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October 22, 2012

Playoff Prospectus

NLCS Game Seven Preview: Giants vs. Cardinals

by Daniel Rathman

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Game Six featured the same starting pitchers as Game Two, and the results—with the Giants racing out to an early lead, amplified by defensive miscues, and fending off the Cardinals—were similar, too. Game Seven is a rematch of Game Three, when St. Louis clung to a 3-1 edge to grab a 2-1 series lead. Will the Cardinals prevail again, or will the Giants complete another three-elimination-game comeback? Here are the PECOTA odds and projected starting lineups for tonight’s contest:

Cardinals (Kyle Lohse) vs. Giants (Matt Cain) – 8:00 p.m. ET
PECOTA Odds of Winning: Giants 65.7 percent, Cardinals 34.3 percent

Odds if Carpenter replaces Holliday again: Giants 67.9 percent, Cardinals 32.1 percent

Projected Starting Lineups

Cardinals vs. Cain (R)

Giants vs. Lohse (R)

Jon Jay, CF (L)

Angel Pagan, CF (S)

Carlos Beltran, RF (S)

Marco Scutaro, 2B (R)

Matt Holliday, LF (R)

Pablo Sandoval, 3B (S)

Allen Craig, 1B (R)

Buster Posey, C (R)

Yadier Molina, C (R)

Hunter Pence, RF (R)

David Freese, 3B (R)

Brandon Belt, 1B (L)

Daniel Descalso, 2B (L)

Gregor Blanco, LF (L)

Pete Kozma, SS (R)

Brandon Crawford, SS (L)

Kyle Lohse, P (R)

Matt Cain, P (R)

PECOTA does not like Lohse. It’s nothing personal—at least, as far as we can tell—but the system views the Cardinals’ Game Seven starter as only slightly better than replacement-level pitcher, and hence, it expects the Giants to ride Cain to the pennant by nearly a 2-to-1 margin.

San Francisco’s odds tick up an additional 2.2 percent if Holliday, who was scratched from the Game Six lineup with back spasms and underwent an MRI on Sunday night, is forced to sit out, even though his replacement, Matt Carpenter, accounted for most of St. Louis’ Game Three output on a two-run blast off of Cain in the third inning, after replacing an ailing Beltran. Carpenter attributes his peculiar, 5-for-6 line against the right-hander to the small sample size of encounters between them, but the takeaway here is that the 27-year-old rookie offers Mike Matheny a quality reserve, and he certainly won’t be an automatic out for Cain.

Neither starter was particularly sharp in Game Three, with the northpaws picking up only two strikeouts apiece. Cain kept the Cardinals off-balance over 6 2/3 frames, and he may have outpitched Lohse from a peripherals perspective, but Lohse allowed only one runner to cross home plate despite letting 12 Giants reach in 5 2/3 innings of work. Bruce Bochy’s squad went 0-for-7 with runners in scoring position—falling victim to a trend Lohse showed throughout the regular season, when he held opponents to a .184/.264/.206 triple slash in RISP situations—and stranded 11 during the rain-soaked affair, but Lohse played with fire throughout the afternoon and is likely to get burned if he does so again tonight.

The chart below shows Cain’s pitches to right-handed batters in Game Three:

Unlike Ryan Vogelsong, who tamed the Cardinals’ most potent threats with a steady diet of two-seam fastballs, Cain threw the kitchen sink at them, using all five offerings in his arsenal. The keys for Cain tonight will be fastball command and a sharp slider—two factors that enabled him to limit the damage five days ago, despite the fact that he wasn’t missing many bats. Cain threw first-pitch strikes to 20 of the 27 batters he faced in Game Three, many of them fastballs over the outside corner, and that’s a strategy he’ll most likely employ again tonight.

Lohse, meanwhile, was uncharacteristically wild, issuing a season-high five walks, though two of them (both to Posey) could be categorized as intentional—one officially so, and another in a pitch-around scenario where he simply refused to give in. The 34-year-old had not walked more than two batters in an outing since Aug. 16, and his two strikeouts marked his lowest total since May 25.

As the above plot shows, Lohse had trouble hitting his spots throughout the afternoon, often missing by more than a foot, and seldom painting the black. The poor command and control forced him to throw 108 pitches to record 17 outs, and though Matheny has a rested stable of power arms ready to carry whatever load Lohse leaves for them, averaging almost 20 pitches per inning isn’t usually a recipe for success. Whether the culprit was fatigue, possibly brought on by a career-high innings load that is now up to 229 1/3 over 36 regular- and post-season starts, or nothing more than an off day, Lohse needs to remedy it to avoid testing his RISP luck with the season on the line.

The Matchup of the Game is Jay versus Cain. St. Louis’ center fielder and leadoff man is just 4-for-25 with one extra-base hit in the series, and his combined triple-slash line for the playoffs stands at .184/.226/.245. Jay’s dormant bat atop the order has been of the most significant reasons for the team-wide slump, evidenced by a .219/.267/.327 aggregate line over the past six games. Primarily a pesky singles hitter, Jay is 5-for-8 lifetime against Cain, including a 3-for-3 effort when they met in August. He went 1-for-2 with a single off of Cain in Game Three, after being hit by a pitch to kick off the contest.

Cain has largely attacked Jay with a two-pitch mix: fastballs and changeups, the former scattered throughout the zone, the latter almost exclusively in the outer half. Jay went 0-for-4 versus Vogelsong and company last night, including a swinging strikeout in a first-inning at-bat where he saw nothing but fastballs, so he’ll need to make an adjustment to reemerge as the productive table setter Matheny saw for much of the regular season.

Finally, tonight’s home-plate umpire, Gary Darling, has a reputation for stretching the zone, especially the outside corner to left-handed batters. That’s something Cain and Lohse, both savvy pitchers with solid command, are well-equipped to take advantage of. And if Darling holds true to form, he’ll be their best friend in the do-or-die Game Seven.

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

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