It's really true in baseball: once the playoffs start, the regular season means nothing.
Take for example the San Francisco Giants, a team with the lowest win total of any MLB postseason entrant in 2014. They went 2-4 against the Pittsburgh Pirates in the regular season, yet the Giants went to Pittsburgh and won the National League Wild Card Game. San Francisco also went just 2-5 against the Washington Nationals during the regular season, but now the Giants have eliminated the Nats in the NL Division Series in four games — the three S.F. wins came by one run apiece.
The Giants' regular season record in one-run ball games was 18-22.
Oh, and there's more.
S.F. starter Ryan Vogelsong posted an 0-4 record with a 5.33 ERA in September, but he gave up just two hits and one run in 5.2 innings against the best team in the National League this year in the Game Four clincher on Tuesday night. Throw in Tim Hudson's Game Two effort — 7.1 innings of one-run ball with eight strikeouts and no walks, after he posted a 4.73 ERA in the second half of the season — and you have even more inexplicable results from this patchwork, $160 million roster.
Nothing about the Giants makes sense, actually, but here they are in the NL Championship Series for the third time in five seasons and the fourth time in their last five playoff appearances dating back to 2002. In the wild-card era, S.F. either loses right away (1997, 2000, 2003) or they go to the World Series (2002, 2010, 2012). Are the Giants headed to the Series, again?
How Do They Do It?
Strangely, San Francisco has never finished in first place in back-to-back seasons, and with their current "streak" of even-numbered year postseason heroics, that certainly fits the franchise's historical record. In 2010, the Giants hadn't seen the postseason in seven years, but they overcame that inexperience to upset, in order: the Atlanta Braves, Philadelphia Phillies and Texas Rangers on the way to the team's first title since 1954. Journeymen like Aubrey Huff, Cody Ross and Pat Burrell played big roles, while the young pitching staff was lights out in October.
In 2012, they were the comeback kids: down 0-2 in the NLDS, they won three straight to eliminate Cincinnati. And then down 3-1 to the St. Louis Cardinals in the NLCS, S.F. won three straight again to advance. The Detroit Tigers were rested and ready in the World Series, but the Giants used their momentum for a sweep and second title. You may remember Pablo Sandoval closing his eyes and hitting home runs off Justin Verlander that in that Fall Classic.
On paper, San Francisco doesn't look impressive, but on the field, their team play is dynamic. And that's ironic, considering what long-time Bay Area sports announcer Don Rose once said about the team: "They should put down a layer of paper in Candlestick Park, because the Giants always look good on paper."
Now, it's the opposite at AT&T Park.
Cards vs. Giants — Again
In 2012, St. Louis and San Francisco played that memorable NLCS. The Cards were the defending World Series champions, and they took a 3-1 lead in the series with a chance to clinch at home. But Barry Zito — in another unlikely postseason performance by a hitherto underwhelming Giants player — won a masterful Game Five on the road to stave off elimination, and S.F. won the series in seven games back home. Remember Marco Scutaro in the rain at AT&T? He couldn't hit in Colorado that summer (.684 OPS), but after a trade to the Giants, he became Jeter-like (.859 OPS) and was named the NLCS MVP.
(Yes, the miracles in S.F. are statistically puzzling. Must be something in the Bay water at McCovey Cove.)
The Cardinals, of course, recovered to win the NLCS last year before losing in the World Series to the Boston Red Sox. The Giants missed the playoffs entirely in 2013, finishing under .500 on the year. Both are back now, and the two teams that have won the last four NL pennants will fight for another one starting on Saturday in St. Louis.
It's hard to pick against either team, really, as both squads have veteran leadership, hard-earned success and playoff grit on their transcripts. Flip a coin? Yes. And the Giants have won a lot of these coin flips since 2010, as have the Cardinals.
Home-field advantage belongs to St. Louis, and since the Giants won the regular-season series between the two teams, four games to three, that means the Cardinals will win this NLCS in seven games.
After all, that's the only thing that would make sense in the nonsensical world of MLB postseason baseball.
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