Friday, September 26, 2014

Defining Moments

SATURDAY: It's going to come down to the final day of the season, at best.  The Pirates and the Cards both lost on Saturday.  The Pirates lost a slugfest in the 10th inning, so the Cards went into their game later knowing that all they had to do was beat the weak Diamondbacks and they would take the division.  As it is, with the Pirates loss, the Cards clinched at least a tie.  If the Cards win Sunday or the Pirates lose, the Cards win the division. If the Pirates win and the Cards lose, they play the tie-breaker on Monday.  The Cards are sending their ace out on Sunday.

The tie-breaker is not a win or go home.  The winner of the game wins the division and move on to play a series.  The loser plays the Giants in the Wild Card game, which IS win or go home.

The Giants as surmised played their rookies on Saturday, and they won, with all the rookies looking good.  Sunday they will send out a rookie starting pitcher.  Neither game means anything to the Giants.  They know they will be playing away on Wednesday, though they still don't know whether it will be Pittsburgh or St. Louis.

FRIDAY: Arizona came within a base hit in the bottom of the ninth of putting the Pirates into a tie for first.  They came back from a 6-3 deficit to tie the Cards in the 8th, and had two men on in the 9th but couldn't bring in that winning run.  The Cards scored in the top of the 10th, Arizona couldn't answer, so the Cards got a one run victory.

The pressure was on them because earlier in the day the Pirates beat the Reds 3-1 in Cincinnati.  Also, the Giants lost at home to San Diego, so they now know they will not play the Wild Card game at home.  So in a way they are in the best position--they can rest whatever players they choose because the final 2 games are meaningless.  Meanwhile, the Pirates and Cards have to keep contending for that very important top spot.  It is still possible they will tie for first, which is the chanciest outcome for both teams as their top pitchers will likely be unavailable.

Still, the Pirates now know that if they wind up playing the Giants in the Wild Card, the game will be in Pittsburgh.

Thursday, September 25, 2014

Post-Season Players Known, But Not Matchups

Edinson Volquez pitched lights out for the Pirates win
Though the National League teams involved are known with three games left in the regular season, nothing else is.

On Thursday the Pittsburgh Pirates walloped Atlanta to move to one game behind St. Louis for the division title.  The San Francisco Giants held on to defeat San Diego to remain one game behind the Pirates for (essentially) home field advantage in the Wild Card game.  However, that Wild Card game could instead be with St. Louis if the Pirates take the division.

If you were playing the odds, you'd probably figure that the situation will wind up as it is now.  Not just the math but the matchups.  The Cardinals finish the season in Arizona, while the Pirates finish theirs with three games in Cincinnati.  The Reds are a better team than Arizona, which is also in management chaos.  The Pirates however are the hotter team, though not by much over St. Louis, their recent nemesis in the division.

Enthused by backing into a playoff spot by the Brewers loss earlier in the day, the Giants' bats came alive Thursday. An especially good sign was the splash homer by Brandon Belt.  Unfortunately their pitching went to hell, and they blew a 6-0 lead to come from behind for a 9-8 victory.  Then they celebrated their Wild Card before the Bay Area fans.
Brandon Belt's power will be needed for the Giants
The Giants play their remaining three games against the Padres at home.  Bruce Bochy says he's not holding anybody back for the Wild Card game apparently scheduled for next Wednesday, but that seems to not include his likely starter, Madison Bumgarner, who won't pitch his regular rotation this weekend.  So right now chances are that it will be Bumgarner against Liriano in Pittsburgh on Wednesday.

The Pirates seem much better equipped to win a series, even the long one of the World Series seven games.  They are hitting much better and they have the starting pitching.  The Giants have playoff experience but weaker hitting and probably just three reliable starters.

But of course that doesn't matter in a one game win or go home.  Anything can happen to win a single game or to lose it.  That's where the Giants postseason experience comes in, but the Pirates have also demonstrated a steadiness under pressure and an ability to come from behind.  You have to question the Giants hitting ability on that.  As for pitching, the Giants have the luxury of holding Bumgarner out for the wild card game, while the Pirates have to go all out to try to win the division, so they can't hold anyone out.

There's even the possibility of a Central Division tie, in which case the Pirates and Cards play a one game playoff for the division title.  The advantage of winning the division is tremendous.  It means no one and done, and no fewer than 5 games to decide anything.  

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

How Sweet It Is

In the city where it all ended for more than 20 years, the Pittsburgh Pirates beat the Atlanta team to clinch a postseason spot--the first time since 1990 and 91.  They clinched in part because the Brewers lost.

