Thursday, September 1, 2016

Oh, Thirty Days!

With apologies to Chuck Berry, we begin the 15th installment of this series, in which the San Francisco Giants enter the final month of the season as contenders for the postseason and a World Series championship. As it stands today, the Giants are 72-60, a game and a half behind the rival LA Dodgers in the National League West, and two games ahead of the competition in the wild-card derby. There are exactly thirty games left between now and the season finale scheduled for October 2 at AT&T Park against, yep, the Dodgers. The script writers, as it were, have set up the scene most nicely. Now, how will it play?

The first act opens on the road with four games, starting tonight, at Wrigley Field, home of the Chicago Cubs, the team with the best record in baseball and the team deemed "most likely to win a championship after 106 years of frustration." The Giants took two of three from the Cubs back in May when things were ridin' high, but that means little now. This is a team that will likely bar the door to the World Series for the rest of the NL; the Giants need at least a split to keep the flickering flame of their sputtering season from going out.  After a road trip to Colorado and Arizona beginning on Labor Day, the Giants remain in California for the final twenty games, 13 of which are at home. All things considered, it's a favorable schedule in a season that has mixed favor and disfavor in equally sized portions.

On May 11, the Giants won a bizarre, thirteen-inning affair in interleague play against the Toronto Blue Jays, a game they probably should have lost. The win set their record at 18-18. Over the next two months the Giants went 39-15, opened up a seven-game lead over LA, and for a short time even took away the Cubs' reputation as the hottest team in the game. That made the post-All Star break pratfall all the more agonizing. It's been a 15-27 downward spiral, beginning with a sweep at the hands of the San Diego Padres and six straight losses. The nadir came just last week. After losing the last two of a four-game set with the New York Mets at home, it was two quick ugly losses in LA, which sealed the Dodgers' comeback and vaulted them into the division lead by three games. In one game the Giants couldn't pitch; in the next they couldn't hit. At that point it was difficult for even a dedicated fan to believe this squad looked like a contender, despite the standings.

In the midst of all this losing, the front office made a series of moves intended to revitalize the team, in the manner of the Hunter Pence and Marco Scutaro trades in 2012 or the Jake Peavy pickup in 2014. But while those moves had the look of  a solid contender building strength upon strength, these seemed like the desperate maneuvers of a struggling team trying to fill obvious holes. Top pitching prospect Phil Bickford, plus our old friend, young Andrew Susac, went to Milwaukee for lefty reliever Will Smith. With Jeremy Affeldt retired and neither Javier Lopez nor Josh Osich reliable, left-handed relief was an obvious team weakness, but the team paid dearly for a pitcher who's been decidedly mediocre since coming aboard. Days later, popular Matt Duffy, on the DL at the time but coming off one of the most valuable single seasons in team history, went to Tampa for another lefty, starter Matt Moore. This moved utilityman Eduardo Nunez, obtained from Minnesota for prospect Lucius Fox a few weeks earlier, into Duffy's place at third. It's been a long time since the Giants traded away as productive a position player as Duffy, and longer still since they gave up one so young (Matt Williams was 30 in 1996, five years older than Duffy is today).

Certainly Moore fills a need; along with the beleaguered bullpen, the back end of the Giants' starting rotation has been a problem all year. Matt Cain and Jake Peavy, now both on the DL, have delivered just enough decent starts, among many more awful ones, to somehow stay in the mix,. With Jeff Samardzija cooling off after his hot start, the chance to add a good southpaw starter to the group was irresistible. The price was steep. Moore's contribution will ultimately decide its value: will he provide enough improvement over the Cain/Peavy combo to justify the decline in production from Duffy to Nunez?

The jury was still out on that when Moore made his fifth start as a Giant in the finale of that series at Chavez Ravine. He'd previously gone 0-2 with two quality starts out of four. With the team facing a sweep and a four-game deficit, Moore delivered, beautifully, in near-historic fashion. Always vulnerable to the base on balls, he issued three in eight and two-thirds innings, but did not allow a hit. One out away from the record books, he saw Cory Seager finally bloop a soft but clean single into right field. Moore didn't get the no-hitter, but his performance seemed to lift his woozy, punch-drunk ballclub off the mat. The Giants won that game 4-0, came home, took two of three from Atlanta, and just completed a two-game split with Arizona. It was a winning homestand, if a short one.

As the Chicago series opens, the rosters expand to 40 for the stretch drive, and this may help the Giants more than most. Ty Blach, winner of 13 games with a 3.49 ERA in hitter-friendly Sacramento, may be slated to start some games-- heck, he may even start tomorrow at Wrigley. Mike Reynolds can help the bullpen, especially since our best reliever, Derek Law, just went on the DL. Mac Williamson, one of the few Giants who can consistently hit the long ball (6 HR in 48 AB), just came off the DL, and Kelby Tominson is now back with the big club, as are southpaws Josh Osich and Steven Okert.

After all this, the Giants still have the fourth-best record in the league. All a team can ask for is the chance to win and get to the playoffs. Recent history has shown us that for the San Francisco Giants, getting there is the hardest part. The door is open. What's past is past. Let's go!

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