8:00 PM EST, ESPN – Line: San Francisco -110
All you have to do is simply make the Playoffs, for at that point anything can happen. That’s precisely the line that’s been towed over the last couple of months by the San Francisco Giants and Pittsburgh Pirates, and now that they’re both here only one can proceed to make anything happen after tonight. For the second consecutive season, the Pirates (88-74) have made it to the postseason, and for the second straight year they will being taking part in the National League Wild Card Playoff. Last season, Clint Hurdle’s club broke a 21-year drought as they hosted this very same contest, disposing of Cincinnati 6-2. This season the Buckos overcame a slow start (25-30 on June 1st), only to go 17-10 in the month of June, and won seventeen of their final twenty-six contests to clinch the home field end of this one-game playoff. Tonight’s tilt will be the seventh time these teams will have met; the Pirates won four out of the previous six meetings which have all been close, decided by an average of 1.5 runs per game.
Heading to the hill tonight at PNC Park is Edinson Volquez (13-7, 3.04 ERA), who has proven to be a brilliant under-the-radar acquisition for a team that has quietly made a habit of doing just that over the past few years. Volquez was dumped by the Padres last Summer after amassing a terrible 6.07 ERA, only to land in Los Angeles where the Dodgers gave him the opportunity to get his bearings. However, when it came time to strengthen the rotation, Hurdle and Co. acquired the inconsistent and moody right-hander on the cheap, hoping they could resurrect his talents in the same manner they did with Francisco Liriano a year prior. As it would turn out, Volquez has rewarded their faith in him, posting the lowest ERA (3.04) and WHIP (1.230) of his career, along with fewer walks (3.3 per 9 innings) all of which can be directly attributed to finer control and and improved mechanics. Remember folks, this is the same pitcher who led the National League in walks back in 2012 with San Diego, serving as proof that even at the age of 30, one can still learn how to pitch. Volquez was essential to the Pirates’ success this season, starting a team-best 32 games, providing stability to a rotation that saw Gerrit Cole, Charlie Morton, and the aforementioned Liriano each spend time on the Disabled List. Furthermore, ace has turned in some of his best work of the campaign of late, earning a 5-0 record with a 1.64 ERA over the course of his last eleven starts. Expect him to get quite a bit of help from the plate, for Pittsburgh ranks third int he National League in Batting Average (.259), Hits (1,436), Home Runs (156), Slugging Percentage (.404), and OPS (.734), while drawing more walks than any other team in the league (520).
Meanwhile, the Giants (88-74) too are no stranger to the postseason, even if they didn’t qualify in 2013. Few managers are familiar with everything starting over in the Playoffs like Bochy, whose club hoisted the World Series trophy back in 2010 and 2012. However, unlike in each of those previous campaigns, San Francisco doesn’t quite possess the requisite momentum one would prefer this time of year; indeed their current form could be best described as backing into the postseason, dropping nine of their final fifteen contests. In fact, they squandered a torrid 43-21 start and a double-digit lead in the division, only to go 45-53 over the final four months of the season. However, this is a team that has a wealth of experience in October, knowing precisely what they need to do to advance. Case in point; even with their postseason hopes in doubt, they calmly handled the Padres in the Regular Season Finale, earning a comfortable 9-3 victory, and outscoring them 22-14 over the four-game set in which they took three of the meetings. That came off the heels of a 3-8 run, so once again folks, this team knows how to win this time of year.
Bochy will counter the much-improved Volquez with Madison Bumgarner (18-10, 2.98 ERA), whom has cemented himself as the clear-cut ace of this rotation. The young left-hander leads the Giants in Wins (18), Starts (33), Complete Games (4), Shutouts (2), Innings Pitched (217.1), Strikeouts (219), and Strikeout/Walk Ratio (5.09), making the decision as to who would start tonight’s game rather easy. Despite losing his last start of the season, a 4-2 defeat against the Dodgers in which he was tagged four runs on six hits, three of which were homers, Bumgarner saw the Giants win in each of his six previous starts. The 25-year old has only faced the Pirates once this season, a 5-0 loss back on July 28th; that night he yielded five runs on six hits over four innings, with a pair of strikeouts, as many walks, while relinquishing another home run. With that said, look for him to find success against Pittsburgh while using his Fastball up in the strike zone often; Bumgarner permitted the lowest batting average in the Majors when throwing his Fastball up in the zone (.107), and the Pirates have batted just .210 against such pitches this season. His Slider could also be utilized to devastating effect; Bumgarner throws more hard Sliders clocking in at 87 MPH or faster than any other pitcher in the Majors, and Buckos’ star Centerfielder Andrew McCutchen bats just .216 against such balls with a 31.6% strikeout rate. He’ll likely have to be on his game, for San Francisco isn’t quite the most potent outfit in the league at the plate; the Giants rank fourth in the National League in Batting Average (.255), but seventh in Home Runs (132), tenth in Doubles (257), and eleventh in Walks (427). Star Catcher Buster Posey leads the way offensively, with a team-best 22 homers and 89 RBIs, while Pablo Sandoval and Hunter Pence provide some power with a combined 36 home runs and 147 RBIs. Then again, if Bochy is looking for some extra power, than he should look no further than Bumgarner, who has batted .258 with four homers this season.