The Pittsburgh Pirates and the San Francisco Giants square off on Wednesday at PNC Park in the National League Wild Card game. The game matches two 88-74 teams that saw their seasons go through peaks and valleys on their way to the post-season.
For the Pirates, this is their second consecutive trip to the Wild Card game. Last year, the Pirates won 94 games and then beat the Cincinnati Reds in the Wild Card game before falling to the eventual NL champion St. Louis Cardinals in the Division Series. The Giants missed the post-season last year, but they have two World Series titles in the past four years (2010 and 2012).
The Pirates won the season series versus the Giants four games to two, earning them the right to host the Wild Card game. Three of those games were decided by one run, two by two runs and one by five.
The Giants will be without two key members of their roster in the series: starter Matt Cain, who has missed much of the year with elbow problems, and outfielder Angel Pagan, who is out for the year after undergoing back surgery. The Pirates could be without star Russell Martin, who is considered day-to-day with a hamstring injury. The winner of the series will take on the Washington Nationals in the Division Series.
The Giants will send left-hander Madison Bumgarner to the mound on Wednesday. Bumgarner emerged as the Giants’ ace this season, winning a team-high 18 games and posting a team-best 2.98 ERA. The 24-year-old threw four complete games and established a career-high in innings pitched with 217.1. He struck-out more than a batter an inning and walked just 1.8 per nine innings. In a league where Clayton Kershaw didn’t exist, Bumgarner would be receiving a lot of consideration for the Cy Young award.
Despite being just 24, Bumgarner has plenty of post-season experience. He appeared in seven games during the Giants’ two World Series runs and he has a 3.79 ERA in those outings. In 2012, Bumgarner had two sub-par starts before shutting down the Detroit Tigers over seven innings in the World Series, allowing just two hits and two walks and no runs.
Bumgarner had one start versus Pittsburgh this season and it was one of his worst of the season. He allowed five runs on six hits and two walks in four innings. Pirates’ lead-off hitter Josh Harrison hit a solo homerun, as the Pirates got to Bumgarner early, touching him for five runs in the first two innings.
Harrison has been a nemesis for Bumgarner in their limited match-ups. In five career at-bats, Harrison has four hits off Bumgarner. He has also walked. Martin, who is questionable for the game with a hamstring injury, has three hits and a walk in seven official at-bats against Bumgarner. Reigning NL MVP Andrew McCutchen hasn’t had much luck against Bumgarner, however. He has two hits and two walks in 10 official at-bats. Clint Barmes is the only other Pirate besides Harrison to homer off Bumgarner. Barmes has three hits off Bumgarner in 13 at-bats, but he also has seven RBI.
Bumgarner will face Edinson Volquez, who gets the start after a comeback season. The right-hander posted his first sub-4.00 ERA and his first winning record since 2008. In 192.2 innings, Volquez had a 3.04 ERA and a 117 ERA+. Volquez was prone to the walk (3.3 per nine innings), but he allowed just 17 homeruns.
Volquez has been in the league since 2005, but he has just one post-season appearance. That came in 2010, when he was with Cincinnati. Volquez lasted just 1.2 innings, allowing four runs on four hits and two walks.
Volquez didn’t face the Giants in 2014, but he has plenty of experience versus members of the Giants’ roster. Buster Posey has five hits in nine at-bats versus Volquez and Pablo Sandoval has six hits in 13 at-bats. Hunter Pence has a career .194 average in 36 at-bats against Volquez, but three of his hits were homeruns. Brandon Belt is the only other Giants’ hitter who has homered against Volquez. He has eight hits in 18 lifetime at-bats against Volquez.
The Giants’ bullpen isn’t flashy, but they posted a 3.01 ERA this season. San Frnacisco relievers didn’t strike-out a ton of batters as a group (7.38 per nine innings), but they had a 1.07 WHIP and allowed just 35 homeruns in 472 innings.
Incumbent closer Sergio Romo had an up-and-down season, and he finished the year with 23 saves and a 3.72 ERA. He struck-out 59 in 58 innings and he walked just 12, but Romo allowed nine homeruns and his ERA+ was 93. He ceded his role as the Giants’ closer to Santiago Casilla midway through the season, although he finished with the team lead in saves.
Casilla had the best season of his 11 year major league career in 2014. He had an ERA+ of 204 and an ERA of 1.70. The right-hander saved 19 games. He allowed just 35 hits in 58.1 innings. Casilla struck-out only 6.9 per nine innings, but he allowed only three homeruns. Right-handers hit only .161 against Casilla this season.
