Monday, September 1, 2014

"Either-Or" Means One

So said our tenth-grade English teacher back in the day, as she gamely attempted to drill the niceties of the language into our motley collection of jocks, stoners, and nerds. We don't know if Miss Dottie Schmiedeler was a baseball fan, but even if not perhaps she'd feel some relief that at least one student stumbled into a way to apply this rule.  That is, with a little over three weeks-- 24 games, to be exact-- left in the regular season, we can say the San Francisco Giants are either going to win this thing, or they aren't.

Ah, baseball-- the great simplifier and reducer of life's lessons.

As the sun comes up on this early Labor Day, the Giants are back on a roll the likes of which we haven't seen since spring semester was still in session. They have won six straight games, including a three-game sweep just completed of the Central Division-leading Milwaukee Brewers, no slouches they. Shaking off a paralyzing home-field funk over the past two months, the Giants have concluded a 6-1 homestand that saw them cut the LA Dodgers' division lead in half while taking the NL lead in the wild-card scramble. They trail the Blue Meanies by two and a half games as they open a September schedule which-- absent a weird upcoming interleague series in Detroit next weekend-- will be exclusively against NL West opponents. Six each-- three home, three away-- against the Padres, Diamondbacks, and of course the Dodgers, and three in the rarefied air of Colorado beginning today.

It's been a wild ride since we proclaimed the Giants "golden" back in early June. The apogee was a 42-21 mark on June 8 after a three-game sweep of the Mets. Then quickly came a brutal reality check against powerful Washington, losing three of four, and by the Fourth of July the Giants were in a 5-18 nosedive and had lost a nine-game division lead. Thankfully, there was time to recover, and now, two months later, recovery, of a sort at least, has begun. At 74-62 today the Giants are still nine games to the bad since their peak, but the Dodgers have hardly run away with it in the meantime and so, dear readers, it's all up for grabs as we start the stretch drive.

The Giants' current starting pitchers have posted seven consecutive quality starts, and none has posted a truly wretched start in a month (note the use of the word "current" in this sentence). After some initial misfortune, Jake Peavy, who arrived via trade with Boston to replace the disabled Matt Cain, has been a solid workhorse. Tim Hudson, whose early success and midsummer struggles mirrored those of the team almost exactly, seems to have regained his minimalist form of late. Madison Bumgarner, the unquestioned ace, has a shot at 20 wins (16-9, 2.97), and Ryan Vogelsong continues to put in enough good starts to outweigh the bad ones.  On the relief side, nobody has been terrible, although Sergio Romo lost the closer job, at least temporarily, to Santiago Casilla. When the bullpen is bad, it's bad all at once: witness the nightmarish game a week ago in Washington, just before this latest homestand started. Leading 6-2 in the sixth, "Boch" turned matters over to his relievers, who surrendered twelve unanswered runs over three innings in a grotesque 14-6 loss. Well, if you're gonna melt down, best to do it all at once and get it over with, hah? And, there hasn't been a recurrence. Yet.

The blackeye in the game is Tim Lincecum. Aside from Bumgarner, he was the only starter who pitched well during that dizzying ten-week downward spiral. Timmy racked up six quality starts out of seven between June 13 and July 25, including his second career no-hitter, and helped keep the ship from sinking altogether. But over the past month he's pitched so badly that Bruce Bochy finally replaced him in the rotation with Yusmeiro Petit last week. It worked for one start, but whether it will for five more is the question-- and if Lincecum doesn't pitch better in relief than he did yesterday against the Brewers, "The Freak" may not even make the postseason roster, if there is one, unthinkable as that may seem.

While we're loath to jump on small sample sizes or make wide-eyed speculative opinions about new players, it's hard not to correlate the Giants' recent surge with Joe Panik settling in at second base and, lately, the second spot in the order. The club wants nothing more than a new, younger Marco Scutaro at those positions, and that's what the 23-year-old has delivered in 48 games: .309, lots of singles, a strikeout-to-walk ratio that compares with Buster Posey's, and solid defense. Certainly second base was a black hole all year and is no longer. And, though it may have taken awhile, Angel Pagan's return to center field and the leadoff spot is yielding its usual fruit. He doesn't have the stats, but he makes things happen when he's in there.

The rest of the offense resides on the shoulders of those who've carried it all year: Hunter Pence, Buster Posey, Pablo Sandoval, and Michael Morse. The latter, after a two-month snooze, is finally contributing at the plate again, and Sandoval has really been slugging away of late. The Giants  outscored  Milwaukee 31-8 over the three-game series, and it seemed half those runs were produced one way or another by the "Panda." Pence, of course, remains the team's leader in almost all offensive categories and lately has been batting third, with Buster fifth. Speaking of Posey, the stats show he hits much better as a first baseman than as a catcher, and with Brandon Belt still sidelined with concussion syndrome, expect to see a lot more of that as long as newcomer Andrew Susac (.467 SLG, 12 RBI in 45 AB) keeps producing. The one non-producer is and has been the mystifying Brandon Crawford, who continues to regress offensively and defensively.
The Colorado series will open today with a resumption of May 22's suspended game. It's the bottom of the sixth with the score tied 2-2. Afterward, the stretch drive officially begins as Tim Hudson, whose 2.90 ERA is a lot more indicative of his season than his tepid 9-9 record, takes the hill. LA, after losing two of three in San Diego, are home against the league's best team, the Nationals. You all know what that means, right? Sure you do.

Here We Go!

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