As in life, the tragedy of baseball is that it can all fall apart. Sometimes that happens with a single pitch, sometimes in the span of 25 games or with the loss of an invaluable player. It’s a cruel sport, one in which you can find yourself hoisting a golden trophy into October winds one moment only to be on the precipice of not qualifying for the same tournament less than a year later.
That’s where the San Francisco Giants found themselves going into Friday night. Desperately needing a win against the Arizona Diamondbacks, who led by six games in the division, Bruce Bochy’s club pulled out a 6-2 victory. Led by a brilliant Matt Cain supported by an offensive outbreak highlighted by homers off the bats of Cody Ross and Carlos Beltran, the Giants now trail by five games.
While the Bay can rejoice tonight, the morning sun still will greet the hometown nine with a hefty deficit. Baseball Prospectus has the Giants’ playoff odds at 16.6 percent, a cruel reminder that one victory does not make a season. So how did the defending world champs find themselves in this hole, going from the top of the baseball world to a must-sweep situation?
Well, for one, they have arguably the worst offense in baseball. (The Mariners might have some merit in claiming this infamous title over the men in black and orange.) The Giants have scored fewer runs than anyone else in the game. They have the second-lowest wOBA in the game and are only .003 points in front of the M’s. Their OBP also ranks second lowest. When they say it’s torture baseball, they aren’t kidding.
Sure, the Giants might be a little unlucky. Their .281 BABIP is the lowest in the game -- although their 18.8 strikeout percentage means not a lot of balls are being put in play anyway, and their .355 SLG means hardly any of those balls are leaving the yard, let alone dropping for extra bases. When the Giants do get on base, they’re not particularly dangerous, having stolen only 75 bases, the ninth-lowest total in the majors.
The struggles of Aubrey Huff, one of the key pieces of last year’s world champs, have been well documented, but it’s worth noting just how much he has regressed this year. His OBP has dropped a ridiculous 84 points. He is striking out much more frequently, 16.1 percent of the time compared to 13.6 percent last year, and he’s walking much less, only 7.8 percent of the time compared to last year’s 12.4 percent. That’s never a good combination. His power has almost completely disappeared, as his SLG has dropped to .375 from a .506 pace he set last season.
Beyond Huff, key acquisition Beltran has OPS’d at only a .664 clip since he was shipped to the Bay, quite a difference from the .904 mark he was putting up for the Mets. Although Beltran had a huge night at the plate Friday, the Giants acquired him to be the elite power hitter they have so desperately needed, and he has launched only two long balls thus far.
Through all this, the Giants’ pitching has stayed incredibly consistent, and per usual it is the only thing keeping them afloat. Cain has improved on his excellent numbers from last year, surrendering only 0.38 home runs per nine innings, an incredible feat. Tim Lincecum has been his usual self, even improving a bit (3.10 FIP compared to a 3.15 mark last year). With the inconsistencies of Jonathan Sanchez, the emergence of Ryan Vogelsong has been a revelation, although his 3.73 FIP shows he is due to come back to earth any time now.
So in the end, it’s the same old Giants: a punchless offense buoyed by an All-Star rotation. Last year’s feel-good team still has a lot of work to do if it plans on competing again in the Fall Classic. That’s not to say there isn’t any hope. It’s easy to forget that entering last September, the Giants trailed the San Diego Padres by four games; we all know how that story ended. Also in the G-Men’s favor is the fact that the D-backs have been baseball’s streakiest team this year. Before their recent nine-game win streak, they were owners of a seven-game losing streak. They’ve had five three-game losing streaks this season, a five-game losing streak and a six-game losing streak. If they fall into another funk, the Giants will be ready to take advantage of it.
The Giants did their job in this first game, pulling out a much-needed victory. But they know where they stand: five games out with 24 to go. Arizona will send its best to the mound in Ian Kennedy and Daniel Hudson over the next two days. It won’t be easy for San Francisco -- in fact it’s statistically improbable. So it’s going to be a long September at AT&T, with every pitch meaning more than the next.
But that’s Giants baseball, right? Beating the odds when it matters most. Some might even call it torture.
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