Posted April 18, 2013

NLDS Game 4 preview: Giants at Reds

Cincinnati Reds, Division Series, NLDS, San Francisco Giants
Barry Zito

Barry Zito will make the first postseason start of his checkered Giants career tonight. (CSM/Landov)

Giants at Reds

Series: NLDS, Game 4, Reds lead 2-1

Time: 4:00 p.m. EST

TV: TBS

Starters: Barry Zito (15-8, 4.15 ERA) vs. Mike Leake (8-9, 4.58 ERA)

The Reds still have two chances to win one game at home to move on to the National League Championship Series, but their 10-inning, 2-1 loss in Game 3 was a major setback. Had Cincinnati managed to scratch across the one extra run required to win that game in regulation, it could have postponed any decision regarding Johnny Cueto and his strained oblique for another four to eight days. Instead, it was forced to act now and have done so, dropping Cueto from the NLDS roster in favor of 24-year-old Mike Leake. Because of that move, Cueto will not be eligible to pitch in the NLCS should the Reds advance.

That was the right move to make. The Reds could have started Mat Latos in Game 4 on three-day’s rest, but if the Giants won, they’d still need a starter for Game 5, and they’re much better off trying to pull out a win behind Leake in Game 4 with a fully-rested Latos lined up for Game 5 than pitching a possibly compromised Latos in Game 4 with Leake as their last line of defense in Game 5. Besides, given the nature of Cueto’s injury, he most likely would have been unable to pitch in the NLCS anyway.

Leake’s lone start against the Giants this year was a complete game victory in San Francisco on June 29 in which the only Giants run scored on a Pablo Sandoval solo homer in the ninth. However, Leake posted a 5.54 ERA at home this season and 17 of the 26 home runs he allowed on the season came in his 16 home starts (at a rate of 1.7 home runs per nine innings pitched).

Opposing Leake will be veteran lefty Barry Zito. Zito was famously left off the postseason roster when the Giants won their first West Coast world championship in 2010, and the fact that he’s getting the ball this time around says more about Tim Lincecum’s performance this season than it does Zito’s. Zito was no more effective this year than he was two years ago. He posted a 4.15 ERA both seasons with very similar peripherals. Given the fact that run scoring was down this year relative to 2010 and that AT&T Park played as more extreme pitchers’ park this year (park factor of 88 compared to 97 in 2010, per Baseball-Reference), that 4.15 was less impressive this season, translating to an 84 ERA+ compared to 94 in 2010. Zito went 15-8 this year compared to 9-14 in 2010 simply because the Giants had a better offense and scored more runs for him (4.76 runs per 27 outs this year, just 3.61 in 2010).

Zito did pitch well in his two starts against the Reds this season, one at home and one in Cincinnati, allowing just one run in six innings on both occasions. He also finished the season strong, going 5-0 with a 2.35 ERA in his final five starts. Still, the Reds wouldn’t appear to be a great matchup for the left-handed Zito as Joey Votto and Jay Bruce are the only left-handed bats in the Reds lineup and the Reds as a team hit .266/.327/.443 against lefties on the season.

Among the right-handed bats in the Reds lineup in Game 4 will be Leake’s. Heis one of the best hitting pitchers in all of baseball, with a career line of .274/.308/.348 in 195 plate appearances. That may not seem like much, but the Reds ahave hit .242/.308/.383 in this series and Leake slugged .443 this season thanks to a quintet of extra-base hits, one of them a home run off Matt Cain. Leake has a higher career OPS+ than Dontrelle Willis and Carlos Zambrano, trailing only Micah Owings among active pitchers with at least 50 plate appearances in that category.

Leake doesn’t hit like a pitcher, but the Giants as a team have through the first three games of this series, posting a .126/.215/.179 line. By way of comparison, the average National League pitcher hit .129/.162/.168 this season. The Giants have just five hits in the last two games, scored their first run of Game 3 without the benefit of one (hit by pitch, walk, sacrifice bunt, sacrifice fly) and needed a passed ball and a Scott Rolen error to plate Hunter Pence, the only Giant who is hitting, with the winning run in the 10th. If the Giants wind up pulling out this series behind Matt Cain in Game 5, the Reds will only have themselves to blame for letting Game 3 get away.

– By Cliff Corcoran 

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