Giants-Nationals Division Series Preview

How much does raw talent count for against October intangibles? That’s the question that will decide the series between the San Francisco Giants and Washington Nationals that begins this afternoon in the nation’s capital (3 PM ET, Fox Sports 1). The Nats have the talent. The Giants have the pedigree. Here’s a few thoughts on the Giants-Nationals Division Series matchup.

Washington’s offense has hitters who consistently get on base. I can count five players who posted on-base percentages of .340 or above, those being Denard Span, Bryce Harper, Anthony Rendon, Jayson Werth and Adam LaRoche. The Nationals have three players who, based on this year’s performance are viable power threats—Werth, LaRoche and Rendon. And while Harper’s power numbers this year are pedestrian, we know he’s capable of joining that group on a moment’s notice.
Contrast that with San Francisco. Buster Posey and Joe Panik are the only players who consistently get on base. Posey, Brandon Belt and Hunter Pence are the only ones who hit for any real power.
BaseballNor should we expect the Giants to make up for these deficiencies with starting pitching. Their ace, Madison Bumgarner, can’t go until Game 3, after his masterful four-hit shutout of the Pittsburgh Pirates in the NL wild-card game. Its veterans Jake Peavy and Tim Hudson who start the first two games. Washington’s rested rotation is lined up with Stephen Strasburg, Jordan Zimmerman and Gio Gonzalez set to go.
The edge at #4 starter is even stronger for the Nats, when they turn to Doug Fister to go against, presumably Ryan Vogelsong. Washington’s fifth starter, Tanner Roark, is much better than San Francisco’s Tim Lincecum, a dynamic that will affect bullpen strength in this series as those pitchers join the relievers.
Speaking of the bullpens—while San Francisco’s pen is good and deep, it’s not the same lockdown unit that all but made games over by the sixth inning during World Series title runs of 2010 and 2012. Washington’s relief corps has uncertainty—Drew Storen took over for Rafael Soriano as the closer in September. But Storen has pitched well, and the Nationals have depth of their own.
In short, there’s no reason, based on the numbers, to pick San Francisco to win this series. But we all know that sports, especially playoff games, aren’t won by numbers, but by beating hearts. And this Giant crew can’t be underestimated.

Let’s look at the Lincecum-Roark comparison as a litmus test for the series as a whole. There’s no question that Roark is a significantly better pitcher than Lincecum at this stage of their careers (ERAs are 2.85 and 4.74 respectively). But Lincecum found a way to be a big contributor in long relief during the 2012 title run and I wouldn’t be surprised if he does the same here. Meanwhile, can Roark meet the moment if he’s asked to deliver on the October stage? The questions about those two players are a microcosm of their teams.
So what way does this series go? I’ve got to be a weasel and just ride with talent. Washington is too good and even though they lost a heartbreaking playoff series to the St. Louis Cardinals two years ago (another team long on October intangibles), I’m not ready to read into that anything too negative about the Nationals’ ability to win in October. If they lose this series I might change my mind, but for now I’m giving them the benefit of the doubt. My heart is in San Francisco for this series, but my head says Washington moves forward.