Salvation in sight for San Francisco

Life has been good for the San Francisco Giants. At the All-Star break, the Giants led the National League Wild Card standings by two games with a record of 49-39. Right-hander Tim Lincecum was the NL starter at the All-Star Game and is the reigning NL Cy Young Award winner. Randy Johnson won his 300th game on June 4. And the proverbial cherry was achieved on July 10 when Jonathan Sanchez became the first Giant hurler since 1976 to throw a no-hitter.

Yes, things have been going quite well for San Francisco, especially given their performance over the last few season. Since capturing the NL Pennant in 2002, the Giants have been going down a steep hill. They haven’t made the playoffs since 2003 and haven’t finished above the .500 mark since 2004. The only attention given to the team was during Barry Bonds’ controversial chase of Hank Aaron’s home run record and when they hosted the 2007 All-Star break.

But it appears the Giants are now moving upwards. After finishing May with a record of 25-24, the club posted a 17-10 mark for the month of June. This allowed them to build a surprising lead for the wild card. It was an impressive feat since the second-place Giants were an astounding seven games behind the NL West-leading Los Angeles Dodgers.

Those who follow baseball have been trying to figure out San Francisco’s unanticipated success. Trevor Cole, editor of Giants Baseball Blog, believes the Giants’ pitching staff has played a significant role.

“The baseball world is well aware of Lincecum and Matt Cain by now, and they’ve both been terrific,” says Cole. “The area that I see the most improvement from last year though is in the bullpen. The Giants have one of the stingiest bullpens in the league, led by Brian Wilson and Jeremy Affeldt. Their hold on close games is really what separates the Giants from an average .500 team to where they are now.”

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In addition to the pitching, Cole points to certain fielders who have made solid contributions.

“(Third-baseman) Pablo Sandoval is in the top-five in NL hitting and has been a great story this year,” he says. “Juan Uribe came into the year as a bench player, but has taken over the team’s second-base job and is having himself a nice season too.”

Cole also notes first-baseman Travis Ishikawa who has “saved the Giants a few games with his glove.” There’s also reliever Justin Miller, who has complied an ERA of 2.28 in 43.1 innings of work.

The question now is whether the Giants can keep winning for the rest of the season and earn themselves a playoff berth. So far, the team has slipped a bit. Since the All-Star break, the Giants have lost four of their last five games, and five of their last six if one includes their last game before the break. As of July 22, the Giants are a half-game behind the Colorado Rockies – a division rival – for the wild card.

According to Cole, a playoff spot is possible as long as the Giants stay healthy. For example, there’s Johnson, who Cole describes as a big value to the team. The veteran starter has been on the disabled list since July 6 with a strained shoulder. A healthy Johnson will be helpful for San Francisco and Cole feels his experience would be very important for the younger players.

Regardless, the esteemed blogger does believe the Giants will still be in the playoff hunt come September. With a finer perspective, Chris Haft, who covers the Giants for MLB.com, shares a similar sentiment.

“Right now it looks iffy,” explains Haft. “But I’ll stick with ‘yes’ because they now play so well at home and might be able to take advantage of that.”

San Francisco does hold an impressive 31-15 record at AT&T Park, while going 21-31 on the road (as of July 26).

While teams like the Dodgers and Philadelphia Phillies are garnering the most attention in the NL, the Giants have been quietly playing well. Getting to the playoffs would be a huge accomplishment and might even bring a Manager of the Year award to Bruce Bochy.

If the Giants find a way out of this current funk and continue to win, baseball fans in the Bay Area will have something to look forward to.

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