Behind one of the most dominant postseason pitching performances in recent memory from Madison Bumgarner, Wednesday evening the San Francisco Giants defeated the Pittsburgh Pirates 8-0 in the National League Wild Card Game. This victory entitles San Francisco the opportunity to face the Washington Nationals in the National League Division Series, a best of 5 competition, which begins Friday.
San Francisco enters this series a confident underdog, as they have won 8 consecutive postseason games and much of their roster remains from their 2012 World Series team. The Giants have the best catcher in baseball in Buster Posey, an elite manager in Bruce Bochy, and tremendous playoff experience, which will make them difficult to eliminate.
Looking across to the opposing dugout, Washington also enters this matchup brimming with confidence, as they posted the best record in the National League this season, 96-66, and have been waiting two full years to avenge their early exit from the playoffs in 2012. The Nationals currently own the best starting pitching rotation in the National League and perhaps also the healthiest and deepest overall roster, giving them an excellent shot to represent the Senior Circuit in the World Series.
In a small 5 game sample size anything can happen, but these are the two key matchups I will be focusing on during this series – Whichever team wins these individual matchups will likely advance to face either the Cardinals or Dodgers in the National League Championship Series.
Key #1 Denard Span vs. Gregor Blanco (Leadoff Hitter)
Like filling the tank with premium gasoline, the Nationals offensive engine runs best when Denard Span is getting on-base in front of the team’s power hitters and run producers. Span overcame a sluggish beginning to the season to finish with his best season in 5 years, hitting .302/.355/.416 with 184 hits and 94 runs scored. If Span can continue to replicate his outstanding second half slash line (.346/.403/.459) and act like a catalyst on the bases, he will give the Nationals a distinct advantage in this series.
Conversely after a season-ending injury to perpetually underrated Angel Pagan, San Francisco will likely use Gregor Blanco in center field and as their leadoff hitter. Blanco was with the Nationals organization a few seasons ago before being released, but has seized an opportunity with the Giants, establishing himself as a quality 4th outfielder. Blanco hit .260/.333/.374 with 16 stolen bases in 146 games this season and if he can play Span to a statistical draw in this series, the Giants will have a much stronger chance to score the upset.
Key #2 Drew Storen vs. Santiago Casilla (Closer)
After a tragic blown save in Game 5 two seasons ago, Storen has been nothing short of masterful in 2014, posting a 1.12 ERA with 46 strikeouts in 56.1 innings this season. Coupled with struggles from Rafael Soriano, Storen forced his way back into the closer role he was drafted to hold in 2009. Storen has the talent to be one of the better relievers in baseball, as he has a terrific 3-pitch arsenal highlighted by a powerful mid-90s fastball. But until he conquers his playoff demons from a few years ago, Storen remains a possible weakness on this impressive overall roster.
On the other hand, relief pitching for the Giants has been one of their strengths for many years, as Bochy seems particularly adept at finding favorable matchups with his bullpen. After Sergio Romo struggled midseason, Bochy placed Casilla into the closer’s role, and he has been terrific this year, posting a 1.70 ERA with 19 saves in 58.1 innings. Casilla does have plenty of postseason experience, with a 1.54 ERA in 11.2 innings, which says he should hold up well under the pressure. However, since Casilla has never notched a playoff save, questions still surround his ability to close out a game.
Both Storen and Casilla have the required repertoire and moxie to be a successful postseason closer, and both will likely have an opportunity or opportunities to save a game for their teams – whomever is able to “shut down” and close the door on the opposition could decide the outcome of this series.
Although Washington enters this series with more pure talent than their opponents, questions still exist within the Nationals clubhouse. How will rookie manager Matt Williams fair in his first experience in the playoffs? Similarly, how will Stephen Strasburg handle the pressure of being the Game 1 and perhaps Game 5 starter? And finally, how does the team respond to the pressure of being the favorite after such a heartbreaking finish two years ago? San Francisco will be more stubborn to eliminate than gum on the bottom of a shoe, but the sheer talent of Washington’s roster and the fact that Bumgarner will only make 1 start this series, should be enough for the Nationals to advance in 5 games.
NatsGM Prediction -> Nationals in 5 Games