On a miserable, four-hour night, when seagulls swept ominously over the field of champions, the issues piled up so suddenly for the Giants that no one knew how to react. Nori Aoki, the leadoff creator, has a fractured fibula and is out at least two weeks but probably much longer. A feeble offense wasted another brilliant effort by Madison Bumgarner, who will have to pitch a no-hitter to earn a victory, assuming that is enough.
And the Giants have forgotten how to win in the ballpark that has brought them so much prosperity.
While plainly aware that the Dodgers have the highest payroll in American sports history, that the Cardinals are on a 107-win pace and hacking away in more ways than one, and that Max Scherzer still might be unhittable if a batter were swinging the Washington Monument, I dare make a proclamation today: The National League is winnable, again, even if the Giants looks unprepared to seize the moment.
I will not be so foolish to ignore that sour trend and say they’ll be hosting a World Series for the fourth time this decade, with CEO Larry Baer continuing as the ubiquitous White House interloper who prompts President Obama to crack, “Oh, it’s you again.” The Giants still must define who they are and what exactly their purpose is in 2015, having revealed more conflicting personalities than an aging acid-dropper at the upcoming Grateful Dead shows.
In what is a sure symptom of competitive vertigo, they are beating up on the NL West-leading Dodgers (nine wins in 12 games), but they have very bizarre problems with the three losing teams trailing them in the division (9-18 against San Diego, Arizona and Colorado). They lost for the 10th time in their last 11 games at AT&T Park, flushing away a career-high 14 strikeouts by more-powerful-than-usual Bumgarner in a 3-2 screamer to the Padres in 11 innings.
Remember Hunter Strickland last fall? He was the culprit again, allowing three hits and the winning run on a shot up the middle that may have been an inning-ending double play if he hadn’t tried to field it, watching the ball deflect off his glove. The Giants faded quietly in their final at-bats, with the mighty Casey McGehee striking out and Justin Maxwell, with Brandon Crawford in scoring position at second base, whiffing against the bully closer, Craig Kimbrel. They managed only seven hits in four hours and three minutes.
They’re now 17-19 at home, a record that will continue to be annoying until they better tailor their offense to their own crib, ranking last in the league in runs scored (3.0 a game) and homers (19) at home. Yet — still with me? — they are the second-highest-scoring road team in the majors, averaging 5.1 runs a game and leading all teams in batting average, slugging percentage and on-base percentage.
Forget the Dead.
Try, “Whoooooo are you?”
If and when Hunter Pence shakes the tendinitis out of his left wrist, there is some evidence that the offense also will produce in the 94107 zip code. But not without Aoki, whose loss requires the trade-market pursuit of an outfielder or perhaps a super-utilityman like Ben Zobrist, who is sitting 15.1 miles away at the Coliseum as the perfect, versatile Giant. Yet all identity-forming during the Bochy-Sabean collaboration starts with the pitching rotation, where it appears Tim Lincecum and Tim Hudson are the odd men out as Matt Cain and Jake Peavy prepare to return. Bruce Bochy is not confirming it, but after Cain and Peavy make their final minor-league rehab starts for Sacramento, they are slated, in no announced order as yet, to return July 2-3 in Miami and Washington — filling the spots of Hudson and Lincecum.
The Giants are a sentimental bunch, not wanting to disrupt their precious, delicate, time-woven chemistry with demotion drama. “It’s never easy,” Bochy said, “but they always say it’s a good problem when you have depth.” That’s a polite way of saying it’s time for big changes, beginning with Lincecum. After the 2013 season, the bosses gave him a rather insane deal — two years, $35 million — as a reward for stellar past deeds and a nod to his local popularity. But Timmy Love is fading among the masses. He started the season well, but his 7.00 earned-run average in his last six starts — including a Sunday night bust on national TV in Los Angeles — necessitates the latest bullpen flip for one of baseball’s most maddening case studies.
“I think you go about your business. It’s up to them,” Lincecum said after allowing five runs and seven hits to the Dodgers in 1 1/3 innings. “You can’t control that. You just have to worry about what you can control, and that’s what days you go out there and and what you do when you go out there.”
