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San Francisco Giants Stuck In The Dog Days

Alexa Girkout |
July 11, 2013 | 8:46 p.m. PDT

Staff Writer

Manager Bruce Bochy's Giants have only won one game in July so far (Kirk Kohler/Creative Commons).
Manager Bruce Bochy's Giants have only won one game in July so far (Kirk Kohler/Creative Commons).
Is it August yet? Not even close. Yet, the dog days have arrived early for the reigning World Champion San Francisco Giants.

The Giants kicked off the 2013 season bolstered by their two titles in three years and an almost inexplicable team chemistry that remained relatively unaffected during the offseason. Furthermore, the team was spurred on by the challenge of toppling a “Whole New Blue” Dodgers team eager to buy its way into contention.

Although forecasting the outcomes of 162 games is an eternally daunting and often foolish endeavor, it was safe to predict an old-fashioned western shootout between the rivaling Dodgers and Giants for the N.L. West division. Instead, in nearly half a season, the underreported, underrated and underestimated teams are holding their own.

In the last month and only days shy of the All-Star Break, the Giants find themselves in the midst of a grueling slog, losing 16 of their last 19 games and plummeting to a last place tie, 6.5 games back from the division-leading Arizona Diamondbacks. So, what’s ailing San Francisco?

Starting Pitching

The Giants’ success rests on a delicate formula constituting just enough offense to support a stellar defense. This minimalist strategy has paid off handsomely in the past few years and is unquestionably the one tool that propelled the team to postseason glory. When it fails, however, the entire team falls to shambles.

Last season, the pitching woes began when two-time Cy Young winner Tim Lincecum struggled to reassert his dominance. Lincecum could hardly be relied upon for a quality start and was subsequently sidelined to the bullpen in October. He has improved slightly this season (shaving 0.57 off his ERA), but it’s not enough to shake his skeptics.

Then there’s Barry Zito, notorious for continually underwhelming and for his hefty contract. Zito managed a couple of clutch outings that paved the way for a San Francisco trophy last season, but he’s no ace. His performances can be overlooked, though, when he’s part of a staff that has been so solid it can pick up any slack. And that’s where the Giants start to deviate from their norm.

One of the hardest blows to the rotation has been the absence of Ryan Vogelsong, who headed to the DL on May 21. Finding a quality fifth starter replacement has been a tried task. San Francisco has experimented with Chad Gaudin (currently in legal trouble for lewd behavior in Las Vegas) and Michael Kickham (who has since been yo-yoing between the majors and the minors), with both failing to prove that they can contend.

As of May 21, the Giants were tied for first place with the Diamondbacks and a .565 winning percentage. In the games they’ve played since, they’re 14-30, with their winning rate dropped .247 percentage points. The pitching problems don’t stop there.

It’s tough to bear when a good starter doesn’t show up on the roster, but tougher to stomach a good starter who doesn’t show up on the mound. Matt Cain is the Giant’s Achilles heel.

In the past, when pitching suffered, Cain the workhorse delivered consistent performances and filled the pivotal stopper role (which has, thus far this season, belonged to southpaw Madison Bumgarner).

Cain posted a 2.79 ERA last year, and is averaging a 3.09 ERA and 7.41 strikeouts per nine innings since 2008. Then came 2013. Cain’s ERA has ballooned to 5.06 in 19 starts. He has lost four straight starts, the last two being particularly difficult to witness. He surrendered eight earned runs to the Dodgers in 2 1/3 innings of work and in his last start, the shortest of his career, Cain couldn’t endure even one inning. He recorded only two outs on 36 pitches, surrendering three runs with three walks.

This is the very same Matt Cain who was elected to start the All-Star Game last season over R.A. Dickey, who would win the Cy Young award later that year. Or, it at least appears to be the same Matt Cain. The Giants are still looking for the real one to turn up.

Quiet Bats

The Giants’ offense has been consistently described as anemic at worst and scrappy at best. Right now, it’s beating with a weak pulse.  

Outfielder Angel Pagan was sent to the DL at the end of May (he’s now out for at least 60 days), but it’s not as if he was the offensive glue that held the team together. This season he’s batting .262 with 3 home runs and 24 RBIs in just 46 games. But his absence coupled with several struggling everyday hitters makes his missing veteran bat painfully more noticeable.

The two supposed standouts for the Giants are All-Star third baseman Pablo Sandoval and the N.L. All-Star final vote candidate Hunter Pence (he finished third). Sandoval sustained a foot injury on June 11 and had until then been batting .284 with 8 home runs and 37 RBIs. He was reactivated a few weeks later, but it’s almost as though his slot in the lineup remains empty. The Kung-Fu Panda has lost his punch, scattering only eight hits across 15 games for a dismal .140 average.

On a good day, outfielder Hunter Pence supplements catcher Buster Posey’s electric bat, but his presence in the lineup of late has hardly give any starting pitcher pause. Since the beginning of June, Pence has slumped to a .218 batting average. With a surplus of rookie and sophomore hitters rounding out the team, the Giants lack true discipline at the plate, and their inability to score reflects that.

With only one win under their collective belts in the month of July, the Giants face a pivotal series against the San Diego Padres (who have lost 15 of their last 18 games too). The two teams are fighting for the penultimate position in the N.L. West standings, but more importantly, for their pride and for the hope that the trudge is only temporary.

After their 2010 World Series victory, the Giants could hardly rebound and failed to advance to the postseason. After this brief lapse in 2011, they won their second title in 2012. It might be too early to tell if there’s a pattern emerging, but maybe the Giants can only win during even years. The challenge is on to prove that hypothesis wrong.

Reach staff writer Alexa Girkout here. Follow her here.



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