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They might be Giants, but the Nats can beat the narratives

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The Nats will host the San Francisco Giants in Game 1 of the NLDS Friday afternoon. Based on the regular season, the Nationals certainly seem like the better team, but we're going to hear a lot of stories this week about why the 2010 and 2012 seasons are meaningful. They're not. Instead of analyzing the series to death today, let's have some fun (and lots of links) with this.

I'm sure we can expect to see highlights of Drew Storen's last postseason outing during the NLDS against the Giants.  That's in the past.  Leave it there.
I'm sure we can expect to see highlights of Drew Storen's last postseason outing during the NLDS against the Giants. That's in the past. Leave it there.
Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports

When the NLDS begins on Friday, we're going to hear a lot of talk during their upcoming series with the San Francisco Giants explaining how the Giants experience can carry them to victory.  They're certainly capable of beating the Nationals.  The narratives that we're going to hear about how their victories in 2010 and 2012 hold any weight in the upcoming NLDS are just that, though... narratives.  Let's not start this postseason with any misguided notions that the Giants are unbeatable in even years (Seriously? That's a thing now?).  Don't convince yourself that they're on fire because they beat the Pirates 8-0 the other day either.

This series will be won on the field... not with a bunch of stories about what the Giants did two (or four) years ago.  Before we break down the mathchups, let's see if we can take a look at some of the stories that we're going to hear a little too often over the next week.

Even years are their years

This is one of the mantras that Giants fans have used all season.  In 2010, the Giants won their first title since 1954 when they were the New York Giants.  Two years later, they battled their way through the NL playoffs before sweeping the Detroit Tigers for their second title in three years.  When San Francisco jumped out to a big lead in the NL West earlier this season, we started hearing a lot of talk about how the Giants have placed some type of voodoo curse on the rest of the league in even years.  Of course, this is utter nonsense.  Their fanbase is welcome to believe what they want to believe, but that doesn't make it true.

Things change. Even old New York was once New Amsterdam.  Many of the players on the Giants roster are the same from those two World Series teams, but not all of them.  Among their starting pitchers, only Madison Bumgarner pitched for both of those teams (Ryan Vogelsong was there in 2012).  Postseason heroes Cody Ross and Marco Scutaro are nowhere to be found on this squad, replaced with Joe Panik and.... Travis Ishikawa?  Michael Morse (if he's really healthy enough)?  Chris Dominguez?

The fact of the matter is that the 2010 and 2012 Giants were very good teams that happened to beat three other good teams on their way to the World Series title.  That's how this game works.  Tip the cap.  Congratulations on those titles.  However, this isn't 2010 or 2012.  Those two previous championships don't give the Giants a 2-0 lead to start this series or anything.  I would say that those two teams were better than the 2014 San Francisco Giants that we'll see in Nationals Park Friday.  Why?

In 2010, the Giants finished 92-70 with a +114 run differential.  In 2012, they finished 94-68 with a +69 run differential.  In 2014, they finished 88-74 with a +51 run differential.  Both of those World Series winning teams had a healthy Matt Cain in their rotation.  The 2010 season was before the mysterious fall of Tim Lincecum.  Heck, they even still had Barry Zito playing the guitar and occasionally having a huge day as a spot starter on their 2012 team.

  • Their pitching in 2010 and 2012 was superior to their 2014 squad.  They finished with the best ERA (3.36) in the majors in 2010; they finished with the seventh best ERA (3.50) in the majors in 2012; they finished tenth (3.50) this year in a depressed run environment.
  • Their offense was better in 2010 and 2012 than they were this season.  Their lineup scored 697 runs in 2010; they scored 718 in 2012; they scored 665 this season.
  • They entered the playoffs healthier in both 2010 and 2012.  Michael Morse may be ready to go for this series, but it's hard to see him being at 100%.  Morse would certainly figure to be even more of a statue in the outfield than he usually is.  They will definitely be without leadoff man Angel Pagan and one of their best starting pitchers, Matt Cain.
I'm not trying to discredit the Giants.  You don't get to this point in the year unless you're a good team.  The Giants are a good team and a dangerous opponent for the Nationals in the first round.  What I'm saying is that the 2010 and 2012 teams that won the World Series were better. How those teams did in the playoffs has little bearing on how their 2014 team will do.

