We won’t know the Cubs’ opponent in the NLDS until the conclusion of the Wild Card game, which doesn’t actually feature the Pittsburgh Pirates this year. Weird, right? It doesn’t include the Cubs, either, which is a very welcome change from 2015. There was much hand-wringing in the land heading into that single-elimination play-in last year, though the game ended up providing mercifully little competitive drama.
This time around, Cubs fans get a chance to watch two other teams duke it out for the privilege of playing at Wrigley. Not only does the Wild Card provide a brief reprieve from the inevitable anxiety of the playoffs, but it also presents a pretty epic pitching matchup. But that’s just the one game. What happens when the dust settles and we get to watch the Cubs play the winner?
I have no doubt many of you have paid at least cursory attention to both the Giants, but I felt it’d be disingenuous for me to break them down on my own at this point. With that in mind, I reached out to Michael Saltzman (@CandlestickWill), who covers San Francisco’s ballclub for Baseball Essential and on his blog, The Will Candlestick. Here’s what he had to say about his team heading into their playoff opener.
Who are they?
The San Francisco Giants have had two seasons in 2016. The first half was borderline dominant with elite pitching, superb defense, and timely hitting. The Giants finished with MLB’s best record at the All-Star break and had me declaring they were the best team in baseball.
As the Giants headed into the second half of the season, the playoffs seemed a certainty.
Then came reality. They were swept in San Diego coming out of the break, and the roller coaster never seemed to stop going down. After a 26-42 record in the second half, the Giants needed to win four straight to take the second Wild Card spot. After starting the season 57-33, nobody anticipated having to scratch and claw for 30 more wins.
But the Giants are in the dance, which is what they have been preaching the entire second half. “If we can just get in, we can make some noise.” That has been the mantra. But by losing to the Los Angeles Dodgers in the National League West, they are now forced to face the Mets in New York for the right to play beyond a one game playoff.
Why should the Cubs be scared of this Giants team?
Well, it always starts with pitching. Pitching and defense have been the Giants calling cards since their 2010 World Series run and it is no different this year. Both Madison Bumgarner and Johnny Cueto will get Cy Young votes, and deservedly so. They have both been aces for a team that has lost multiple starters to injury and flagging performance since 2010.
With Tim Lincecum gone and Matt Cain struggling to stay healthy, the Giants have rallied around Bumgarner and free agent acquisition Cueto to lead this team. The additions of Jeff Samardzija and Matt Moore have given the Giants innings eaters with strikeout stuff to lead them into the post-season. Previous playoff runs have proven that powerful lineups like the Cubs can be rendered nearly impotent by elite pitching. The Philadelphia Phillies, Texas Rangers, Detroit Tigers and others have found that out in recent Octobers.
Why should the Cubs remain confident?
Well, it starts with the rest of the Giants’ pitching. This team blew more leads than any other in baseball and their bullpen has been at the heart of their problems all season. Santiago Casilla is now their former closer after blowing nine saves all by himself. Former closer Sergio Romo has returned to the 9th inning and performed well, but the majority of the Giants’ bullpen has struggled. Veterans Javier Lopez, Casilla, and Romo have had their ups and downs and young pitchers like Derek Law, Hunter Strickland, and Josh Osich have shown their inexperience at times.
Winning or losing in the National League Divisional Series will come down to pitching and who throws the ball better. Can Jon Lester, Kyle Hendricks, and Jake Arrieta outpitch the Giants staff? Will Aroldis Chapman be the difference in the late innings? October is all about pitching and the Giants will scare any team in baseball if theirs is at a championship level.