Game Four Preview: San Francisco

Although Rick Ankiel‘s extra-inning homer and Troy Glaus‘s (!) defensive wizardry in Game Two already cemented this series as the most “interesting” of the 2010 playoffs’ divisional round, Game Three, a.k.a. the ‘Brooks Conrad Game’ managed to take things to a new level of surreality. Up two games to one, San Francisco is back in control, but given how this series has played out so far, the Giants shouldn’t get too comfortable.

While there were rumors that the Giants’ Game Four starter would be Tim Lincecum on three days rest, the team has decided to go with rookie Madison Bumgarner. It makes sense: the Giants aren’t facing elimination, and given Lincecum’s value to the franchise, if either Lincecum or the Giants’ staff isn’t comfortable with him pitching on short rest for whatever reason that should settle it.

Bumgarner himself isn’t exactly a slouch. Despite concerns about his drop in velocity during 2009, he seemed get it back in 2010, and he fared well in his 18 major-league starts for the Giants this season (3.00 ERA, 3.66 FIP, 4.03 xFIP, 3.59 tERA, 2.0 WAR in 111 innings). Bumgarner’s major league strikeout rate is only average-ish so far, but combined with a low walk rate, he’s been an above-average starter for San Francisco. Bumgarner isn’t a ground ball machine, but he isn’t a flyball pitcher, either, so home runs shouldn’t be a particular problem for him. Of specific interest for the game tonight is that Bumgarner does not show an especially large platoon split (albeit in a very small sample), so he won’t be at a marked disadvantage against the Braves right-handed hitters. Moreover, platoon splits are a two-way street — both pitchers and hitters have their own “personal” platoon skillls — and while Atlanta rookie Jason Heyward has a small sample and catcher Brian McCann has a smaller-than-usual-for-lefties platoon split, Bumgarner will have a platoon advantage on the two best hitters in the Braves’ injury-ravaged lineup. If Bumgarner does get into trouble, the whole San Francisco bullpen should be available due to an off-day on Tuesday. Look for plenty of commentary on Bumgarner’s lack of playoff experience given the way absence of such experience recently has been a big problem for pitchers like Lincecum and Roy Halladay.

The Giants’ offense is supposed their biggest edge over the Braves, but that edge hasn’t manifested itself in the series so far, mostly because the Braves have excellent pitchers of their own. With the Braves facing elimination, they shouldn’t hesitate to empty their bullpen, and Bobby Cox usually doesn’t. Until last night, the Braves ‘pen had been pretty much untouchable in the series (and even last night the Giants needed some “help”), and their regular-season numbers bear that out. With Billy Wagner injured, the Braves have put Takashi Saito back on the roster, giving them a lot of situational flexibility. [An an aside: I’ve noticed that some seem to think that Bobby Cox made the wrong call in bringing in Michael Dunn to face Aubrey Huff last night because Huff has hit lefties and righties equally well this season. I won’t go over the specific calculations in detail. Although in 188 plate appearances against southpaws in 2010 Huff hit them almost as well as northpaws, from 2002 to the present he has had 1672 plate appearances against lefties in which he displayed a roughly average split. Moreover, Dunn’s platoon skill factors in as well, and he has been devastating against lefties. Cox’s decision regarding the platoon aspect of the situation was right on.] And that is before even considering Braves’ starter Derek Lowe, who can still pitch, as he displayed in holding the Giants to one run in Game One. Lowe has had success when pitching on short rest before, and again, the Braves have a great bullpen to call on if he gets into trouble or if they need to pinch-hit for him early.

The Giants have good reason to feel confident about their situation. Despite being on the road, they only have to win one of the next two games (and if a second game is necessary it will be at home with their ace on the mound), and despite their general offensive ineffectiveness so far they are still better off than the decimated Braves lineup. However, the Braves’ own good pitchers have shown that they are able to keep the Giants from pulling away, and given how the last two games have ended, it would be surprising if there weren’t more surprises that took this series down to its final out.

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Matt Klaassen reads and writes obituaries in the Greater Toronto Area. If you can't get enough of him, follow him on Twitter.

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