San Francisco Giants manager Bruce Bochy wasn’t shy about recognizing his team’s problems at the All-Star break: The hitting is anemic, scoring scarce and statistics mind-boggling.
“I don’t mean to be Debbie Downer,” he said. “We’re in first place.”
How the injury-filled Giants are leading the NL West can be a bit baffling. About all the defending World Series champions do well is pitch close and win closer, and that seems to be the only things that matter.
The Giants open a four-game series at San Diego today, beginning the season’s second half in first place for the first time since 2003 and looking every bit the surprising contender they were a year ago.
“This first half is a good one for us with the nicks that we’ve taken as players and everyone showing resiliency and bouncing back and being a part of the team regardless of what they’re asked to do,” two-time NL Cy Young Award winner Tim Lincecum said. “We’re in a good spot right now.”
It’s hard to argue that considering what they’ve endured.
The Giants lost the middle of their lineup — Buster Posey, Freddy Sanchez and Pablo Sandoval — to injuries for significant time. They had a road-stacked schedule early and enough championship ceremonies and celebrations to provide plenty of distractions.
Players even had camera crews following their every move for a documentary titled “The Franchise,” with the first episode premiering Wednesday night on Showtime. The Giants certainly haven’t lacked for drama.
Posey, the 2010 NL Rookie of the Year, was lost for the season after he tore three ligaments in his left ankle and fractured a bone in his lower leg in a home-plate collision with Florida’s Scott Cousins on May 25.
Sanchez, the 2006 NL batting champion, has been out since he dislocated his right shoulder diving for a ball June 10, and there’s no guarantee the sure-handed second baseman will return soon.
Sandoval also missed more than six weeks recovering from right wrist surgery but has carried San Francisco since. The All-Star third baseman has a career-high 21-game hitting streak.
“We need to keep fighting the way we have in the first half,” Sandoval said. “We’ve had a couple of tough injuries. Buster, Freddy, I was on the DL. We are a team. We need to pull together like we did in the first half.”
The Giants have continued to play the kind of games they did all of last year: tight ones dependent on the pitcher being almost perfect. They lead the majors with a 25-12 record in one-run games this season, thanks in large part to a talented rotation and a strong bullpen.
San Francisco’s rotation received a big boost from 33-year-old journeyman Ryan Vogelsong, who leads the staff with a 2.17 ERA and made his first All-Star team in a breakout season since replacing the injured Barry Zito. If Vogelsong comes anywhere close to duplicating his remarkable start, it could be a scary outlook for the National League.
The rest of the staff carried the franchise to its first title since 1954 and first since moving West in 1958 last season, and it’s doing it again despite the fourth-worst run support in the majors.
“It has been tough,” said Matt Cain, one of four Giants All-Star pitchers. “That shows what group of guys we have and what kind of team we have. We’re not always banking on one guy to pick everyone up. That really works out well.”
While it can be easy to pick at the Giants’ shortcomings, it’s hard to argue with the end results.
A year ago, they were in fourth place in the division and four games behind the first-place Padres. Now they have a three-game lead over a young Arizona team and are 81⁄2 games ahead of banged-up Colorado.
Whether San Francisco could make another deep playoff run with such little scoring punch remains a mystery.
The Giants are the only team in the majors without a player with at least 10 home runs and are in desperate need of some power.
General manager Brian Sabean will surely try to rekindle his magic moves from a year ago, when late-season pickups Cody Ross and Pat Burrell turned into postseason stars.
Otherwise it will be all on the pitchers to the carry the club again.
“It’s hard to ask this pitching to keep doing what it’s doing,” Bochy said. “The guys are relentless, resilient. They fight every day. That’s what we’ll need in the second half. It’s going to be a tight race. It’s all about having the will. These guys show it every day.”