It's been a strange season for both the San Francisco Giants and Cincinnati Reds.
Giants two-time Cy Young Award winner Tim Lincecum wasn't at his best and Reds slugger Joey Votto missed some time due to injury. But, both clubs were able to overcome the odds and will meet on Saturday in Game 1 of the National League Division Series at AT&T Park.
Even though the Reds had a better record than the Giants, they are scheduled to play the first two games of this best-of-five set by the bay because of the new format, then return for the final three at Great American Ball Park.
Cincinnati, which was edged by Washington for homefield advantage, catapulted itself to the NL Central crown with a strong July and August, and held off upstart Pittsburgh and rival St. Louis for its second division title in three seasons. The Reds went 16-13 in September and October, and clinched the division title with a win over Los Angeles on Sept. 22. Jay Bruce was asked if he was shocked the Reds were the first team to lock up a division title.
"It's not a shock at all because we've been taking care of business here for a while," Bruce said. "We kind of knew it was coming. We've worked really hard this year like we did then (2010). We deserve this and we deserve a lot more. We're going to go get it."
How did the Reds "go get it?"
Bruce led the team with 34 homers, 89 runs scored and 99 runs batted in, Brandon Phillips batted a consistent .281 and Ryan Ludwick shined in his first season with the club, hitting .275 with 26 homers and 80 RBI. Had Votto played a full season, the numbers would have been even more impressive. Votto was bothered by his left knee that was surgically repaired twice this summer and had to undergo a procedure to have torn meniscus cartilage removed.
Having Votto back in the fold makes this lineup even more deadly.
It wasn't just hitting that kept Cincinnati on an even keel. The club was fourth in the majors and third in the National League with a 3.34 earned run average and the bullpen was spectacular with an MLB-best 56 saves. Reds' relievers also led the majors with a sizzling 2.65 ERA and went 31-22.
Johnny Cueto gets the nod for Game 1 of the NLDS after his best season as a pro. Playing for the only club he has ever known, Cueto went 19-9 with a 2.78 ERA in a career-high 33 starts and worked a career-best 217 innings. His numbers are certainly worthy of some votes for the Cy Young. Veteran Bronson Arroyo and Mat Latos will start Games 2 and 3, respectively, for the Reds.
Arroyo has been around for a while and is familiar with the playoff atmosphere, where season stats are tossed out the window and some players either tighten up or live for the moment. Arroyo won 10-plus games for the seventh time with a 12-10 mark and a 3.74 ERA -- his best since a 3.29 mark in his first stint with Cincinnati back in 2006. Latos was acquired in a deal with San Diego and has never been to the postseason. He matched a career-high with 14 wins, going 14-4 with a 3.48 ERA in a career-best 33 starts.
"We've been planning this for a while. It didn't take a genius to see how we planned it," Reds manager Dusty Baker said of the NLDS rotation. "What you see is what it is right now."
Does Baker have any other choice? Mike Leake is an option, but he went 8-9 with a discouraging 4.58 earned run average in 30 starts. Homer Bailey has some credibility and even tossed a no-hitter as recently as last Friday. Bailey won a career-high 13 games (13-10) in 33 starts, the most in his career, with a pedestrian 3.68 ERA. When asked if a fourth starter would be needed, Baker wasn't sure.
"We're not sure about that," Baker said. "Generally speaking, you only use three starters in the first round. We won't try to guess who's not (in), but that's a pretty good ace in the hole if you've got a guy getting hammered."
Baker, of course, is back on the bench after missing some time with an irregular heartbeat and mini-stroke. He has been around the game for a long time and still has some decisions to make as to who deserves to be on the playoff roster and who gets left out. Talk about pressure. However, he did say he was happy to know who the Reds are scouting for after the playoff bracket was settled.
According to Votto, the Reds never had any preference on who they faced.
"I don't think any differently than any other opponent, which is probably the right approach," Votto said. "We'll get out there, get a day of work in like we always do. We will focus on the things that got us here ... playing good defense, relying on our starting pitching and bullpen, and really competing."
Reds closer and Cy Young candidate Aroldis Chapman posted 38 saves in 68 games and led the bullpen with 71 2/3 innings pitched. Chapman had 122 strikeouts for a bullpen that averaged about nine Ks in a nine-inning span. Sean Marshall appeared in 73 games, while Jonathan Broxton seemed re-born in his first stint with Cincinnati. The bullpen will come in handy if the Giants are seeing the ball well at the plate.
Cincinnati was 4-3 against the Giants in the regular season, winning two of three at Great American Ball Park from April 24-26 and splitting a four-game set at AT&T Park from June 28 - July 1. The Reds are 18-14 in this series at Great American Ball Park and have won seven of the last eight meetings there.
"If you're going to rely on season series, I think you're going to be in trouble," Votto said. "The playoffs can be so random. Anything can happen so quickly. I think we're excited to go out there and play against them. They are a very good team. We respect them. We look forward to hopefully moving on to the next round."
San Francisco is no slouch and won't lay down to the Reds. It won the NL West for the second time in three years and looks to duplicate what happened back in 2010, when they won the World Series.
