National League West Champions

Between following the Giants, writing about the Giants, and otherwise thinking about the Giants day after day, I’ve devoted a large portion of time to all of this. It’s an emotional investment, and last season, it took its toll on me. There was the Buster Posey injury, and the fruitless departure of Zack Wheeler, and everything else that happened to go wrong. And it sucked.

After the disappointment that was 2011, and an unexciting offseason, I tempered my expectations. The Giants far exceeded them.

This team has come a long, long way. The struggles of Tim Lincecum, the ups and downs of Brandon Belt, the multiple injuries sustained by Pablo Sandoval, the times when Emmanuel Burriss and Conor Gillaspie and Charlie Culberson were in the starting lineup. I could go on and on. There was a time when it kind of made sense for the Giants to pick up Orlando Hudson. Orlando freakin’ Hudson. Doesn’t that sound hilarious in retrospect?

At one point in late May, the Giants were seven and a half games out of first place in the National League West. It didn’t seem at all like they had what it would take to close that gap and eventually win the division.

But here we are today: the Giants, 89-63, are champions of the NL West. They’re headed to the postseason once again. Here’s where the emotional investment pays dividends. It’s thrilling, and I’m just going to bask in it for a while.

Three Is A Magic Number

Led by a resurgent Pablo Sandoval (who homered twice), the Giants’ lineup tagged Colorado pitching for nine runs today. Despite allowing double-digit hits, Barry Zito and company were able to limit the Rockies to two runs on the afternoon. Thus, the Giants completed a four-game sweep. The Dodgers lost 4-1 to the Nationals tonight, meaning the Giants’ magic number currently sits at three.

Three. Any combination of three Dodgers losses and Giants wins from this point until the end of the season — that’s all it will take for the Giants to seize the NL West title. Needless to say, they’ve got this one in the bag. The sooner they clinch, the sooner they can relax — and that’s a real luxury; clinching, of course, would afford the Giants the opportunity to rest important contributors without having to worry about the win-loss column, and that would constitute a real, if small, advantage. (On the blogging side, too — I’d get to focus my attention on slightly less important matters, like Buster Posey‘s MVP case).

Notes:

– It still sort of boggles my mind how easily the Giants have run away with the West. Not to be taken for granted: they’re 23-10 in the post-Melky era.

– Pablo Sandoval, in a matter of four days, has increased his OPS by 40 points. From May 2nd to September 18th, a three-and-a-half month span over which he started 70 games, Sandoval homered exactly three times; he’s homered three times in the past two days. Well, that’s an encouraging sign…

– As you may recall if you’re one of the two people that frequent this blog, I boldly predicted that Aubrey Huff would have a decent September. In retrospect, I’m not sure that was all that bold a prediction. Nevertheless, here’s an update on Huff’s September numbers: 4 for 7, 1 BB, 1 2B. I’d have to think he’s going to be on the Giants’ NLDS roster, which really isn’t such a bad thing. There’s plenty of reason to believe he gives the Giants a good left-handed bat off the bench, and he’s certainly proven that this month (albeit in a minuscule sample size).

– This is a lengthy matter, and I won’t delve into it now, but assuming the Giants go far enough in the playoffs, I would love to see Melky Cabrera return. (Though if I had to guess, I’d say the Giants aren’t going that route.)

The Giants Are 82-62

Okay, so I’ve got a lot to catch up on. Let’s jump right into it…

– The Giants are 82-62, seven and a half games up in the NL West. They still have 18 games left to play (the Dodgers have 17), and the magic number is all the way down to 11. Let’s say the Giants go 8-7 before that final series in Los Angeles. That means, as long as the Dodgers lose at least three games (11-3 or worse over that span), the Giants will have clinched the NL West before that final set. At the rate they’re going, though, they might even clinch in that antepenultimate series — the three-game set at home against Arizona. Anyway, the playoff odds are promising to say the least, ranging from 99.6% (Baseball Prospectus) to 99.9% (Clay Davenport).

Marco Scutaro wants to return to the Giants. I was in love with the Scutaro acquisition at the time, and he’s hit .342/.362/.446 (118 wRC+) in 45 games since joining the Giants. There was a point when the 2013 second base free agent market had some pretty interesting options, but with Brandon Phillips and Howie Kendrick signing extensions a while back, it’s been reduced to slim pickings.

