By Chris Haft
Special to the Examiner
Just one more test awaits the Giants to toughen them up for the cauldron of the postseason and steel them for the road to the World Series.
Up next for San Francisco is one of the game’s most intense pressure cookers: September.
Will Clark, the Giants’ iconic first baseman from 1986-93, sensed what some of the team’s less-seasoned players are thinking and feeling. “Everybody’s gassed right now,” said Clark, a .305 lifetime hitter in September with an .870 OPS. “At the same time, you want to enjoy it. This is the fun time of the year. This is when you want to be in the lineup. This is when you want to get the big base hits. This is a big deal.”
The Giants became a big deal by claiming the Major Leagues’ best record this season and never relinquishing it. “Be proud. Stick your chests out,” part-time coach and 18-year big leaguer Shawon Dunston said recently, as he heaped praise upon the Giants.
Make that bow a quick one, fellas.
Plenty of work must be accomplished if the Giants want to be remembered as more than just a curiosity or fluke. San Francisco will transition from the dog days of summer to the heat of the stretch drive with a four-game home series Aug. 30-Sept. 2 against the National League Central Division-leading Brewers.
Then comes the Sept. 3-5 Labor Day weekend extravaganza at Oracle Park against the Dodgers, who remain within striking distance of first-place San Francisco in the NL West standings. This promises to be as compelling a regular-season confrontation as any that occurred during the Giants’ World Series-winning years.
“September’s like your Spring Training for October, mentally,” said Ryan Vogelsong, the popular right-hander who was San Francisco’s leading winner in the 2012 postseason with three victories. “Because once you get into October, (the intensity) has to kick up five times what it is in September.”
Not all of the Giants understand this. Several of them have experienced truly meaningful Septembers, including Buster Posey, Brandon Crawford, Brandon Belt, Evan Longoria, Kris Bryant, Tommy LaStella and Wilmer Flores. But relatively inexperienced position players such as La Monte Wade Jr., Darin Ruf, Alex Dickerson, Mike Yastrzemski, Donovan Solano and Austin Slater know nothing about inhaling the thick atmosphere of a division race.
Starters Johnny Cueto and Alex Wood and relievers Jake McGee and Tony Watson are the pitching staff’s only members who have made significant stretch-drive appearances in their careers.
Those receiving their first taste of September pressure should remember that they’re not facing this alone. The Giants’ cadre of World Series veterans is only too happy to help ease their minds.
“If you’re a newbie to the playoff race, you have your Crawfords and your Belts and your Poseys who have been through it before. So I’d definitely lean on them,” Clark said.
“Listen to Buster. And Crawford. And Belt. And watch how they go about their business,” Dunston said. “Because Buster is not going to change. Crawford is not going to change. And Belt is not going to change. They’re not going to make anything bigger than what it is. Don’t change. Don’t change. Why would you change anything? You’ve got the most wins in baseball.”
As is always the case in the big leagues, much depends on mental approach, individually or collectively.
“They have a choice of whether to panic or not panic. Rush or not rush. Overdo it or not overdo it,” said retired left-hander Jeremy Affeldt, part of the Giants’ dependable “Core Four” of relievers during their championship era.
“It’s the same situation, but, there’s the pressure; but, the Dodgers are on our tail; but, this is a big September — they put all these ‘buts’ in there and that’s not how you play the game. I never tried to play the game any differently. I just tried to keep it the same,” said Affeldt.
Vogelsong echoed the necessity of simplifying one’s tasks.
“If I were going to give anyone advice, it would be, ‘Stay focused on every pitch and every at-bat and not the outcome of the game, what the standings look like, what the teams behind you are doing,’” he said. “You just try to eliminate as much noise as possible.”
A contending team such as the Giants must sustain sincere effort to survive September, even when a non-contender is the opponent.
“The last-place teams are the worst to play,” Affeldt said. “They have nothing to lose. ‘Let’s enjoy the last 20 games and ruin someone’s year.’ Those teams are super-scary. Plus they play a lot of young players who you have no scouting report on. They swing as hard as they can at your fastball, so you can’t set them up.”
In this race, early-season NL West favorite San Diego is a dangerous “tweener.” The Padres can’t win the division, but they can still distinguish themselves. The Giants play 10 of their final 19 games against the Padres, who retain hopes of securing a Wild Card berth.
“I take every team seriously in September,” Affeldt said. “But if I’m the analytics guys or if I’m the scouts, I’d be all over San Diego right now. Like, we have to beat them. You start slacking on the pitching side and just throwing it up there against those guys, they’re going to hurt your feelings in a hurry.”
Chris Haft is a longtime baseball writer who covers the Giants for The Examiner.