It was nice to see playoff baseball return to Oracle Park this weekend. Even if it’s the beginning of September.
That’s how hyped up the place was, with the Dodgers in town. The best record in baseball was on the line. The fans were in full throat. The Giants miraculously won two of three. And the beer vendors didn’t go on strike… yet.
Sunday’s game was a celebration of sorts, with the Giants knocking out one of the Dodgers’ best pitchers en route to a 6-4 victory that put the team back in sole possession of first place in the National League West, one game ahead of L.A.
All in all, the magic returned to Third Street and there’s no reason it won’t return again for real playoff baseball in October. Unless the Giants go in the tank.
Let’s face it. The team is showing cracks. If the Dodgers had pulled out a win on Sunday — and they rightfully should have with the normally unhittable Walker Buehler on the mound — San Francisco would’ve lost three straight series for the first time all season.
But they didn’t. And there’s plenty of room for hope and confidence on this bus. But I’m a sports columnist, so let’s explore anxiety and concern.
I see two primary issues: Schedule and pitching.
After Sunday, the Giants have 25 games left, heading out to Colorado and Chicago for a weeklong road trip to start things off. Things are always rocky in high-altitude Denver, so that one’s hard to call. The Cubs are fielding a AAA team right now, so the Giants catch a break there. (But Chicago is playing well.)
Overall, it’s great they don’t have to play the stacked Dodgers again. The bad news? They play the San Diego Padres 10 times. (Yes, you read that correctly.) Now, you might not think much of a team that’s 14 games out of first place, but the Padres are a perfectly dangerous team this time of year. They were expected to contend, their roster is stacked and they’d like nothing more than to ruin the Giants’ fun.
The Giants lead the season series, five games to four, but expect some fireworks when the two meet. A four-game series begins in San Francisco on Sept. 13. San Diego starters Joe Musgrove and Yu Darvish will cause headaches.
After Sunday’s win against the Dodgers, Giants manager Gabe Kapler explained that this series will help the team prepare for the September pressure cooker.
“Going in today’s game, looking at things on paper, you know you have your work cut out for you. You look at it, and say, ‘This is going to be tough,’ said Kapler. “Getting through that game, and seeing we’re tough enough to manage that situation, will give us confidence (down the stretch).”
Outfielder Steven Duggar, who returned from the minors and contribituted a huge triple Sunday, put it like a ballplayer would: “It’s just no flinch, up and down the lineup. … It’s just a lot of fun.”
Getting back to the schedule, the Giants season ends with a three-game set in San Francisco against … San Diego. Those will be huge games that could have playoff implications for both teams. (The Padres still have a slim chance at a wildcard berth, right now. The Giants may be gunning for the same spot by then. Who knows?)
One other scheduling bummer: The Giants will host a very good Atlanta team from Sept. 17-19, for another three-game series. Things did not go well during San Francisco’s recent visit to the deep south, losing two of three in Buster Posey’s home state to the Braves.
Let’s face it. The pitching staff is a bit of a mess right now, especially its starting five.
The team’s ace, Kevin Gausman, remains a huge question mark. After a Cy Young-quality first half of the season, during which he displayed a dominant splitter that confounded the league, Gausman’s performance has dropped off dramatically since the All-Star break. He had to take a family medical leave when his wife was hospitalized in Louisiana with complications related to her pregnancy, so it’s all understandable. (Good news: Their baby girl was born healthy.) But, since returning, he hasn’t shown the dominance the Giants will need to finish off this remarkable season. Not yet, at least.
In his last start, a loss against the very good Milwaukee Brewers, Gausman still didn’t have his best stuff, not making it to the fifth inning in a game the Giants lost. The general consensus is that Gausman’s splitter has dropped off in some fashion. Kapler knows it, but remains confident.
“Obviously, it wasn’t an outcome that Gaus or any of us are thrilled about,” the manager told MLB.com. “We know that he’s capable of going deep into games and being a dominant starting pitcher in this league against the best lineups. I do feel like he was able to stay back a little bit better, which is one of the mechanical adjustments he’s looking to make. I thought the fastball had a little bit more life and a little bit more carry. I think the split is still a work in progress for him.”
Good luck with that, Kevin. The rest of the rotation is made up of Anthony DeSclafani, Alex Wood, Johnny Cueto and Logan Webb, who has has emerged as the ace-apparent. Webb relies heavily on a mid-90s sinker and a high-80s changeup to induce ground balls at an impressive rate.
As a group, they currently rank third-best in the National League, but it’s hard to judge whether they’re going to hold up. Currently, Wood is out under COVID protocol, and Cueto missed time with a cold last week. Kapler had to resort to two “bullpen games” against the Dodgers, using a parade of relievers to pitch an inning or two at a time, rather than using a traditional starter. And you can see why.
As MLB.com put it, “the real problem is Johnny Cueto (5.30 ERA) and Anthony DeSclafani (6.02 FIP) from August. They were dark spots in the rotation, masking a spectacular month from Logan Webb (1.41 ERA, 0.97 WHIP).”
After Sunday’s win against the Dodgers, Kapler acknowledged that the team may need to add another arm to make things work.
“We’re going to discuss pitching right now and see if there’s any moves we can make to bolster the bullpen,” said Kapler. “Having Gausman, Webb an DeSclafani beginning to trend in the right direction again, I think we have to count on that for the reason we should feel good about this Colorado series.”
“We may have to replace an arm, and we may end up doing that.”
So, the Giants can close out a remarkable season if Gausman returns to form, Webb keeps up his ascension and Cueto can find it. DeSclafani may have already done so, holding the Dodgers scoreless during his start in the first game of the weekend matchup, a game the Giants eventually won, 3-2, in 11 innings.
It would be pretty shocking for the Giants to miss the playoffs, having held the best record in baseball for much of this season. But they’ll have to beat the Padres and solidify their rotation to finish strong.