Rich Aurilia's first-half grades for Giants
Bruce Bochy's squad would be in a much worse midseason situation if not for the strong first halves from Buster Posey and Madison Bumgarner. (USA TODAY IMAGES)
SAN FRANCISCO – Tim Lincecum gave the Giants and their fans one more night to remember in a legendary career.
[REWIND: Tim Lincecum no-hits Padres]
But before his no-hitter lifted all boats Saturday night, there was no mistaking the club’s highest point in the first half.
It doesn’t get more exciting than walk-off, inside-the-park home runs – and the fact that Angel Pagan’s hair looked so fabulous made the freeze frames all the more dramatic. When Pagan sprinted around the bases May 25, erasing a one-run deficit in the 10th inning, it left the Giants at 27-22. Of their victories at that point, 14 were in comeback fashion.
[INSTANT REPLAY: Pagan's inside-the-park HR wins it for Giants]
This was not the way the Giants had become accustomed to winning. It was clear to any fan with a glove in the bleachers that the pitching wasn’t the same. But the die had been cast: This was a team that won games in the late innings, erasing deficits just as they stalked from behind last October to beat the Cincinnati Reds and St. Louis Cardinals.
But late-inning comebacks are like fossil fuels. Over-reliance is a dangerous way to live.
The bullpen began to tire in late May because of all those short starts, and moving Chad Gaudin into the rotation to replace the injured Ryan Vogelsong didn’t help their long relief. All those manageable deficits became unmanageable. And the offense, eventually, dried up.
As for Pagan? His last act as a Giant in 2013 might well be that inside-the-parker. He injured his hamstring tendon earlier in that game, and he aborted his rehab when he had a cart carry him off the field in Modesto. He had surgery and won’t return until September, if at all.
The Giants might have brought back their entire World Series team, but they had a Potemkin village behind the familiar names. And their lack of depth became apparent as more injuries began to mount -- Pablo Sandoval (foot), Marco Scutaro (hand and back), Brandon Crawford (sprained fingers) and Joaquin Arias (hamstring, appendectomy) among them.
Maybe the Giants could have weathered it better in any of the last three seasons. But that’s when Tim Lincecum was still a Cy Young contender, Matt Cain still had a freakish home run-to-fly-ball ratio and Vogelsong was pumping out one quality start after another through gritted teeth. If not for Madison Bumgarner, the Giants might have the least productive rotation in the National League.
They went from June 13 to July 12 without getting a single win from any starting pitcher other than Bumgarner. The comebacks stopped coming. The clutch hits stopped flowing.
And if you thought they hit rock bottom July 2, when the Reds’ Homer Bailey became the first pitcher to no-hit them in more than a decade, well … they lost six of seven after that, too. Even former top prospect Zack Wheeler rubbed it in July 10, beating them on a day that Cain failed to complete the first inning for the first time in 254 career starts.
The Giants had lost 14 of 16 entering the final four games before the break at San Diego. But they showed some fight and some much harder contact from Hunter Pence and Pablo Sandoval while taking three of four at Petco Park. And amazingly, the season isn’t a lost cause. Such is the state of affairs in the weak NL West. They still have a shot, but they’ll need better second-half marks in all these areas to maintain any realistic hope of defending their title in October.
[RELATED: MLB standings]
The starting staff has a 4.59 ERA, better than only the Brewers and Padres in the NL. Only Bumgarner keeps this from being a failing grade. He is 10-5 at the break for the second consecutive year, and his .197 opponent’s average trails only the Dodgers’ Clayton Kershaw in the NL. No wonder Bruce Bochy made sure to include him on his All-Star staff. Cain has been a workhorse forever, and perhaps the wear and tear is finally catching up to him. Even if Vogelsong makes a strong return in August, there’s no way this rotation can hold up its end without a resurgent run from Cain. Oh, and Barry Zito has a 9.89 ERA on the road, and the Giants are 0-8 in his starts. That makes him the Bluto Blutarski on this report card. At least Lincecum finally looks to be learning to compete – and sometimes dominate – with a 91 mph fastball.
Sergio Romo always has been effective. The first-time All-Star has proven durable enough thus far, too, while holding down the ninth inning. The bullpen quietly had a huge hand in all those comeback wins. And they’ve had flashes of effective spells from Jean Machi, Sandy Rosario and Jake Dunning. But George Kontos has regressed. And Jeremy Affeldt has issued more walks plus hit batters than strikeouts, and he struggled at a time when the club really needed him while Santiago Casilla was out following surgery to remove a bone cyst from near his knee. Casilla is back, but the Giants need Affeldt to sort out his issues as well.
Buster Posey’s stats through 95 games last year, when he was NL MVP: .312 average, .379 on-base, .494 slugging, 12 home runs, 56 RBIs, 39 runs. Posey’s stats through 95 games this year: .325 average, .395 on-base, .536 slugging, 13 home runs, 56 RBIs, 38 runs. When the rest of the team hit .192 while losing 14 of those 16 games in late June and July, Posey hit .339. So, yeah. He’s fine.
First baseman Brandon Belt already has matched his career high for home runs, but his lower on-base percentage shows he hasn’t improved as an offensive presence in all areas. The rest of the infield has been dinged up, which is a major reason Crawford cooled off after a massively clutch April. Scutaro, a first-time All-Star at 37, played through a torn pinky tendon that won’t ever fully straighten. The Giants have to hope his back holds up for another two-plus years, though. The biggest disappointment has been Sandoval, who leaves himself open to getting shredded over his weight any time he’s hurt or struggling. He’s done both as a tame follow-up to his World Series MVP performance.
A left field platoon of Kensuke Tanaka and Jeff Francoeur: Not exactly what you envisioned as you sat under the mist fans at Scottsdale Stadium this spring, was it? Pagan’s surgery thrust Gregor Blanco and Andres Torres into everyday roles that weren’t meant for them, and the results were predictable. Although Pagan wasn’t having a great year even before he went away, he was a dynamic leadoff presence last season. It’s not easy to score 95 runs as a leadoff hitter when your club hits the fewest home runs in the majors. The Giants have to hope that restarting that Torres/Blanco platoon – now in center field instead of left – will lead to good things. Right fielder Hunter Pence got off to a productive start but hit the skids when the club most needed someone else besides Posey to carry the load. The outfield defense, overall, has been a disappointment. It’s gotten better now that Blanco is in center field, and of course, Juan Perez unearthed some web gems before showing his bat wasn’t ready for big league pitching.
Other clubs in the NL called up difference makers from the minor leagues, none more splashy than Yasiel Puig. Meanwhile, the Giants have strip mined Fresno to oblivion. Aside from Perez’s daring plays in the outfield, and a week of steady contact from Tanaka, it’s hard to say anyone has made any kind of measurable impact. And there's a reason former top prospects Gary Brown and Heath Hembree haven't surfaced yet.
Not even a shrewd and seasoned manager like Bruce Bochy is immune to losing his focus. He’s goofed up at least two double-switches, and a couple weeks after wondering how any manager could ever let a hitter bat out of order, Buster Posey strolled to the plate as the No. 3 hitter when the lineup card had him fourth. The strain of losing weighs on everyone. But Bochy has kept up a professional environment and players continue to say all the right things. As for GM Brian Sabean, you don’t build an addition on your home when a sinkhole is taking it down. He’s in wait-and-see mode. But finding a controllable starter at the trade deadline, such as Jake Peavy, would be a huge check mark on a winter to-do list that will be very long. This time, it won’t be as easy as bringing the band back together.