Champion Giants learning as they go

This early, it might seem strange to talk about a second-place club whose season has been defined by setbacks, but a World Series win does that to a team, and the Giants are beset by daily questions of what they’re going to do and what they can do. After losing Buster Posey last week, what seemed like a reasonable bid for a successful title defense has become a question of whether or not this old team still has win-now value, and their 2-4 record since losing their starting catcher going into Wednesday night only exacerbated the issue.

However, losing Posey for the rest of 2011 was merely the exclamation point to a litany of injuries that includes Pablo Sandoval being absent for more than a month. Perhaps the Giants will be best served by using what they got out of calling up Posey last year as an example of what they can keep doing, even in his absence: Help themselves by turning to better, younger players, all the better to exploit the opportunities to win already being created by a top-shelf pitching staff. Do that, and perhaps they can win on the nights when they don’t get their best games from their pitching -- as they did last night, even after Tim Lincecum allowed five runs and 10 hits.

The Giants won last year with a number of things going for them: a rotation arguably second to none, a great bullpen fronted by a closer capable of coming into games earlier than most relief aces and an offense good enough to rate in the middle of the pack. This year’s Giants’ pitching staff still has most of that going for it, even repeating its major league-leading strikeout rate, getting 21.4 percent of all batters to whiff after leading with 21.6 percent in 2010.

Heading into a Lincecum-pitched game on Wednesday, the Giants had cranked out quality starts in 63 percent of their contests this season -- third in the league -- with Lincecum and Matt Cain responsible for eight apiece in their first 11 starts. That combination has helped the Giants to an MLB-leading 15 one-run wins, and has helped them win 12 games while scoring three runs or less.

But when they’ve scored more than three runs, the Giants were 17-6 -- now 18-6 after coming out ahead of the Cardinals in 11 innings on Wednesday in St. Louis. If Wednesday night’s game was troubling because the Giants got more than those three runs and looked like losers after Lincecum got lit up in the seventh, the fact that they muddled through to win should be some solace. There’s no reason to second-guess Bochy’s willingness to trust his ace in the seventh, even against the league’s best offense. The Cards had manufactured only their first run, and scraped the next two out of defensive miscues in the fourth. They just flat-out hammered Lincecum in the seventh, a reminder that it happens to the best of them, but they tied the game in the top of the ninth, and the Giants got away with their extra-inning win against the ill-starred Ryan Franklin.

The seven-run explosion can be a reason to hope that the Giants are getting over their real problem early on: offense. The Giants rated 15th in the National League in runs scored before the night, and 28th in the major leagues in true average. That isn’t enough to make their good starts stand up, let alone the bad ones. Sandoval’s return later this month will help, but to help compensate in the meantime, the Giants can invest some hope that a couple of next-gen Giants can make a difference.

First, there’s the hope that Brandon Belt could help, even after his early-season flop, because with Aubrey Huff, Pat Burrell and Cody Ross all unlikely to repeat last season’s exploits, adding a bat projected to produce an OPS north of .810 should improve matters. Their increasing willingness to work Nate Schierholtz’s good glove and modest power into their lineup reflects an open-mindedness toward getting better benefits on defense as well as offense.

That isn’t the only multi-benefit move the Giants are making of late, however. Instead of trying to become the first team to win a pennant with a 37-year-old shortstop since the 1956 Dodgers, the Giants have long since moved their old man, Miguel Tejada, to third base, making room for a fine shortstop prospect in Brandon Crawford.

Maybe “the book” says that you’re not supposed to win with a rookie shortstop, but the Giants did already win everything with a rookie catcher last year, breaking another no-no. Crawford should be hard-pressed to underperform Tejada’s .520 OPS, meaning the Giants won’t merely gain Sandoval’s bat once he returns, they can net the benefit of Crawford’s better all-around play as well. Crawford showed excellent range afield, but also rapped out the hit that gave San Francisco a two-run lead in the 12th, after Schierholtz had already broken the tie in the 12th (and delivering the tie on his base hit in the ninth). If these are to be the heroes of the Giants’ present, the good news is that they can’t hit worse than the old men, while adding something in the field.