San Francisco Giants (94-68; 1st place, NL West) vs Cincinnati Reds (97-65; 1st place, NL Central)
Keys for the Giants: Get depth from the starting pitching; keep the Reds hitters in the park; don’t fall behind and need to score against the Reds bullpen.
The Giants won the World Series two years ago behind a deep starting rotation and a dominating closer in spite of a limited lineup. They still have a deep starting rotation and it’s probably deeper than it was in 2010, but they’re without closer Brian Wilson. This series—and the Yankees series against the Orioles for that matter—will be a good case study of how important it is to have a “name” closer in the playoffs. The Giants have survived with a closer-by-committee with Santiago Casilla, Sergio Romo, Jeremy Affeldt, Javier Lopez, and Clay Hensley. They’d probably prefer to have their starters throw a complete game or three to prevent the question from even being asked of how much they miss Wilson.
The Reds have a lineup full of power hitters and will also have bench players (depending on who among Todd Frazier and Scott Rolen are in the starting lineup) who can go deep.
The Reds bullpen has a diverse set of arms led by Aroldis Chapman and his searing 100+ mph fastball and 122 strikeouts in 71.2 innings.
Keys for the Reds: Get ahead, stay ahead; hit the ball out of the park; try and be patient to get the Giants’ starters’ pitch counts up.
The Reds pitching from top-to-bottom is too good to fall behind them. Johnny Cueto had a breakout, 19-win year; Mat Latos overcame a slow start to slot in neatly behind Cueto; Bronson Arroyo is a solid veteran who won’t be intimidated by the post-season. With that bullpen, no team wants to fall behind late in games, but the Reds have so many power bats—Joey Votto, Jay Bruce, Ryan Ludwick, and Brandon Phillips—that keeping them in the park is a difficult order. On the bright side for the Giants, the Reds don’t manufacture runs with walks and stolen bases, so if the Giants keep them in the park, they have a great chance of low scores.
The Giants starting pitching has the ability to turn out the lights on any lineup no matter how good that lineup is, so the Reds need to try and get early leads and hand the games over to their pitchers.
What will happen:
If the Reds play poorly early in the series, it’s only a matter of time before the “witty” Dusty Baker critics make coarse jokes about his recent illnesses and suggest that the Reds would’ve been better off if he’d stayed sick. I guarantee it.
With Matt Cain, Madison Bumgarner, and a resurgent Tim Lincecum, the Giants pitching is among the best in baseball. The Reds have talent in their starting rotation, but it’s not on a level with that of the Giants. I don’t trust Cueto in a playoff game. Arroyo, as gutty as he is, is hittable.
The Giants offense doesn’t have the lightning strike power that the Reds do, but the Giants wound up 6th in the National League in runs scored, while the Reds were 9th. Buster Posey is a bona fide star who might win the MVP in the National League. After his dreadful first half, Lincecum quietly finished the season respectably, if not in his Cy Young Award form.
The Giants’ pitching will keep the Reds in the park during the first two games in San Francisco. Because the Reds are aggressive at the plate and limited on the bases, they have to hit the ball out of the park to score. If that doesn’t happen, they have a hard time winning. The Giants have speed, some power, and more ways to score without the homer than the Reds do.
This series will come down to starting pitching and the Giants starting pitching is battle-tested and simply better.
PREDICTION: GIANTS IN FOUR