By Chris Haft
Special to The Examiner
You’d be hard-pressed to find anybody willing to bet against the Giants making the playoffs — particularly after Friday’s blockbuster trade for super slugger Kris Bryant.
The team has remained in control since securing the Major Leagues’ best record on June 17 — in control of the division, in control of the league and in control of themselves. Now it can be said that the Giants also wielded considerable authority on the open market by landing Kris Bryant, one of baseball’s most talented and versatile stars, from the Chicago Cubs in exchange for two Minor Leaguers.
Bryant, 29, is a four-time All-Star who can play the infield corners and all three outfield positions. This makes him an ideal fit for the Giants, whose roster features an unusually large number of multi-positional players.
The Giants, who confront the formidable Houston Astros this weekend at Oracle Park, must keep reminding themselves that a lot can happen during the season’s final two months. After all, the Giants’ closest National League West rivals, the Los Angeles Dodgers, fortified themselves by obtaining ace right-hander Max Scherzer and All-Star shortstop Trea Turner from Washington. And don’t forget the West’s third-place club, the richly talented San Diego Padres.
Nevertheless, San Francisco appears ready to break the Dodgers’ stranglehold on National League West titles. Los Angeles has won eight in a row. Even if the Giants squander the division lead, a Wild Card berth still would remain within their reach.
The July 27-29 rematch between the Giants and Dodgers at Oracle Park was considered significant. The Giants took three of four games at Dodger Stadium from July 19-22 and widened their West lead over Los Angeles to three games. Had the Dodgers won the series, the Giants may have appeared more vulnerable. Instead, the Giants asserted themselves, legitimizing their status.
Advantage, Giants. Again. Though the Giants lead the division by three games, it seems more like 10. They’ve won five of their last seven games against the Dodgers, including two of three in the just-completed series at home — where they’ll confront the Dodgers one final time for a three-game series Sept. 3-5. By then, the excitement around Third and King streets will be palpable.
“I think we’re in pretty good position,” shortstop Brandon Crawford said. “First place is a pretty good position.”
Here are five reasons why the Giants’ performance against Los Angeles should provide assurance, followed by five nagging sources of concern:
1. They’re calm
The Giants have had multiple chances to wilt under pressure — bullpen meltdowns, their struggles against the Dodgers earlier this year and, of course, injuries. Yet they’ve never lost more than four games in a row. “This team has demonstrated that it’s capable of doing that,” manager Gabe Kapler said of the Giants’ ability to stay cool.
2. They can throw it and catch it
The Giants have played airtight defense since Opening Day, explaining why they rarely beat themselves. They’ve succeeded afield despite stationing individuals at multiple positions. “It’s easy to trust this defense,” reliever Tyler Rogers said. They should like it even more, no matter where Bryant plays.
3. They win close games
The Giants are 16-13 in one-run decisions and 13-11 in two-run games. Excelling in games like this tend to accelerate a team’s growth. It also reflects the quality of a team’s bullpen.
4. As Cueto goes …
If right-hander Johnny Cueto can maintain the dominance he demonstrated Thursday against the Dodgers, the Giants can enter the postseason feeling good about their starting staff. Kevin Gausman owns the ace’s status, but as a veteran — and a crafty one at that — Cueto can boost the playoff rotation as few pitchers can.
5. Forget about the injuries
Crawford’s back in the lineup. Buster Posey avoided a concussion. Brandon Belt should soon return to action. The Giants have endured a multitude of ailments to their players, but the run of misfortune may have reached an end.
1. The Dodgers
If baseball history has proven anything, it’s to never count out the Dodgers — especially now, following their big trade with Washington.
2. The Padres
This ballclub has the ability to blow past everybody and still might. That’s a warning to the Giants, who still have 10 games left with them.
All teams draw inspiration from their home crowds. Giants fans are more passionate than most. The ballclub hasn’t drawn a sellout yet, though, and if the virus situation gets worse, those half-full (or less) crowds will make Oracle Park a depressing place to be.
4. Unanticipated failure
Everything seems to be going right for the Giants. But what if Gausman really does endure a slump? What if the back end of the bullpen springs a leak at the wrong time? Giants management then will have to start planning for 2022 a little earlier than it would have liked.
5. Oh, those injuries
The Giants possess excellent depth for the regular season. They have no depth when it comes to postseason-tested performers. Lose a Posey or a Crawford or a Belt in October, and things could get complicated.
Chris Haft is a longtime baseball writer who covers the Giants for The Examiner.