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October 4, 2014

Playoff Prospectus

NLDS Game One Recap: Giants 3, Nationals 2

by Doug Thorburn

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Friday's face-off in D.C. appeared to be a mismatch looking at the full-season numbers, with NL strikeout leader Stephen Strasburg pitted against the aging Jake Peavy. But Peavy has been very effective since the midseason trade that brought him to the orange and black, slashing his ERA by more than half when compared to his Boston performance and stifling walks as well as any other time in his career. Not to be outdone, Strasburg has pitched his best baseball over the past month, including three consecutive scoreless starts to finish the season.

Strasburg came out firing 97-98 mph bullets in the first frame, perhaps channeling some playoff-fueled adrenaline to turn up the dials in his first career postseason start. His velocity was trending upward as the regular season came to an end, with a higher average velo in September than any other month this year, and it was full-steam ahead to start Game One. Giants batters were elevating his offerings early in the game, with the first five outs coming via flyout.

San Francisco started stringing together some hits once they took to the ground in the third inning. It started with a leadoff single by Travis Ishikawa, and then the Nats failed in their attempt to nail the lead runner on Peavy's sacrifice (a call that the umps corrected after a review), leaving two runners aboard with no outs. A passed ball by Wilson Ramos allowed both hitters to move up 90 feet, and Joe Panik got the Giants on the board with an RBI single before the threat was doused by a double play.

The story was similar in the fourth: Leadoff hitter Pablo Sandoval punched a single through the infield, only to be erased on a fielder's choice. Hunter Pence, who had beaten out the double-play ball, stole second and came around when Brandon Belt followed with a single to make the score 2–0. Both of the RBI singles came on changeups from Strasburg, despite the right-hander's possession of one of the best off-speed pitches in the game. The damage could have been worse, but Anthony Rendon made a diving snare to rob Peavy of a single (he had zero hits in 23 at bats during the regular season) and end the frame. Stras would allow the leadoff hitter to get on base in each of the third through sixth innings, but he was able to escape with minimal damage despite velocity that was down a couple of ticks from his first-inning fire.

The Nats worked strong at bats versus Jake Peavy but came away with nothing to show for it. He didn't allow a hit until the fifth inning, yet the right-hander had already run his pitch count up to 73 tosses before the start of the fifth. The first sign of real trouble came in the sixth, following a Nate Schierholtz double and a two-out walk to Jayson Werth. With Adam LaRoche coming to the plate, Bruce Bochy yanked Peavy in favor of the left-handed Javier Lopez, against whom LaRoche was 0-for-9 in his career with 8 strikeouts. LaRoche worked a walk from Lopez, who was then replaced by the right-handed Hunter Strickland, and the rookie fireballer hit triple digits as he struck out Ian Desmond to end the bases-loaded threat.

Strickland was an interesting choice, given that the Giants bullpen was well-rested following Madison Bumgarner's shutout in the Wild Card game and that Strickland had just seven career innings in the bigs. Bochy left him in for the seventh with the Giants holding a 3–0 lead, but the Nats broke out the power bats to get back into the ballgame. It started with Bryce Harper's towering home run to lead off the inning, as he turned around a 97-mph fastball and pulled a blast into the third deck at Nationals Park; two batters later Asdrubal Cabrera followed with his own solo shot off of Strickland to bring Washington to within a run. The Nats got two baserunners in the eighth via singles off of Sergio Romo but failed to score, and Santiago Casilla finished the job with a seven-pitch ninth to give San Francisco the narrow victory.

The Giants relied on some unlikely heroes in their Game One victory, but a dose of the unexpected will be key to their success in this series. Rookie Joe Panik was a force at the plate, hitting the ball hard all day and scoring the deciding run after leading off the seventh with a triple. Strickland was summoned with the game on the line, and though he escaped the bases-loaded jam, his electric heat was not enough to keep Harper and Cabrera in the yard. The Giants didn't hit Strasburg particularly hard, but they did put themselves in position to score with early-frame baserunners, and their contact-heavy approach limited Stras to just a pair of strikeouts. Peavy was able to keep the Nats off the board before giving way to the 'pen, and the Giants minimized the damage with empty bases when Washington broke out the boomsticks.

***

Game One was a showcase in one-run-at-a-time baseball, and the Giants will likely need a similar approach to overcome Jordan Zimmermann as he faces off against Tim Hudson in Game Two.

Doug Thorburn is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Doug's other articles. You can contact Doug by clicking here

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