SAN FRANCISCO – The Giants sure do play well with their backs against the wall. Those skills are about to be put to the test again when they resume their season Friday night with the first-place Arizona Diamondbacks.
No, it’s not exactly win-or-go-home time. Hunter Pence isn’t going to start throwing handfuls of sunflower seeds in the dugout just yet. But the Giants restart play in fourth place in the NL West, with a 6 ½-game deficit -- and if you think 90 wins would safely take the division ... well, they’d have to go 47-21 to reach that mark.
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So get cracking on that first road win, Barry Zito. Time to join the show, Panda. Get a handle on that curveball, Jeremy Affeldt. And Buster Posey, don’t you even think about slumping.
The Giants need a lot to break their way to sneak into October and defend their World Series title. So far, the only huge break they’ve gotten is that nobody else in the division has been good enough for long enough to knock the last bit of hope from the defending champs.
Here are five of the most important factors that must break the Giants’ way to make it a meaningful September, and beyond:
The Giants have won before with a meager offense. They’ve persevered through injuries before, too. When they had Barry Bonds, they could blast their way to victories. But in the post-Bonds era, it’s pretty simple: The Giants pitch to win. And right now, their rotation ERA is 4.59, better than only the Brewers and Padres in the NL. Last season, Madison Bumgarner and Ryan Vogelsong faded down the stretch. Bumgarner, who has become the staff ace, has to stay strong to the end this time -- and Vogelsong must make a solid contribution when he returns in August from a fractured pinky. But the key is Cain, who has a 5.06 ERA in 19 starts and got pulled in the first inning of his last outing. His career home run/fly ball rate was 5.6 percent entering the season. It’s 9.4 percent this year. He’s got to keep the ball in the park – and keep the Giants in the game, every single time. The rest of the rotation will take their cues from Cain, good or bad. That’s the burden of being a staff leader, and Cain still holds that title.
[RELATED: Matt Cain career stats | 2013 game log]
Even before his strained foot landed him back on the disabled list, Sandoval was not having the breakout season that many envisioned. He also wasn’t passing the eye test; he looked just as heavy as he was 2010, when Bruce Bochy had to bench him for the stretch drive and the postseason. The Giants offense needed a spark when Sandoval returned from his foot injury June 24. Instead, he hit .140 in 15 games, including a 1-for-30 stretch that coincided with similar spells by Gregor Blanco, Brandon Crawford and Hunter Pence. But Sandoval had a much better series at San Diego to enter the break. He hit his first home run since May 20 and contributed his first game with multiple extra-base hits since Game 1 of the World Series, when he joined Reggie, Albert and The Babe in the three-homer club. Sandoval doesn’t need to hit like Babe Ruth, but the Giants can’t hope to squeeze out a bunch of 2-1 victories given the current state of the pitching staff. They’ll need more horsepower out of the offense, and they’ll need Sandoval to be a consistent run producer.
[RELATED: Pablo Sandoval career stats | 2013 game log]
Back in late June, after Angel Pagan had hamstring surgery that might end his season, Giants GM Brian Sabean scoffed at the notion that he needed to trade for a replacement in center field. That was easy for him at the time, since Gregor Blanco was in the midst of a seven-game hitting streak in which he had a .464 average. But Blanco tends to peter out when he plays every day. Indeed, once that streak ended, Blanco started another of a different kind. He went 0-for-22 over his next seven games. And it was made clear once again: for the Giants, nothing stalls their lineup like an out-making leadoff hitter. Last season, Pagan scored 95 runs for a team that hit the fewest homers in the majors. That means he was constantly on the run -- scoring from first on doubles, scoring from second on singles, and leading the majors with 15 triples. Now that Blanco is back in a platoon with Andres Torres, the Giants might have cause to believe that they’ll get more out of both players. But no matter who bats leadoff, the Giants need them to get on base. Otherwise, Marco Scutaro’s bat control skills will be minimized as the No. 2 hitter, and everyone else will be affected down the line.
This first series against Arizona is important, of course – and not only because it’s a chance to take a direct bite out of the Giants’ NL West deficit. The days are dwindling until the July 31 non-waiver trade deadline, and this 10-game homestand with the Diamondbacks, Reds and Cubs will determine just how aggressive Sabean will be, and whether he’d even consider selling off some pieces if the misery begins anew. Tim Lincecum’s name is being bandied about, but only by other clubs as they assess their potential targets. It’s highly unlikely the Giants move him, or Hunter Pence, in any event. But if the Giants do sell, they’d look to put left-hander and impending free agent Javier Lopez in a nice spot where he could help a contender. Should the Giants continue to make things interesting, then it’s up to Sabean to give them some kind of bounce, to show that management believes in them -- and nothing would help more than a starting pitcher or two. It's been said before: The NL West might be decided by the GMs and what they do at the deadline. But no matter where the Giants are in the standings in 10 days, Sabean will be on the lookout for players under contract or club control beyond 2013 that might make sense going forward. That’s what he did in 2005, when he acquired Randy Winn from the Mariners. Would players like Jake Peavy and Alex Rios meet that criteria, and could they be obtained without much cost in prospects, considering they’re owed $27 million between them next season?
--Happy Lincecum Day
Last year, the Giants went 11-0 in Barry Zito’s final 11 starts. They’ll probably have to get on a similar hot streak with one of their starters down the stretch this season. It would be unwise to expect it again from Zito, who has a 9.89 ERA in eight road starts, hasn’t won away from AT&T Park since Game 5 of the NLCS at St. Louis, and could be on his way out of the rotation within a couple weeks. But Lincecum was showing signs of major improvement even before he grabbed baseball’s attention by throwing his 148-pitch no-hitter July 13. A second career in relief is almost certainly in his future, but he’s proving he can still be a difference-making starting pitcher when he commands his fastball and mixes four pitches instead of just two or three. A revitalized Lincecum would mean the world to the Giants. If he can keep recapturing those free-spirited “Happy Lincecum Days,” then maybe the rest of the group can latch onto that magic mix of confidence and belief, too. After all, you’re still the defending champ until someone else wins it.
[RELATED: Tim Lincecum career stats | 2013 game log]
In line images courtesy USA Today Images