CHICAGO Matt Cain usually talks with his fastball.
But ask him about the dynamic in the dugout, or theclubhouse, or on the team flights or anyplace where the NL West-leading Giantscongregate these days, and watch him turn from laconic to loquacious.
What gives Cain the most optimism as the Giants begin the unofficialstretch run Monday, with all 28 games left on the schedule against divisionopponents?
Its the way this group of guys is, said Cain, after theGiants staged a comeback, scored twice in the ninth and pulled out a 7-5victory over the Chicago Cubs at Wrigley Field. Theres just a good feelingin the clubhouse. Guys are having fun. Theyre excited to come to the field. Wevehad that since day one of spring training. Theres times you go through a longseason and you just kind of get tired of everybody, but these guys have beenfun all year.
A little less madcap than 2010, sure. This team has morewedding rings than Van Cleef & Arpels. Even the younguns like MadisonBumgarner, Brandon Crawford, Buster Posey and Brandon Belt are on thestraight-and-narrow path.
No red thongs in sight, mercifully.
They are similar in one respect, though.
Were all on the same page, Cain said. I think you haveto have that to have a winning season.
OK, so Cain didn't make any bold, Jonathan Sanchez-type predictions about the NL West. You'll hear no chest puffing or "they're not going to catch us" pronouncements. The Giants respect the Dodgers' talent too much to say this division race is nearing an end.
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But make no mistake: This is not a team that expects to fall out of first place.
All on the same page, their group theater required a bit of improvisation on a breezy Sunday afternoonat Wrigley Field. Xavier Nady started all three rallies. They strung togetherhits. After Cain missed his spot (middle-middle, belly button, as hedescribed it) and paid for it on Alfonso Sorianos three-run home run that gavethe Cubs a 5-3 lead, there was no give-up on the visiting side.
Theres a feeling in the dugout that even if things arentgoing right, we still feel were in the game, Cain said. Ive been on teamsbefore when you dont feel youre in the game. This team feels theres achance, if we do the right things, well find a way to win. Its a good feelingto have.
Even the new guys have taken notice.
Ive been part of good teams and this one seems like aneasy one to get along with, Nady said. You dont have any real egos here.
Its always an ego boost to go 5-1 on your last two roadtrips, as the Giants have done after taking care of business against theHouston Astros and Cubs despite some tough travel circumstances. They thrivedeven though they had to play 12 of 16 away from AT&T Park.
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Its a big change from the squad that had so much trouble onthe East Coast in the first half, including a 1-5 trip to Washington andPittsburgh entering the All-Star break.
The way we ended the first half really bothered people,said left-hander Javier Lopez, who got a double-play grounder to end Sundaysvictory. There was a concerted effort when we got back, especially on theseroad trips, to play the way we can. We didnt finish the drill like we wantedto. We knew we couldnt do that and stay in the race.
Their lineup, despite a severe shortage of power, isdrilling everything in sight. At the break, the Giants were hitting .224 withrunners in scoring position and .184 with RISP and two outs. Now theyvebumped those season averages to .251 and .197.
Its not striking out in those situations, Giants managerBruce Bochy said. Its timely hits. Thats what it takes when you dont hitthe longball.
Angel Pagan got robbed by the third baseman and centerfielder in two previous at-bats, but he got a hit to fall when the Giantsneeded it most. His two-strike single on a slider from Carlos Marmol put theGiants in front.
Make an at-bat as tough as possible, Pagan said.
Even Aubrey Huff was able to do that, despite getting hisfirst at-bat since July 30 (and fourth since June 10), he was able to foul offa two-strike pitch when appearing as a pinch hitter in the sixth. Stayingalive, just like his old walkup music. And that made an impact when the nextpitch from Manny Corpas bounced away and allowed Belt to score the tying run.
The Giants offense is working without the home run becausethey are creating opportunities, starting with Pagan in the leadoff spot. Heshitting .350 with a .423 on-base percentage in 29 games since moving atop thelineup Aug. 3. The team is 20-9 over that span. And Pagan said the move was hisidea.
We needed somebody to get on base, he said. I asked Bochyto put me in there because I knew I needed to simplify things and I could be ahelp to the team. I think it was a good thing for us. I got there when the teamneeded me the most.
Pagan has scored 33 runs over the last 29 games. His 32 runsin August was the most in the major leagues. Nobody else in the NL was evenremotely close (The Brewers Rickie Weeks was next, with 22.)
You have to love his focus up there, Bochy said.
The Giants know their focus cannot waver now, even with a 412-game lead. They still have six more against the free-spending Dodgers, andthe rest of the division wont roll over for them, either.
Cain likes the way the Giants are positioned. And he likesthe vibe.
Were not trying to repeat. Were just trying to win, Cainsaid. Guys are just, whatever, lets find a way to win today.