The Giants are especially dangerous when their back is against the wall

With their win in Wednesday's NL Wildcard game, the Giants extended their winning streak in elimination games to seven.  That's a lot, but when you consider that they've won the World Series the past two times they've reached the playoffs, it's not crazy. They didn't face elimination once in 2010, but fell down 2-0 in the 2012 NLDS and 3-1 in the NLCS before winning three straight games each time to advance to the World Series.  The Giants didn't need to worry about facing elimination in the Fall Classic that season as they swept the Tigers.

Does this mean that the Giants are superhuman when they're facing elimination?  Certainly not.  It means that they still performed well in those seven games that they've won with their backs to the wall.  Once again, they're a good team.  They're capable of beating any other team on any given day.  There's something to be said for the fact that they didn't play worse or tighten up because they weren't fighting to stay alive, but it's not as if Gregor Blanco has some sort of magic purple toupee that turns him into Willie Mays or anything.

The dreaded Sun Monster

One advantage that the Nats would have had if the Pirates had won on Wednesday is that the game would have started at noon instead of at 3 PM.  When the Giants won, the game was pushed to the middle afternoon slot because the Giants are a west coast team.  As we know, the sun has a tendency to wreak havoc at that time of day in Nats Park.  Specifically, the glare can be really tough on the right fielders and the shadows can be really tough on the hitters.

While Jayson Werth may have a problem with the glare in right field on a fly ball or two, so could Hunter Pence.  It's still debatable whether or not Pence is, in fact, really human, but he'll still be looking up into that same sun.  The Nats hitters should have an edge because they're more used to dealing with the shadows that time of day in Nationals Park than the Giants hitters are.

The Nats haven't figured out how to close out a series

It's not 2012 anymore people.  With the exception of a few players who weren't on the roster in 2012, the Nats remember that sour taste in their mouths after the Cardinals came back to win Game 5.  It happens.  They've learned from it, and they know that they don't want to have that same feeling this October.  It's time to take all these narratives, turn around, and spin one of my own.

Sometimes it takes that devastating loss to propel a team towards some great moments in the future.  Let's cross over to a different sport and see what Wayne Gretzky had to say looking back at the 1983 Stanley Cup Finals.
We sort of walked out healthy and they were beat up.  We realized then and there that it takes a lot more than just wanting to win.  You were going to have to earn it, and it was going to take a lot to win a Stanley Cup and be a champion.  That's what we learned from the Islanders.
The Islanders won their fourth straight Stanley Cup that year, sweeping the Oilers 4-0.  A year later, the Oilers won their way back to the finals and beat those same Islanders in five games.  They would go on to win four of the next five (and five of the next seven) Stanley Cups.

The Nats still haven't walked in the glow of a series win's majestic presence.  They have had that moment where they watched another team celebrate a postseason series victory.  Now it's time to show what they've learned.

Some real analysis

OK... I've had my fun with the narratives and song links (I hope the theme is pretty obvious).  Let's do some real analysis to go with it.  We've discussed the Nats at length, so we're going to focus more on the opposition and some key players to watch.

Giants Offense

As I mentioned the other day before the Wildcard game, injuries have done a number on the Giants' lineup depth.  Angel Pagan had back surgery this week that ended his season.  Michael Morse is recovering from an oblique injury, though the buzz is that he may make the Giants NLDS roster.  I don't know whether this means he'll be ready to play the outfield, though.  He may just be on the roster as a pinch hitter.

Those two injuries conspire to make the Giants lineup heavily dependent upon their three through six hitters (Buster Posey, Pablo Sandoval, Hunter Pence, and Brandon Belt) to create offense.  It's important not to overlook the contributions that players such as Gregor Blanco, Joe Panik, and Brandon Crawford bring to the table, though.

  • Blanco has played center field and taken over the leadoff spot in Pagan's absence.  I've always considered him a bit of an undervalued player because he provides strong defense (at least in the corner OF spots) and he's willing to work a walk.  Blanco runs well, though he's not a particularly great base-stealer.
  • After years of stopgap options (who have occasionally panned out for them... see Marco Scutaro) at 2b, the Giants seem to have finally developed a youngster with some promise to take over the position.  Panik didn't bring much other than his ability to hit for average this season (1 HR, 0 SB), but he did bat .305/.343/.368 after getting the call at midseason.  He'll likely bat second for them.
  • Brandon Crawford, of course, hit the home run that gave the Giants the lead on Wednesday.  He's not a great hitter, but he's got enough power to run into one every now and again.  He's shown improved patience in his third full season to go along with his power gains and actually finished with a 102 wRC+ this season... above the league average.  Crawford's most useful skill, though, is his glove.  His 8 Defensive Runs Saved this season ranked sixth among big league shortstops.
Let's move along to their big guns.  We all know about what Buster Posey brings to the table.  He led all catchers with a .311 average and .490 slugging percentage this season.  His .364 OBP was second among catchers.  He's a premium hitter playing a premium position.  The Nats can't afford to let Posey beat them, but he's well protected with their next three best hitters batting directly behind him.  It will be equally important to keep Blanco and Panik off base in front of Posey.

