And one game shall rule them all. The San Francisco and Cincinnati Reds need the fifth game of a best-of-five National League Division Series to decide whose season will continue and whose season will end. This is a surprising premise for several reasons:

  • The Reds won the first two games of the series on the road;
  • Through the majority of the series, the Giants have had little-to-absolutely-zero offense; and
  • With their season on the line, San Francisco started left-handed meat-baller Barry Zito against one of the better offenses in the National League.

Despite all of this, we come to today, and the Giants get to start their team’s best pitcher with a well-rested bullpen against a Cincinnati lineup that includes a less than 100% Joey Votto. While Brandon Phillips looked good against Cain in Game One, and he certainly remains a threat, this has to bode well for hopeful Giants fans assembling around television sets this afternoon (and morning for those on the West Coast).

Meanwhile, the Reds will send Mat Latos, who is without a doubt a very good pitcher, but hasn’t had quite as good of a season as the injured Johnny Cueto, who most likely would be pitching today if he was the healthy Johnny Cueto. Latos, has however collected a very good record against the Giants whom he faced with some regularity pitching with the San Diego Padres. Over 11 starts, he’s held San Francisco batters to a .529 OPS, which you could take to mean that he makes the Giants look like a bunch of Jeff Mathises.

However, eleven games do not a good sample make. And the 2012 San Francisco Giants aren’t your 2011 San Francisco Giants with the anemic offense that anyone watching the first three games of this series might mistake it to be. No, this lineup was the fourth best offense in the National League behind only the St. Louis Cardinals, Milwaukee Brewers and Washington Nationals.

This is their lineup for today:

  1. Angel Pagan CF
  2. Marco Scutaro 2B
  3. Pablo Sandoval 3B
  4. Buster Posey C
  5. Hunter Pence RF
  6. Brandon Belt 1B
  7. Gregor Blanco LF
  8. Brandon Crawford SS
  9. Matt Cain P

And this, courtesy of Brooks Baseball, is what they might expect to see from Reds starter Mat Latos:

Meanwhile, Cincinnati will start this lineup against Cain and the Giants:

  1. Brandon Phillips 2B
  2. Zach Cozart SS
  3. Joey Votto 1B
  4. Ryan Ludwick LF
  5. Jay Bruce RF
  6. Scott Rolen 3B
  7. Ryan Hanigan C
  8. Drew Stubbs CF
  9. Mat Latos P

And this, courtesy of Brooks Baseball, is what they might expect to see from San Francisco starter Matt Cain:

To me, the one individiual match up to keep an eye on are Matt Cain vs. Jay Bruce, only because of Votto operating at a less than optimal level. Left-handed batters tend to give Cain a little bit more trouble than righties, and Bruce is most likely the best of the left-handed bats in the Reds lineup.

When they’ve met in the past, Cain has attacked Bruce early in the count with his fastball located high and outside, before moving onto a change up later in the count in an attempt to make him swing and miss in the middle of the strike zone.

That’s maybe not the best idea, considering how well Bruce hits hard stuff high and away from right-handed pitchers in terms of Baseball Prospectus’ TAv:

And it probably explains why Bruce in the small sample of 20 plate appearances has done well against Cain, with a .632 OBP/.933 SLG/1.565 OPS.

On the flip side, it will also be interesting to see how Latos goes after the suddenly hot-hitting Angel Pagan, who has normally received a steady diet of fastballs inside with a smattering of breaking stuff away when he’s faced the pitcher in the past.

As long as the harder pitches are kept higher in the zone on the inside of the strike zone, this appears to be a good strategy to take on Pagan when the switch-hitter is hitting from the left side:

However, this season, Pagan has been hitting the ball a bit better on the inside of the zone, and even a bit higher than what is typical for his career:

While he still seems to struggle with pitches high and inside, we saw what Pagan is occasionally capable of with the second pitch from yesterday’s game:

Obviously, no one knows what’s going to happen, and one game won’t really help us much when trying to figure out which is the better team. However, there will be some fun things to watch for beyond the final outcome, which, if you’re anything like me, should form a nice distraction just in case the team you support falls behind at any point.

Playoff baseball is obviously a different game than regular season baseball, and that tension is never more evident than when we watch every at-bat, every pitch in a do-or-die game. This is that, and it’s two very good teams competing at that. There isn’t a whole lot more that a baseball fan could ask for, except maybe a Giants victory.