The Positives: The G-Men are currently 7 and half games in front of the NL West and cruising towards a division title. The magic number (Giants wins and/or Dodger losses) is 11 with 15 games remaining. The Giants would have to really tank at this point to not make the playoffs but meltdowns have happened so now is not the time to be overconfident. The Giants are playing very solid ball and have the 5th best record in all of baseball. They are loose as a team and having fun (anyone who saw Casilla’s first major league hit last night in the AZ victory can see that – it was a hoot). In terms of position players Buster is now the favorite for MVP, and he should be. He is an awesome ballplayer, batting .329 with 20 homers and 90 RBI’s and an arm so good that no runner in his right mind will try to steal a base (although I saw Yadier Molina throw out that Dodger speedster in the Cardinal/Dodgers game night before last and that was a highlight reel throw). Beyond Buster is Hunter Pence, who hit a Grand Salami last night and who is starting to look really comfortable at the plate, and Angel Pagan, who is having a career year and has been over .300 since the all-star break. The Gigantes are a veteran team (Marco Scutero, Xavier Nady) with a deep and skilled bench (Arias, Sanchez, Ryan Theriot, Aubrey Huff as a pinch hitter) and a strong bullpen (Casilla, Romo, Kontos, Affeldt looking good for a change, Lopez and the new guys) and quality pitching (more about that below).
This blog must mention the Brandon’s (Belt and Crawford). They are going to be mainstays of the G-Men for years to come. Crawford might very well end the year at .250 (which for him would be great; he is really starting to look like a threat at the plate and has a lot of power – maybe it’s too early to start the Cal Ripken comparisons but that’s the feeling I get) but his glove and field work is absolutely sparkling. Every game has at least one highlight reel Crawford play, and some of his double plays (like the unassisted one he pulled off last week when he fielded a ball on the right side of second, spun around, tagged out a runner and then threw to first to double up the hitter – all in what seemed to be a split second) are jaw-dropping. Belt is as good defensively at first as Crawford is at short, and Belt is a better hitter with more power (I think that he has both Giants splash hits this year, I was there for the last one). He has found his groove and can now turn on the inside fastball. I expect that we will see Belt being seriously considered for the third spot in the batting order in a year or two. He is that good.
However one of the most positive aspects of the Giants is the managers and coaches. Bruce Bochy should be manager of the year (unless Bob Melvin gets it in Oakland – this could be the year of another Bay Bridge world series and who wouldn’t like to avenge 1989). Bochy has been masterful this year with position changes, double switches, using the bullpen carefully, keeping players rested and generally managing like a master. I never saw the legendary Giants managers (like John McGraw and Mel Ott) but if Bochy can take them all the way this year he deserves to be considered in that league.
The Questions: The Panda and the pitchers. Pablo is overweight and looking tired. He had a three-hit game last night (and a highlight reel catch at third) but that was after two days rest. He has been in a slump. When the G-Men get to the playoffs he needs to be fresh. That’s why resting him over the next 15 games will be important. I say that Arias should get most of the starts at third. The starting pitchers are all gassed. Every game is an adventure now. Vogelsong gets ripped one day and Cain (14 wins and an ERA under 3) gets ripped the next; even Bumgarner (also 14 wins) has gotten hit hard and has had trouble finding the strike zone. Zito is looking good and everyone is now trying to figure out where he goes in the playoff rotation (or as a long reliever). Lincecum is starting to look like the Timmy of old but is still not totally comfortable (a walk and 2 strikeouts every inning, that is the definition of “not comfortable”). If the Giants can clinch early enough Bochy needs to figure out how to rest these guys (without them losing their edge) and then to reset the rotation for the playoffs.
The Negatives: There are very few. Panda’s weight. Occasional slumps and the lack of a real closer are the big ones. So far the closer by committee experiment has basically worked but it is clear that Casilla does not have the stomach for the last outs, and Mota does not have the talent. Romo does have the talent but the league is starting to figure him out (as Tyler Colvin’s 2 run, 2 out 9th inning dinger in the Colorado game showed). This is something that is going to be an issue when the G-Men get to the playoffs.
The Division: The NL West has been a challenge. Right now the G-Men are on top but there isn’t another team in the division that doesn’t desperately want to knock off the Giants, and ALL of the remaining games are division games. The next three weeks are going to be very difficult, even if the Giants have the inside track on the division championship. I’m going to go to LA for the closing series on the road against the Dodgers and I truly pray that the G-Men have it locked up by then because if they don’t it will be a blood bath. I was at Chavez Ravine for the last game of the 2004 season when Steve Finley hit a grand slam to knock the Giants out of the playoffs. I barely got out alive. No one should ever forget how good the Dodgers can play when their backs are against the wall, nor how much they hate the Giants.
The Games: The Rockies are in last place, 23 games back, but they can hit, as the games at Coors Field showed. Three of these games (four game series) are available and the Giants need to win three out of four because the Snakes (who come in at the end of the homestand, and who the G-Men play for the rest of the weekend in AZ) are only 11 games back and would like nothing better than to win enough games to allow the Dodgers to gain ground so that the final three games in LA have the division championship on the line. The team that we should be afraid of is San Diego. The Padres are on a roll (they have won 17 of their last 20 games) and probably don’t have a shot at the playoffs but will be loose and tough.
This is going to be September baseball at its best. I intend to enjoy it and I hope that my next blog will be about the playoffs.