What to watch for: NL Wild Card Game

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by Mike Feigen

1000x790_bumgarner_volquez_woyetmcb_wki2e2c9The Scene

Pittsburgh’s PNC Park will be the first ballpark to host two one-game Wild Card contests, after the Pirates cruised past the Cincinnati Reds a season ago, 6-2. Despite its cozy confines, Pirates fans turned up the volume a season ago and leaned on their proximity to the field of play, particularly in left field. Pittsburgh fans mercilessly taunted Reds hurler Johnny Cueto, who served up four runs on eight hits — including a pair of homers — in just 3.1 innings of work.

The Stakes

The winner will travel to Washington to face the Nationals this Friday, opening the best-of-five National League Division Series in the Nation’s Capital. Should the Pirates win, Game 1 will begin at 12:07 p.m. ET, but should the Giants prevail, first pitch will be at 3:07 p.m. local time at Nationals Park.

San Francisco Lineup

CF Gregor Blanco

2B Joe Panik

C Buster Posey

3B Pablo Sandoval

RF Hunter Pence

1B Brandon Belt

SS Brandon Crawford

LF Travis Ishikawa

LHP Madison Bumgarner

 

Pittsburgh Lineup

3B Josh Harrison

SS Jordy Mercer

CF Andrew McCutchen

C Russell Martin

LF Starling Marte

2B Neil Walker

1B Gaby Sanchez

RF Travis Snider

RHP Edinson Volquez

 

The Starters

San Francisco will turn to its ace, 25-year-old southpaw Madison Bumgarner, in this do-or-die contest. Bumgarner (18-10, 2.98) is no stranger to postseason baseball, with dominant performances in the Giants’ 2010 and 2012 World Series victories. He’s had mixed results against the Pirates, however, including a loss on July 28 of this year in which he was touched up for five runs in the first 1.1 innings of the game. Bumgarner is dominant against left-handed hitters, allowing a .539 OPS and just five walks all season, but is mortal against righties, allowing a .684 OPS — including 20 home runs.

Edinson Volquez (13-7, 3.04) will take the hill for the Pirates. A 31-year-old journeyman who has pitched for the Reds, Padres, Dodgers and Pirates since 2011, Volquez is the Pirates’ No. 3 starter behind left-hander Francisco Liriano and righty Gerrit Cole. However, in their attempt to claim the NL Central crown, manager Clint Hurdle elected to throw his aces over the weekend, putting his faith in Volquez. The right-hander posted a career-low strikeout rate, walked more than three batters per nine innings, and relied on a .263 batting average on balls in play, so he’ll have to maintain his good luck to prevail Wednesday night.

The Offenses

At the plate, the Pirates likely have the better offense at this point in the season. Defending 2013 NL MVP Andrew McCutchen leads a talented group that includes breakout performer Josh Harrison, power-speed threat Starling Marte and team leader Russell Martin. And while Martin’s two-homer performance in last year’s Wild Card stole the show last year, McCutchen remains the club’s biggest star. The center fielder hit .314/.410/.542 with 38 doubles, six triples, 25 home runs and 18 stolen bases in 2014, with his .410 on-base percentage leading all of Major League Baseball.

The Giants will attempt to match the Pittsburgh firepower with a former MVP of its own, as Buster Posey leads an attack that has been slowed by injuries in the second half of the season. Posey, the 2012 NL MVP Award winner, batted .311/.364/.490 this season, while All-Star outfielder Hunter Pence boasted a .777 OPS and 106 runs scored in 2014. San Francisco will miss the services of leadoff man and center fielder Angel Pagan, who recently underwent surgery to repair a herniated disk in his back, as well as former National Michael Morse, who will also miss the Wild Card Game due to injury.

The Best of the Rest

Because of the injuries to Morse and Pagan, the Giants will enter Wednesday night’s contest with plenty of question marks. Joaquin Arias, Gary Brown, Matt Duffy, Adam Duvall, Juan Perez, Guillermo Quiroz and Adam Susac comprise a bench that isn’t likely to strike fear into opposing pitchers, but could find themselves in key situations depending on how manager Bruce Bochy handles his substitutions. In the Pirates’ dugout, infielder Clint Barmes, first baseman Ike Davis and outfielders Gregory Polanco and Jose Tabata have more pedigree than the San Francisco reserves, but Davis and Polanco are liabilities against left-handers and may not see the batter’s box unless Bumgarner is out of the game.

Should the game rest on the success of the bullpens, both teams ranked in the top 10 in the league in bullpen ERA and each can match up with talented lefties and righties. The Giants feature veteran southpaws Jeremy Affeldt and Javier Lopez, along with righties Sergio Romo and Santiago Casilla. The Pirates are led by closer Mark Melancon (33 saves, 1.90 ERA) and lefty set-up man Tony Watson (10 wins, 34 holds, 1.63 ERA), two of the best in the business.

The Edge

If last night’s American League Wild Card Game (won 9-8 by Kansas City in 12 innings) is any indication, anything is possible. San Francisco will rely on Bumgarner to carry them through, while Pittsburgh will look to run up the score against a team that may not be able to match them blow for blow. Playing at home is always nice to have in a winner-take-all contest, and by virtue of their 4-2 head-to-head record against the Giants this season, the Pirates won the right to host Wednesday night’s game — and therefore hold the very slightest of advantages.

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