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Tuesday, October 14, 2014

A League Championship Series Devoid of Stars

Well, the Giants did it.  I don't really know how, but they backed into the playoffs, immediately got hot and beat the Pirates in the one game Wildcard playoff, outlasted the Nationals, the best team in the National League (and my NL Champion preseason pick) in the Division Series and after a wacky walkoff win today, lead the Cardinals 2-1 in the NLCS, leaving them two wins away from their third National League pennant in 5 seasons.

Just the way everyone drew it up, right?  Yeah... right.

So how did it happen?  How did THIS team get back to the NLCS?  I'm not a big believer in the whole postseason experience thing.  The 2010 Giants didn't have postseason experience and they didn't face a single elimination game en route to their championship. The Kansas City Royals haven't lost in the postseason yet and the last time they were here was 1985.  That being said, you HAVE to chalk at least some of the Giants success up to their experience!!  They haven't gotten rattled.  They have forced other teams into mistakes.  They have essentially played flawless baseball en route to a 6-2 postseason record thus far.  One of their own losses came from making an error (the poor decision by Posey/Bumgarner to go for an out at third base on a sacrifice bunt in Game 3 of the NLDS) and the other loss came from a baffling bullpen implosion in Game 2 of the NLCS.  The Giants hopefully got their bullpen implosion out of the way and will now pitch effectively the rest of the way.  They did today.  That's the thing about this Giants bullpen... they're pretty good.  But when they're bad, they all go bad at once.  But typically it's only for one game.  Then they right the ship.  But really, the Giants have had a combination of things go right for them: the other teams have made boneheaded errors, the Giants have put the pressure on their opponents, and they've made the most of their opportunities.  It hasn't been pretty but it has been getting the job done thus far. There always is an element of luck involved in any playoff run and the Giants have had some of that as well.

Aside from luck, the biggest reason the Giants are where they are is because their starting pitching has showed up when the lights have turned brightest.  In 2010 and 2012, the Giants had one of the top rotations in the league.  In 2014, not so much. Consider this, the Giants started 7 guys regularly this year:  Bumgarner, Peavy, Hudson, Vogelsong, Lincecum, Cain, and Petit (I'm excluding the season finale start by Chris Heston).  Out of those 7 guys, only Bumgarner and Lincecum (!) had winning records. Technically, Peavy was 6-4 for SF but overall he was 7-13.  So it wouldn't have been unfair to say it would be highly unlikely the Giants would be the squad in the postseason to put together a dominant string of starting pitching, not when the postseason featured the likes of Kershaw and Greinke, Scherzer and Price, Strasburg and Zimmermann, and potentially Lester and Gray.  Except that's exactly what has happened.  Bumgarner has pitched like a man possessed.  He was excellent in 2010.  He was shaky then spectacular in 2012.  But in 2014 he has shown the baseball world that he has become one of the best big game pitchers in the sport.  One game playoff on the road in a hostile environment in Pittsburgh?  No problem - he'll just throw a complete game shutout.  He had a brain fart in Game 3 of the NLDS that allowed the Nationals to steal a game but that was a fielding error. His pitching line still looked good:  7 innings, 2 ER.  He had a postseason scoreless streak of 22 innings.  And all he did in his next appearance was shutout the Cardinals for 7+ innings to take Game 1 of the NLCS, give home field back to the Giants, and set a record for most consecutive scoreless innings on the road.  All this at 25 years old.  At 25 years old, I was blacking out at bars and figuring out what I was going to do in life.  Madison Bumgarner has 2 World Series rings and chugs 5 beers after clinching postseason series games and is essentially the best pitcher left in the postseason.  He is the undisputed ace of the San Francisco staff and has been one of, if not THE most impressive starting pitcher this October so far.  Clayton Kershaw?  Yeah, he may take home the NL Cy Young award AND the MVP (just as Justin Verlander did in 2011) but it very well could be Madison Bumgarner that brings home the bling that really matters - another World Series ring.  When talking postseason left-handers alone, chances are Bumgarner was considered 4th best among a group consisting of Kershaw, Lester, and Price.  Not anymore.  Bumgarner has outlasted all of them and has the most impressive stats (and credentials) out of any of them.