At 31, after two Cy Young Awards and too many setbacks and letdowns and mind farts since, Lincecum now says he can’t control his release point. It is becoming a sad story of a psyche gone awry, an approach turned to mush. So here comes Cain, the once-mighty ace who apparently has recovered from elbow surgery and subsequent arm issues and will pitch Thursday night in Fresno. And here comes Peavy, who has been fighting back issues after the front office — who bid for Jon Lester and lost him to the Cubs, bid on James Shields and lost him to the Padres and (OOOOOOOOOOOPS!) didn’t bid on Scherzer and lost him to the Nationals — settled on the gritty veteran at $24 million for two years. It’s as if Baer, in concert with Brian Sabean and Bobby Evans, decided to stick by committed contracts — Cain is signed through 2017 for $139 million, and Ryan Vogelsong remains in the rotation after signing an inexpensive one-year deal. As for Chris Heston, he’s capable of pitching a no-hitter one start and leaving in the fourth inning the next.
The moves are interesting. And we’ve learned not to doubt management when the boys keep swapping out WORLD SERIES CHAMPIONS flags every two years. But a rotation of Bumgarner and Everyone Else will not be enough to win another pennant, as any reliance of Cain and Peavy would be foolish until we see positive results. For the Giants to harbor legitimate hopes of doing more October damage, a dynamic No. 2 starter will have to emerge from somewhere. It would be prudent this time, given the Giants’ $2-billion franchise valuation and a home sellout streak now at 363 games, for Sabean to make a power move in July.
His target should be Johnny Cueto.
When Sabean was in Cincinnati two weeks ago, he wasn’t there to sample the local chili. Philadelphia’s Cole Hamels has too much money left on his contract to make cost-efficiency sense, but Cueto, as a free agent after this season, is the ideal pre-bonanza rental. He’s on record as saying he’s “going to ask for $300 million,” which is crazy even with the precedents of Clayton Kershaw ($215 million) and Scherzer ($210 million), but that won’t be the Giants’ problem. All they have to do is rent him, place him behind Bumgarner and scare the hell out of the competition with a frightening left-righty combo.
Then the others — Heston, Vogelsong, Cain, Peavy, even Lincecum and Hudson — can fall into place as October arrives. The Giants have a lot of No. 3, 4 and 5-type pitchers. They don’t have a big-time No. 2.
Cueto would be that.
Spend that money, Larry Baer, and maybe you see Obama again.
Bumgarner has exhibited only a few hiccups since his herculean October, so there are no worries other than scoring runs for him and making sure he keeps his commercial endeavors to trucks (and not modeling orange khaki pants like Pence). MadBum briefly teased the audience into thinking a perfect game was in progress, striking out 10 Padres through 4 1/3 innings and watching Crawford make one of those diving catches between shortstop and third base that sometimes portends a special night.
But again, the offense can’t score at home, and it didn’t help that Aoki, who originally was in the starting lineup after he was hit by a pitch on the right ankle Sunday, was pulled just before game time with a left leg contusion. Then, a little later, a contusion was a break, which was strange.
Bumgarner should and will make the NL All-Star team, of course, but thanks to this wimpy attack, he has two losses and a no-decision to show for these numbers in his last three starts — five earned runs over 23.1 innings. He left with one out in the eighth after pitch-hitter Will Venable hit a game-tying two-run double, Bumgarner having allowed just two earned runs and five hits, the first two on bloops to right field in the fifth.
When the Giants have issues, of course, they involve bruised feelings and frustrating injuries. Things could be much worse: They haven’t computer-hacked anyone that we know of (unlike the Cardinals), everyone can watch their games on TV in the Bay Area (unlike the Dodgers in their market), their best player isn’t shamed eternally by PED-related lying and cheating (unlike the Yankees), their fans don’t embarrass themselves with All-Star cyber-stuffing (unlike the Royals) and they play in one of the world’s greatest sports venues (unlike the A’s).
Oh, and they don’t have a third baseman — though they once did — who spends games on his Instagram account pressing “like” for a woman’s photo. If nothing else, the Giants were wise to relinquish Pablo Sandoval.
But for all those people still left in the ballpark as the the clock above center field pushed toward midnight?
They need reinforcements. Fast.