Kruk & Kuip: We didn't recognize this Giants team
Brian Sabean hopes Brandon Belt steps up as the consistent No. 6 hitter he believes the Giants need. (USA TODAY IMAGES)
TORONTO – The Giants got more than their passports stamped north of the border.
Yet after playing two of the worst all-around games manager Bruce Bochy has ever witnessed, they cleared customs still holding onto a 23-17 record and a half-game lead in the NL West.
That is better than where they stood after 40 games last season. They were 21-19 when they reached the quarter point a year ago, six games in back of the Los Angeles Dodgers.
It’s enough of a snapshot to start analyzing the roster and the performances, but that’s no easy task this year. Not when the Giants’ rotation has a 4.41 ERA – better than only the Mets, Padres and Brewers in the National League. And not when they’ve seen such streaky performances from almost everyone in the lineup.
I caught up with Giants GM Brian Sabean last weekend at AT&T Park to get his view of the roster, its surprises and shortfalls, and of the NL West in general.
A couple of themes recurred or stood out:
--The Giants need a No. 6 hitter to step up, and Brandon Belt will continue to get every chance to establish himself there.
--The rotation’s track record is what the Giants are relying upon.
--Health is everything.
Q: What are your impressions of the NL West so far?
A: It’s pretty much what I thought with the exception of LA not being healthy and not playing well. We all knew the division would be healthier, and Arizona did a lot to reinvent themselves. Colorado is a nice story, kind of similar to what San Diego started out doing in 2010. They’re healthier and they’re pitching better.
Q: The left field production overall ranks near the bottom of the league. Are you satisfied with what you’ve gotten from the platoon of Gregor Blanco and Andres Torres?
A: I think so. We went on the side of the defense and the speed and to take our chances. And it wouldn’t be that much of an eyesore statistically from a run production standpoint if we had a bona fide six hitter, which should be Belt, but we’ve been forced to rotate and scramble a little with the bottom three spots. But on balance they’ve done a good job, given the skill set.
Q: The team ranks fourth in the NL in runs scored, and you don’t have the force of nature that Melky Cabrera provided the first four months last year. How have you accounted for that?
A: Well that’s a credit to Scutaro and Pence and even Belt coming on last year, and obviously all these guys are starting the year with us.
Q: What do you make of Belt, and the other wild streaks from others like Crawford, Scutaro, etc. The offense overall has been fairly consistent, but it seems like you’ll get one great game from Belt followed by another where he looks lost, or a big hit from Torres followed by a game full of crazy swings.
A: Crawford and Belt, you have to respect that because they’re still young players learning to hit. The only thing I’ll say that’s frustrating with all of them, maybe more with Blanco and Torres, is being susceptible to strikeouts. They have to be line drive down. They can’t hit the ball in the air or be swinging or missing. And they’re working hard to do that. It’s easier said than done.
Q: And Belt? Will he grow into that six hitter you’re looking for?
A: We’ll see. He came on like gangbusters in the second half. He seems to be streaky. It’s about consistency. The more quality at-bats he can create, the better he’ll be equipped to be what we need him to do, and that’s be a run producer as a six hitter. It’s just his mechanics, swinging and missing. And he knows what he has to do.
Q: What leads you to believe the rotation will pitch better than the starters have thus far?
A: They’ve got too much experience and they’ve pitched under all kinds of circumstances and pressure, including getting out of rough patches. So it should right itself based on their talent and their track record. We’re just keeping our fingers crossed on the whole. Cain’s performance the other day speaks for itself.
Ryan (Vogelsong), he struck out seven guys (in his previous start), that shows you the stuff is there. He just kind of ran out of gas.
Q: At least they have gone to the post every game. The Dodgers have used nine starters already.
A: And that speaks to them. They make their starts. They give us a bunch of innings logged and quality starts. To this point, we haven’t gotten the quality starts. But we’ve played some pretty good hitting teams earlier in the schedule, and I think the National League is underrated. I see a lot of parity and I think you’ll see a lot of races go down to the wire.
Q: The key the rest of the way?
A: It’s always health. You start the season and you hope you don’t have any major bumps in the road. Sometimes you can cover it or overcome it and other times like 2011 it’s insurmountable.
Q: What is your evaluation of the bullpen?
A: Sergio has saved us. We definitely have to win the games we’re supposed, to win, the one-run and two-run games, and we’ve done that.
Q: Have you had any contact or heard anything new from Brian Wilson?
A: Not other than he’s going to try to showcase himself over the All-Star break or thereabouts. I don’t know how he’s throwing but I know he’s working out like a fiend.
Q: Given the way Romo has performed, would the Giants just move along when it comes to Wilson?
A: I can’t say that. … Our bullpen has a lot of talent and they’re doing the job, so …
So now the Giants head to Coors Field, which has shown the Giants its share of horrors but not in recent years. They were 7-2 there last year and 6-4 in 2011.
Once again, Matt Cain takes the mound knowing he needs to pitch deep into the game to save a bullpen that already used up its long man.
It stunned me when Angel Pagan said he’d never played a game at Rogers Centre nee SkyDome before. He never came here for interleague play. He didn’t have much experience playing on artificial surface, since the NL doesn't have a club that uses a turf field. It's become a novelty to a lot of players in the league, and not just the rookies.
It really did look like the Giants were bewildered by the turf, the way the lights are oddly banked here, and just about everything else.
But give Pagan credit. He said “come into my office” when reporters approached, and he took full accountability for J.P. Arencibia’s ball that hit off his glove for a two-base, two-run error in the first inning.
“That’s my best effort,” Pagan said. “I tried to make a play and it didn’t happen. I’m not going to make excuses. That’s a ball that should be caught. I’m not going to put any excuse on these lights.”
Said Giants manager Bruce Bochy: “He just missed it. I don’t know what to tell you. These guys, they’re good. That’s why we’re as surprised as anybody. We’re good defensively.”
It wasn’t just Pagan who struggled here. Hunter Pence seemed to have trouble the whole series with taking routes to line drives that soared over his head. It’s not like Pence messed up any easy plays, or that one or more catches would’ve made the difference in either of these two messy losses. But it was just another symptom of an outfield defense that has been a surprising disappointment this season.
Don’t forget Andres Torres’ drop in San Diego, or lapses that twice allowed Didi Gregorius to take an extra base in a home series against Arizona.
Pence also was loathe to make excuses.
“I will say the ball was carrying a lot,” he said. “They seemed to jump off the bat. I took the best routes I could. Maybe I need to work on my angles. I’ll work hard and try to get better at it.”
Said Pagan: “This is my first time in this ballpark and it’s a little weird, but you’ve still got to make plays no matter what. Every hit to the gap, you want to cut it off. It’s a very tough outfield to play. You still have to make plays. No excuses.”
Not to freak you out, but … the Giants will be on turf again in August. They have an interleague series at Tampa Bay this year, too.
It reminds me of one of the greatest baseball quotes of all time, when the great Tug McGraw was asked if he preferred grass or turf.
“Don’t know,” McGraw said. “I’ve never smoked turf.”