Although Sandoval hit more home runs (16) than he'd hit in any season since 2011, his ISO was down for the third straight year.  The Panda remained in the lineup a bit more than he did the past two seasons, but he ended up with just six more XBH than he had in 2011, when he had almost 200 fewer plate appearances.  Sandoval really struggled against LHP this season, batting just .199/.244/.319 against them.  His spot in the order does protect against the Nats choosing to turn him around, though, as he bats between Posey (.304/.357/.518 vs. LHP) and Pence (.284/.355/.415 vs. LHP), who both hit left-handers better than right-handers.

Pence may be a space alien, but he does everything fairly well.  The defensive metrics haven't liked him as much the past few years in San Francisco, but he's still got a big arm in right field.  He hits for average.  He had his seventh straight 20 HR season in 2014.  He even runs a little, as he's stolen 35 bases the past two years.

Belt has yet to have that monster season that everyone thought he might be capable of when he came up in 2011.  He appeared to be on his way after a strong 2013 campaign, but injuries really sapped his production this season.  He hit .243/.306/.449 with 12 HR in just 235 PA.  While the home run power was up, Belt's OBP was down 54 points from 2012 and 2013.

If Morse isn't ready to start, it should be interesting to see what the Giants do with left field.  They started 1b Travis Ishikawa there in the Wildcard game before pulling him for defense once the Giants took a big lead.  Ishikawa, a .259/.322/.397 lifetime hitter in 978 PA, would seem to be their best offensive option against RHP if Morse isn't ready to start.  He's played just four career games in the outfield.  Chris Dominguez or Juan Perez could give them a better defender in LF, but they wouldn't bring much to the table offensively.

The key for the Nats pitching staff will be to avoid allowing Posey, Pence, and Sandoval to do a lot of damage.  Apart from Belt and Crawford, the rest of their lineup centers around role players who are unlikely to be able to create offense themselves.  If they keep the bases clean in front of Posey, they should be able to navigate their way through the heart of the Giants order.

Giants Starters

When the Giants won the Wildcard game, it ensured that the Nationals would get the biggest advantage that the top seed can have under the new format.  They burned their ace, Madison Bumgarner, in that game as he threw a complete game shutout.  While Jake Peavy and Tim Hudson are no slouches, the task of facing Bumgarner is far more daunting.  The series sets up so that Bumgarner will be able to take the hill in Game 3 on Monday, which would be regular rest.

The Giants will start Jake Peavy in Game 1 on Friday.  Peavy was having a poor season in Boston (1-9, 4.72 ERA, 1.43 WHIP) prior to the trade to San Francisco, so his season-long numbers still aren't particularly pretty.  He's been outstanding since the Giants acquired him, going 6-4 with a 2.17 ERA and 1.04 WHIP.  He's allowed two or fewer runs in each of his past six starts, and will be a handful.

Tim Hudson hasn't been so good lately.  Though his season-long numbers are fairly similar to Peavy's, they took completely different paths to get there.  Hudson started out strong with a 2.87 ERA and 1.10 WHIP in the first half.  He's struggled in the second half (particularly in September) and had an 8.72 ERA and 1.85 WHIP in his five September starts.  The 39-year-old has complained of some hip problems, which may be part of the reason for his recent struggles.  Huddy has a history of being a Nats killer, as he's gone 18-5 with a 2.35 ERA and 1.09 WHIP against the franchise over the years (including 2-0 with a 0.73 ERA and 1.14 WHIP this season).  While he was strong against the Nats (before his recent struggles) this season, a lot of those career numbers were built on him pitching within the division with the Braves.  While Hudson was in Atlanta, the Nats finished fourth or fifth in the NL East six straight times.... this is not the same team he used to beat up on.

Bumgarner will start Game 3, and is one of the more dominant starters in the league.  He anchored the Giants rotation this season with a 2.98 ERA and 1.09 WHIP.  Bumgarner is coming off of a dominant complete game shutout in the Wildcard game with 10 strikeouts.  He's capable of taking over any game that he pitches.  Thankfully, he'll only be able to start Game 3 in this series.  Should the series go five games, I would imagine that Bruce Bochy would make him available out of the bullpen.

