NLCS Game 5 preview: Bumgarner looks to lead Giants into World Series
Start Time: 8:00 p.m. ET
TV: FOX Sports 1
Series: Giants lead 3-1
Status: Of the 78 teams in major league postseason history to fall behind 1-3 in a best-of-seven series, just 12 (15 percent) have come back to win the series. That's not nothing. It has happened four times already this century, most recently when these two teams last met in the NLCS in 2012, though in that case it was the Giants who came back from a 1-3 deficit to the Cardinals. The 1985 Royals turned the trick twice in the same postseason, coming back against the Blue Jays in the ALCS and the Cardinals in the World Series.
Altogether, the Cardinals have been the losing side of such a comeback four times (adding the Braves in the 1996 NLCS and the Tigers in the 1968 World Series). With the exception of the 2012 NLCS, that's all ancient history, but it's interesting to note that no team has been a part of as many 1-3 comebacks as the Cardinals, even if they were on the losing side of all four.
Of those 78 teams to fall behind 1-3, 34 (43.6 percent) wound up losing Game 5. Of the 44 who managed to force a Game 6, 16 did so on the road, sending the series back to their home ballpark for Game 6 and the potential Game 7, as the Cardinals would do if they won Thursday night. Of those 16, nine lost Game 6 and two others won Game 6 but lost Game 7. Still, six of the 16 (37.5 percent) came back to win the Series.
That's as optimistic as things get for St. Louis at this point. If they can beat Madison Bumgarner in Game 5, they'll have a 37.5 percent chance of completing their comeback at home.
Matchups: Good luck trying to beat Bumgarner. Yes, he did lose one of this three starts this postseason, but even in that game, he allowed just two earned runs over seven innings. Bumgarner shut out the Pirates on four singles and a walk, striking out 10, in the Wild-Card Game and threw 7 2/3 scoreless innings against the Cardinals in Game 1 of this series. In his three starts this postseason, he has posted a 0.76 ERA and 0.72 WHIP, has struck out 23 men in 23 2/3 innings against just three walks (7.67 K/BB), and hasn't allowed an extra-base hit or a stolen base. Over his last dozen starts dating to the beginning of August, he has gone 8-3 with a 1.78 ERA with three shutouts and a 9.90 K/BB ratio. In five home starts over that stretch, he has allowed just four earned runs, for an ERA of exactly 1.00.
The only way to beat Bumgarner, it would seem, is with another dominant pitching performance, like the one the Nationals got from Doug Fister in Game 3 of the Division Series. Fister threw seven scoreless innings in that game as Washington beat the Giants, 3-1, thanks to Bumgarner's own throwing error on a bunt attempt. The Cardinals have the right pitcher on the mound in Game 5 to deliver that sort of performance, but it would seem they have him there at the wrong time.
Adam Wainwright was the third-best pitcher in the NL in 2014, going 20-9 with a 2.38 ERA (154 ERA+) over 227 innings with the lowest home-run rate in the league. In his final four starts in September, he went 4-0 with a 0.55 ERA, averaging more than eight innings per start, completing two of them, including his major league lead-tying third shutout of the season.
This postseason, however, Wainwright has been battling a sore elbow and has failed to complete the fifth inning in either of his two starts. Against the Dodgers in Game 1 of the Division Series, he gave up six runs on 11 hits in 4 1/3 innings, throwing 102 pitches before getting pulled with one out in the fifth. Matched up against Bumgarner in Game 1 of this series, he limited the damage to three runs, two earned, but walked three against just two strikeouts and threw 98 pitches before getting pulled with two outs in the fifth, having walked two of the last three men he faced.
According to FOX Sports' Ken Rosenthal, Wainwright blamed the latter performance not on his sore elbow, but on his mechanics, which he said were "all off." Specifically, Wainwright said his stride was a foot shorter than it should have been, he was "dramatically late" getting the ball out of his glove, and he could not get his arm in the proper position. He claims to have fixed all of those problems in his between-start bullpen session, but then again, Wainwright was similarly optimistic prior to Game 1.
