Series Preview – Giants vs Cardinals

St Louis is limping through a 1-4 homestand, and now faces a team as desperate as they are in the San Francisco Giants. This series between two playoff hopefuls portends as a taut affair.

Current Snapshot:

St Louis– 65-53, 2nd place NL Central, 3.0 behind Cincinnati. The euphoria over sweeping Cincinnati quickly evaporated while losing 4 of their next 5 to the lowly Cubs and Brewers. Cardinal frustration continues to mount, whether it be from late-game rallies falling just short, a lack of offense from anyone on the infield not named Albert Pujols, or jello-style shaky starting pitching from the back of the rotation. At least the aforementioned Pujols is on a tear at the moment (since 29 July: .400/.447/.800, 8 HR).

San Francisco– 67-54, 2nd place NL West, 6.o behind San Diego. Jonathan Sanchez predicted a series sweep against the Padres last weekend. The Giants instead lost 2 of 3, and have been clubbed by the Phillies in back-to-back games. Their starting pitching, always thought to be their biggest strength, has fallen apart a bit recently (0-9, 5.73 ERA over their past 14 starts). Offensively they have improved mightily since the start of the season, with ROY candidate Buster Posey (.338/.386/.512) and mid-season acquisition Pat Burrell (.283/.373/.549, 12 HR) leading the charge.

Probable Pitching Match-ups:

Friday: Madison Bumgarner (4-4, 4.28 xFIP) vs Jake Westbrook (1-0, 2.06 xFIP). Bumgarner is the Giants 2007 first round draft choice and was ranked the fourteenth best prospect overall in that draft. He had a cup of coffee at the major league level last season and was promoted into the Giant rotation starting on June 26. There had been concerns in the Giant organization regarding a drop in velocity on his fastball, but if his performance at the Major League level is any indication it has not affected his ability to get people out. Bumgarner features a fastball that averages 91 MPH, a slider, and a curveball. He also throws the occasional changeup. His off-speed pitches are all above average, according to fangraphs, although it must be noted that’s with less than 1000 pitches thrown.

He’s never faced the Cardinals. As you might expect, he handcuffs lefties (.553 OPS career) but not really righties (.802 OPS).

Westbrook has pitched pretty well since joining the club (.592 OPS allowed, 19K in 19 innings) despite the 1-2 team record when he starts. Another data point you can’t judge a pitcher by his won/loss record. Jake’s xFIP is obviously unsustainably low and a correction will happen at some point, but for now let us enjoy the ride. He has never faced the Giants in his career. That said, a couple of Giant hitters have a history with him. The guy with the highest success rate? Aubrey Huff (.368/.417/.474 in 24 PA). Juan Uribe has homered twice off Westbrook in his career.

Saturday: Tim Lincecum (11-7, 3.38 xFIP) vs Chris Carpenter (13-4, 3.75 xFIP). Two of the top three finishers in last year’s NL Cy Young voting square off Saturday. (WARNING – Fox Game of the Week bash follows) This is the only game Saturday featuring two playoff hopefuls, so naturally most of the country will be treated to Atlanta vs the Cubs. Lovely (END BASH).

There is a lot of concern in the Bay Area regarding Tim Lincecum and his stuff. He has lost an average of 3 MPH off his fastball over the last two seasons, yet he’s still 5th in the league in xFIP and second in the league in strikeouts. His last two starts have been brutal, however; he hasn’t survived the fifth in either and allowed 11 ER total. He has recorded 10 of his 23 outs by strikeout, for what that’s worth.

As you might expect for a guy with back-to-back Cy Young’s, Lincecum has owned the Cardinals. St Louis has never beaten him (5-0 in 5 starts). In St Louis he’s 3-0, and working on a 16 consecutive inning scoreless streak at Neo-Busch. He beat Jamie Garcia in San Francisco on 23 Apr 4-1, going 7 innings, striking out 8. The Cardinals do not enjoy hitting against him (.254/.313/.333 in 125 PA), except maybe Skip Schumaker (.375/.412/.625!), with the lone HR off Lincecum on this roster.

Carp lost a tough one to Chicago last weekend snapping a personal 4-game winning streak, but he continues to pitch very well this summer. The Giants handled Chris pretty well the last time he faced them in St Louis. That game remains his only charged loss to San Francisco in his career. St Louis has won 2/3 of the games he starts against San Francisco. Again, Carp’s on a major roll right now, so I wouldn’t worry about last year’s game.

Pat Burrell, who as we mentioned above is pretty locked in right now, has owned Chris Carpenter in his career (.287/.381/1.000, 4 HR in 21 PA). The rest of the roster is a little more pedestrian (.246/.265/.451 in 102 PA).

Sunday: Barry Zito (8-7, 4.60 xFIP) vs Kyle Lohse (1-5, 5.21 xFIP). By most traditional and sabermetric measures, Barry Zito is having his finest season as a Giant. A possible reason could be his fastball is not killing him like in recent seasons. Or it could be the return of his changeup as a weapon. Zito’s fastball averages about 85MPH, and he also throws a slider, changeup, and that ridiculous 12-to-6 curveball. Zito’s second best start in 2010came at St Louis’ expense; he went 8 full and struck out 10 on that day in April. Interestingly that counts as the only time Zito beat St Louis. Random chance? Perhaps, perhaps not.

What can we say about Kyle Lohse? As predicted, he got shelled by the Small Bears, so this start can’t help but be better, right? Lohse has not faced the Giants since 2008 (a win the second week of April, against Zito of all people), and has never faced them in St Louis. As a group the current Giants are hitting .248/.295/.416 against him, which is far better than the .6oo+ OPS Chicago had put up off him. The Cardinals badly need Lohse to reprise his form of two seasons ago, and there is no time like the present to start down that road.

Prognosis. Both teams are struggling and both badly need to win this series. Based on how each pitcher has fared recently, St Louis should have the advantage on Friday and Saturday, with the Giants getting the edge on Sunday. As schizophrenic as the Cardinals have been lately, however, it is hard to predict who will win. Pencil me in as predicting the Cardinals drop 2 of three this weekend, with the clear caveat that I hope I’m wrong.

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