Posted October 18, 2012

NLCS Game 4 preview: Giants at Cardinals

NLCS, San Francisco Giants, St. Louis Cardinals, Tim Lincecum
Adam Wainwright

The Cardinals need a better performance from Adam Wainwright (right) than they got in NLDS Game 5. (Pat Benic/UPI/Landov)

Giants at Cardinals

Series: NLCS Game 4; Cardinals lead 2-games-to-1

Time: 8:00 PM EST

TV: Fox

Starters: Tim Lincecum (10-15, 5.18 ERA) vs. Adam Wainwright (14-13, 3.94 ERA)

Carlos Beltran left Game 3 with a knee injury, but rookie Matt Carpenter stepped in and delivered a two-run homer off Matt Cain in his first plate appearance. After a 3 1/2 hour rain delay, Jason Motte shut the door on the Giants with a two-inning save, giving the Cardinals a 3-1 victory and the upper hand in this series.

The Game 4 pitching matchup might be hailed as a classic for the ages if it were held in 2009, when Lincecum won his second consecutive Cy Young award on the strength of a 15-7, 2.48 ERA season with a league-high 261 strikeouts, and Wainwright finished third via a 19-8 record, a 2.63 ERA and 212 strikeouts. The latter actually got more first-place votes in the balloting (12-11), but teammate Chris Carpenter took nine first place votes himself, and Lincecum squeaked by both on the strength of more second-place votes. This year it’s been a different story, particularly for the Giants righty, who struggled with his control, finished with the league’s highest ERA among qualifiers and began the postseason in the bullpen — a saga I covered here. The combination of his three strong relief performances (one run allowed in 8 1/3 innings, with a 9/1 strikeout-to-walk ratio) and the disarray in the Giants’ rotation has led manager Bruce Bochy to give Lincecum the nod; the surprise now is that it’s Barry Zito who will get the Game 5 start instead of Madison Bumgarner, who’s been hit hard in his two turns.

Whether or not it’s due to mechanical woes or wear and tear, Lincecum’s average four-seam fastball velocity of 91.0 mph is down 2.1 mph from last year, as is the frequency with which he throws it; he also works in a sinker, slider, changeup and curve to batters from either side, with the slider his top secondary pitch against righties and the change filling that role against lefties, particularly of late; both generate good swing-and-miss rates. He was hit particularly hard by righties this year (.282/.352/.462, compared to .232/.330/.392 against lefties), a relatively new trend, and one that may not bode well against St. Louis’ righty-heavy lineup in his first outing of the year against the Cardinals.

As for Wainwright, he’s coming off a rough season himself, having struggled early in the year as he returned from Tommy John surgery, to the point that he called himself, “an embarrassment to this team and to the game of baseball.” Lit for a 4.75 ERA through his first 16 starts, he improved to a 3.18 ERA over his final 16, and wound up with peripherals (0.7 homers, 2.4 walks, and 8.3 strikeouts per nine) that were virtually carbon copies of his Cy-caliber 2009-2010 seasons. His postseason has been uneven as well; he struck out 10 Nationals in the Division Series opener, but was pulled after just 100 pitches and 5 2/3 innings, and when he was rocked for six runs in 2 1/3 innings in Game 5, it was fair to wonder whether he had run out of gas; perhaps on five days of rest after throwing just 53 pitches, he’ll be rejuvenated. Wainwright faced the Giants twice this year, both before and after he found his form; on May 17, he lasted 5 /23 innings and surrendered five runs (two earned), while on Aug. 9, he held them to one run in seven innings while striking out seven.

Arsenal-wise, Wainwright’s velocity has actually been slightly above his 2012 averages in his two postseason starts. The 31-year-old righty relies mainly on a two-seamer that averages 90.7 mph , complementing that with a cutter and a curve — his two swing-and-miss pitches — plus a four-seamer and a changeup that he throws mainly to lefties. His groundball rate is strong (52 percent), and his platoon split is notable mainly for an increased tendency to walk lefty hitters (.261/.327/.397 against them, compared to .256/.293/.388 against righties).

Their seven-run outburst in Game 2 aside, the Giants’ offense has been scuffling this postseason, hitting a combined .224/.298/.347 while averaging 3.75 runs per game. The middle of the lineup has yet to get fully on track. Number three hitter Pablo Sandoval (.294/.306/.441 in 36 PA) has at least shaken off a slow start. Cleanup hitter Buster Posey (.207/.343/.414 in 35 PA) has two home runs and six walks overall but is just 2-for-10 against the Cardinals. Number five hitter Hunter Pence (.161/.188/.161 in 32 PA) has been notable more for his motivational speeches than his bat. Number six hitter Brandon Belt (.167/.259/.208 in 27 PA) did go 2-for-4 with a double in Game 2, but otherwise has been chilly. Bochy is consideringusing Hector Sanchez behind the plate for Game 4, bumping Posey to first base and Belt to the bench, though Sanchez has more often been paired with Zito (25 out of 33 starts this year, compared to 16 out of 33 for Lincecum) and so could get the call for Game 5 instead.

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