Madison Bumgarner Carries Giants to 2-0 Series Lead

Last night, Madison Bumgarner finally found a groove, tossing seven scoreless innings en route to a 2-0 Giants victory. You’ll hear a lot — or, scratch that, have probably already heard a lot — about how Bumgarner didn’t have his best stuff last night, and I think that’s pretty fair to say. Despite the mechanical adjustments he made prior to the outing, his fastball didn’t gain any zip, and his slider was certainly not at its best. When Bumgarner is at his best, he’s touching 93 with the fastball, and he’s throwing the slider with considerably more velocity and movement.

But Bumgarner had no trouble shutting the Tigers down yesterday, as he limited them to two hits in total while also racking up eight strikeouts. His last time out, he’d struggled to get the Cardinals to swing and miss at his stuff. In total, he only managed five swinging strikes. Last night, though, Bumgarner more than doubled that, yielding 12 swinging strikes in all. This might, as Jeff Sullivan suggested, have something to do with increased differentiation between his fastball and slider. The charts on Brooks Baseball (10/14, 10/25) make this pretty noticeable. For example, check out the horizontal movement of Bumgarner’s pitches plotted against the velocity. In his NLCS start, the pitches were somewhat clustered together, whereas there was a clear distinction in last night’s start. I tend to avoid jumping to conclusions based on pitch f/x numbers because it’s very easy to get misled, and I’m no expert on this stuff, but I’d have to think this is a pretty good sign.

Maybe Bumgarner’s stuff was “bad” last night, but if that’s the case, it’s a testament to how damn good he is. A pitcher can’t luck his way into eight strikeouts over seven innings of two-hit ball against one of the better offenses in baseball. Nope. That’s not to say that Bumgarner didn’t encounter some luck last night — he got away with some mistake pitches, and had some help from the defense — but there was definitely more to it than that. Something was working for Bumgarner, and while it remains to be seen whether he can recapture that magic if he does happen to make another start in this series, Bumgarner was dominant last night.

Bumgarner in the World Series, career: 15 innings, 14 strikeouts, five hits, four walks, 0.00 ERA.

The Giants are two victories away from a championship, by the way.

One Win Away From The World Series

The Giants have forced a Game Seven, thanks to phenomenal starts from Barry Zito and Ryan Vogelsong.

Zito, up against one of the best offenses the National League has seen in recent years, a lineup that’s been especially tough on left-handed pitching, more than held his own. For nearly eight innings, with everything on the line, he silenced the Cardinals on their own territory. Considering the match-up and what was at stake, it was probably the outing of his career.

And you could say the same about Ryan Vogelsong, who’s transformed into a postseason force to be reckoned with. Through four and two-thirds innings, he had a no-hitter going. He went on to allow one run in seven innings of work, just as he had done in the second game of this series. His nine strikeouts were a career high, and to top it all off, he only allowed one walk. I’m certain I’ve never seen Vogelsong dominate quite like he did last night.

Oh yeah, and for good measure, Zito and Vogelsong each drove in a run in their starts.

I can’t get over the craziness of all of this. Facing elimination, the Giants sent out Barry Zito and Ryan Vogelsong, both of whom delivered with spectacular pitching to keep the team’s World Series hopes alive. You know how weird that would’ve sounded a year and a half ago? Zito had been left off the postseason roster entirely in 2010, and Vogelsong a) hadn’t pitched in the majors since 2006, and b) was coming off a season in which he’d allowed nearly two baserunners an inning…in Triple-A.

This Giants team is doing some absolutely amazing things. With their backs against the wall in the NLDS, they fought back, nabbed three consecutive games, and advanced to the next round. And they’re on the brink of doing it again. This is unprecedented stuff.

Now, it’s World Series or bust. Whatever happens tonight, it’s been one hell of a ride. Here’s hoping it’s not over just yet. And with the Giants at home, sending Matt Cain to the mound, I have to say — I like them odds.

Splash Hits: The Regular Season Is Over

Should Barry Zito start in the postseason? « Bay City Ball – A Giants Blog
Nope, he shouldn’t. One can only hope Ryan Vogelsong sealed the deal in nabbing that playoff rotation spot with yesterday’s strong performance.

These Saber-Savvy San Francisco Giants | FanGraphs Baseball
Talk to Bobby Evans, Vice President of Baseball Operations, and you get a sense of a team with a strong process that includes inputs from both the old and the new school of baseball. And this isn’t some sort of new phenomenon in San Francisco.”

50th anniversary: Game No. 165 | The Hardball Times
Fifty years ago today, one of the greatest pennant races came to an end—with a game that was both great and greatly appropriate.”

