Commentary

One Giant enigma

Defending World Series champs first in NL West but 29th in majors in runs scored

Updated: August 2, 2011, 2:47 PM ET
By Jerry Crasnick | ESPN.com

The San Francisco Giants were Major League Baseball's happy guerrilla warriors on their way to a surprise World Series victory in 2010. Now the Kardashians have a better chance of sneaking up on people. A camera crew is trailing manager Bruce Bochy's team through clubhouses, airports and hotel lobbies across America in conjunction with a Showtime reality series, and closer Brian Wilson's beard is getting so big, it has its own mailing address.

But some things never change. When the Giants get backed into a corner, they scratch, claw and pitch their way out of it. They also subscribe to the old bromide about never sweating the little things. They've just added a twist by rarely sweating the big things, either.

"When you have a pitching staff like we have, you're not going to fret too much, because you know the chances of the other team scoring more than three runs in a game is under 50-50," outfielder Aaron Rowand said.

Actually, opponents have surpassed three runs against San Francisco's staff in 46 of 109 games this season, so the probability is closer to 42-58.

It has been a challenging season for the defending champs. They lost their catcher and cleanup hitter, Buster Posey, to a home-plate collision in late May, and they lead the majors in guys named Sanchez on the disabled list. Jonathan, the pitcher, is rehabbing from a biceps injury and is expected to return to the starting rotation later this week. Freddy, the second baseman, was scheduled to undergo season-ending shoulder surgery Tuesday.

The Giants rank 29th in the major leagues in runs, 28th in on-base percentage and 27th in slugging percentage and batting average. They have a worse run differential than the Toronto Blue Jays and New York Mets. Posey's replacements are fine defensively, but they don't hit a lot, and the Giants tried Miguel Tejada, Mike Fontenot and rookie Brandon Crawford at the shortstop position before turning to Orlando Cabrera, who has played for nine major league organizations. So much for stability up the middle.

Last week general manager Brian Sabean made the boldest trade deadline move this side of Cleveland, sending top pitching prospect Zack Wheeler to the Mets for two months' worth of All-Star Carlos Beltran. The Giants were hailed as world-beaters -- but have since dropped four of five.

So how the heck is Bochy's squad 61-48 and leading the National League West? The Giants have a 28-14 record in one-run games, and they're sixth in the majors in Baseball Prospectus' team defensive efficiency rankings. They're also 32-19 at home, even though they've been outscored by seven runs at AT&T Park.

Shutdown starting pitching? Check. Airtight bullpen? Check. Solid glove work? Check. A fighting mentality based on the premise that all setbacks are temporary, and rooted in the belief that a committed whole can be greater than the sum of its parts? Double check.

"They're unique to their park," a National League scout said of the Giants. "They battle it out. Their bullpen is really tough. Their manager makes good decisions. They're prepared. When you play close games all the time, you get used to playing close games. When they lost Posey, I didn't think they would be as good. But gosh, they're still hanging in there."

The Giants failed to get over the top when Barry Bonds was making all those waves, both literally and figuratively, at McCovey Cove. But a team bereft of position-player stars threw everyone for a loop last season by winning the franchise's first title since 1954. Can the Giants outlast the Phillies, Braves and suddenly hot Brewers, capture a pennant and become baseball's first repeat champion since the Yankees won three straight titles from 1998 through 2000? Try telling them they can't.

"They do seem to have the 'it' factor," an NL executive said. "They're a team that knows how to win these close games, especially late. Their at-bats get a little better. All of a sudden Cody Ross is a tougher out. Andres Torres is a tougher out. And Nate Schierholtz. And then you just don't score against them. Being tied against the Giants late in the game is not a good spot to be in.

"Is there this magic dust around them? I don't totally believe it. But I don't totally not believe it, either."

[+] EnlargeCarlos Beltran
Jason O. Watson/US PresswireThe Giants are averaging 2.2 runs per game since Carlos Beltran's arrival.

