Wednesday, October 01, 2014

Five NL wild-card questions

By Tim Kurkjian
September 30, 2014

Buster Posey and Andrew McCutchen

The last time the San Francisco Giants played the Pittsburgh Pirates in the postseason was 1971. Willie Mays and Roberto Clemente were active, as were Willie McCovey and Willie Stargell.
There is star power this year with these two teams, maybe not like 1971, but that was a five-game series. This is a one-game series, the National League wild-card game.
And it should be wild.
Here are five questions.

What will PNC Park be like on Wednesday night?

Total bedlam. Last year, in the NL wild-card game against the Reds, Pirates fans -- whose team hadn't played a playoff game since 1992 -- seemed to shake Cincinnati starter Johnny Cueto when they chanted his name early in the game. It was the start of a raucous night, which led to a raucous NL Division Series, which elevated PNC Park into the conversation for the best crowd/atmosphere among major league ballparks. Not much will change this year. Even though the Pirates are back in the playoffs for the second year in a row, the crowd will be just as enthusiastic, and just as lively.

Will the crowd shake Giants starter Madison Bumgarner?

No chance. During the Giants' run to a world championship in 2010, Bumgarner, then 21 years old, was asked by teammate Matt Cain before a playoff start, "Aren't you nervous?" To which Bumgarner said without hesitation, "I don't get nervous." He is even more composed now, at age 25, after posting 18 wins this season.And he is just as fiery, as we saw in the near brawl with the Dodgers when Bumgarner hit Yasiel Puig, then begged him to fight. The Giants, without the injured Cain, and with a struggling Tim Lincecum, didn't have as many options for this start, but it might not have mattered. Giants manager Bruce Bochy said there was "no doubt" who would start this game.

What should be expected from Pirates starter Edinson Volquez?

A lot. In his past 17 starts, he is 9-1 with a 1.85 ERA. In his last 34 2/3 innings at home, he has allowed four earned runs. "He is as good a pitcher as they have right now," one scout said. "[Gerrit] Cole is really good these days, and so is [Francisco] Liriano, but Volquez has been tremendous." During a recent eight-game stretch, the Pirates allowed eight runs, the best streak of eight games since 1967. Volquez has been right in the middle of it.

What sort of role will the catchers play in this game?

They will be huge. The Giants' Buster Posey, who has battled back and hip issues for part of the season, looks like an MVP again. Since Aug. 21, he led the NL in batting and slugging, and was second in RBIs. As Posey goes, or so it seems, so go the Giants. Pirates catcher Russell Martin hasn't had Posey's huge numbers the past six weeks, but he is crucial to the Pirates in every way. He suffered a hamstring injury last weekend, and missed a couple of games, but he said he would be ready to play in the wild-card game. He has to be.

How much have injuries changed the look of the Giants?

They are not the same team that made a championship run in 2012. Second baseman Marco Scutaro, who led them late that season in so many ways two years ago, has been hurt most of the season. His replacement, rookie Joe Panik, has been terrific (.305), unflappable, but this will be his first postseason game. Center fielder Angel Pagan is out for the season -- the Giants are a much better team with him in the lineup. But Bochy has brilliantly mixed and matched at several positions this season, and always seems to find the right combination.
The pick: Pirates

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