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SF@CHC: Pagan plates Blanco with a go-ahead single

CHICAGO -- The team without a closer repeatedly preserves leads. The ballclub lacking power generates ample offense. The National League West's first-place occupants have clinched nothing, yet with each passing day they appear more and more destined to remain atop the division standings.

Behold the Giants.

They completed their second 5-1, two-city trip in a row Sunday by outlasting the Chicago Cubs, 7-5. Angel Pagan's ninth-inning RBI single broke a 5-5 tie before Marco Scutaro added a run-scoring single to set up Javier Lopez's sixth save.

Skeptics may dismiss San Francisco's success as the product of facing weak teams. But in Major League baseball, where teams play 162 games, flukes don't exist. The Giants have climbed a season-high 18 games above .500 and maintained their 4 1/2-game edge on second-place Los Angeles for a reason.

"Right now, I'd say we're playing the best baseball we've played all season," Pagan said after the Giants raised their post-All-Star-break road record to 19-6.

San Francisco demonstrated this against the Cubs by generating two-run rallies in the sixth and ninth innings after Alfonso Soriano's three-run, fifth-inning homer off Matt Cain put Chicago ahead, 5-3. Collecting six hits in their first eight at-bats with runners in scoring position (they finished 6-for-10) helped the Giants rebound. This was not an isolated occurrence. San Francisco has hiked its batting average with runners in scoring position to .255, a 30-point increase since the All-Star break.

That partly explains why it barely matters that the Giants rank last in the Majors with 81 homers.

"There's a feeling in the dugout that when things aren't going right, we're still in the game," Cain said. "I've been on teams before when you're down runs, you just don't feel like you're in it anymore. This team really feels like no matter what the score is, they're going to keep trying to find ways to score runs. Even if we don't come back and win, it still has a good vibe."

Various factors could help the Giants sustain that vibe. San Francisco owns a handsome 27-17 record against the NL West, who will provide the competition for the season's final 28 games. Their most distant destination is Denver for a Sept. 10-12 series against the Rockies.

Cain matched season worsts by lasting five innings and yielding five runs, but manager Bruce Bochy saw nothing ominous in the right-hander's performance. "I thought he had good stuff today," Bochy said. "He just made a couple of mistakes."

The final four innings were virtually devoid of mistakes for the Giants. They pulled even in the sixth after newcomer Xavier Nady, who reached base to christen all three of San Francisco's scoring innings, doubled with two outs and nobody on. He came home on Brandon Belt's pinch-hit triple off reliever Manuel Corpas. Belt scored when Corpas flung a wild pitch.

Nady coaxed a walk from Carlos Marmol to open the Giants' ninth. "With him you have to be patient," Nady said of Chicago's closer. "Fortunately, he didn't have his best stuff today. But it's always a tough at-bat against him."

One out later, pinch-runner Gregor Blanco stole second base and Brandon Crawford walked. Up came Pagan, who worked the count to 2-2 before drilling a 2-2 slider into center field, scoring Blanco. Scutaro's hit traveled to a similar spot and delivered Crawford.

Cubs manager Dale Sveum admired the Giants' effort. "That's a first-place team battling, great at-bats, and putting some hits together, a leadoff walk. That's a championship first-place club."

Then it was up to San Francisco's closer-by-committee contingent to finish matters. Darwin Barney lined a one-out single off Santiago Casilla in the Cubs' half of the ninth, prompting Bochy to summon Lopez with left-handed pinch-hitter Bryan LaHair due up. Chicago countered with right-handed-swinging Joe Mather, but Lopez induced the groundball he wanted, which shortstop Crawford turned into a double play.

Lopez's statistics in his four appearances on the trip included two saves that featured game-ending double-play grounders, two holds and 4 2/3 shutout innings. "He's pitching with a lot of confidence right now," Bochy said.

The rest of the Giants are playing the same way.

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