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SAN FRANCISCO -- The Giants proved last year that they could come from off the pace to cross the finish line first. But they're chasing a new horse and facing changed conditions.
The Giants can't assume that they can surge past the Arizona Diamondbacks to win the National League West, just as they outran the San Diego Padres a season ago.
Those Padres lost 10 consecutive games from Aug. 26-Sept. 5, enabling San Francisco to trim its deficit in the division race from 6 1/2 games to one game. San Diego's starting pitching also faded down the stretch.
By contrast, the D-backs have only six games left against an above-.500 opponent -- the Giants. Arizona's top starters, Ian Kennedy and Daniel Hudson, seem less vulnerable to a collapse. Thus, the D-backs could be tougher for San Francisco to overcome.
"I don't think anybody thinks that Arizona is going away, and I don't think we're going away," Giants left-hander Jeremy Affeldt said. "We're not going to give in, and they're not going to give in, and it's going to come down to the last few days like it did last year."
But the Giants haven't looked like winners for a while. They've lost 16 of their past 23 games entering Tuesday night's series opener against the Padres at AT&T Park, and they have fallen 1 1/2 games behind Arizona. By this time last year, the Giants had staged their 21-5 surge from July 5-Aug. 3, demonstrating how effective they could be at their best.
"There's obviously a lot of guys still here from last year's team," outfielder Nate Schierholtz said. "Experience is definitely a plus for this team. We just have to play better. There's really no better explanation. We have to play like a first-place team."
Said general manager Brian Sabean: "Is there a carryover from the confidence that was established here last year? Yes ... you still have to grind it out on the field and win more games, which we're not right now. We've got to get back to winning series. I actually think, streaks aside -- and we hope to get on a winning streak -- whoever wins the most series will probably win this division. I don't see either team backing into the division. Someone's going to earn it. We hope it's us."
The Giants' numerous injuries have forced them to confront adversity that's nothing like what they endured last year. They've used the disabled list 23 times, the Major Leagues' second-highest total. Not only has this weakened the lineup, but it also has created a distraction.
"When you don't really know where you're going to hit in the order from day to day, or who has to play where, it's going to wear on you," Sabean said. "As you know, they call these the 'dog days' for a reason. Even when you're going good, you're mentally and physically challenged. There's a rhythm when everybody's healthy. The manager can give you a heads-up whether you're the player that's going to get the day off, or if you're the guy the next day that's going to get the start. When you come in each day not knowing what's going to happen, or the lineup [is] posted late out of necessity, I'm sure it is a grind. But again, they've handled it extremely well. They haven't [complained] and moaned, and they're trying to keep a good face. The effort's there, and the performance isn't. But some of that is related to us not being able to play with a full deck."
Offense remains a limitation for the Giants, who rank last in the NL in scoring.
"We just need to get better at-bats," Sabean said. "Right now, we're in a spot where we don't have much team speed. We're station to station. We need to walk more or pop the ball once in a while, hit some home runs. We're not getting any of that. So you can't manufacture runs or you keep an inning going or get a three-run inning."
Hope is on the horizon in the form of right fielder Carlos Beltran, who hasn't played since he strained his right hand Aug. 7. Beltran has been steadily taking more batting practice and could rejoin the lineup soon, perhaps as early as Tuesday.
"It's just like picking up another big player. That's what we're hoping," Affeldt said.
Asked if he thought that Beltran still can make a significant impact, Sabean said, "We really do. ... But he's not going to do it alone. We're going to need two or three guys to pick things up and share a load."
Other factors indicate that 2011 bears little resemblance to 2010. Last year, the Giants claimed outfielder Cody Ross off waivers on Aug. 22. Ross made only modest contributions during the remainder of the regular season but became essential in the postseason.
Sabean expressed doubts about being able to pluck another Ross from the waiver wire.
"I don't see it on a claim," Sabean said. "You might claim somebody that a team might be willing to make a trade with you, but there's more claiming that's gone on this year than I've seen in the past. Right now, we're probably doing more claiming to block than we are being aggressive and trying to make a deal. But not all players have been put through waivers yet. There's still time."
Believing that the schedule will provide relief is risky. As is the case with Arizona, the Giants face sub-.500 teams for the rest of the season except for those six games against the D-backs.
"Some of the most dangerous teams are the teams you don't know," Sabean said in Houston, where he watched the rookie-laden Astros nearly sweep the Giants. "Or the teams that don't have great incentive ... it's tough to win series in August and September, no matter who you're playing. ... Teams at times play better against better opponents. They know they have to have their 'A' game."
The Giants would be well-advised to maintain theirs, too.