ORACLE PARK — With national writers (and even a few Chicago writers) crowding the San Francisco Giants clubhouse ahead of Tuesday’s game against the Cubs, the attention surrounding the team is a curious mix.
On the one hand, the Giants are in the first year of a multi-year, bottom-up rebuild at the hands of new president of baseball operations Farhan Zaidi. On the other, they’ve won 29 of their last 45 games since June 1, the third-best record in the National League, and 16 of their last 19.
While teams like the Cubs still looking for bullpen help a selling San Francisco could provide, the Giants have now entered the playoff conversation. That makes the emotions surrounding Madison Bumgarner’s start on Tuesday a heady brew. Three weeks ago, this game was looked at as his last home start in a Giants uniform as the July 31 trade deadline looms, but now, it could serve to solidify his team as contenders.
“I haven’t even thought about it,” manager Bruce Bochy said of Tuesday being Bumgarner’s last home start at Oracle Park. “I don’t really have anything to say about it, except as always I look forward to watching him pitch.”
Bumgarner’s eight-team no-trade clause is full of first-place teams, so he can, ostensibly, choose where he wants to pitch in October if the Giants sell, but San Francisco is looking like it may well be among those postseason participants. Even if a trade is worked out, he could flat-out veto it if he wants to stay, or extract a lucrative extension from San Francisco as part of a sign-and-trade, which may be a deal breaker for a trading partner.
It certainly sounds like Bumgarner wants to ride out this year, though.
Bumgarner, certainly, has made known his thoughts about the trade talks: “I don’t give a sh*t,” he said last week. “I’m trying to win games for this team.”
From 12 games under .500 and last place in the National League West to a game over .500 for the first time since Aug. 14 of last year, the Giants have followed Bumgarner’s lead. San Francisco is 6-3 over his last nine starts.
Since the start of June, Bumgarner is 2-2 with a 3.14 ERA and 53 strikeouts to 12 walks in 51 2/3 innings. Over Bumgarner’s last six starts (including one outing shortened by a liner to his left elbow), he’s 2-0 with a 1.55 ERA and 34 strikeouts to just five walks in 29 innings, all with trade speculation swirling.
“His ability to concentrate on what he needs to do, he’s excited about how we’ve been playing,” Bochy said. “We’re playing important games now. He’s looking to do all he can to help us win and that’s all he’s thinking about. And that’s all you can.”
Playing meaningful baseball deep into the season was one of Zaidi’s goals when he took over for Bobby Evans this offseason. He also faced an organization at a crossroads, needing to get younger and more dynamic after nearly a decade of trying to piece together enough home-grown pieces and wily veterans to keep winning.
With a bullpen ERA of 3.88 (best in the National League, fifth in MLB) and 27 saves, plus 394 strikeouts to 129 walks in 385 1/3 innings and multiple left-handed arms (including closer Will Smith), Zaidi could likely draw quite a bounty by dealing the likes of Smith, Tony Watson, Mark Melancon and Sam Dyson, not to mention Bumgarner. Zaidi, though, said that he was reticent to trade assets that could be crucial to playoff success in a recent session with local media. If the Giants keep winning, they may need those arms in late September and October.
“We know, for us to continue on this path, that group of players is critical,” Zaidi said. “I’ve said a few times, there’s interest in a lot of our relievers, and we have interest in our relievers.”
Zaidi has been able to incrementally improve a roster that, coming out of spring, had major holes. He now has a solid rotation of four outfielders — three who weren’t with the team at the start of the season, including red-hot Alex Dickerson — and has added super sub Donovan Solano to the infield mix.
“Farhan’s done a great job,” Bochy said. “He’s all about winning. There’s nobody more excited about these games than him. He’ll do all he can to make this a better organization. Sometimes it takes time. He’s made it a better team here.”
Much of the credit, though, goes to the players in the clubhouse, who have outperformed both projections and advanced metrics, a team well-positioned to over-achieve given that this is Bochy’s last season before retirement.
“You start with the heart of this team, the fight that they’re showing everyday, they’re finding a way to come back and winning some games,” Bochy said. “There’s some things you can’t measure and that’s what inside the guys and they just look very determined to get back in this thing. They get all the credit.”
Another reason not to deal Bumgarner and the relievers: They’re getting some major reinforcements soon.
Bochy shared that Johnny Cueto will throw to hitters for the first time on Wednesday in Arizona, his first live session since undergoing Tommy John surgery. He’s throwing at full effort, and is throwing all his pitches. Bochy still anticipates he’ll be ready by September.
A pair of Giants relievers who haven’t been in on the latest fun will be getting some action soon, just not at the big league level. Nick Vincent (pectoral) will pitch for Triple-A Sacramento on Tuesday night, and Travis Bergen (shoulder) will pitch on Wednesday.
Steven Duggar was on the taxi squad for Tuesday, just in case Alex Dickerson couldn’t go with back and oblique tightness. Dickerson, though, is in the starting lineup. Bochy tried to stay away from him as a pinch hitter on Monday night, because he didn’t want to risk putting his start on Tuesday in jeopardy.
Dickerson is trying a new pregame routine that he says should loosen up his upper back and help him get through the wear and tear of playing his first full season in two years.
Duggar, for his part, hopes to be back up in a more permanent fashion at some point. In 17 games with Triple-A Sacramento since being sent down to rehab a back issue of his own, he’s slashed .333/.425/.540 and driven in 11 runs. When Duggar was sent down, it was partly to help him find himself. In 67 games with San Francisco, he’d slashed .234/.277/.343 with 77 strikeouts to just 15 walks.
Part of that was due to the fact that eating some bad eggs during spring training — literally — caused him to lose upwards of 10 pounds, which he wasn’t able to get back. By the time the season started, he was at 183 pounds — the lightest he’d been since high school. He’s now above 190. Long term, he said, getting sent down was the best thing that could have happened to him, because he not only gained the weight back, but he was able to work on his swing and find a bit more power. He’s hit two homers and five doubles in 63 at-bats, while at the big league level, he had four and 11 in 248 at-bats.
Evan Longoria (foot) took groundballs on Tuesday, and will soon ramp up his recover. He’ll take batting practice soon, and then will progress to running.