6/13/2014 11:30 A.M. ET
Consistent execution has Giants firing on all cylinders
By Chris Haft / MLB.com
SAN FRANCISCO -- For the Giants, winning is a language that everyone in their clubhouse speaks fluently.
Depending on the situation, they know what accent to place on various aspects of the game. They can convey excellence through the murmur of pitching and defense or with the clamor of offense.
"We've got 25 guys who know what they need to do that day, and it's translating into wins," Giants right-hander Ryan Vogelsong said.
The Giants understand baseball's subtleties. For example, on May 30 in St. Louis, Brandon Hicks coaxed a two-out walk, while seeing 10 pitches from St. Louis ace Adam Wainwright to prolong the second inning. San Francisco proceeded to score four runs, hastening Wainwright's disappearance after 4 1/3 innings. Or the Giants can take a more obvious approach, as their renewed power suggests. Though they haven't homered in six games, their total of 69 home runs ranks second in the National League.
Despite losing three of four games to the Washington Nationals, the Giants have distinguished themselves enough to compile the Major Leagues' best record (43-24) through Thursday. They were 11-10 on April 22 when they won 10 of their next 11 games. Demonstrating their versatility, the Giants bracketed that stretch with extra-inning victories by scores of 12-10 and 11-10 -- and, in between, limited opponents to two runs or fewer in seven of nine games.
"If the pitching's not there, the offense is. If the offense is not there, the pitching is," said left-hander Madison Bumgarner, San Francisco's Opening Day starter. "Sometimes the pitching and offense are there. It's been a nice roll so far."
Before the Washington series, the Giants went on a 14-3 binge that prompted manager Bruce Bochy to respond, "No, there's nothing for me to complain about," when he was asked whether any facet of the team's performance disturbed him.
That's also why Bochy was able to say Thursday, before the Giants ended a season-high-equaling three-game losing streak with a 7-1 triumph over Washington, "We've played very well and so hard. I don't care how good you think you are, you're going to hit a bump in the road."
Though the Giants seem to be on a direct path for the postseason, they're avoiding the intoxication of expectation. Their 8 1/2-game edge over second-place Los Angeles in the NL West is the biggest bulge owned by any division leader. San Francisco will finish 90-72 -- widely regarded as the baseline for postseason qualification -- if the club plays one game under .500 (47-48) the rest of the way.
Yet the Giants remember that they came from behind to earn division crowns in 2010 and '12 and win the World Series in both years.
"That prevents you from getting overconfident right there," Vogelsong said. "I don't think this team is going to lose sight of what the goal is until it's accomplished."
Hall of Famer Willie McCovey, the franchise's iconic first baseman, played on the 1971 team that surged to a 10 1/2-game lead over the Dodgers by May 31, yet barely hung on to win the division by one game.
"Let's not get ahead of ourselves. It's early now," McCovey said. "The fans are excited, which they should be. But anything can happen."
Most of what has happened for the Giants so far has been positive, despite injuries to several significant performers. First baseman Brandon Belt ranked among the NL leaders with nine home runs when he fractured his left thumb on May 9. He might not return until after the All-Star break. Right-hander Matt Cain, a three-time All-Star, has made two trips to the 15-day disabled list, albeit with non-arm injuries. Santiago Casilla, the club's top setup reliever, likely will return next week after a strained right hamstring sidelined him on May 21. Marco Scutaro, San Francisco's projected everyday second baseman, reported back soreness early in Spring Training and is still striving to return to action.
Personnel additions, not absences, have helped define the Giants. General manager Brian Sabean engineered relatively few roster moves after San Francisco tied for third in the NL West last year with a 76-86 record. But the changes the Giants did make proved significant.
Michael Morse's arrival through free agency has vastly upgraded the offense, which finished 12th in scoring and next-to-last in homers among NL teams last year. Not only has Morse given the Giants ample production with his 13 homers and 42 RBIs, but he also has "lengthened" the batting order by filling a middle-of-the-order spot that last year would have been occupied by somebody unqualified for the role. As a result, San Francisco is averaging 4.26 runs per game, nearly a half-run increase over last year's 3.88. That, combined with the team's 3.14 ERA (down from 4.00 last year), has generated extra victories.
Morse, said Cincinnati Reds broadcaster and former Major League pitcher Jeff Brantley, "creates a tremendous amount of fear. Everybody knows Hunter [Pence] is going to swing at anything close. [Buster] Posey, when he's going good, can hurt you, so you have to be a little bit careful. Pablo Sandoval can hit it if it bounces up in the grass. We all know those things.
"But the thing about Michael Morse is that he can swing late and 'miss' a ball and hit it down the right-field line and it's a point. If I'm pitching, that scares me. I don't like to know that there's a guy on the other team who, if I spin one up there just to get a strike, he might hit it into the second deck."
Morse, the Opening Day left fielder, has provided further stability by playing first base capably while Belt heals.
San Francisco's lineup also has been bolstered by the ongoing maturation of Belt, before he was injured, and shortstop Brandon Crawford, who's batting .444 (12-for-27) during an eight-game hitting streak that has lifted his batting average from .234 to .260. Entering Thursday, the Giants' seventh-place hitters were tied for third in the league with 27 runs scored, while their No. 8 hitters were tied for first in scoring, also with 27 runs. That reflects Crawford's improvement and the deeds of Hicks, who has eight homers.
The Giants' ability to threaten opponents up and down the batting order accounts for their Major League-best 129 two-out runs. San Francisco also has engineered 18 comeback victories, tied with Detroit for most in the bigs.
"There's an overall feeling that, no matter what the circumstances, we feel like we can win the game," Vogelsong said.
Right-hander Tim Hudson, another free-agent acquisition, has done for the pitching staff what Morse has done for the offense. Hudson's resolute seven-inning effort Thursday whittled his ERA to a Major League-low 1.81 -- quite a feat considering he's 38 years old and wasn't guaranteed to be at full strength, given the horrific right ankle injury he sustained last year with Atlanta.
Brantley, who pitched for the Giants from 1998-93, cited Hudson's "ultracompetitive edge. He's not going to let it fall by the wayside. Any team that he would go to would benefit by having him around."
As was the case during their World Series-winning seasons, the Giants have benefited from intangibles. It helps, for instance, that most of the players genuinely seem to like each other.
"When you're playing with a bunch of your friends out there, you're going to battle for each other and do whatever you have to do to help out your true buddy, drive him in or whatever the situation may be," Crawford said.
Widely considered one of baseball's best managers, Bochy has coaxed contributions from virtually every player. None of the Giants' regulars is even close to leading the All-Star balloting at his position. That's because none of them must dominate for the Giants to thrive.
Even the reserves have helped. Hector Sanchez has 23 RBIs in 107 at-bats. Juan Perez received a rare start last Wednesday in Cincinnati and hit a go-ahead two-run homer. Two games earlier in St. Louis, Joaquin Arias came off the bench to amass three hits and three RBIs.
Asked to summarize Bochy's influence, New York Mets manager Terry Collins cited one of the most highly respected managers ever.
"He does the same thing that Joe [Torre] did with the Yankees," Collins said. "He keeps everything calm. Nobody's ever nervous around him. His coaches are the same way. They have fun. There's a reason why he's managed all these years and no matter where he's been, his teams have been good."
This club appears poised to add to the list.
"I see a hungry team," Vogelsong said. "When you're facing a team that's hungry, you know you're going to be in for a fight."