NL West:  The snakebit Giants

What a difference six weeks can make.

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At the close of play on the 29th of July, the San Francisco Giants were in first place in the National League West by a margin of four games. They’d been in the lead nearly all the time since mid-May.

They were on pace to win 93 games, and nearly all of us—definitely including some of us who commented upon the situation at the time—considered the defending World Champs to be in a very strong position to repeat as division champs. This sense was amplified by their recent acquisition of star right fielder Carlos Beltran, who provided the Giants with the key ingredient they’d been lacking: another serious bat to join Pablo Sandoval in the middle of the San Francisco order.

In second place as of July 29 were the Arizona Diamondbacks. They were the pleasant surprise team of the division (indeed, perhaps of all of major league baseball), but they’d occupied first for a grand total of just nine days on the season, and never by a margin of more than a half-game, and their most recent brief stint in the top spot had occurred more than a month earlier.

The consensus among us razor-sharp observers was that the upstart young Snakes—dead last in each of the past two seasons, losing 97 in 2010—had made a great accounting of themselves in 2011. And, you know, that second place finish they seemed destined to achieve—they were on pace to win 87 games—would be an admirable Arizona accomplishment.

In our cool expert estimation.

But …

But then they went and played the next six weeks’ worth of games.

As of this morning, it’s the D-backs in first and the Giants in second, and the margin ain’t close: eight and a half big fat ones. As of mid-September, this division race is completely over in every sense but the mathematical, and the defending World Champs are dry toast. Nobody, but nobody, had an inkling that this was coming.

Because in order for there to be such a radical reconfiguration of the top of the NL West standings in such a brief period, two things would need to happen simultaneously: an epic collapse on the part of the Giants as well as an epic hot streak on the part of the Diamondbacks.

Well, guess what happened?

Since the 29th of July, the Giants have gone 15-25. The D-backs have gone 29-13. Your basic epic collapse and epic hot streak, all simultaneous-like and everything.

Wow

How in the name of Bobby Thomson did this come about?

In this space, in a couple of weeks, we’ll be presenting a preview of the 2011 Diamondbacks as they enter the postseason tournament. So at that point we’ll be examining the details of what makes this ball club shake its rattle.

For now, let’s just put it this way: While Arizona isn’t a great team, it’s a genuinely good one, with several terrific young star performers in key roles. The postseason opponent who looks past these Diamondbacks, taking, say, a Division Series victory over them for granted, might well be in for a most unhappy October week.

But, for the moment, let’s focus our attention on those defending World Champion Giants, and see if we can figure out what caused their rollicking postseason-bound bandwagon to bust both axles and careen into the roadside ditch.

The staggering leviathans

Let’s start with this. Consider the following list of Giants’ players:
{exp:list_maker}Starting pitcher Jonathan Sanchez
Starting pitcher Barry Zito
Star closer Brian Wilson
Sensational set-up man Sergio Romo
Star right fielder Carlos Beltran
Erstwhile first-string right fielder Nate Schierholtz
First-string center fielder Andres Torres
First-string catcher Eli Whiteside {/exp:list_maker}What’s this, you ask? Might it be the list of players the Giants have placed on the disabled list so far this season?

No, it isn’t. This would be the list of players the Giants placed on the disabled list during the month of August alone.

That’s one hell of a cluster of injuries to key performers, and it’s the sort of thing that would knock just about any ball club for a loop. And this Giants’ ball club, lest we forget, was already skating on thin ice, its depth stretched to the limit by already having lost, to injuries, star catcher Buster Posey and first-string second baseman Freddy Sanchez for the season, and star third baseman Pablo Sandoval and platoon left fielder Pat Burrell for extended periods as well.

Even when the Giants were sitting pretty with that seemingly comfortable lead at the end of July, there was a distinct sense that they’d conjured up some magic tricks to be able to do it, and that there was probably no more smoke-and-mirror capability left in their repertoire. The 2011 Giants didn’t look to be the sort of team that could withstand much more misfortune.

And so they most definitely have proven.

But still

That said, devastating as the Giants’ injury problems have been, injuries have not been this ball club’s only problem.

Injuries didn’t cause first baseman Aubrey Huff to spend the entire season failing to hit for either power or average. Injuries didn’t cause starting outfielder Cody Ross to hit .170 since the All-Star break. And injuries didn’t cause Andres Torres, the out-of-nowhere star of 2010, to flop dismally in 2011.

