Monday, August 31, 2015

"Could Go Either Way"

LA 72 57 .558 - A sweep could all but end this.
GIANTS 69 61 .531 3.5 26 of last 32 games against NL West.

As sporting cliches go, that one is right up there with the hoariest and least meaningful of 'em. But as applies to this upcoming three-game series between the Giants and the Dodgers at Chavez Ravine beginning tonight, it also neatly encapsulates the immediate situation.

"Either-or means one," proclaimed Miss Dottie Schmiedeler to our recalcitrant sophomore English class back in the day, and as we review the prospects for both of these teams, several variations on that theme become apparent:

Either the Dodgers or the Giants will win the National League West pennant in 2015. Arizona was making some noise a couple of weeks back, but that was then. Now is now. They're nine and a half games back, tied with the Padres. Fahgeddaboudit. 

Either the Dodgers or the Giants will be the West's sole representative in the upcoming postseason. The three titans of the Central-- the Cardinals, Pirates, and Cubs-- are well ahead of any other contenders for the two wild-card spots available. Catching one is not an impossible task-- but it's most unlikely at this stage of the season, when intra-divisional games dominate the remainder of the schedule.

And... either this series will have a huge impact on the division race, or it won't. 

Both teams covet a sweep, of course. 

For LA, smarting over the Giants' dominance of them despite their division lead, a sweep would be the best tonic imaginable, leaving the defending champs reeling, six and a half back with 28 games to play, and all but ending the race before it began. 

For the Giants, sweeping these guys in their own ballpark, extending that season dominance to 12 out of 15, and reducing that lead to a negligible half-game-- well, that would be a clear shot across the bow and notice of a pennant race going right down to the wire.     

Two out of three in either direction would pretty much leave us where we are today, though: on the cusp of a pennant race but awaiting some sort of indicator that it's really, definitely on. 

Over the past three weeks-plus, the Giants have played 23 games against strong, contending teams-- the Cardinals-Pirates-Cubs trifecta, plus the AL West-leading Houston Astros and the disappointing-but-still-in-contention Washington Nationals. They've played those games without centerfielder Angel Pagan, rightfielder Hunter Pence, and second baseman Joe Panik. They played most of them without leadoff man Nori Aoki, and lately without All-Star shortstop Brandon Crawford. Matt Cain and Tim Hudson, expected to shore up the rotation, both returned to the DL without regaining effectiveness, while trade pickup Mike Leake was MIA for two starts with a bad hamstring. Stumbling along with three or four regulars idled every day, and a patchwork rotation for nearly a month, the Giants managed a 10-13 mark over that stretch, and lost only one-half game to LA during it. Meanwhile, most gloriously, the Dodgers have been no-hit twice over the last two weeks! Running away with it, they assuredly ain't. 

So the prospect of most, if not all, our regulars returning, the surprisingly able play of rookie Kelby Tomlinson in the meantime, and the fact that 19 of the Giants' remaining games are against teams averaging a .459 winning percentage-- well, this leads us to fervently hope that the upcoming series in Dodger Stadium will be the beginning of another classic Giants stretch drive, 2010 or 2012 style.

Tonight it's Jake Peavy, with his shaky 4.21 ERA, only 68 innings in 12 starts, and a 1.3 WHIP, going against lefty Brett Anderson, whose 3.36 ERA is a lot prettier but otherwise posts similar numbers. The big names roll out tomorrow and Wednesday: ERA leader Zack Grienke against Madison (5-0 in August) Bumgarner, who also brings an .810 OPS, followed by Clayton Kershaw against our aforementioned midseason rotation booster, Mike Leake.  Tonight, southpaw Anderson will likely see Buster Posey at first and our other recent trade pickup, Marlon Byrd (1.000 OPS since joining the Giants) in left.    