How do you spell relief?: The two lefties in the Cardinals' bullpen, Randy Choate and rookie Marco Gonzales, have combined to allow five runs, four earned, in their last 2 2/3 innings of work in this series. Meanwhile, closer Trevor Rosenthal, who blew the save in Game 2 of this series, has allowed ten baserunners in 3 2/3 innings this posteason, and repurposed starter Michael Wacha hasn't pitched since Sept. 26; he hasn't pitched in relief in a major league game since August of last year.
That leaves Cardinals manager Mike Matheny with three relievers who might be considered reliable at this point: Seth Maness and Carlos Martinez, who have combined to allow just one unearned run in 9 2/3 innings this postseason, and primary set-up man Pat Neshek. That's particularly troubling given Wainwright's inability to go deep in his first two starts this postseason, and could result in a Wacha sighting if Wainwright struggles early in this game with the Cardinals facing elimination. Wacha, for what it's worth, was warming up in the bullpen during the Cardinals' ultimately fruitless rally in the top of the ninth inning in Game 4.
Signs of Life: Matt Carpenter and Jon Jay have been the Cardinals' best hitters throughout this postseason, hitting .303/.343/.788 and .480/.581/.480, respectively, but outside of a few timely home runs, the rest of the lineup has been cold. Over the last two games, however, there have been signs of life, specifically from Kolten Wong and Matt Holliday. Stretching back to his walk-off home run in Game 2, Wong is 5-for-his-last-9, all of them extra-base hits (two homers, two doubles, and a triple). Holliday, meanwhile, failed to reach base in his first nine plate appearances in this series, but snapped that drought with a single in the fourth inning of Game 3 and went 3-for-5 with a double in Game 4.
Getting Holliday hot is particularly important. Not only does he hit behind Carpenter and Jay in the order, but as the only righthanded bat of the four mentioned here, he'll be crucial for St. Louis against the lefthanded Bumgarner. Then again, Holliday is just 3-for-21 (.143) in his career against Bumgarner, all singles, while Carpenter and Jay have both hit Bumgarner well despite being lefthanded.
Infield Defense: There have been four games played at AT&T Park thus far this postseason, and all four have turned, to one degree or another, on infield defense. In Game 3 of the Division Series, Bumgarner's throwing error on a would-be sacrifice bunt allowed two runs to score and set up a third in a game the Giants lost 4-1. In the next game, an error by Adam LaRoche contributed to the Giants' first runs in the bottom of the second inning, while a wild pitch scored the series-winning run in a game the Giants won 3-2.
In the NLCS, Choate's throwing error in Game 3 on a would-be sacrifice bunt resulted in a walk-off Giants win in the bottom of the tenth. In last night's Game 4, the Giants scored the tying and winning run in the sixth on balls hit to first baseman Matt Adams. His inability to throw out Juan Perez at home on a ball fielded on the infield grass and failure either to turn a double play or freeze Brandon Crawford at third on a subsequent grounder by Joe Panik proved to be the difference in the game.
Michael Who?: Michael Morse's return to action after missing the Division Series with an oblique strain seemed like it would be a significant factor in this series, but through the first four games, Morse has gone 1-for-3 with a single as a pinch-hitter. His replacements in leftfield, Travis Ishikawa and Perez, have combined to go 6-for-15 (an even .400) with two doubles (Ishikawa's) and a walk (Perez's). The only position from which the Giants have received comparable production in this series is third base, where Pablo Sandoval has gone 6-for-16 with two doubles and two walks. Ishikawa, meanwhile, leads the Giants with four RBI in this series.
Sheep in Wolf's Clothing: Thus far, the 2014 postseason has given us 24 games, 14 of which have been one-run affairs. Nine of them have been decided in the victor's final at-bat, six have gone to extra innings, including the longest postseason game in major league history, and three games, including Games 2 and 3 of this series, have been walkoffs.
That's a lot of exciting, suspenseful baseball, but it has been at the service of a postseason that has been overwhelmingly one-sided. All three AL series were sweeps, and thus far, no NL series has gone more than one game past the minimum. The teams on the short side of the six series played thus far have combined to win just three games, and we haven't come within hailing distance of a single-elimination game since the Wild-Card Games, in which that drama is artificially manufactured. And while the Royals' 12-inning, see-saw victory over the Athletics in the AL Wild-Card Game was a stone-cold classic, the NL game was an 8-0 snooze.