Scouting Report: Giants Prospect Clayton Blackburn | Bullpen Banter
A scouting report on Giants pitching prospect Clayton Blackburn.

Let’s Talk About the Bullpen Instead – McCovey Chronicles
Do the Giants have a good playoff bullpen?

For NLDS, Reds’ lineup could be familiar | reds.com: News
The Reds featured Wednesday vs. the Cardinals what could very well be the lineup they show the Giants in Game 1 of the National League Division Series on Saturday.”

Buster Posey’s Case for NL MVP

Others have begun to discuss Buster Posey and his case for the 2012 National League MVP award, and as should surprise nobody (especially since I’ve mentioned this before), I’m also on the “Posey for MVP” bandwagon. The competition for NL MVP is rather tight, with several players standing out as strong candidates. The contenders can reasonably be cut down to the following seven players: Buster Posey, Ryan Braun, Andrew McCutchen, Yadier Molina, David Wright, Jason Heyward and Chase Headley. You could actually make a serious case for a few others (Aaron Hill, even?), but those are probably the big seven.

Continue reading

93 Wins, Tim Lincecum, and the Postseason Roster

Greetings from the Petco Park press box, where hahahahahahaha I can’t believe the Giants actually won that game. Okay, sorry, I’ll pull myself together — I just watched the Giants wrap up their 159th game of the season. They pulled off a pretty spectacular comeback win, but Tim Lincecum pitched poorly (more on that later); and this was my last chance to see the 2012 Giants in action, as I won’t be able to make it to any postseason games. So, ultimately, it was a bittersweet day.

This game was, in a word, eventful. Let’s start with Lincecum, the latest concern as the Giants look ahead to the playoffs. He’s sort of pitched better in the second half, with 3.93 runs allowed per nine innings since the all-star break — compared to a first-half RA/9 figure of 6.70. Except, he sort of hasn’t. (And, really, how hard was it to improve upon those dreadful first-half numbers anyway?)

Lincecum got off to a promising start today, with a 1-2-3 first inning. He followed that up with a scoreless second inning. Okay, so now we’re rolling. In the third, he walked Everth Cabrera, who proceeded to steal second and third. And then the Padres started to do their damage: Logan Forsythe homered on the eighth pitch of his at-bat to put two runs on the board. It wasn’t a good pitch, but it wasn’t exactly a meatball. It was on the innermost part of the top of the strike zone, and really, it was pretty impressive that Forsythe was able to get around on it.

But Lincecum wasn’t done there. In the fourth, he served up a leadoff homer to Yasmani Grandal, on a pitch placed squarely over the middle of the plate. In the fifth, he walked Everth Cabrera, who again proceeded to steal second and third, only this time he came around to score on an overthrow to third from Hector Sanchez. And in the sixth, once again, Lincecum served up a leadoff homer on a pitch right down the middle.

Lincecum finished his day with the following line: six innings, four hits, four strikeouts, two walks, and a whopping three homers allowed (at Petco Park, no less!). I guess those two walks were somewhat of a silver lining, and hey, he drew a couple walks himself. But it’s pretty hard to feel confident about Lincecum starting a postseason game at this point. According to Andrew Baggarly, it would have taken a “truly bad” showing from Lincecum for him to forfeit his spot in the playoff rotation. I’m guessing that today’s outing, bad as it was, didn’t do the job. And, like it or not, the Giants have no better options. The Reds have mashed against left-handed pitching to the tune of a 106 wRC+, the third-best mark in the majors. Suffice it to say, a Barry Zito start against that lineup would probably not end well. (And while we’re on the topic, I’m not sure what value Zito is going to have as a reliever.)

Given the uncertainty surrounding the Giants’ starters, and Bruce Bochy’s own managerial tendencies, it’s odd to see that the Giants are leaning toward putting 11 pitchers (instead of 12) on the postseason roster. Bochy loves to mix and match with his bullpen, and unsurprisingly, Giants relievers have the lowest average innings pitched per appearance of any ‘pen in the majors. In fact, no team is particularly close. Coming into today, that mark stood at 0.86, with the next lowest being the Mets bullpen’s mark of 0.91. Given his style, I’m guessing he’d have more use for an extra arm than a designated pinch runner. Plus, as @SFBleacherGirl points out on Twitter, the Giants could play as many as three games in Cincinnati’s homer-happy home park; in other words, pitching will come at a premium.