Their winning ways in September have been matched only by the Cardinals, but they've closed the gap to one game in the lost column for the division title.  With the Giants loss in LA, they are a full game ahead of the Giants for the top wild card slot.  The Giants can still secure the second slot but they face the possibility that the Dodgers will clinch the division against them tomorrow--and with Kershaw on the mound, it's a real possibility.

Update: Yeah, it happened, and the Dodgers fans could have started celebrating in the 7th inning of what became a lopsided game.  So the Dodgers got the West, but both the Pirates and Cards lost, so the Bucs are still a game out in the Central.  Apparently the Giants are very close to clinching a wild card but I've given up trying to figure this stuff out.

Update 2: So when the Brewers lost on Thursday, the Giants backed into a wild card.

Keeping It Going

For a long time it seemed like a sad summary of what the last few weeks have been like for the San Francisco Giants.  Jake Peavy and their bullpen held the Dodgers in check, but inning after inning they squandered opportunities to score.  In the 8th, in the 9th.  In the 10th.  And the 11th.  And the 12th.  They left ten on base.

But finally in the 13th inning they got deep into the Dodgers bullpen and scrambled together three runs, with pinch hitter and rookie catcher Andrew Susac driving in the winning run and scoring the third of the inning.  The game was iced by the fireballing rookie reliever Hunter Strickland, who struck out two and induced a ground ball out.  Though the hitting woes for many of the veterans continued, especially Pablo Sandoval and Hunter Pence, Brandon Belt started to look like his old self, and Gregor Blanco homered and drove in two.

Earlier, the Pittsburgh Pirates won their second consecutive 1-0 game, this time against their ancient enemy, Atlanta.  The sole run of the game was a homer by Andrew McCutchen. ESPN touted him as a repeat MVP.  Francisco Liriano pitched the shutdown shutout.

Which means my two teams are tied for the first wild card spot. It seems more and more likely they will be playing each other.

 They are also both barely alive for their respective division leads.  The Giants at least for the moment control their fate, as they are playing twice more against the division leading Dodgers.  The Pirates can't do anything but keep winning and hope that the Cards start to lose, which so far they are not doing.  They beat up on the Cubs on Monday.  But the Pirates every day look more and more like the real thing.  No longer just hoping to get into the postseason, they are showing the strength to go deep, even all the way.

Meanwhile, I've finally watched the second game of the 2004 NBA finals again, the only game (as it turned out) that the Lakers won against Detroit.  I hadn't remembered it as a great game, but it is--a great Laker game.  Maybe not the best this particular Laker team ever played, but definitely the last great game they played.  Shaq would go on to have a monster 4th game, but the Lakers couldn't compensate for Karl Malone's injury. They were outplayed and probably outcoached.  And that was the end for this team.  But this particular game was great, and I'm going to watch it again before I put it away.          

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Pirates, Giants: Towards Defining Moments

Sunday Update: The Pirates enacted revenge on the Brewers with their own 1-0 victory to take the series.  However, they can't prevent the Cardinals from winning the division by continuing to win games.

The punchless Giants again wasted innings of strong starting pitching and ultimately collapsed in an 8-2 loss to the Padres, to complete the San Diego sweep.  Bochy did play two rookies in an effort to shake up the lineup but not successfully.  The Giants are now in danger of being overtaken by the Pirates for the first wild card slot.  A lot can still happen to both teams, but the Giants face three games against the division leading Dodgers in LA, at a very low point in their season.  

By sweeping the Red Sox and winning the first game against the Brewers, the Pittsburgh Pirates pretty much assured themselves a post-season slot.  But by losing the second game to the Brewers while the Cardinals continued to win, the odds are heavily against them in terms of the Central Division lead.  The Brewers 1-0 victory may prove expensive however as they sent two fast balls to hit Pirates star Andrew McCutchen, solidly both times.  It's a loser's kind of ugliness, as the Brewers are probably out of it.

Meanwhile the Padres are indeed playing the spoiler role for the Giants as I feared, and the Giants loss of leadoff hitter Angel Pagan has rendered the lineup dangerously askew.  Thanks also to the absence of power hitter Michael Morse, producing runs is a struggle, even with the excellent pitching they got on Saturday. Having lost the first two games of the series, and facing a schedule of nothing but the Padres and the Dodgers, the Giants could fall back even beyond the first wild card.  They could conceivably miss the postseason completely, although my math is pretty shaky on wild card combinations.  And if Pagan can't come back--a real possibility--the postseason might be pretty short anyway.  It's time for Bruce Bochy to take some chances with his lineup and insert a rookie in center field and perhaps elsewhere to try to shake things up and get some runs.