It's unclear whether the Giants would start Yusmiero Petit or Ryan Vogelsong in Game 4.  It's possible that if the Nats were leading the series 2-1, they could go with Peavy on three days rest to try and save their season.  Petit has been a revelation this season, coming out of nowhere to take over the fifth spot in the rotation and finish with a 3.69 ERA and 1.02 WHIP.  He retired 46 straight batters at one point this season, and did retire 13 Nats during that streak (after the Nats had gotten out to a 6-2 lead against Tim Lincecum).  Despite his performance this season, Petit has a 4.76 career ERA in nine big league seasons.  The guy just isn't this good, but he's pitched well this season.

Vogelsong probably gets the Game 4 assignment because Petit has shown more comfort working out of the bullpen over the years.  He's solid, but unspectacular.  Vogie bounced back from a rough 2013 (that was cut short due to a broken pinky suffered against the Nats) with a 4.00 ERA and 1.28 WHIP this season.  He's a finesse righty with underwhelming stuff, but can still be dangerous as long as his command is on.

It's going to be important for the Nats to win at least one of the first two games at home because they're going to have their hands full in Game 3.  Peavy doesn't have the overpowering fastball + wipeout slider combination that he had when he was in San Diego, but he's learned to use his curveball and changeup more effectively.  Don't be surprised if the Nats attack early in the count Friday.  Hudson is hurting and hasn't looked good in a month, so the Nats absolutely need to forget about those career splits and beat him in Game 2.  Bumgarner's going to be tough, but he can be beaten.  If Zimmerman is really able to go at first base, Game 3 may be a good spot for him.

Giants Bullpen

I wrote a lot more words than I expected to about Casilla on Wednesday.  Because of the middling strikeout rate, he's not a prototypical closer.  He's still a very effective one.  He finished with an ERA under 2.00 for the third time in five years this season.  Perhaps more importantly, he doesn't have quite as wide a platoon split as Sergio Romo does.

Romo and Jeremy Affeldt will handle their primary setup duties.  Since being removed from the closer's role, Romo has found himself and returned to a setup role.  He's vulnerable against left-handed hitters (.253/.341/.436), but his slider is death to right-handed hitters.  While Affeldt is left-handed, he's actually just as tough on right-handed hitters (.226/.275/.287) as he is on lefties (.229/.304/.317), so he'll be used in all situations.  In case of a true LOOGY situation, the Giants will turn to Javier Lopez.  Jean Machi, Juan Gutierrez, and Hunter Strickland look like possible sixth or seventh inning options.

Their bullpen is really deep with a couple of tough lefties.  I wouldn't feel all that comfortable with LaRoche batting against Lopez in the late innings, but that's the only specific matchup that looks to be a major headache.  When Romo is pitching, it would be ideal to have a lefty ready off the bench, but the Nats certainly wouldn't improve their situation by bringing in Espinosa or Schierholtz over one of their starting position players.  If the pitcher's spot comes up with Romo on the mound, it will almost have to be one of those two (unless Zimmerman hasn't been used yet).

Manager/Intangibles

I spent a lot of words up top saying that intangibles don't really matter all that much.  I'll stand by those words.  The Giants don't gain any edge because the Nats haven't won a postseason series before... they don't gain any edge because most of their players were on two previous World Series winners.  These two teams are going to play baseball; not compare resumes.

The one spot where the Giants experience does give them an edge is in the dugout.  I'm not going to go on a bunting rant or a bullpen management rant.  I actually think that Matt Williams has shown improvement in those areas as the season's worn on.  That said, Bochy has been doing this a lot longer.  He's led his teams to three NL pennants and two World Series wins over the years.  When it's time to go to the bullpen, Bochy has done it for twenty years rather than Williams' one year.  While Williams has clearly gained more of an understanding of how his players work in certain situations this season, Bochy has been managing some of his players since taking over as the Giants skipper in 2007.  He knows what works with his players based on years of experience.

Prediction: On paper, the Nats just have a big edge.  They'll take the two home games before losing a tight Game 3 in San Francisco.  The Giants will turn to Peavy on short rest in Game 4, but the Nats will get to him.  They Might Be Giants, but the Nats will win this series in four.

If I missed your favorite TMBG song with the links, it might be because I couldn't find a way to fit a good palindrome in anywhere.  Leave the nightlight on inside the birdhouse in your soul for the Nats today!