Injuries didn’t cause first-string shortstop Miguel Tejada to lay a colossal egg (so much so that he was simply released at the end of August), nor his replacements, rookie call-up Brandon Crawford and veteran import Orlando Cabrera, to amazingly hit even worse than Tejada, indeed each one neatly and successively worse than the other.

Injuries didn’t cause veteran outfielder Aaron Rowand, pressed into semi-regular service by the problems encountered by other outfielders, to hit so egregiously poorly that he, along with Tejada, would be abruptly cut loose in August.

Nor did injuries cause ballyhooed rookie first baseman-outfielder Brandon Belt to fail to seize the moment and hit his way into regular play (nor, to be fair, did injuries cause manager Bruce Bochy to fail to provide Belt with the several weeks of extended playing time that would give him the best chance to blossom).

Great pitch, no hit

Perhaps you’ve noticed that every single one of the 2011 Giants’ non-injury-related failures has been a failure of hitting, not pitching. In fact, the 2011 Giants’ pitching staff has been very nearly as brilliant as the 2010 version that took that so-so hitting team all the way to victory-parade land.

In assigning blame for why there will be no San Francisco parade this fall, none whatsoever falls in the direction of stud starting pitchers Tim Lincecum or Matt Cain, nor in the direction of beautifully developing sophomore starting pitcher Madison Bumgarner. Nor does any go toward the Giants’ remarkably deep bullpen, which even with the recent DL tenures of Wilson and Romo has been generally terrific.

Nor, certainly, does any blame dare approach this year’s out-of-nowhere star: 33-year-old vagabond Ryan Vogelsong, who delivered just the kind of heartwarming shot-in-the-arm boost that can be the difference between a team achieving a championship and falling short.

It can be. But not this year, not for these Giants. They’ve proven to need a lot more than all that Vogelsong, and this entire exceptionally-good pitching staff, has provided.

Because the Giants’ offense this season has been simply wretched, appallingly bad.

How bad is it?

Since the All-Star break, the Giants have now played 54 games. In those 54 games, the Giants have failed to score as many as four runs—four, count ‘em, four runs—34 times. In other words, over the second half of the 2011 season, 63 per cent of the time these Giants have forced their pitching staff to work with three or fewer runs.

Those are 1968-style numbers. It’s just ridiculous. This is a spectacularly futile offense.

Thus the defending World Champs play out the string of the regular season with a whimper, every day bringing them closer to the status of yesterday’s news. No matter how good your run prevention, if you can’t score, you can’t win, and all too frequently and increasingly, the 2011 Giants have proven that they just can’t score.

Thus those youngsters from Phoenix, who can and do score loudly and often, have filled the sudden vacuum at the top of the National League West, and are now endeavoring to fashion a victory parade of their own.

P.S. Remember the Dodgers?

As the Giants have folded and the D-backs surged past them, few eyes have been focused upon the Los Angeles Dodgers. Whatever interest this long-great franchise has generated this season has, understandably, been directed at the L.A. ownership train wreck. The ball club on the field in 2011, generally playing poorly (indeed in last place as late as July 22) amid the toxic atmosphere, has been overlooked if not written off.

But while almost no one was looking (for many of the Dodgers’ home games this year, despite what the announced attendance might be, enormous swaths of grandstand in the big ballpark in Chavez Ravine have been silently and shockingly empty), these Dodgers have suddenly started playing excellent ball. In August and September, they’re now 24-14, and as of Saturday they momentarily reclaimed .500 status for the first time since April. Indeed the Dodgers are now nipping at the heels of the Giants, something inconceivable at the end of July.

It isn’t clear that this late Dodger surge signals a contender for 2012, as the Los Angeles roster remains riddled with question marks. But it is clear that L.A. is presenting two of the most impressive young superstars in the game: 26-year-old center fielder Matt Kemp, an underperforming problem child in 2010, has been as great as any player in 2011, and 23-year-old ace pitcher Clayton Kershaw, knocking on the door of stardom before 2011, has now kicked that barrier off its hinges, going, get this, 9-1 with a 1.30 ERA in 11 starts so far in the second half.

For whatever impact he’s had on the breakouts of these two sparkling gems, and in any case for the feat of just getting a group of athletes under these deadening circumstances to perform their best, may we offer a tip of the cap to Dodgers’ rookie manager Don Mattingly.

What a difference six weeks can make, indeed.

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Comments

  1. John W. Shreve said...

    Gee, Steve, couldn’t you have waited to bring up the Dodgers a day or two later?
    I don’t like facing the reality of the D’backs/Jints as it is.

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