Peavy a key to Giants' stretch-run potential

It almost looked like Peavy had a no-hitter in him Saturday night. He pitched into the eighth against the Brewers without allowing a base hit, and just enough things seemed to be breaking his way to make you think he’d wind up with his first career no-hitter.

Defense almost always has a way of making itself noticed, of reminding you almost every no-hit bid owes something to a somebody or two beyond the man on the mound. Brandon Crawford made a couple of exceptional plays at short, which robbed a couple grounders on which you might have said “hit” as soon as the ball left the bat. The second was a double play he started in the top of the seventh by shoveling the ball with his glove to Joe Panik for the pivot and barely beating Scooter Gennett going up the first-base line. Crawford’s DP was important not just because of the situation, but also because it quickly ended an inning in which Peavy might have had to work much more from the stretch while keeping his pitch count at 99 through seven -- and keeping the opportunity to notch a first no-hitter within reach in today’s game of managed workloads. Peavy had a couple of games throwing 120-plus pitches in 2012, but in a career almost as notable for injuries and carefully monitored pitch counts as it has been for great games.

It didn't matter in the end, after Mark Reynolds floated a one-out opposite-field single in the eighth, but it was enough to get you thinking, not just about Peavy's performance on this night, but also his importance to the Giants on so many nights to come. If you like Game Score as a quick and dirty way to evaluate how good a game a starting pitcher has just thrown, on Saturday night Peavy’s 82 suggests he just pitched the best game he’s had since April 2012 (when he tossed an 84 for the White Sox). It was his 20th game in his career that good or better but just his fifth since his Padres heyday.

It says something about Peavy’s career that the hard-throwing kid who came up with the Padres in 2002 hasn’t thrown one yet. Injuries, trades, playing on teams bad and good ... whatever the reason, it hasn’t happened, which might have surprised you to know a dozen years ago, when he was immediately recognized as a top-shelf talent and ranked as the 28th prospect in the game by Baseball America. When he came up, he was the instant ace on a Padres team managed by Bruce Bochy and won two ERA titles.

Peavy’s performance since his acquisition goes beyond just what he’s done, of course, because his impact on the Giants is bigger than that. Not only did Peavy essentially replace Matt Cain after the former ace was lost for the season to elbow surgery, but having him also telegraphed the opportunity to move Tim Lincecum into the bullpen again. With Ryan Vogelsong going strong behind Madison Bumgarner and Tim Hudson, picking someone to round out the Giants’ four-man rotation in the postseason suddenly had a great alternative to Lincecum’s highs and lows. Lincecum is managing just one quality start in his past six turns, so Peavy's having thrown four straight (including Saturday night) just made it that much easier. Lincecum’s demotion to the pen can be seen as prepping him for a postseason role as important as it was in 2012 -- not just an investment in the adequacy of Yusmeiro Petit as a skippable fifth starter with seven quality starts spread among his 14 turns as a spot starter for the Giants between this year and the past.

That might seem cold, but the Giants are reliably about “what have you done for me lately?” and it’s to their credit. Sergio Romo, closer? Not if he falters, which meant he lost his job to the guy he replaced, Santiago Casilla. Turning to rookie Joe Panik in-season at second base? Done. Finding ways to work around Brandon Belt’s injuries? Try Adam Duvall, bring Travis Ishikawa back, move Mike Morse around and play Gregor Blanco in left. Whatever it takes -- just win.

Winning is something Bruce Bochy has done quite well in his Giants incarnation. That's something you could expect from his days running a Padres ballclub that pinched pennies yet earned four postseason appearances on his watch before he left in 2006. Before you worry too much about a lineup counting on Morse, just remember that Bochy’s successful track record with veteran hitters many had given up on goes back years; Morse joins a list of thirty-something renaissances that already included Aubrey Huff, Wally Joyner, Phil Nevin and Ryan Klesko.

It’s a Giants team that’s conjuring up the right answers at the right time, of which Peavy is one. With Panik finally settling in at second and Angel Pagan back off the DL and playing center, and with Peavy shining in a rotation now clearly firing on four cylinders, you can believe the Giants are beginning to look like a team ready to roll and taking shape as a team that might beat anybody in October again. As the stretch run revs up, it makes a reunion between Peavy and Bochy that much more special. Having come so far since, winning World Series rings apart, it’s a shot for two of the lonesome reasons to have cared about Padres baseball a decade ago to have a chance at winning another, but together.

Christina Kahrl writes about MLB for ESPN. You can follow her on Twitter.