15 August 2009

Where the Wild Things Are

I conceived of this post about a week and a half ago as an off-day story to lead into the crucial 11-game trip that got off to a smashing start yesterday...

The G-Men were coming off a clutch road series victory in Houston, returning home to face the thoroughly incompetent Reds in a weekender before the Hated Ones came to town for a series that could have put the squad from the City right back in the Western Division mix. They had regained their Wild Card advantage over the Rocks and were flying high with new addition Freddy Sanchez off to a thrilling start in the orange and black.

I was going to tell you how the N.L. Wild Card race would come down to the two teams from the West. How the Cubs and Brewers would beat each other senseless in their attempts to chase down eventual Central Division champ St. Louis. How the Marlins don't have enough pitching consistency. How the Braves lack depth on either side of the ball. Why that didn't matter because the strength of the East from top to bottom — including the lowly Nats who shocked the world by reeling off eight W's in a row — would do in both Florida and Atlanta down the stretch anyway. How the Giants and Rockies were uniquely positioned to duke it out over the season's final weeks thanks to the weakness of 'Zona and the Pads and the overall strength of their respective pitching staffs full of young studs. And how the Giants would eventually prevail thanks to six games against Colorado in the friendly confines of 24 Willie Mays Plaza (where they still enjoy a 39-20 record despite a pitiful 2-4 homestand).

I started writing on the travel day after the Houston series. I attached links to multimedia, stat graphs, articles and blogs. I wrote prose poems in honor of Freddy Sanchez's club foot. I sang the praises of the soon-to-return "Nasty" Nate Schierholtz. Satisfied, I set the piece to post yesterday morning. I figured the only reason I'd have to scrap it would be if the G's managed to sweep the struggling Hated Ones and jump right back in the division race...

Then, this happened.

Now, our team is reeling at the absolute worst time imaginable. I said before that if they managed to hold on through this trip, they would make the postseason. While that's still a very manageable goal to aim for given they trail the Colorado team by only 1 1/2 games in the WC standings and sit 6 1/2 behind the Hated Ones — despite dropping two out of three to them earlier this week in atrociously mediocre fashion — a reasonable appraisal of this team would tell you they need the offense back in its late-June, early-July mode if they're to have any shot at all. (They certainly need to figure things out in time for the four-gamer in Denver that closes this little jaunt.)

So I scrapped my story and banged this out instead. Now, the boys have gone and dropped the first game of the trip with little more than a whimper, leaving Barry Zito hanging on the bump without a run of support for the eighth time this season — that's a full third of his starts, people (eat your heart out, Matt Cain) — and I have a hard time getting up the will to posit my theory, which still holds water, though it's leaking from numerous tiny fissures that could very quickly become gushers if the ship is not righted in short order.

I still believe the Central teams —aside from the Cards, who are suddenly running away thanks to the addition of .493 hitter and resident jackass Matt Holliday — will beat each other into bloody pulps by the time the season winds down and finish at or around .500. I still believe the East is too tough a division to produce two playoff teams. (The Phils are running away there as well, with Clifford Lee dominating N.L. batters, even in the band box that is Citizens Bank Park.) I still believe the Giants have a chance to make this a two-team race with the Rockpile. But if they're going to turn my faith into reality, they need to wake up the bats. Now.

The Giants have failed to rack up any prolonged stretches of brilliance this season. The five- and six- and seven-game winning streaks that mark well-crafted and durable teams. The kind of runs that could have put them back in the division race long ago or put some distance between them and the rest of the Wild Card pack. That deficiency has nothing to do with a pitching staff that still boasts the best team ERA in the majors (3.51). It has more to do with an offense that has never clicked on all cylinders at once.

Every player in the lineup has flashed their bat for weeks at a time, but not once have all the bats come together to put on the displays that generate sustained success. Pablo Sandoval has been a revelation, but even he has been prone to slumping thanks to his free-swinging, Vlad Guerrero-esque style at the plate. Bengie Molina's bat has only now started to come alive, but was truly needed in the season's opening months, when young talents like Panda and Schierholtz had yet to make an impact and the team was floundering around .500. Eugenio Velez was a pleasant surprise, but the shine is starting to wear off his cleats. And then there's Randy Winn, Aaron Rowand, and Edgar Renteria, a triumvirate of overpaid veterans hitting a collective .262 — and a weak .262 at that. F. Sanchez has certainly provided a spark at the top of the lineup, but without professional hitting lower in the order, there's nobody to knock him in.

Callers to the 50K-Watt juggernaut and commenters on local blogs regularly deride the team for failing to make a competetive offer for the likes of Holliday, as if one power bat would solve all of our problems. Let's not forget, the Cards already had a superstar in their lineup when they added the ass-head former Denver-ite — some kid by the name of Pujols. If Marvin Benard hit next to that guy in a lineup, he'd be a superstar, with or without the cream and the clear.

At this juncture, there's no point to constructive criticism of the Giants deadline deals. That's the past. This is the team we have now. And it's not a bad team. We're still ahead of schedule, still loaded with talent down on the Farm, still stacked with the finest pitching staff in the majors, and still within reach of the final playoff spot, the spot that propelled them to an N.L. pennant in 2002, the spot we all wish were available to them in 1993.

But games like last night's have a tendency to leave a sour taste in the mouth of the faithful, those of us who race home from work to catch the final innings of an East Coast roadie, who make the 45-minute trek up the Peninsula to stand in the bitter cold under the Arcade for three and a half hours (two and a half when Timmy or Matty pitch), who defend their boys against all enemies, foreign and domestic, who wear their orange to family functions and business meetings alike, and always with a sense of pride.

Here's hoping today's nationally-televised contest is the worm-turner that gets the Giants' season back on track. If not, it's time to start salivating for Madison Bumgarner's first start of Spring Training 2010.

¡Vamos Gigantes!

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