So I’m obviously in favor of the Giants re-signing Scutaro. But I’m not thrilled about the idea. Scutaro is just about guaranteed to get a two-year deal, and he’s only a month away from turning 37.  It’s quite rare for non-elite second basemen to put up decent numbers at that age: for reference, here’s a list of every second baseman since 1961 that has amassed 1.5+ WAR in a single season. My concern is that if the Giants opt to bring back Scutaro, they’ll a) pay a pretty penny in order to do so, and b) end up getting the Scutaro that hit .271/.324/.361 (77 wRC+) in 95 games with the Rockies.

It’s a little early for this, but I’d have to say Kelly Johnson is at the top of my wishlist. He’ll only be 31 years old next season, and he’s hit .245/.331/.427 (104 wRC+) over the last three years. It’s admittedly been a down year for Johnson, who has an 85 wRC+ across 544 plate appearances. But consider this: the average AL second baseman also has an 85 wRC+.

Moving onward, one of the bigger concerns of late has been Pablo Sandoval‘s lack of productivity. Before yesterday, Sandoval had hit .222/.281/.263 in 27 games since returning from his hamstring injury. A dropoff in power numbers was to be expected, given the fractured hamate bone he sustained earlier this season — the effects of which tend to linger for months on end. But his struggles seemed to extend far beyond this. One of the luxuries of having a big lead in their division is that the Giants can afford to rest some of their important contributors. Bruce Bochy gave Sandoval a mental break for the final game of the Rockies series, which amounted to two days of rest for Pablo, since the Giants had a scheduled day off on Thursday. Yesterday, Sandoval went three for four with a double, probably the best performance he’s had at the plate in a month. Needless to say, it’s nice to see him potentially heating up; oddly enough, I’m feeling a whole lot more confident about Sandoval than I was just a few days ago.

– Santiago Casilla singled yesterday, driving in a runI don’t know what to add to this. I don’t know if I can do it justice, even. One of life’s greatest joys is watching Santiago Casilla bat.

Five and a Half Games Up

The Giants caught a huge break when it was announced earlier that Clayton Kershaw would not be making tonight’s start, and that Joe Blanton would be starting in his place. The Giants definitely lucked out in the opposing-team’s-injuries department: not to be forgotten was Matt Kemp‘s absence, which left Hanley Ramirez and number-eight hitter A.J. Ellis as the only legitimate right-handed threats in the Dodgers’ starting lineup. And they took advantage of it.

Barry Zito came up big tonight, giving the Giants six-plus innings’ worth of scoreless work. He wasn’t outright dominant, but he didn’t need to be. He worked his way out of some jams, kept his pitch count from getting out of hand, and by the time he exited the mound in the seventh inning, the Giants had a four-run lead in a crucial game. You really couldn’t have asked more of Zito than what he did tonight. (I was most impressed with how he handled Hanley Ramirez, striking him out twice — both times looking — and yielding a groundout in the other at-bat). Zito’s final line: 6.1 IP, 0 R, 4 K, 3 BB,  4 H.

On the offensive side of things, the Giants wasted no time getting runs up on the board. They nearly batted around in the first inning, the big hit coming off the bat of Hunter Pence, who doubled to drive in a couple runs. There were several great at-bats in that inning, most notably from Pablo Sandoval and Brandon Belt. Sandoval drew a seven-pitch walk, one day after seeing four pitches in four plate appearances (it seemed as though he was making a conscious effort to see more pitches); Belt, too, worked himself a walk, after an eleven-pitch battle against Blanton (although it didn’t end up being significant, as Gregor Blanco then struck out to end the inning). Anyway, these were particularly impressive considering that Blanton entered this game with a BB/9 of 1.6; he’s stingy when it comes to allowing free passes.

Those two first-inning runs were all the Giants really needed, but they padded their lead as the game went on. Angel Pagan tripled for the 11th time this season and came around to score on a sac fly; he’s got a pretty good shot at breaking the San Francisco Giants record for triples (12). And Buster Posey added a fourth run by homering to lead off the sixth inning.

