innings.
X-factor: Offenses trending in opposite directions
The Reds last scored more than six runs on Aug. 31, and since then they've averaged just 2.9 runs per game while hitting for a collective slash line of .225/.295/.323, accounting for a .618 OPS that's 29th in the majors ahead of only the Red Sox.
They've gone 16-13 in that span because of excellent pitching. Votto, after missing 49 games, remains as technically proficient a hitter as you'll find -- .316/.505/.421 -- just without the same power. He hasn't homered since returning. Jay Bruce, who hit .233 but with six homers in the interim, remains among the streakiest hitters in baseball.
The Giants, meanwhile, never wavered after losing Melky Cabrera to his 50-game PED suspension and, in fact, even improved. They are 20-10 since the start of September, scoring 5.0 runs per game with a more robust .288/.343/.437 offensive line. Marco Scutaro enters the postseason on a 20-game hitting streak, and Buster Posey has batted .385 with a 1.102 OPS since the All-Star break.
Prediction: Giants in 5
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