Bumgarner hasn't done it alone.  Jake Peavy got his first career postseason victory in the NLDS and kept the Giants in Game 2 of the NLCS.  Tim Hudson helped create the longest postseason game of all time by stymying the Nationals for nearly 8 innings and matching Jordan Zimmermann pitch for pitch in a game the Giants eventually won in 18 innings.  Hudson couldn't hold a 4-0 lead in today's NLCS Game 3 but he did give the team 6+ innings in his first career LCS start and the Giants were able to win it in extras. Vogelsong kept up his postseason voodoo (3-0, 1.19 ERA postseason career) in the clinching Game 4 of the NLDS and will try to give the Giants a 3-1 NLCS series lead tomorrow night.  In short, a rotation that had a ton of question marks going into October has shown to be one of the best staffs in this second season.  That's how the Giants got to where they're at.

But you look around this MLB postseason as a whole and the 4 teams remaining (the Royals, Orioles, Cardinals, and Giants) all have something in common: a lack of superstar power.  I've touched base on the pitching side in regards to the Giants, but it's the same for all the remaining teams.  Bumgarner is underrated and not a name casual baseball fans would recognize (though he's changing that start by start).  Neither is Yordano Ventura, Wei-Yin Chen, Bud Norris, Lance Lynn, or Jason Vargas.  Like I mentioned, the postseason started off with some of the biggest names in pitching but all the guys remaining are relative unknowns.  The biggest names left may very well be Tim Lincecum and Adam Wainwright. Lincecum hasn't thrown a single pitch in the postseason thus far (a sad state of affairs in an otherwise thrilling Giants postseason) and Adam Wainwright hasn't been right at all, yielding a ton of runs in 3 starts while murmurs of an injury linger.  Right now, aside from Lincecum and Wainwright, the most recognizable names may be Madison Bumgarner and James Shields and even then it's a stretch to call either of those guys superstars.

This bleeds into the position players as well.  Stars are made in October but gone are such names as McCutchen, Kemp, Cabrera, Harper, Ramirez, Puig, Trout, and Pujols. The games biggest and most marketable stars are now sitting at home watching the likes of Eric Hosmer, Lorenzo Cain, Steve Pearce, JJ Hardy, Kolten Wong, and Brandon Belt. Sure, Buster Posey is a former MVP.  And the Kung Fu Panda is definitely recognizable. But largely, the NLCS and the ALCS feature teams that don't have superstars.  Buster Posey didn't even make the All Star team this year.  Yadier Molina was on the shelf for the All Star Game as well and he's on the shelf again for the NLCS.

Regardless, the postseason has been thrilling.  There have been six (6!) extra inning games.  Most of the games have been decided by 2 runs or less.  The teams remaining in the National League have won the last 4 NL Pennants between them while the teams remaining in the AL haven't won a pennant since the early-mid 80's.  There's no New York Yankees or Boston Red Sox.  The highest payroll in baseball (LA) will not be spraying World Series celebration champagne.  There are no superstars left. But there's good baseball. Crazy baseball. Walkoffs.  Stressful innings.  Games coming down to making that one play (or not).  Players that are close to being stars or are edging their way to superstardom but aren't quite there yet.

It's been a ridiculous ride.  And unless the Royals have some sort of historic collapse, they'll be representing the American League in the World Series.  How many experts had the Royals in the playoffs, let alone the World Series?  Hopefully, it'll be these plucky Giants as their opponent.  An epic October showdown featuring a team in blue and white playing against a team in orange and black.  Giants fans can pretend the Royals are the Dodgers to add edge to a World Series, no?  Or, if the Giants can't close it out, there's a chance at a rematch of the 1985 World Series where the Cardinals faced off against the Royals and lost (which coincidentally was the Royals last playoff appearance).  Or maybe the Orioles storm back and win 4 in a row to force an all orange and black World Series.  There are a variety of ways this postseason can end.  But one thing is for certain, when it started there were not many that thought it'd be THESE 4 teams duking it out in the end.

That's baseball.  And it's great.