Posey, if I may go off on a tangent now, has built himself a pretty strong MVP case this season. I’m biased, of course, but I think the objective case holds up under scrutiny. Posey has now hit .327/.402/.531 in 527 plate appearances this season, all while playing good defense at the toughest position on the field. He’s hit very well with runners in scoring position, and in the situations that matter most. And he just so happens to lead the National League in TAv (a stat that accounts for some of the important stuff that wOBA ignores). Accurately assessing catcher defense is pretty tough, given the intricacies of catching, but it’s pretty clear to me that Posey is an above-average defender.

Anyhow, there will be much more time to discuss this as the season draws to a close. The main focus right now: the first place Giants. They salvaged the series win, extending their division lead to five and a half games. With 22 games remaining on the schedule (and just 21 for the Dodgers), that’s huge. Not that you needed me to tell you that. The Giants’ magic number is down to 17, and at this point, they’re all but guaranteed to make the playoffs. I’d really like to see them wrap it up before that final three-game series in Los Angeles, and it looks like they’re well on their way toward doing that. I’m nothing but pleased with how this team has performed.

The Upcoming Dodgers Series

Tonight, the Giants begin a three-game series against the Dodgers. San Francisco currently has a four and a half game lead in the NL West, so at worst, they’ll exit this series with a one and a half game lead. These next three games are obviously crucial: after this, the Giants’ only remaining series against the Dodgers is a three-game set in Los Angeles that will take place on the final three days of the regular season.

The goal, presumably, is that the Giants would enter that final series having already clinched the West — effectively rendering those games meaningless. In order to do that, the Giants would need a lead of at least three and a half games at that point (or rather, four, since the Giants and Dodgers will have played an equal number of games by the beginning of October). If the Giants can manage to win one — just one — of these next three home games against the Dodgers, then the Giants will exit this series with a three and a half game lead; and if they can keep Los Angeles at such a distance for the remainder of the year, they’ll clinch before that final series.

But the Giants have an opportunity to do so much more than that, and they should be focused on seizing that opportunity. Imagine, for a second, that the Giants sweep. It’s unlikely, even on their home turf, but let’s not forget that they did that the last time they played the Dodgers — and that was in Los Angeles, no less. If they do happen to sweep, playing really good baseball over the next three days and coming away with the win each time, then they’ll have brought their lead up to seven and a half games. Seven and a half games with 22 left on the schedule — or, in the Dodgers’ case, 21 games. Not too shabby. That would basically ensure that, barring an utter collapse, they run away with the division.

And take a look at the Dodgers’ schedule. While the Giants are bouncing around in their own division, facing the likes of Arizona, San Diego, and Colorado, the Dodgers have to play four at home against St. Louis, three on the road at Washington, and three on the road at Cincinnati.

The Giants need only keep the Dodgers at a comfortable distance, but they have a chance to push them away to “collapse’s length” over the course of these three games, and they should absolutely go for it. Why be content with one or two wins? It’s time to get greedy. This is the Giants’ chance to place a padlock on the division.

Here are the probable pitchers…

Friday: Josh Beckett v. Tim Lincecum
Saturday: Chris Capuano v. Matt Cain
Sunday: Clayton Kershaw v. Barry Zito

Okay, so the Giants might need some help winning that final game; let’s hope a little luck comes their way.

Thoughts on Yesterday’s 9-8 Giants Victory

Yesterday’s game was quite a rollercoaster ride, as illustrated by the win probability graph.

The Giants couldn’t have gotten off to a better start, as Barry Zito set down the top of the Diamondbacks’ lineup in order in the first inning, striking out Aaron Hill and Justin Upton. It was the first time he had recorded two strikeouts in the first inning of a start since July 16, 2010. And then the Giants nearly batted around in the bottom half of the first inning, scoring four runs on five hits. Barry Zito came back out in the second inning and struck out the side. Through two innings, he had five strikeouts — already tied for the second-most of any outing he’s had this season. He was getting whiffs left and right, and he had no trouble throwing strikes. In other words, he looked as sharp as ever.