Last year the Giants went 18-8 in September to overtake San Diego and win the division. This year they're getting a spirited push from Kirk Gibson and the Arizona Diamondbacks, who fortified their pitching staff at the deadline with trades for Jason Marquis and Brad Ziegler. With a 5-2 victory over Matt Cain on Monday night, the Diamondbacks cut the Giants' division lead to one game -- the smallest it's been since the All-Star break.

Sabean went for broke by trading Wheeler, a potential No. 1 starter, for Beltran, the most accomplished bat available at the July non-waiver deadline. Beltran wears a brace on his right knee that's so bulky, he rototills the outfield turf when he lands awkwardly. But he's tied for the National League lead with 30 doubles and ranks 12th in the NL with an OPS of .883. He is also used to playing in a spacious yard at Citi Field in New York, so he's conditioned not to sulk when hard-hit balls die at the warning track.

The Giants are hoping that Beltran takes some pressure off Pablo Sandoval and Aubrey Huff in the middle of the order. He's already trying to pass along some tips to Sandoval, a fellow switch-hitter.

"I would love him to focus on hitting the ball a little more to [the opposite] field," Beltran said. "When you have pop like he does, you can get caught up in trying to pull a lot of balls. If he stays in the middle of the field, he's going to do a lot of damage."

Sabean made the Beltran trade in part out of a sense of obligation to history. When he turned the corner on Montgomery Street and saw the sea of awestruck fans at the World Series parade in November, things forever changed, and a little voice inside him rebelled at the idea of failing to give it his best shot.

But camaraderie is a funny thing, and it's natural to wonder how the reserved and stylish Beltran will blend in a clubhouse filled with self-described "castoffs" and "misfits."

"Does he really fit the Giants' style as a rebellious, grinding type of team?" the NL executive said. "Maybe it's not a great fit personality-wise. But when you're in go-for-it mode, you have to take care of the present and try to win. He's still a great player."

The Giants have their marquee names in Tim Lincecum, Beltran and Wilson and to a lesser extent Cain and Sandoval, the lovable Panda. But if you're looking for a segment of the roster that embodies what this team is about, it might be the middle-relief corps. Sergio Romo has a 51-to-4 strikeout-to-walk ratio and a WHIP of 0.64. Lefties are hitting .118 (8-for-68) against Javier Lopez. Santiago Casilla, Ramon Ramirez and Jeremy Affeldt also are big contributors, even if few people outside the 415 area code have the slightest idea who they are.

"Those guys don't get the press they deserve," Lincecum said, "but I don't think they're in it for the press. They're in it to help us achieve something that doesn't happen very often -- and that's get back to the playoffs and hopefully win another World Series."

For want of a better term, the Giants are old-school. Sabean runs his front office like a mom-and-pop operation, with a few close advisers whom he listens to and trusts implicitly. When Willie Mays is a clubhouse fixture in spring training and Will Clark and J.T. Snow keep showing up around the batting cage, it's hard to ignore the franchise's glory days.

Former Giants shortstop Shawon Dunston, a spring training instructor with the organization, showed up during the team's last road trip and gave his take on the factors that make the Giants go. Dunston talked about Sabean's penchant for dealing with players honestly, and Bochy's disdain for excuses, and Wilson's amazing workout regimen, and the look of resignation in opposing players' eyes when Lincecum, Cain and the other San Francisco pitchers are on their games. But there's more to the Giants' success than pitching.

"I've played with a lot of people, and some guys have a lot of mouth," Dunston said. "But these guys really come to play, and they're gonna go out there and give it to you. They're not scared."

The Giants put their fearlessness on display for the baseball world to see this past October. This year they've gone from misfits to marked men, and now it's time to see whether they can survive the competition and their own abundant shortcomings for another deep postseason run.

It's not going to be easy. But they're the Giants, after all. Nobody said it would be easy.

Jerry Crasnick is a senior writer for ESPN.com. Click here to purchase a copy of his book, "License to Deal," published by Rodale. Crasnick can be reached via email.

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ESPN.com MLB Sr. Writer