Jean Machi and Jeremy Affeldt also had outstanding seasons in 2014. Machi had a 2.58 ERA in 66.1 innings. He relied on his defense (his FIP was 3.43), but Machi had an ERA+ of 134 and he led the team with 71 appearances. Affeldt has been used mostly as a situational lefty throughout his career, but he actually pitched slightly better against right-handers than he did versus lefties this season. His ERA was 2.28 in 55.1 innings.
The Giants don’t have a ton of strike-out pitchers in their bullpen, but one sleeper could be rookie Hunter Strickland. The former Pirates’ farmhand made his major-league debut earlier this month and he dominated with his triple-digit fastball, striking out nine in seven shut-out innings.
The Pirates’ bullpen had a 3.28 ERA in 485 innings in 2014. Jason Grilli began the year as Pittsburgh’s closer, but he had an up-and-down start to the year and was eventually traded to the Los Angeles Angels for another struggling closer, Ernesto Frieri. Grilli would turn around his season with the Angels, but Frieri never got back on-track with the Pirates.
Hard-throwing Mark Melancon took over the closer’s role and he finished with 33 saves. He struck-out a batter an inning and he walked just 11 in 71 innings. Melancon also allowed just two homeruns. Melancon has struggled against the Giants historically, however. Pence (two hits in two at-bats), Posey (two hits in three at-bats) and Sandoval (two hits in five at-bats, including a homer) have all gotten good looks off of Melancon.
Left-hander Tony Watson is the Pirates’ main set-up man and he had a career year in 2014. He had a 1.63 ERA and 81 strike-outs in 77.1 innings. Watson had a 1.02 WHIP. He was particularly tough on left-handers, limiting them to a .179 average. Right-handers hit .253 against him, although they produced just a 646 OPS. Watson made three appearances against the Giants in 2014. He didn’t allow a run, but he allowed six hits in 3.2 innings.
Right-hander Jared Hughes had a 1.96 ERA in 64.1 innings for the Pirates this season. He struck-out only 36 and he walked 19, but he had a 1.95 groundball to flyball rate.
A sleeper for the Pirates could be rookie John Holdzkom, a September call-up who allowed two runs in nine innings this month. He struck-out 14 and walked only two.
The Pirates and the Giants were among the best scoring teams in the National League this season. Pittsburgh finished fourth in the league with 682 runs scored, while the Giants were fifth with 665 runs scored.
There are plenty of marquee names in the National League Wild Card game. Former MVPs McCutchen and Posey lead a list of former All-Stars expected to suit up in the game.
The Pirates hit well as a team against the Giants this season. McCutchen is coming off of an all-world season during which he posted a .410 OBP and a 952 OPS. He is Kershaw’s biggest challenger for the NL MVP award. McCutchen had two hits in the Pirates’ 2013 Wild Card win. A game like that again would go a long way towards a Pirates’ victory.
Ike Davis, Starling Marte, Travis Snider and Harrison all posted OPSs above 1000 against San Francisco pitching this season. Left-handers Davis and Snider might be neutralized against the lefty Bumgarner, but Marte could be particularly dangerous for Pittsburgh. He posted an 808 OPS for the season and he had a 975 OPS during the final two months of the season. Marte hit .303 versus left-handers. Although Martin struggled at the plate in two games against the Giants this season, he would be a big loss for Pittsburgh if he isn’t in the line-up. Martin had an 832 OPS in 2014 and is one of the best defensive catchers in the National League.
For the Giants, Posey is the glue that holds the line-up together. He hit .311 with an 854 OPS and a team-leading 22 homers for the Giants this season. Posey hit .400 in five games against the Pirates this season.
If Posey is the glue, Pence is the heart of the Giants’ roster. The high-energy outfielder played in all 162 games this season. He finished second on the team with 20 homers and he had a 777 OPS. Pence hit only .192 against the Pirates this season, however. First baseman Belt had the most success against Pittsburgh this season, collecting five hits in eight at-bats, including a homer and a double.
The switch-hitting Sandoval could be the key for San Francisco. He has had an up-and-down season. After hitting .336 in August, Sandoval slumped to a .218 average in September. As a switch-hitter, he presents a lot of match-up problems, especially late in games, if he is swinging the bat well.
The Pirates will also have to be wary of opposing pitcher Bumgarner when he is at the plate. He hit four homers this season and posted a 755 OPS in 66 at-bats.