It had that feel of an easy Giants win, until things gradually fell apart. Zito surrendered a two-run homer in the fifth, and after back-to-back singles to lead off the sixth inning, his day was over. The Giants still had a 4-2 lead at that point, when Guillermo Mota came in to protect the lead. And protect it he did not. By the end of his day, the D’backs had taken a 5-4 lead. George Kontos was then called in to put out the fire, and eventually did, but not before giving up another two runs.

The Giants battled back though, scoring in the seventh, eighth, ninth, and eventually the tenth to win it all on a walkoff single.

I thought at this point in the season, the Giants and D’backs would be neck and neck in the division race. Arizona was the favorite to win the NL West before the season started. Even as recently as late July, I thought Justin Upton would start to find a groove, and late-season call-ups Trevor Bauer and/or Tyler Skaggs would bolster Arizona’s rotation. I figured Arizona, stupidly enough, would pose a bigger threat to the Giants than the Dodgers would. And I was completely wrong.

There’s a lesson to be learned here, and I think it’s somewhere along the lines of: don’t count your chickens before they’re hatched. Injuries happen. Slumps happen. Even the best of prospects can come up and fail to make an immediate impact (despite what this season’s excellent track record of prospect debuts might have you think). Today, Arizona is eleven and a half games out of first place. Justin Upton’s second-half numbers are virtually identical to his first-half numbers. Stephen Drew and Ryan Roberts are elsewhere. Trevor Bauer is not on the team’s active roster. Baseball.

Aubrey Huff led off the seventh inning with a pinch-hit single. It was the first hit he’s collected in nearly three months. He’s had a wretched season, but I have a sneaking suspicion that he’ll have a decent September. That’s my bold prediction of the month. I don’t think Huff has much left in the tank, but I think he’s certainly got something left; and as we’ve seen time and again, pretty much anything can happen over the period of a month.

With 27 games left on the schedule, the Giants have a 4.5 game division lead. Their magic number has been whittled down to 23. Any combination of 23 Giants wins and Dodgers losses, and the Giants clinch the NL West title. Baseball Prospectus has the Giants’ playoff odds at 94.2%. Cool Standings has ‘em at 92.1%. However you slice it, the Giants are in a really, really good position right now.

August Has Been Kind

Last night, it looked like the Giants were going to waste yet another strong outing from Matt Cain. With the game tied 1-1 in the eighth, Cain surrendered a run, giving the Astros the lead. The Giants entered the ninth with a one-run deficit to overcome and the bottom of the order taking on the task; the odds weren’t promising. But four pitches later, Brandon Belt had singled to lead off the inning, and Joaquin Arias had ripped a double down the left field line to drive him in. A couple batters later, Hector Sanchez blooped a single into shallow center field, and the Giants took a 3-2 lead. It was the kind of game the Giants have lost hundreds of times over the past several years; except they didn’t lose last night.

August sure has been kind to the Giants. Well, in the win-loss column, at least. The Giants are now 16-10 on the month, good for a .615 winning percentage. That makes this their best month so far, which is somewhat odd considering that they’ve gone Melky-less since the 15th. But that’s the thing — others have been picking up the slack. Buster Posey should win NL Player of the Month at this point, as nobody in the majors has had a better August. In fact, this month has firmly placed Posey in the MVP race, and assuming he can finish the season well, he’ll have a strong case come voting time. If Posey weren’t putting up otherworldly numbers this month, Angel Pagan (.353/.422/.608) would probably be deserving of player-of-the-month honors. Given his extended struggles, it’s been especially refreshing to see Pagan hit a stride. In the month of August, he’s actually surpassed his combined June/July totals for walks and total bases. And then there’s Joaquin Arias, who’s posted a 200 wRC+ in 54 plate appearances. His 2012 offensive numbers are now somehow better than Carlos Pena‘s.

And like that, the Giants now have a 3.5 game lead in the NL West. It’s not huge, and it’s certainly close enough to make things interesting, but it affords the Giants some breathing room. The Dodgers have made some big splashes, most notably the recent mega-trade for Adrian Gonzalez, Josh Beckett, Carl Crawford, and Nick Punto. While I’m confident that the trade hurts — maybe even cripples — the Dodgers in the long-term, it’s very difficult to write them off in the short-term. There’s no denying the collection of talent on the Dodgers’ current roster. But the Giants are starting to pad onto their division lead, and with 33 games to go, things are looking good.