The Cardinals kick off a four-game series against the Giants tonight. Each team finds itself in third place in a surprising dogfight for its respective division; the Giants are 45-43, good for a .511 record and 3.5 games out of their division lead, while the Cardinals (44-41) have been slightly better on a rate basis (.518) but are further behind their division leaders (6.5 games out).
The Giants are the softest team the Cardinals will have faced since our loss to the Padres on June 13. Since then, each of our 19 games has been against a team that either leads or is in second place for their respective division today. We went 8-11 in that stretch (.421), which is actually pretty respectable, considering that group of teams’ opponents have gone .428 against them collectively this year. Our next nine games are against the soft-ish Giants (4), the terrible White Sox (2), and the cellar-dwelling Reds (3). If the Cardinals want to claw back into postseason relevance (as much as this concept has a concrete identity at the halfway point), smacking the Giants around for 3 or 4 games would be a great way to do that.
So who are these Giants?
Not too long ago, the Giants were about the only team around that couldn’t credibly complain about Cardinals Devil Magic, even if Grant Brisbee has repeatedly done so anyway. The 2010 Giants won a dogfight for their division behind stellar seasons by Aubrey Huff, Andres Torres, and NL Rookie of the Year Buster Posey and good seasons from Matt Cain, Tim Lincecum, Jonathan Sanchez, and Madison Bumgarner. They reached the World Series and cut down the Texas Rangers 4-1 to claim their first ring in 56 years (52 of which had constituted the franchise’s entire existence in San Francisco). The Rangers, meanwhile, still have not won a World Series championship in their 57.5-year history. The 2010 Giants were very normal though, as championship teams go.
The 2012 Giants, on the other hand, were a bunch of baloney. They got into the playoffs easily enough, going 94-68, but quickly fell behind the NL Central Champion Reds 0-2 in their half of the NLDS. The Giants roared back, winning 3 straight elimination games, including a 10-inning Game 3 where Reds reliever Jon Broxton gave up leadoff back-to-back singles to Buster Posey and Hunter Pence, struck out Brandon Belt and Xavier Nady, saw Posey advance to third on a passed ball, and watched Posey score on a fielding error by defensive stalwart Scott Rolen. Then there was the unpleasantness in the NLCS, where the Giants’ opponent got them to 3-1 and dropped three straight elimination games. The Giants (of course) swept the Tigers in the World Series.
The 2014 Giants were the vilest offenders of the lot. They sneaked into the playoffs via the second wild card berth, beat the Pirates 8-0, eliminated the Nationals in 4 games (including an 18-inning Game 2), and beat the Cardinals in the NLCS that culminated in Travis Ishikawa, a guy the Giants claimed off waivers midseason, hitting a 3-run walkoff shot against Michael Wacha, who hadn’t thrown a pitch in a game in like a month. I had always assumed that they canceled the 2014 Series after that mess, but Wikipedia tells me the Giants snagged their third ring in five years in seven games against the Royals.
Thus was born the even-year myth, and thus lived the villains that gave it to us. The 2015 Giants missed the playoffs, it being an odd year. The 2016 Giants edged out the Cardinals for the second wild card, eliminating us from a playoff spot on the final day of the season. Last year, the Giants were bad enough to earn a tie with the Tigers for the worst record in baseball (64-98), but even there, the tiebreaker went to the Giants based on 2016 records; they missed the first pick in the draft, but I don’t get to call them the worst team in the league.
Ok, but who are these Giants?
It is an even year, but like I said before, the Giants are pretty soft. Last year’s doomed squad was as expensive as it was underperforming, the farm is pretty thin, and the team’s core is getting old. The San Francisco front office elected to do all it could to wedge the contention window open for one more year, trading what it could for Evan Longoria and Andrew McCutchen and betting on bounceback years from some of its old reliable stars like Brandon Crawford, Buster Posey, and Brandon Belt, and hoping against hope that ace Madison Bumgarner wouldn’t feel the irresistible urge to ride his dirt bike off a cliff again this year. Longoria’s hurt, McCutchen’s just okay, Hunter Pence is still very bad, and MadBum just returned from a broken bone-related DL stint (this time it was baseball-related though!). Brandon Crawford, Brandon Belt, and Buster Posey are all having excellent years. They’re joined by a bevy of unfamiliar names who will probably all hit crazy 3-error walkoff fielder’s choice balls, because Giants. Keep an eye on Nick Hundley, Alen Hanson, and Gorkys Hernandez.
Who has better pitching?
Pitching matchups are Weaver-Cueto (9:15p), Gant-Dereck Rodriguez (9:15p), Martinez-Samardzija (3:05p), and Flaherty-Bumgarner (3:05p). Cueto was stellar in his first three starts of the year before hitting the DL with elbow pain, and this will be his first start back. It’s anybody’s guess, but he threw 2 rehab games for the Giants’ AAA affiliate and went a combined 7.2 innings of 5-hit, 10-K ball, so we should prepare for the worst to avoid an ambush. Dereck Rodriguez, an unheralded 26-year-old 2011 draftee who happens to be Pudge Rodriguez’s son, is blowing everybody’s doors off in his first taste of the bigs. He only made the switch to pitching full-time in 2014, but in his minuscule 37-inning sample this year, he’s put up better-than-average figures in ERA, FIP, and xFIP. Again, prepare for the worst, and if we get that version of John Gant that throws 7 IP shutouts against the Indians, we’ll be pleasantly surprised. We’ve got a clear advantage in the Martinez-Shark game, as Samardzija has struggled this year. And even as great as Jack Flaherty has been this year, I’d still rather be sending Madison Bumgarner to the hill.
Our bullpen has some big question marks, as you probably already know. Theirs has been a bit of a roller coaster as well–Hunter Strickland pitched his way into the closer role, then blew a save, which wouldn’t have been that big a deal if he hadn’t thrown a temper tantrum and broken his pitching hand punching a wall or a locker or some such. Tony Watson and Sam Dyson have been somewhat shaky in the later innings, and Mark Melancon, just returning from an extended DL trip following last year’s atrocious campaign, hasn’t quite worked up to that point yet.
What about offense?
Especially with the question marks in our bullpen, the bats are going to have to show up for this series if we want to prove we’re more than mediocre. Dexter Fowler should be activated from the paternity list during the series, and I’m hoping that his reunion with the team is more harmonious than the recent controversy over Mozeliak’s comments might indicate. Paul DeJong is also slated to return to the fold, which should be a more unqualified boon for the club on both sides of the ball. All that said, I’d probably rather have the Cardinals lineup card most nights. With Carpenter and Ozuna destroying everything in sight, we match up favorably against the Giants. While the Giants’ team wRC+ is a skosh better than the Cardinals’ (96 to 94), over the last month the Cardinals have hit for a 99 wRC+ to the Giants’ 84. Fun fact: Yadi’s resurgence has him hitting better than Buster Posey for the first time in recent memory (121 wRC+ to 120, but it counts!).
Both clubs are struggling to find success in a post-devil-magic world, and if this series turns out as anything other than a split, it could mark a turning point for that quest. Because I’d rather be on the right side of all this, I say that the Cardinals should destroy the Giants.