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Bruce Bochy and the impossible task of the Giants' bullpen

If the Giants are going to win the World Series, they'll have to do it with a lackluster starting rotation and a bullpen that can't be trusted.

SB Nation 2014 MLB Bracket

The San Francisco Giants are in the World Series for the third time in five years, and I'm asked "how" quite frequently. Sometimes this will happen on live radio, and I'll have to think fast ("BOCHY EXPERIENCE BEEN THERE BEFORE TIMELY HITTING OR SOMETHING"), and sometimes it will be in a private conversation where I can be more frank ("I have no idea.") Game 2 highlighted their biggest flaws. After the flaws were highlighted, they were clipped out and scanned. From there they were turned into a transparency and displayed on America's overhead projector for all of us to study.

The short version: The Giants have one great pitcher, a sprinkling of good pitchers, and a bushel of pitchers who are average or worse. For a pennant-winning team, their pitching staff is something of a mess right now.

Don't weep for them just yet. They now have home-field advantage in what's essentially turned into a best-of-five series. They'll get three games at home, and they'll face a pair of quality starters who aren't exactly Pedro in his prime. If they want to win the World Series, though, Bruce Bochy will have to be very, very, very creative with his bullpen. The early returns aren't encouraging.

The first time the Giants went through the postseason gauntlet, things were a lot easier. Tim Lincecum was still an All-Star. Matt Cain was still an All-Star. Madison Bumgarner was an emerging talent, but still excellent. The weak link was Jonathan Sanchez, but back then he was actually good. In 15 games, the Giants' starting pitcher lasted into the sixth inning 12 times. They received at least a quality start in 11 of the 15 postseason games, and in seven of those, the Giants' starter allowed one run or fewer.

The second time through the postseason, in 2012, things were a little dicier. Lincecum was in the bullpen. Bumgarner limped into October after a miserable September. Ryan Vogelsong was a question mark after a rough second half. The Giants had to use Barry Zito on purpose. The Giants got six quality starts out of 16 tries. They relied heavily on their bullpen, and it wasn't exactly the kind of bullpen that dreams are made of. There were weak spots. Bochy managed around them.

This is the most difficult challenge for Bochy yet. He's an ace down from 2012 and two down from 2010. The Giants have six quality starts out of 12 postseason games, so they're ahead of the 2012 pace. Except five of those quality starts came from Bumgarner. Tim Hudson has the other one. Vogelsong and Jake Peavy are a combined 0-for-5. The Giants desperately need a bullpen that can shoulder a heavy burden. They don't have it. They have a bullpen with sciatica and gout, and they're all sleeping one off in the recycling bin. It's a mess.

Here's what Bochy has to deal with:

  • Santiago Casilla is cool. He can pitch multiple innings if needed, and Bochy has shown a willingness to bring him in when the situation dictates (i.e. a tie game on the road, which he did in the NLDS). This isn't something Bochy has to worry about, even if Casilla was shaky in the final game of the NLCS

  • Jeremy Affeldt is also cool, also not a problem. He can pitch multiple innings, and he's a lefty without platoon splits. If the Giants can make this work, these first two pitchers will have to be a big part of it. After that ...

  • Sergio Romo had a rugged, miserable, ill-timed season. He also finished the regular season very strong, giving the Giants some hope, and he handled the Nationals quite well. His sailing changeup to Kolten Wong didn't alleviate any of the concerns about him pitching to left-handers.

  • Javier Lopez had a down season for him, at least when it comes to missing bats and keeping runners off the bases. He's still death against lefties, but if he shakes hands with a right-handed person, he breaks out in hives. You should see it. Dave Righetti has to carry an EpiPen, just in case.

  • Jean Machi was excellent early in the season, using a funky, tumbling split-fingered fastball that was somewhere on the knuckleball spectrum. That pitch has deserted him, as has his command. He was dreadful in September, and he's not to be trusted in the playoffs. The Giants got away with him pitching a third of an inning in the NLCS. So far, his ERA in the World Series is ∞. If you use xFIP, though, it's ∞.4.

  • Tim Lincecum threw his first 1⅔ innings of the postseason in Game 2, striking out two without allowing a run. He also left with a back injury, so even if Bochy suddenly developed trust in him, it might not work out.

  • Hunter Strickland is a burnt bagel with a fork trying to get him out of the toaster. I've written two embarrassing paeans to him already, so I can't claim that I haven't been fooled. Bochy was saying the same things. There's a spectrum of Strickland possibilities, with one end being "Worst pitcher in baseball history" and the other being "Worst sample-size luck in baseball history," with the answer being somewhere in the middle. But Bochy has to assume the truth is closer to the former right now. There's hardly any evidence to suggest otherwise right now.

  • Yusmeiro Petit is Bochy's security blanket, a quality starter tucked under the emergency rations. He's the guy who comes in when everything else goes kerflooey.

Jonah Keri recently tried to convince me that the answer is Petit. He can be a two-inning bridge every other day rather than a four-inning bridge once a series. His career-long struggle with dingers, even in his latter-day renaissance, made me skeptical of the idea. There are better templates for a late-inning reliever.

Right now, though, I'm not sure Bochy has a choice. Petit probably needs a bigger role. Bochy has anywhere between three to five more games to manage, and most of them will be started by pitchers who aren't great bets to get through five innings right now. There are the eight pitchers he can call on, with George Kontos or Erik Cordier possibly replacing an injured Lincecum. What would you do? What kind of permutation could possibly work? It's a Scrabble hand filled with four Es, two Is, and a Q.

Somewhere along the way, Bruce Bochy went from "veteran manager" to "future Hall of Famer," with the latter being used as a salutation, not unlike something you might find with Derek Jeter or Mariano Rivera. It seemingly happened overnight, too. Here, then is one of the toughest tasks of his career. He has been forced into a game of managerial MacGyver. He has a spool of thread, packing peanuts, a flint, and six VHS cassettes. Now find a way to break out of the holding cell, Bruce. And make it snappy.