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Giants starters' struggles not a good sign for NLCS chances

SAN FRANCISCO -- Something is wrong with Madison Bumgarner, and neither he nor the Giants seem to know what it is. It is not, he insisted after he pitched his club to a 6-4 loss in Game 1 of the NLCS, a matter of mechanics. "Mechanics were fine today," he said. It is not a matter of health. "Body feels great," he said. For seven weeks now, though, Bumgarner has not been the same pitcher that he was for the majority of the season -- his ERA, as of Aug. 20, was 2.83 -- nor in 2011, nor in 2010, when at 21 he proved a linchpin of San Francisco's championship rotation.

Over his final seven regular season outings, Bumgarner's ERA was 5.89, and against him hitters produced a batting average of .304 and an OPS of .884. In his NLDS start against Cincinnati, he yielded four runs on seven hits in just 4.1 innings in a 9-0 loss. On Sunday, against St. Louis, Bumgarner reached his nadir. He lasted just 3 2/3 innings, during which the Cardinals had their way with him: they had eight hits, including home runs by David Freese and Carlos Beltran, and scored six runs. Although the Giants would score four times in the bottom of the fourth against Cardinals starter Lance Lynn, St. Louis' bullpen permitted its offense to take the rest of the evening off, as six relievers combined to allow four base runners in 5 1/3 shutout innings. The damage had already been done, and it had been done against Bumgarner.

After the game, Bumgarner tried to explain the source of his struggles. "Not a whole lot of life on the ball," he said, in his North Carolina drawl. "Stuff's just not where it normally is," he said. "Pitches just not as sharp," he said. This was a night on which it was difficult to tell the difference, based upon either velocity or break, between Bumgarner's fastball and his slider. Both hovered in the high 80s -- in the third inning, not one of Bumgarner's pitches broke 90 -- and both, far too often, ended up crossing the plate right over its heart. The majority of Bumgarner's pitches simply looked the same to the Cardinals, and, against a lineup as disciplined and potent as theirs, the result was what might have been expected.

A few days ago, Freese explained the general approach taken by the Cardinals' batters, as taught by their hitting coach, Mark McGwire: look for the fastball, and the rest will take care of itself. "If you're ready for the heater, I firmly believe, you can hit everything else," Freese said. "If you keep your balance, and stay back you can adjust." The lack of variety and movement presented by Bumgarner on Sunday made it so that few adjustments were needed. Consider Freese's at-bat in the second inning, which ended with his two-run homer to left-center. Freese saw seven pitches: a 90-mile-an-hour fastball; three consecutive 88-mile-an-hour sliders; an 89-mile-an-hour fastball; a 90 mile-an-hour fastball; and then an 88-mile-an-hour fastball. All of the strikes were belt-high, on the inner half of the plate. By the last pitch, Freese had a strong idea of what was coming, and he did with it what Freese does with such offerings in October.

After Giants manager Bruce Bochy mercifully pulled Bumgarner, the Giants' bullpen matched the Cardinals' pitch for pitch. None of San Francisco's five relievers -- including Tim Lincecum, who threw two innings -- allowed even a hit, let alone a run. "It just stinks that I gave up too many runs for us to get back in it," Bumgarner said.

He did, and his latest poor start represents a foreboding sign for the Giants' chances in this series, in ways more insidious than that they now trail by one game to none. San Francisco is a club that is constructed to rely on its rotation, as it did in the playoffs two seasons ago, when its starters combined for a 2.23 ERA, and a .194 batting average against, and accounted for 72% of the club's innings pitched, 96.2 of a possible 135. Through this postseason's first six games, Giants starters have an ERA of 6.49, with a .303 batting average against, and they have worked just 26.1 of 55.0 innings, or 48% of them.

In fact, with Bumgarner a shell of his recent self, Lincecum a shell of his former self and Barry Zito a shell of his long-ago self -- and with Game 2 starter Ryan Vogelsong the owner of a late-season seven game stretch in which he posted an ERA of 10.31 (though Vogelsong finished the regular season with three strong outings, and allowed one run in five innings in his NLDS start against the Reds) -- Bochy seems to have precisely one entirely reliable starter at his disposal, Matt Cain, who will start Game 3. Against a team like the Cardinals, that is several reliable starters too few.

Even though Lincecum appeared out of the bullpen on Sunday ("If they need me, I'm going to try and get my outs, and that's good enough for me," he said), he threw just 24 pitches, and Bochy intimated that he and his 5.18 ERA -- 85th among 88 qualified pitchers -- will likely start Game 4. Bochy also gently suggested that we might have seen the last of the mystifyingly ineffectual Bumgarner, who would be in line to start Game 5, this series. "We'll talk about it, where Bum's at," he said. "He came out with good stuff, but it dropped a little bit. He just made some mistakes. We'll talk about it tonight, tomorrow and as we get to Game 5." Unless Bochy receives some surprising performances from his beleaguered rotation, and soon, who is to start Game 5 might well prove a decision he won't get the chance to make.