Giants set to welcome red-hot Nationals in pivotal series

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Giants set to welcome red-hot Nationals in pivotal series

SAN FRANCISCO Things are about to get a little tougher at 24 Willie Mays Plaza.

After taking two of three from the bottom-dwelling Colorado Rockies, the Giants will welcome the major-league leading Nationals to town for a three-game set beginning Monday. Washington owns a league-best 3.25 team ERA, and will send its three winningest starters to the mound in Gio Gonzalez, Jordan Zimmerman and Stephen Strasburg.

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Theyre so solid starting pitching, bullpen, lineup, Bruce Bochy said. You dont have the record that they have unless youre good. Theyre playing well now and on a good roll. We know it. Its going to be up to us to go out there and not make any mistakes and play our best ball.

Washington swept the Giants in the nations capital in early July by a combined score of 24-12. San Francisco has won its last two games after dropping the series opener to the Rockies on Friday, though, while scoring 18 runs in the process.

Were feeling pretty good. Its going to be a big series and a tough series and theyre playing great ball. But theyre coming here, and its not easy to play here, Hunter Pence said. Our pitching staff is pretty good, too. Its going to be an exciting series and its going to be something you could see later on down the line, as well.

The Giants didnt play a perfect game on Sunday in a 9-6 defeat of Colorado, but found a way to rally and win for just the fourth time this season when trailing after seven innings (4-46).

We were down and there was a lot of stuff going wrong for us, but it didnt matter, everybody just came together and did what they had to do to get the job done, said Brandon Belt.

Theres also a chance that one of the Giants key bats will get back into the lineup as Pablo Sandoval could rejoin the team after rehabbing a strained left hamstring in Class-A San Jose this weekend.

Bochy wouldnt put odds on a Sandoval return, but said on Saturday that Sandoval was on target for Monday. Whether or not hell play is apparently to be determined.

When Sandoval returns, the Giants will boast an impressive middle part of their order with leading hitter Melky Cabrera, MVP candidate Buster Posey, the newcomer Pence, and maybe even Brandon Belt, who was 4-for-4 on Sunday.

Its an All-Star bat coming into the lineup and its going to be a big pickup. Were looking forward to getting Sandoval back, said Pence.

Instant Analysis: Five takeaways from Giants dropping series vs Braves

Instant Analysis: Five takeaways from Giants dropping series vs Braves

BOX SCORE

SAN FRANCISCO — The kid who raced The Freeze on Thursday night blew a tire as he hit center field, hobbled for about 50 feet, and then went down for good. He still had a better night than the Giants. 

They blew all four tires in the fifth, giving up eight runs in a nightmare frame that turned a two-run lead into a 12-11 loss. The Giants finished 1-7 on the swing through Denver and Atlanta, and they have lost 18 of their last 23 games. 

But, let’s face it, you’re here already. So here are five more things to know from the night … 

—- Matt Cain was hanging in there until the fifth, and then … disaster. The inning started with Brandon Phillips’ solo shot that cut the lead to one. Then it went single, single before Cain was relieved by Bryan Morris. After that, it was single, single, single, sacrifice fly, homer, flyout, walk, single, pitching change, single. 

—- Morris had to wear it in the fifth because the bullpen is short, and boy, did he wear it. Morris gave up five runs on five hits and a walk. His ERA jumped two full points in two-thirds of an inning. 

—- Kyle Crick made his MLB debut in that horrendous bottom of the fifth. The Giants surely did not want to bring him in with runners on, but Bruce Bochy had no choice when Morris blew up. Crick’s first pitch was a 95 mph heater. After giving up a hit in that inning, he pitched a perfect sixth and perfect seventh. Crick topped out at 97 mph. Pretty, pretty good stuff there. He needs to get a long look the rest of this year. 

—- In the second, Buster Posey hit a ball that went 311 feet and had a hit probability of just six percent. Cain hit a ball 357 feet. Posey got a homer that bounced off the top of the wall; Cain just got a double. Baseball is such an odd game.  

—- On a positive note, Javi Lopez, who calls Brandon Belt “Sparky,” repeatedly referred to Posey as Gerald. He’s going to be good at this job. 

Why you shouldn't freak out in June about Cueto's opt-out

Why you shouldn't freak out in June about Cueto's opt-out

SAN FRANCISCO — There’s a very important fact you need to keep in mind when talk of Johnny Cueto’s opt-out comes up, as it so often will over the next six weeks: The Giants always expected him to opt-out after this season, from the moment the ink was dry on the six-year, $130-million contract. 

When you sign at the top of your game and have a chance to hit the market at 31 years old and cash out a second time, you take it. Those are just the rules of professional sports. On the day Cueto was introduced, his agent, Bryce Dixon, said the two-year opt-out was important because they felt Cueto didn’t get a totally fair shot at free agency. 

“Johnny, a little bit unfairly, had a lot of questions about his arm,” Dixon said in December of 2015. “I felt we could reestablish his actual value … He knows he’s as good as (David) Price and (Zack) Greinke, but his situation was a little different.”

The Giants were fine with this, too. The flip side of the opt-out is that if you have the chance to pay a dominant right-hander $46 million over two years, and then escape his mid- to late-thirties, you do it. Every time. You don’t even blink. 

So, here we are, in June of the second year of that deal, with reports that Cueto will opt out. You should take a deep breath because you should have already expected this. But if you didn’t, take comfort in this: By all indications, Cueto has not made a decision, even with the Giants having an unimaginably poor season. 

First of all, Cueto can't make a decision in June. What if the blisters return and he repeats his April ERA a couple more times? What if his elbow starts barking? There are no guarantees with pitchers, and until Cueto gets through the second season, there will be no finality with his decision. 

Aside from the fact that he really can’t make that decision, though, sources insist Cueto hasn’t made up his mind or even thought much about it. People familiar with his thinking continue to say the focus has been baseball all season long, from spring training through his last start. 

Cueto is said to be happy in San Francisco and he enjoys pitching in front of the crowd at AT&T Park. His biggest concern has been wins and losses, and in that respect, this has been a disappointing year for all involved. 

That record has brought the Giants to a crossroads, and this is where it gets interesting. The easy solution is to trade Cueto next month, avoid the opt-out situation entirely, and add prospects to a system lacking them. But, it’s complicated. The Giants do not intend a full teardown, and if they’re going for it again in 2018 — with their core of Buster Posey, Brandon Crawford, Madison Bumgarner, etc. locked in, that’s the plan — they’ll want that second ace at the top of the rotation. And if Bumgarner doesn’t return to form after an injury, they’ll need Cueto’s presence. 

The Giants have until July 31 to decide what to do with Cueto. He has until three days after the World Series ends to decide what to do with his contract. Here in June, by all indications, those decisions haven’t been made.