For the second year in a row, the San Jose Giants enjoyed a first round bye in the California League playoffs. But now the real test begins. The Giants learned late Friday night that they would face the Visalia Oaks for the Northern Division Championship Series. The Oaks, who beat out the Giants for the 2nd half title by just a game, scored 6 runs in the bottom of the 8th against Stockton in Game 3 of their series to come from behind both in the game and the series to eliminate the Ports. Now the Oaks set their sights on San Jose, and they have some recent ownage to build some confidence on.
The Oaks were 8-3 against the Giants from July until the end of the season, keying their division title run, and Giants manager Lenn Sakata knows it. “To be honest, we struggled in the 2nd half against that club,” he said in an interview before the Oaks won their series against Stockton. “We were capable of winning a few extra games over there, but we just didn't play well. I think part of it is because the conditions may not be the best, but it's the same for them.”
How can the Giants turn it around? Sakata had one answer: “It comes down to pitching.” For the third season in a row, the Giants led the California league in ERA, compiling a 3.85 ERA, and also led the league with 1177 strikeouts. That will be important, since the Visalia Oaks were the #2 offense in the league in most stats, including batting average, OPS, and runs scored.
“We pretty feed off of how our starters start,” Sakata said of the team. “I think our bullpen has done a good job as of late. I think it's always going to come down to how well our starters start, how deep they get into the game.” How far the Giants can stretch their starters is very important. Their biggest name, Tim Lincecum, has been on strict pitch counts after a heavy workload in college. While he has been dominating on the mound, Lincecum has only gone a full 6 innings once this season.
Behind him, the Giants top starter has been Darren Sack, who has quietly moved into the rotation from the bullpen and posted a 1.94 ERA on the season, and a 2.05 ERA in 10 games as a starter. But he has gone 6 full innings only 3 times, and only once did he extend to 7 games. Sack could be the key starter: he is scheduled to go Game 2 for the Giants, before going to the less than stellar environment in Visalia. If he is strong in Game 2, the Giants could go to Visalia needing to win just 1 to advance, and have no chance of being eliminated in central California. Sack is also coming off of two starts where he allowed 4 runs and 3 runs respectively (only 5 were earned). If he bounces back, the Giants will be in a good position to handle Visalia.
The good news is that with a lead, the Giants bullpen has been the best in the business. Closer Brian Anderson has set a league record with 37 saves on the year and has allowed an average against of just .183. He teams with Justin Hedrick, a member of last year’s championship squad, who had a 2.00 ERA and 20 holds plus 6 saves of his own.
The Giants offense, meanwhile, has been flaky at times. Their .731 OPS was tied for last in the league (with Lake Elsinore, who is also among the final four teams in the playoffs), but were 5th best in scoring runs. They don’t feature any big sluggers, but do have a number of strong role players. The best hitter on the team has been Carlos Sosa, whose .307 batting average is co-leader on the current team and whose .854 OPS leads the regulars. But the team can hit from anywhere in the lineup. Steve Holm, normally a hitter at the bottom of the lineup, leads the team with 15 home runs. Second baseman Mark Minicozzi, outfielder John Bowker and third baseman Julio Cordido have been at the heart of the team’s batting all season long. Michael Wagner has battled injuries, but still has one of the team’s higher batting averages and OPS, and Pat Dobson seems to find a lineup spot anywhere he can and produce from it. They will face a Visalia team that was tied for 6th in the 10 team league in ERA, at 4.83.
Visalia’s offensive stars are third baseman Chris Nowak and catcher John Jaso. Nowak led the league in doubles and RBI, with 45 and 103 respectively, while batting .308 with a .874 OPS. Jaso played in only 95 games in the California League, but still had 22 doubles and 10 home runs. He shares playing time with Josh Arhart, who is 2nd on the current team in home runs with 15. Outfielder Shaun Cumberland leads the team with 16. The Oaks have 6 players with .300 or higher batting averages.
On the mound, the team has had more problems, but the two constants have been James Houser Jr. and Christopher, who tied for the league lead in wins with 12 each, both starting 27 contests this season. However, Houser had a 4.41 ERA and Mason a 5.02 ERA. Jonathan Baratt has been the best starter while in the rotation, with a 2.93 ERA with 20 starts and 21 appearances overall. He did not have enough innings to qualify for league rankings, however.
The teams kick off the series on Saturday, September 9th, as Lincecum will face off against Mason with a 1:00 PM start. The other games, as scheduled:
• Sun, 9/10 @ San Jose, 5:00 PM: Brandon Mann (Visalia) vs. Darren Sack (SJ)
• Mon, 9/11 @ Visalia, 6:35 PM: James Houser (Visalia) vs. TBA (SJ)
• Tues. 9/12 @ Visalia (if necessary), 6:35 PM: Jonathan Barratt (Visalia) vs. TBA (SJ)
• Wed. 9/13 @ SJ (if necessary), 7:00 PM: Derek Feldkamp (Visalia) vs. TBA (SJ)
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