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October 22, 2010

Playoff Prospectus

NLCS Game Five

by Tommy Bennett

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It’s funny how much weight we give recent performance. Going into Game One of the NLCS in Philadelphia, the excitement and hype surrounding the titanic clash of Tim Lincecum (twice over the reigning Cy Young winner!) and Roy Halladay (perfect game and playoff no-hitter!) was fevered. Each had pitched brilliantly in his respective NLDS, and it was largely on that basis that expectations were ramped up last Saturday. Matching up again just five days later, Lincecum and Halladay faced considerably lower expectations on Thursday evening. Neither was as sensational in Game One as he was in his first post-season start, but I’d like to think we’re better than basing our entire set of expectations on one game’s performance. If anything, Game Five on Thursday night featured one of this generation’s most dominant pitchers with his back against the wall in the postseason for the first time and Halladay helped the Phillies beat the Giants 4-2 to stay alive as they now trail the series 3-2.

Compare the component numbers for Halladay and Lincecum in Games One and Five, and you’ll see they both pitched rather well in each:

 

Lincecum

IP

BB

K

HR

GB

Game One

7

3

8

2

7

Game Five

7

1

7

0

8

 

Halladay

IP

BB

K

HR

GB

Game One

7

0

7

2

10

Game Five

6

2

5

0

9

 

But Game Five just wasn’t a fitting end to a series that had been so highly anticipated. Its storylines were wild and crazy, but not in the fun Omar Gooding way. A woman in a giant hat festooned with a city and wearing a campy, sequined red dress was given airtime on Fox. The Phillies took the lead on what could only be scored a 2-5-3 sac bunt, but might just as easily—and more correctly—have been scored a foul ball. There were egregious baserunning mistakes by both teams (when run expectancy tables conspire with Tim McCarver’s wisdom to advise you not to make the final out at third base, listen). 

After the first few innings, Lincecum settled into a groove—retiring 11 straight at one point—while Halladay continued to get dinked and struggled to harness his command. Halladay surpassed the 100-pitch mark in the sixth inning as it became clear he didn’t have a good feel for many of his pitches. He had plenty of movement on his split-finger change and his curveball, but he wasn’t locating either of his fastballs as well as he typically can, and he didn’t have his top velocity (he sat mostly 88-89 mph, according to Pitch F/X).

It thus fell to the Phillies bullpen, given only the benefit of a one-run lead, to get through the Giants lineup for the final nine outs. It’s at times like these that you question the wisdom of batting three righties—Buster Posey, Pat Burrell, and Cody Ross—four through six. The result, when Ryan Madson replaced J.C. Romero to pitch the bottom of the eighth inning, was relatively predictably, as Madson struck out the side against (you guessed it!) Posey, Burrell, and Ross.

The combination of Jose Contreras, Romero, Madson, and Brad Lidge pitched a combined three innings with five strikeouts and zero walks. Jayson Werth added an extra run with a solo home run in the top of the ninth to give the Phillies a two-run lead. With the exception of that solo shot to Werth, the bullpens did their job and held the opposing team to just a handful of hits. What this series has come down to, when it has really come down to it, has been starting pitching. That’s how it will most likely finish up in Philadelphia, given the close nature of each of the games so far.

One of the big questions going forward is who will play third base for the Giants. Pablo Sandoval performed reasonably well in Game Five, but had some errant throws from third base. It’s not entirely clear that Mike Fontenot would be an enormous defensive upgrade given his unfamiliarity with the position.  With Jonathan Sanchez set to start Game Six and Matt Cain a potential Game Seven, it is safe to assume that few ground balls will be induced and strikeouts from both sides may be plentiful.

Going forward, the Giants still maintain an advantage—what team winning a series 3-2 doesn’t?—but they do so with the much more tangible risk that they will face a potential Game Seven showdown between Cole Hamels and Cain, one that likely favors Hamels taking into account their performance in both the postseason and the regular season. Hamels is odd since his platoon splits appear to be reversed (and in fact he has a superior K/BB ratio against righties—3.85—than he does against the lefties—3.00). This does not bode especially well for a Giants lineup filled with right-handed batters in the heart of the order. Whether the Phillies pitching staff, and the Giants lineup, is up to that challenge remains to be seen.

Related Content:  The Clash

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