Unheralded lefties may hold key in Giants' 'pen

Unheralded lefties may hold key in Giants' 'pen

PHILADELPHIA -- After remaining virtually idle during the National League Division Series against Atlanta, Jeremy Affeldt and Javier Lopez could become essential to the Giants' strategy in the NL Championship Series against the Philadelphia Phillies.

The spotlight should soon fall upon Affeldt and Lopez for several reasons. Namely, Chase Utley, Ryan Howard, Raul Ibanez and, to a lesser extent, Ross Gload.

Utley, Howard and Ibanez form the core of potent left-handed batters that bolsters Philadelphia's lineup. The Giants will rely heavily on Affeldt and Lopez, their veteran left-handed relievers, to try to neutralize that group of Phillies -- as well as Gload, Philadelphia's top pinch-hitter.

Philadelphia's left-handed-hitting contingent is so formidable that the Giants are considering adding rookie Dan Runzler, another left-handed reliever, to the active roster for the LCS.

"You're going to throw everything at those guys," Affeldt said of the Phillies' lefty batters. "They might face a different pitcher every at-bat."

In fact, throwing various looks at these Phillies hitters might be all that the Giants accomplish by playing the percentages and inserting a lefty to face Utley, Howard or Ibanez. Because they thrive against left-handers about as much as righties.

Utley defied the percentages by hitting .294 against left-handers and .266 off righties during the regular season. His OPS (on-base plus slugging percentage) was dramatically better against left-handers than right-handers (1.003-.752). Howard hit only .019 worse off lefties than righties (.283-.264), as was the case with Ibanez (.277 against righties, .268 off lefties).

Such consistency can be expected from them. Utley is a five-time NL All-Star. Howard was the NL's Most Valuable Player in 2006, and finished no lower than fifth in the voting during the following three years. Ibanez's power production dipped from 34 homers in 2009 to 16 this year, but he remains dangerous at Citizens Bank Park, where he hit .297 and amassed nine of his homers.

Big task for Affeldt, Lopez
Splits vs. left-handers for lefty-hitting sluggers Chase Utley, Ryan Howard and Raul Ibanez during the regular season
Utley Howard Ibanez
Avg. .294 .264 .268
OBP .422 .333 .309
SLG .581 .492 .419
OPS 1.003 .826 .728
HR 10 12 4
RBI 27 39 23
BB 22 17 11
SO 26 61 44

Said Lopez, "They all have power. They all have swings that are built for this ballpark. It's going to be a challenge, but it's going to be one you look forward to."

Lopez was particularly effective against left-handed batters. He led all NL left-handers (mininum 85 at-bats) by limiting southpaw swingers to a .162 average (16-for-99). Lopez actually improved after joining the Giants from Pittsburgh in a July 31 trade, recording a .111 opponents' average (5-for-45) against lefties.

Lopez subdues left-handers with more than just his sidearm delivery.

"He has good sink on his fastball," catcher Eli Whiteside said. "And his velocity -- 88, 89 miles an hour -- is something you don't see [from a sidearming lefty]. Usually they're in the mid-80s."

Though Lopez faced only one batter in Game 4 of the NLDS, it was a key confrontation. He struck out Atlanta's Jason Heyward to strand a runner on second base in the eighth inning. Lopez also fanned Heyward in Game 2 as well. But, as Lopez indicated, the Phillies trio will test his skills.

Of Utley, Lopez said, "He has great plate discipline. He's not a guy who goes outside of his zone too often. He's definitely going to know not just what I throw, but every reliever."

Magical mound work
Lowest starters ERA in a playoff series
Year Team G Series ER IP ERA
1905 NYG 5 WS 0 44 0.00
1999 NYY 3 ALDS 1 22 1/3 0.40
1998 NYY 3 ALDS 1 20 2/3 0.44
1966 Bal. 4 WS 2 29 1/3 0.61
1981 L.A. 5 NLDS 3 42 0.64
1983 Bal. 4 ALCS 2 26 2/3 0.68
1981 Oak. 3 ALDS 2 25 1/3 0.71
1950 NYY 4 WS 3 35 2/3 0.76
1939 NYY 4 WS 2 23 0.78
1996 Atl. 3 NLDS 2 22 2/3 0.79
2010 S.F. 4 NLDS 3 29 0.93

Lopez noticed that Howard and Ibanez were getting good swings off reliever Aroldis Chapman during the NLDS against Cincinnati, though the fabled Reds rookie was exceeding 100 mph with his fastball. Lopez acknowledged that gained his attention, "Especially when you don't have anywhere near 100 under the hood."

Left-handed batters hit .290 off Affeldt, the same as right-handed hitters. But he yielded just one homer to lefties in 69 at-bats. Similarly, lefties hit .260 off Runzler, but he allowed them no homers in 50 at-bats.

Now, the trick for the Giants is maintaining what went right during the regular season.

"It's the thing you try to train yourself for during the year," Lopez said. "You've gone through these experiences before, obviously not with this amount riding on it. But you just try to tell yourself that you're doing the same job you've done all year long."

Chris Haft is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.