Saturday, September 3, 2011


One year ago today, the San Francisco Giants found themselves in essentially the same position they occupy right now. Following a disastrous month of August, the 2010 Giants trailed the San Diego Padres by several games with a month to play... and we all know how that turned out, don't we?

Well, optimism is the preferred mode for any baseball fan, even a Giants fan, but we needn't get too carried away here. The 2010 Giants turned into playoff monsters, thanks to their great pitching, but the bony truth of it is that had not the Padres staged an epic collapse worthy of the '64 Phillies, most likely the Giants wouldn't even have made the playoffs. It is, therefore, not especially reassuring to note that Our Boys' prospects for this year may depend on a similar face-plant by the Arizona Diamondbacks, who as the sun rises this morning lead the Giants by five games with 24 left to play.

After a wretched, 11-18 August turned their four-game division lead into a six-game deficit, the Giants bounced back big-time last night. Opening a three-game homestand against the Diamondbacks that will essentially decide whether or not this stretch-drive screed continues past Monday, the Giants took the first game of the series in grand fashion, with solid pitching from Matt Cain and some much-needed long-ball heroics from Carlos (4-for-4) Beltran and Cody Ross pounding out a 6-2 win.

Beltran, the newest Giant, especially needed to step it up. Though it's hardly his fault, the team's August skid began almost immediately after he was obtained in a trade-deadline deal that cost the Giants top pitching prospect Zach Wheeler. GM Brian Sabean's determination to add a proven major-league slugger to the league's weakest lineup was well-known, and Beltran the best player available. When the move didn't result in an immediate winning surge, the horde of second-guessers boiled out of the woodwork like a flash-mob at a G-8 convention. A solid September from the newest Giant would be most welcome, whether or not Beltran remains in the club's long-term plans.

We ought to count it all blessings that the Giants are even contenders this year. The lineup, which posted a league-average set of offensive numbers during last year's championship run, has reverted to its gawdawful 2009 level. Consider the team's best player, Buster Posey, was lost for the season back in May, and that solid Freddy Sanchez was likewise sidelined soon after. Without these two, the Giants have scored a major-leagues-low 466 runs (a miserable 3.4 per game). Their leader in RBI is Aubrey Huff, with a mere 55, and Huff is having, by any measure, a dreadful season, especially compared to last year. He's also tied for the team lead in runs scored-- 43-- with Pablo Sandoval, who missed six weeks with an injury but otherwise has been solid. The only other Giant regular with an OPS over .750 is Nate Schierholz-- who is on the DL right now. Overall, the Giants have been outscored 485-466 on the year, which translates to a 66-72 Pythagorean mark, seven games behind their actual record of 73-65.

The Giants' runs-allowed total is second-best in the major leagues, behind only mighty Philadelphia, who seem to be putting together a season for the ages. This year the Giants' mound success is truly a reflection of the whole pitching staff-- there isn't a deeper quality group in the game. Consider that the team's leading starter is Ryan Vogelsong (10-5, 2.63), who barely made the roster in April. Tim Lincecum is 12-11 and not getting much Cy Young attention, although his 2.58 ERA and 193 strikeouts rank, as usual, among the league leaders. Matt Cain, now 11-9 with a 2.85, has been solid, though not having the breakout year we predicted. Most encouraging has been the steady rise of Madison Bumgarner: the 22-year-old has pitched in hard luck much of the year, getting little support even by tepid 'Frisco standards, but has won 9 games with 157 K's in 173 innings. The downsiders are lefties Jonathan Sanchez and Barry Zito, both of whom have battled injury and ineffectiveness all year. Sanchez, had he been healthy, might have gone to the Mets for Beltran; as it is, this has been a wasted year for him so far. Zito, now in the fifth year of his monster contract, hit the DL for the first time in his entire career this season, and his poor performances when off the DL hint that the Giants may be willing to consider "eating" the $36,000,000 still owed to him through 2013. The club has four good starters to use in the playoffs; the issue will be identifying the fifth starter necessary to get us to the playoffs. As for the bullpen, even Brian Wilson's DL stint hasn't been cause for panic, as stalwarts like Santiago Casillas, Ramon Ramirez, Javier Lopez, and Sergio Romo have generally done very well.

One perspective to take is that the Giants, despite all the injuries and misfortune, have honored their championship season by remaining contenders and conducting themselves like defending champs, not "lucky bums." They've made the difficult moves lately, such as releasing boat-anchors Miguel Tejada and Aaron Rowand in favor of promising youngsters like Brandon Belt. Veteran pickups such as Jeff Keppinger and Orlando Cabrera have the opportunity to be this year's "Cody Ross" or "Edgar Renteria." Pat Burrell, injured almost all year, has returned with his power and batting eye intact. There is enough pitching here to win the division. All 24 of the Giants' remaining games are against the NL West, including five against 'Zona. A sweep this weekend throws the race wide open; thanks to last night's win, a split still carries us into next week.

So off we go, in a cloud of confusion.

Arizona    78-60   …       Nine-game winning streak snapped.
GIANTS 73-65   5 GB   The season will continue past this weekend.

Giants beat Arizona, 6-2, getting off first and preventing any chance of a sweep.

Giants host Arizona; 6:05 PDT at the 'Bell, a special start time for MLB Network. Tim Lincecum seeks his 13th win; Ian Kennedy (17-4, 3.03) opposes. He's been Arizona' s ace this year, and in three starts against the Giants has been outstanding every time. Lincecum has started twice against the 'Snakes and also pitched well. The two faced off at the 'Bell back in May: the Giants won, 1-0, in the ninth.

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