We tend to focus on the starting rotations in these series, to look at the guy who’ll be starting twice, the ace, and then to look at the guys who’ll be starting once, and draw a lot of conclusions from those names. That’s not necessarily the best way to do these things, and there’s no reason to think strength of rotation is more convincing than strength of lineup or strength of defense or strength of anything else that can be strong. But there are very few things that go as predicted in baseball, and rotations are, at the very least, fairly predictable.
Then we get to this series. The Reds’ ace left the first game after one and a half batters. The Reds’ next-best pitcher then came into that game and pitched in relief. The Giants, meanwhile, coyly avoided naming a rotation, and on Sunday blew up whatever plans you might have had by using Tim Lincecum as a reliever, and naming Oh THAT Ryan Vogelsong their Game 3 starter. They also pulled their own ace after just 75 pitches, setting up the increasingly more-likely possibility that he, Matt Cain, will start Game 4 on short rest. And Game 5? Why, that could be just about anything, up to and including Dave Righetti throwing on a glove and seeing what the old hose has got sloshing around. Except Game 5 doesn’t look like much of a likelihood at all at this point.
And that’s because Bronson Arroyo picked Sunday to have the best start of his career. Maybe not the very, very best start of his career. He’s thrown three-hit shutouts before, and he has struck out 12 in a game before. But this was pretty darned close: he went seven innings, allowed one hit and one walk, and threw 91 pitches before he left the game in an act of mercy and before his teammates started circling the bases at will and humiliating a 94-win Giants team.
Ninety-four wins is a lot of wins, not much fewer than the 97 that the Reds won. The teams are, factually speaking, not very far apart from each other. But in two games, the Reds have outscored their opponents 14-2 and outhit them 22-9. They’ve hit their fly balls farther, they’ve hit more line drives, and when they’ve allowed line drives they’ve been perfectly positioned to field them. It’s a drubbing, and for a brief moment it could make you forget that these are two teams that are fairly equally matched. So equally matched that it’s probably fair to take the historic 54 percent home-field advantage baseball teams enjoy, multiply it out, and conclude that the Giants have a 9.7 percent chance of coming from behind in this series. That’s a small number, and it’s probably a fair number, but it seems ridiculously high after watching these two games and after considering the mess that the Giants’ rotation finds itself in.
Why, for instance, is Lincecum unavailable now? The Giants went to him in the sixth inning Sunday, when they were already 94 percent underdogs in the game. Wanting to keep the game close is understandable; burning Lincecum to do it seems pointless, considering he’s the highest-upside pitcher and the Giants were in a position where upside matters. Starting him in Game 3 and hoping he reverts to Tim Lincecum, Guy Who Pitches Like Tim Lincecum, might have made more sense. Shoot. Anything might have made more sense than using him as a mop-up reliever. That he (apparently) hadn’t even warmed up yet (?) (seriously what?) was even weirder. He looked no less confused than I was when the call came, having stood on a bullpen mound but thrown not a pitch before entering.
But now, no Lincecum, except as a reliever. Now Vogelsong. Now Zito, or Cain on short rest. Then Zito, or everybody on short rest. If the Giants come back from two games to none, heading on the road for the final three, it will be unexpected—only four teams have come back from 0-2 deficits in division series history. But the way they do it, however they do it, will almost certainly be even more unexpected.
On the pre-game show on KNBR, Giants’ radio broadcaster Dave Flemming said the Giants would have such a short leash with Madison Bumgarner that, were he to allow a rally in the first inning, we should expect to see action in the bullpen. Bumgarner was spectacular in the first inning. Then he was shaky, though Bochy let him pitch into the fifth.
The three batters ahead of Buster Posey are 3-for-26 with a walk, and one of the hits came in the ninth inning on Sunday with the Giants down by nine.
The Reds are going to win.