Anyway, back to today’s game. The Giants got thrown out at home twice in the same inning. Hector Sanchez, as noted earlier, threw the ball over Joaquin Arias’ head in an attempt to gun down Everth Cabrera, which allowed him to score. Gregor Blanco struck out with the bases loaded. Ryan Theriot was caught stealing second to end the third inning. There was just a lot of sloppy baseball played by the Giants in general.

Yet they entered the ninth inning with just a one-run deficit, and against one of the toughest closers in the majors, they miraculously mounted a comeback. The sequence: Xavier Nady solo homer, Francisco Peguero single, Hunter Pence two-run homer. Sergio Romo came in, closed the door, and that was that — a 7-5 Giants win, salvaged rather miraculously. The Giants have now won 93 games, their most since 2003.

Five and a Half Games Up

The Giants caught a huge break when it was announced earlier that Clayton Kershaw would not be making tonight’s start, and that Joe Blanton would be starting in his place. The Giants definitely lucked out in the opposing-team’s-injuries department: not to be forgotten was Matt Kemp‘s absence, which left Hanley Ramirez and number-eight hitter A.J. Ellis as the only legitimate right-handed threats in the Dodgers’ starting lineup. And they took advantage of it.

Barry Zito came up big tonight, giving the Giants six-plus innings’ worth of scoreless work. He wasn’t outright dominant, but he didn’t need to be. He worked his way out of some jams, kept his pitch count from getting out of hand, and by the time he exited the mound in the seventh inning, the Giants had a four-run lead in a crucial game. You really couldn’t have asked more of Zito than what he did tonight. (I was most impressed with how he handled Hanley Ramirez, striking him out twice — both times looking — and yielding a groundout in the other at-bat). Zito’s final line: 6.1 IP, 0 R, 4 K, 3 BB,  4 H.

On the offensive side of things, the Giants wasted no time getting runs up on the board. They nearly batted around in the first inning, the big hit coming off the bat of Hunter Pence, who doubled to drive in a couple runs. There were several great at-bats in that inning, most notably from Pablo Sandoval and Brandon Belt. Sandoval drew a seven-pitch walk, one day after seeing four pitches in four plate appearances (it seemed as though he was making a conscious effort to see more pitches); Belt, too, worked himself a walk, after an eleven-pitch battle against Blanton (although it didn’t end up being significant, as Gregor Blanco then struck out to end the inning). Anyway, these were particularly impressive considering that Blanton entered this game with a BB/9 of 1.6; he’s stingy when it comes to allowing free passes.

Those two first-inning runs were all the Giants really needed, but they padded their lead as the game went on. Angel Pagan tripled for the 11th time this season and came around to score on a sac fly; he’s got a pretty good shot at breaking the San Francisco Giants record for triples (12). And Buster Posey added a fourth run by homering to lead off the sixth inning.

Posey, if I may go off on a tangent now, has built himself a pretty strong MVP case this season. I’m biased, of course, but I think the objective case holds up under scrutiny. Posey has now hit .327/.402/.531 in 527 plate appearances this season, all while playing good defense at the toughest position on the field. He’s hit very well with runners in scoring position, and in the situations that matter most. And he just so happens to lead the National League in TAv (a stat that accounts for some of the important stuff that wOBA ignores). Accurately assessing catcher defense is pretty tough, given the intricacies of catching, but it’s pretty clear to me that Posey is an above-average defender.

Anyhow, there will be much more time to discuss this as the season draws to a close. The main focus right now: the first place Giants. They salvaged the series win, extending their division lead to five and a half games. With 22 games remaining on the schedule (and just 21 for the Dodgers), that’s huge. Not that you needed me to tell you that. The Giants’ magic number is down to 17, and at this point, they’re all but guaranteed to make the playoffs. I’d really like to see them wrap it up before that final three-game series in Los Angeles, and it looks like they’re well on their way toward doing that. I’m nothing but pleased with how this team has performed.

August Has Been Kind

Last night, it looked like the Giants were going to waste yet another strong outing from Matt Cain. With the game tied 1-1 in the eighth, Cain surrendered a run, giving the Astros the lead. The Giants entered the ninth with a one-run deficit to overcome and the bottom of the order taking on the task; the odds weren’t promising. But four pitches later, Brandon Belt had singled to lead off the inning, and Joaquin Arias had ripped a double down the left field line to drive him in. A couple batters later, Hector Sanchez blooped a single into shallow center field, and the Giants took a 3-2 lead. It was the kind of game the Giants have lost hundreds of times over the past several years; except they didn’t lose last night.

