Giants starters regaining their championship form
Rotation is off to a hot start after a disappointing 2013
SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. -- After a down year of almost epic proportions, the Giants' starters have run the table during their first eight Cactus League games, allowing just one earned run on 11 hits with three walks in 20 innings.
That includes newcomer Tim Hudson's three innings of two-hit, two-walk, three-strikeout ball in a 3-2 victory over the Reds on Thursday at Scottsdale Stadium.
"Even though it is early in Spring Training, I think it's a pretty good statement for our staff," Hudson said afterward. "We have a lot of guys who can put zeros up a lot of the time. Whether it's Spring Training or the regular season, those guys can go out and shut the door on folks."
Great starting pitching was the hallmark of San Francisco's two recent World Series-winning teams. The lack of it last season was one big reason the Giants slumped to 76-86, 16-games behind the first-place Dodgers, after sweeping the Tigers in the 2012 Fall Classic. They whipped the Rangers in five games in 2010.
Considering the opposition right now in the National League West, the lads are going to need every bit of this kind of a stunning performance from their starting rotation if they intend to be competitive again in 2014.
"I think it just speaks volumes to the way people came in prepared this year," said Tim Lincecum, who despite his no-hitter, was a big part of the problem last season. "Everyone is a little bit more focused than we were last year. A lot of the guys are champing at the bit to get back to where we were the year before."
Lincecum was 10-14 with a 4.37 ERA last year, right on par with the rest of the staff. The starters complied exactly the same ERA as a group, finishing 13th out of the 15 NL teams and 24th of the 30 Major Leagues teams in that category.
It was their worst performance as a staff since 2006.
In 2012, the same set of starters had a 3.73 ERA, fifth in the NL and sixth overall in MLB. There's no need to study any advanced metrics to determine why the Giants, who won 94 games and the division by eight games over the Dodgers in 2012, suffered a 24-game turnaround in the standings to Los Angeles a year ago.
"I think it was a combination of everything," said catcher Buster Posey, when asked about last year's problems. "We didn't pitch up to our potential, our defense wasn't where it needed to be and neither was our offense."
Theories abound about the pitching problems, and certainly the broken bone in the right hand suffered by Ryan Vogelsong when hit by a pitch didn't help. Vogelsong went from making 31 starts and winning 14 games during the 2012 championship season to 19 starts and four wins last year. That 10-win drop was a big component.
Then there's this factor: After throwing so many games, and so many pressure innings, during the 2010 and '12 regular seasons and postseasons, the workload was bound to catch up to them.
"I think there's something to that," Posey said. "I think you'd be hard-pressed to find anyone on that pitching staff who would use that as a crutch or an excuse, but there probably is. Pressure games aside, when you're logging that many innings and the number of appearances they had I can see how that could affect them."
To Posey's point, though, Lincecum declined to use any of that as an excuse.
"Maybe people get a little bit tired, but that's what we prepare for," said Lincecum, the two-time NL Cy Young Award winner, who, at 29, has already logged 1,466 1/3 innings in his seven-year career between the regular and postseasons. "I don't think it has anything to do with it. It should have more of a positive effect than a negative. Nobody wants to prepare for just six months. You want to be ready for that World Series."
For the Giants to do that again, the starters will have to replicate the consistency of the early spring. They return again with their own Core Four: Lincecum, Vogelsong, Matt Cain and Madison Bumgarner. The veteran Hudson signed as a free agent and has replaced Barry Zito, his old Oakland starting mate, in the rotation. Hudson is rebounding from a badly broken right ankle that forced him to miss the final two months of last season with the Braves.
"The ankle is all right," Hudson said. "It's a work in progress. There are some things I still need to improve as far as strengthening goes and range of motion. It's almost eight months now since the surgery and it feels pretty good. But I know there are going to be times when it doesn't feel great."
If Hudson produces, it's a significant add to a formidable Giants rotation, but they'll need every able arm in a division that is starting-pitching rich.
The Dodgers have Clayton Kershaw, Zack Greinke, Hyun-Jin Ryu and Josh Beckett, and added Dan Haren as a free agent to the back of the rotation.
The D-backs boast Patrick Corbin, Trevor Cahill, Brandon McCarthy, Wade Miley and free-agent signee Bronson Arroyo. They are so deep that their best young pitcher, 21-year-old Archie Bradley, will probably have to start the season in the Minor Leagues.
The Padres began last season with Jason Marquis as their one veteran starter. He's gone, but since then they've added Ian Kennedy and Josh Johnson to Andrew Cashner, Tyson Ross and Eric Stults.
Even the Rockies rotation has now been bolstered, with the addition of Brett Anderson in a trade with the A's. Anderson joins Jorge De La Rosa, Jhoulys Chacin, Tyler Chatwood and Juan Nicasio, if they can remain healthy.
Lincecum is well-aware that there are no easy rides in his own division. But the group results of last year are all the motivation the starters need.
"We won the World Series, then didn't do so well [in 2011]," he said. "Again, we won the World Series and didn't do so well the next year. We're hoping that this year will be the heads, not the tails. Last season, I don't think the urgency was there as much as it has been in years prior.
"But it's something we're certainly ready to get back to this year."
Barry M. Bloom is national reporter for MLB.com and writes an MLBlog, Boomskie on Baseball. Follow @boomskie on Twitter. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.