The mantra for the Giants most of this season has been, "pretty good, but not good enough." (Of course, that was the mantra for last year, too, and we all know how that one turned out.) The team's slow evolution away from a pitching-dominant squad with barely adequate offense continues; the Giants are now dependent on the lineup to score runs and support a pitching staff that is league-average at best. If we look only at the starters, we see Bumgarner is great, Leake is promising, and everyone else-- Chris Heston, Ryan Vogelsong, Peavy, Hudson, and both Cain and Tim Lincecum, who are on the DL for likely the remainder of the season-- is simply untrustworthy. Right now the Giants are leading with Bum and Leake; after that it's strictly provisional, with Peavy getting a chance to step up tonight after Heston's weak start yesterday. We may thank Javier Lopez (despite a bad day yesterday), George Kontos, and Hunter Strickland-- all of whom have ERAs under 2.01-- for balancing out the stat sheet. They've chewed up 140 innings of relief between them. Santiago Casilla and Sergio Romo are a full a run and a half per game higher over 87 innings, and Casilla's 31 saves are marred by five blown. Jeremy Affeldt hasn't been healthy enough to be reliable, Yusmeiro Petit seems to come out only in garbage time, and Josh Osich needs more than 15 innings for anyone to be sure, though he can definitely bring the heat.

Byrd, in his baseball dotage, has become a "real" power hitter, the kind the Giants haven't had in awhile. He strikes out a ton, doesn't walk anough, won't hit for high average, and at 37 isn't going to win many footraces-- but he can put the ball out of the park and right now he is ripping it. One issue will be where to play him when Hunter Pence returns. In center, Angel Pagan has been close to an automatic out this year even when healthy. The guy who broke Willie Mays' team record for triples three years ago has scored only 38 runs in 102 games, though his defense remains pretty good. Right now our old friend, Gregor Blanco, with a .293 mark and 54 runs scored in 100 fewer at-bats than Pagan, is the preferred center fielder.

Pence, when he gets back, simply has to play: 40 RBI in 52 games, and this is what he does every year. Aoki, to date, has been a good leadoff man with a .359 OBP held up by a .294 average; even though he's walking more than in the past, at this point he has to hit .300 to hold his value. But the real stars of this lineup are the infielders: Matt Duffy, Brandon Belt, Crawford, Panik when he's healthy (Tomlinson, with .328/.397/.478, has been a superb replacement), and of course Buster Posey.  Those five, plus Pence when he's healthy, are the reason the Giants are third in the league in runs scored, and it's they who've kept this unwieldy ship afloat so far. 

Right now, with Pence still out, Byrd and Aoki flank Blanco. At third, the veil of secrecy has long since been lifted from Duffy; not only is he a real Rookie-of-the-Year candidate, he is a better player, in every department, than the man he replaced (and no, we don't mean Casey McGehee). Crawford, even at .262, is slugging .482 with 52 extra-base hits, best on the team, and 75 RBI, second to Posey's 80. Whether it's Panik or Tomlinson right now, second base is well taken care of, and Belt's quiet .847 OPS matches Posey's, plus he's walked 50 times. The admittedly weak bench will look a lot stronger once the DL is emptied (not to mention the expanded roster beginining tomorrow).

So, on the one hand, the eternal optimist sees all the body blows this team has taken over 130 games, notes that they're only three and a half games out, and concludes that with two strategic and cost-effective mid-season improvements plus a whole host of guys due to come off the DL, this is prime time for a .700 September and a sprint to the finish. The eternal pessimist, meanwhile, sees that the Giants tend to play poorly against the better teams (excepting LA), especially on the road, that their starting rotation is paper-thin (who's the fourth starter, never mind the fifth?), that it's an odd year (yeah, they crumbled right about this time in 2011, too), and, when all else fails, falls back on, "Well, even if they do manage to sneak in, they ain't goin' anywhere in the post-season!"

Which camp do we follow, dear fans? Well, regarding that last remark, all we've got to say is, "Mister, I've heard that song before."

Crank it up, Giants fans. Another year, another race. Here We Go!

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