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Five keys for Giants in postseason

SAN FRANCISCO -- The Giants lost four of the seven regular-season games they played against their National League Division Series opponent, the Cincinnati Reds. And San Francisco needed a three-run, ninth-inning homer from Angel Pagan to avoid being swept April 24-26 at Great American Ball Park.

But the Reds will face a largely different Giants ballclub.

Since the teams last met on July 1, the Giants acquired second baseman Marco Scutaro and right fielder Hunter Pence. Both helped galvanize San Francisco's offense. The Giants averaged 5.2 runs per game from Aug. 1 through the end of the season, compared with 4.0 through the end of July.

"We've been doing the little things better. I think that's the difference," manager Bruce Bochy said. "We were leaving a lot of guys stranded and striking out."

Yet even with a more productive offense, the Giants probably will rely on what sustained them two years ago when they won the World Series: Pitching.

To elaborate, here are five keys to the Giants' fortunes during this postseason.

Live up to the hype
The Giants still are widely regarded as a pitching-oriented club. Yet their 3.68 team ERA was only fifth best in the NL. A truly elite staff would rank higher.

San Francisco's staff remains respectable. It's also vulnerable. With Brian Wilson sidelined, the Giants have employed a closer-by-committee approach to preserving late leads. That worked great in the regular season, but in the postseason, the margin for error diminishes while pressure increases. This combination tends to fray committees. And with erstwhile ace Tim Lincecum continuing his search for consistency, San Francisco might lack an assertive, winning presence. Remember, Lincecum finished 4-1 in the 2010 postseason and won the openers of all three series.

If the committee maintains its regular-season effectiveness and the starters pitch to their capabilities, the Giants will look more legitimate as the standard of pitching excellence.

Catch the ball
This was a problem early in the season for the Giants, who trailed Los Angeles by 7 1/2 games on May 27. Improved defense hastened their subsequent surge. The embodiment of this upgrade was shortstop Brandon Crawford, who spent his first full season in the big leagues. Quick and deft, Crawford improved a great deal with his glovework in the second half of the season, cutting down on his errors.

The Reds' offense is explosive. Cincinnati ranked just ninth in the league in scoring (669 runs), but finished third with 172 homers. Joey Votto and his teammates will capitalize on extra chances to generate offense. The Giants can ill afford to provide those opportunities. Expect to see Gregor Blanco in left field and Joaquin Arias at third base in the late innings if the Giants are trying to protect a lead.

Seize home-field disadvantage
Many observers believe that being the lower-seeded team in a Division Series matchup actually provides an edge, since it gets to play the first two games at home under the best-of-five format. The Giants endured the cruel reality of this phenomenon in 1997, when they won the West title but began the Division Series by losing twice on the road to the Marlins, the Wild Card representative. Florida finished off the Giants with a Game 3 victory at Candlestick Park and proceeded to win the World Series.

Winning each of the first two games at AT&T Park isn't a must for the Giants -- they split their Division Series games against Atlanta at home two years ago -- but it's close. Heading for Great American Ball Park with a 2-0 cushion will ease the anxiety of confronting Mat Latos, who has owned them.

Bolster Buster
The time may come when Buster Posey, the brand-new NL batting champion, receives relatively few hittable pitches. That time could be now. It's not just a cliche to say that every pitch means something in the postseason. It's a fact. The Reds ranked third in the league with a 3.34 ERA, indicating that they know how to neutralize opposing hitters. So when their pitchers conduct their pre-series meeting on Friday or Saturday and they're told, "Don't let Posey beat you," they'll listen. Which means Posey could rarely see a strike.

The Giants can prevent this. All it takes is for the hitters surrounding Posey -- Pagan, Scutaro, Pablo Sandoval and Pence -- to get on base. Common baseball sense dictates that Cincinnati is far less likely to pitch around Posey with runners on base or if Pence, who follows him in the fifth spot, is swinging a hot bat.

Interestingly, of Posey's team-high 69 walks, just seven were intentional. Maybe the Reds will pitch to him.

Here's how the top five hitters in the Giants batting order have fared against Cincinnati's trio of announced starting pitchers:

Against Johnny Cueto: Pagan .571 (4-for-7), Scutaro .167 (1-for-6), Sandoval .111 (1-for-9), Posey .750 (3-for-4), Pence .276 (8-for-29).

Against Game 2 starter Bronson Arroyo: Pagan .217 (5-for-23), Scutaro .263 (5-for-19), Sandoval .250 (3-for-12), Posey .400 (2-for-5), Pence .343 (12-for-35).

Against Latos: Pagan .133 (2-for-15), Scutaro .333 (2-for-6), Sandoval .207 (6-for-29), Posey .231 (3-for-13), Pence .222 (2-for-9).

Score early, avoid Aroldis
Cincinnati's bullpen is outstanding. Reds relievers compiled a 2.65 ERA and a .219 opponents' batting average, both NL lows. Aroldis Chapman, the 24-year-old left-hander who's capable of throwing 100 mph, can safely be categorized as an "Oh, heck" closer. That is, when he enters the game, if you're playing or rooting for the other team, you mutter, "Oh, heck."

Chapman struck out 122 batters in 71 2/3 innings and recorded a 0.809 WHIP (average walks and hits per inning). If -- or when -- the Giants face him, they'll have to hope that he endures one of his occasional bouts of wildness. Of the 23 walks he issued this season, six came in his final five appearances.

So it behooves the Giants not to let Chapman and his setup men influence events in the eighth and ninth innings. The Giants can accomplish that only by victimizing the Reds starters. That's much easier said than done, considering Cueto is a Cy Young Award candidate and Latos routinely bedevils the Giants (2.19 ERA, .201 opponents' batting average in 11 starts). Based on past performance, the Giants would appear to have a chance to jump on Arroyo, who's 0-4 with a 4.11 ERA in six career starts at AT&T Park.

San Francisco Giants