Much like the Reds, the Giants used a solid summer and dominated September (19-8) to nail down the division title on the same day Cincinnati took the NL Central. The Giants unseated defending champion Arizona and moved past the rival Los Angeles Dodgers to overtake the division lead.
"Every bit of this season was amazing," starting pitcher Matt Cain said.
Cain draws the start for Saturday's playoff opener and led the team with a career-low 2.79 earned run average and 193 strikeouts. He finished tied with Madison Bumgarner in wins, going 16-5 in 32 starts, and even hurled the first perfect game in team history on June 13 against Houston. Cain, though, lost both of his starts to the Reds this season and is 4-5 in 10 career starts.
Giants MVP candidate Buster Posey has flip-flopped between catcher and first base to save his knees, and knows how important the rotation is.
"They're our rock," he said. "We have five guys who every time they step on the mound, you feel really good about your chances."
That last sentiment couldn't be said for Lincecum, however. Lincecum suffered through his worst season since his rookie campaign in 2007, when he went 7-5 in 24 starts, and finished this season with a 10-15 record in a career high- tying 33 starts. Many wondered what was up with the right-hander, who started 3-10 with a 6.42 ERA before finishing 7-5 in his last 12 decisions. Either way, the Giants are hoping it was just an aberration and Lincecum will bounce back during this crucial moment.
Giants manager Bruce Bochy has been mum on who toes the rubber for Game 2, but it will likely be Bumgarner. The lefty was brilliant at home as evidenced by his 10-3 mark in 15 tries, but ended the regular season with a 2-4 ledger in his last seven outings. Bumgarner won his only appearance against Cincinnati this season, but is 1-2 in four career starts.
Another surprise to the pitching staff, which was seventh in the majors and fifth in the Senior Circuit with a 3.68 ERA, was the resurgence of Barry Zito. Zito signed a big deal with the Giants prior to the 2007 season and had his best year with the club, as he compiled a 15-8 mark and a 4.15 ERA in 32 starts. The 2002 AL Cy Young Award winner may get a nod in the postseason after he was left out during the championship run a few years ago. Zito sizzled down the stretch with a 7-0 mark and a 3.92 ERA in his last 11 starts -- all San Francisco wins. Zito was modest when asked about his recent tear.
"Personally, I don't like to read into numbers too much," Zito said. "Sometimes you go out there and feel kind of crappy and you win, and other times you feel great and you lose. (The streak) is just evidence that the team has been scoring a lot of runs and playing good 'D' when I'm on the mound."
The Giants' bullpen suffered a big blow when animated closer Brian Wilson was done for the season with a right elbow injury that required Tommy John surgery. In two appearances this season, Wilson had one save and a 9.00 ERA. Santiago Casilla led the club with 25 saves in a bullpen-best 73 games. Sergio Romo had 14 saves in 69 appearances for the Giants, who can use Javier Lopez, Jeremy Affeldt or Clay Hensley to name a few as relievers. Even starters Zito or Ryan Vogelsong may see action as a reserve.
Posey battled back from a leg injury to win the National League batting title with a .336 average. Last May, Posey was involved in a gruesome collision at the plate, forcing the Giants to move him to first base at times as a precaution. The move worked and Posey's legs are better for it.
"To come off a devastating injury like he had and bounce back and not just have a good year but win a batting title is truly amazing to me," Bochy said. "It really demonstrates the talent that this guy has. I couldn't be happier for him -- not just in coming back, but being the force that he is."
Posey also led the Giants with 24 home runs and 103 RBI, and may not have won the prestigious batting honor had outfielder and All-Star Game MVP Melky Cabrera not been busted for testosterone. Cabrera is serving a 50-game suspension and was disqualified in the batting race. He will not play for the Giants in the postseason either. He was hitting .346 with 11 homers and 60 runs batted in before violating the league's substance-abuse policy.
"While I am disappointed that I won't have the chance to join my team in the playoffs, I wish my teammates the best in the postseason and I'll be rooting hard for them to bring another world championship to San Francisco," Cabrera said in a statement.
As life goes on, so will the Giants. They came together when Cabrera was suspended and still have strong bats in the lineup. Besides Posey, Pablo Sandoval, Angel Pagan, Brandon Belt and Marco Scutaro are worthy candidates to lead the offense on any given night. The addition of Hunter Pence paid off when he was acquired in a trade from Philadelphia, and his quirky style meshed well with his new teammates. Pence is always trying to improve and now he has a chance to shine in the "new season."
"I'm pushing to get better, pushing to go strong into the playoffs," Pence said. "You can't relax or change your mindset. My mindset is to get better and get ready and go into the playoffs focused."
Pence is quite familiar with the Reds from his days with the Houston Astros, and could pass some information around the clubhouse for this upcoming series. In 71 games (277 at-bats) against the Reds, Pence is hitting .289 with a .337 on-base percentage, 14 home runs -- the most against any team -- and 43 RBI.
PREDICTION: GIANTS in FOUR