<
>

An 'up' look at a 'down' Giants year

On Sunday, with the season wilting, the San Francisco Giants held a 1-0 lead over first-place Arizona entering the eighth inning. A win would've given San Francisco the weekend series over the surging Diamondbacks and kept the Giants' faint playoff hopes alive at five games back.

Instead, the final frames offered a frustrating microcosm of San Francisco's defense of the World Series crown it thrillingly won last year: Arizona scored four runs in the eighth on more hits (four) than the three San Francisco mustered all afternoon. The Giants, down three runs with six outs remaining, did not reach base for the remainder of the game -- not a walk, not an infield dribbler, not a clean base hit and certainly not a home run.

The final score was 4-1, and the deficit for the Giants in the NL West was pushed back to seven games with 24 to play.

The longest regular season in sports is Major League Baseball's late-March-to-late-September marathon. This one still has three weeks remaining, but barring a sudden, jarring turnaround, at least one assumption can be made about the upcoming playoffs: It seems very likely that baseball will crown a different champion this fall. Although a year ago much noise and history was made in San Francisco, October 2011 looks to be quiet at AT&T Park.

So much has occurred during the past 12 months in the world of San Francisco baseball that it would be a mistake to merely writhe in a season of lost opportunity. The Giants' inability to cross the plate with any regularity might have cost them a chance to repeat as champions, but the 2010 World Series and its afterglow are very much alive.

For most of this season, the Giants' on-the-field blueprint was not much different from last year's winning formula. The team lived hard on the margin with a lineup that did not appear to have enough offense to survive 162 games but a staff that featured too much pitching for anyone -- the dominant, hungry and motivated Phillies included -- to want to face in a short series come playoff time.

This season offered a pale replica but without the magic and luck -- and with even less offense than last year. Where Buster Posey's arrival in 2010 gave the Giants the youthful burst and offensive surge that made them believe they could win, his car wreck of a collision at home plate against the Marlins in late May erased the rest of his season and took away a piece of the team's championship soul. A club as offensively deficient as the Giants could not afford that.

The Giants' predicament is no mystery. A year ago, as they overtook the Padres, the offense warmed up and finished the season with an outstanding run differential of plus-114, despite its punchless reputation.

A year later, after 142 games, the Giants have pitched even better than they did last year, for no team in baseball owns as good a record having scored so few runs. The run differential statistic, whether it's called Pythagorean won-loss or expected won-loss (as termed by ESPN), is one of the most reliable barometers for predicting how many games a team can expect to win in a given season. According to their expected won-loss, the Giants should be 68-74. For them to be anywhere near a pennant race is a tribute to championship-level pitching.

But the Giants this year have offered their fans (and more importantly, their pitchers) starvation fare: At the same point, San Francisco has scored 138 fewer runs, essentially a run a game fewer than last season. At one point in the season, the Giants were in first place with 17 more wins than losses, but they'd scored 24 fewer runs than they'd allowed, a nearly impossible standard to maintain and still win. San Francisco has scored 105 fewer runs than the National League average. Acquiring Carlos Beltran at the trade deadline didn't help.

So the offense has been invisible. And as the clock nears midnight, the good luck that already had faded with the loss of Posey all but disappeared over the weekend as the young and blithesome Diamondbacks proved they will not be the 2010 Padres, who played with the lead for virtually the entire season until it was time to reach across the table and take the money. Although the Padres were beginning their fold at this juncture last season, Arizona is playing with confidence and power right now, apparently unafraid of the high altitude on top of the standings, even with a 6-9 record head-to-head against the defending champs.

So San Francisco does not seem likely to defend its first title this season. Still, the Giants might never have been as healthy a franchise as they are right now. They are not a superpower, a team in the financial class of the Yankees, Phillies and Red Sox that always will be a factor in the high-stakes free-agent market and be able to retain its top players. But since the Giants moved out of Candlestick Park 11 years ago, the franchise has reversed its financial fortunes. The Giants gambled by building AT&T Park with private money and won. They are less than seven years from completing the debt service on the land and will own the stadium.

The Giants, once seemingly headed to Toronto or St. Petersburg or the second division, are the established team on the West Coast, supplanting the dysfunctional Dodgers as a model of stability.

Season-ticket sales provide the best barometer of the financial health of any franchise, and the Giants are the only team in baseball in such demand that only full, 81-game season-ticket packages are offered for sale -- no weekend plans, no 20-game packages, nothing.

There are dangers, naturally, the biggest being that no other team could afford to waste the kind of pitching the Giants have produced this season. The club's financial margins are so thin that they must crest the 3 million mark in attendance each year to break even, and a down year could undo their recent attendance successes. The team, like the Red Sox, is attempting to maximize every square inch of real estate because of its small footprint and market size. The Giants own a valuable parcel of land next to the stadium that the club is considering using for an amphitheater or new arena, perhaps to attract the Golden State Warriors.

Once, the Giants and A's split the smallest two-team market in baseball, and now San Francisco has become the game's financial power in the region. Anecdotally, the glow of last year's surprise still can be felt throughout the city, from "Orange Fridays" at the ballpark to successful ratings across television and radio broadcasts. The Giants' lowest attendance in their 11 years at AT&T Park (2.8 million in 2009) is higher than any of the 38 seasons they played at Candlestick Park. The power of the ballpark and last year's title are to thank for that.

So there can be optimism even in the face of this year's struggles at the plate. The Giants are so well-positioned financially that the front office needs to do only one thing to stay competitive: its job. General manager Brian Sabean has the ballpark, the interest, the resources and the pitching to retool and redesign his offense. Unlike teams that can't compete because of financial constraints or poor management, the club enjoys something that fans had wished for in San Francisco since the team's arrival in 1958: a legitimate shot to win a title from the first day of spring training.

Should the Giants not capitalize on this period of prosperity, it won't be for lack of resources or opportunity. Even without a September comeback, the franchise is where it needs to be.

Howard Bryant is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He is the author of "The Last Hero: A Life of Henry Aaron," "Shut Out: A Story of Race and Baseball in Boston" and "Juicing the Game: Drugs, Power and the Fight for the Soul of Major League Baseball." He can be reached at Howard.Bryant@espn.com. He can be followed on Twitter at www.twitter.com/hbryant42.

MORE COMMENTARY »