August sure has been kind to the Giants. Well, in the win-loss column, at least. The Giants are now 16-10 on the month, good for a .615 winning percentage. That makes this their best month so far, which is somewhat odd considering that they’ve gone Melky-less since the 15th. But that’s the thing — others have been picking up the slack. Buster Posey should win NL Player of the Month at this point, as nobody in the majors has had a better August. In fact, this month has firmly placed Posey in the MVP race, and assuming he can finish the season well, he’ll have a strong case come voting time. If Posey weren’t putting up otherworldly numbers this month, Angel Pagan (.353/.422/.608) would probably be deserving of player-of-the-month honors. Given his extended struggles, it’s been especially refreshing to see Pagan hit a stride. In the month of August, he’s actually surpassed his combined June/July totals for walks and total bases. And then there’s Joaquin Arias, who’s posted a 200 wRC+ in 54 plate appearances. His 2012 offensive numbers are now somehow better than Carlos Pena‘s.

And like that, the Giants now have a 3.5 game lead in the NL West. It’s not huge, and it’s certainly close enough to make things interesting, but it affords the Giants some breathing room. The Dodgers have made some big splashes, most notably the recent mega-trade for Adrian Gonzalez, Josh Beckett, Carl Crawford, and Nick Punto. While I’m confident that the trade hurts — maybe even cripples — the Dodgers in the long-term, it’s very difficult to write them off in the short-term. There’s no denying the collection of talent on the Dodgers’ current roster. But the Giants are starting to pad onto their division lead, and with 33 games to go, things are looking good.

Announcing the Winners of the Matt Cain DVD Contest

The Giants/Dodgers series is over. The Giants won all three games, scoring a total of 14 runs. Brandon Belt failed to get a hit in the series.

There were four commenters that guessed that the Giants would sweep. Of those four, nobody correctly guessed the Giants’ total runs scored or Brandon Belt’s hit total. Therefore, the winners are the first two to correctly guess that the Giants would sweep: Justin C and Jack Coppinger. Email me (giantsnirvana@gmail.com) within the next few days from the address listed along with your comment, and I’ll arrange for the DVD to be mailed to you.

Best Series Ever

Didn’t that all seem a little too easy?

The Giants scored in the first inning of the first game of this series, and never gave up their lead. They were never winning by a significant margin, but the way Madison Bumgarner was pitching, even two runs of support was enough to feel comfortable. Heck, even after Sergio Romo coughed up a solo homer to make it a one-run game, Javier Lopez came in and shut the door immediately. Just like that.

Last night’s game wasn’t entirely a walk in the park. But once again, the Giants got some runs up in the first inning, and never looked back. There was one moment in that game — one brief, isolated moment — that was cause for concern. Tim Lincecum was missing some spots in last night’s outing, so I was slightly worried when he worked himself into that sixth inning jam. Matt Kemp came up, representing the tying run. But in an instant, he smoked the second pitch into right field, and it was caught. And then there were two outs, and Jose Mijares came in to pitch against Andre Ethier — who is essentially Brandon Crawford when it comes to hitting left-handed pitching. Aside from that brief moment of tension with Kemp at the plate, it felt like the Giants were in total control the whole night.

And then the same happened tonight. Except tonight was a walk in the park. The Giants put three runs on the board in the first inning, and then Matt Cain took the mound. Cain retired the first seven hitters he faced, and then five of the next seven hitters he faced. Through five innings, the Dodgers were scoreless. And in the sixth inning, the Giants tacked on another three runs. By the end of the seventh inning, the Giants had a seven-run lead. Even when the Dodgers kept chipping away at that lead in the eighth inning, never did it feel like the Giants were actually in danger of relinquishing it. And Joaquin Arias, of all players, drove in five runs.

Not even a month ago, the Dodgers came to town and ripped the Giants’ collective heart out. The Giants had a three-game lead in the NL West before the series began, and by the time the Dodgers were gone, so was sole possession of first place. It was a gut-wrenching series, the kind that leaves a bad taste in the mouth for weeks. The first game was stolen by the Dodgers in the tenth inning, on a Hanley Ramirez home run off Sergio Romo — sound familiar? And in the subsequent two games, the Giants were shut out. The Dodgers scored 14 runs, and that was 14 more than the Giants. In that series as a whole, in their own home park, the Giants only scored three runs.

This was the polar opposite of that experience. There were runs, leads, wins. There were inconsequential homers hit by Hanley Ramirez off of Sergio Romo. The Giants waltzed into Los Angeles a second-place team, and they’ll exit with a modest first place lead.

Given how that last Giants/Dodgers series had gone, I was very nervous about the prospect of the Giants facing the Dodgers on the road. But it went well, shockingly well, and without much stress at all. It’s truly difficult to overstate how amazing this series was. Man, that felt good.