Matt Cain threw a Perfect Game and started the All-Star Game
The San Francisco Giants cling to a two game lead in the NL West over the Los Angeles Dodgers, with the Arizona Diamondbacks lurking only six games back. With 73 games remaining, the division is definitely up for grabs.
The Giants have endured some injuries, including the loss of All-Star third baseman Pablo Sandoval for roughly six weeks and both Brian Wilson and Freddy Sanchez missing the entire season. Wilson actually pitched in two games early in the season, then had the second Tommy John surgery of his career.
In addition to those major injuries, the Giants have also endured DL stints by Ryan Theriot, Aubrey Huff and Jeremy Affeldt. The fact that the Giants are in first place in their division, nine games over .500, is a testament to their outstanding pitching and stellar managing by Bruce Bochy.
In addition, the Giants have received outstanding first halves from both Melky Cabrera and Buster Posey. Both players started the All-Star game and have been steady throughout the season.
In order for the Giants to win the NL West, they will need positive contributions across the board. However, I believe there are five key players who must either continue their success or step up from slow starts in order to carry the Giants into the playoffs.
Let's take a look at those five key players.
Pablo Sandoval dislodges the ball from Chris Snyder to score a big run
The Giants missed Pablo Sandoval dearly when he missed 35 games due to a broken hamate bone in his hand. The resultant surgery was successful, and the Panda is back in the lineup.
In order for the Giants' offense to be productive, they need Sandoval to drive in runs. He is currently hitting a robust .307, with eight home runs and 30 RBI, in 54 games. Sandoval has even shown some plate discipline, as he has 17 walks and an OBP of .362. His OPS is a very good .864.
It is a good sign that Sandoval is now starting to drive the ball again, after his return from the DL. If the Panda can continue to hit the ball with authority and drive in runs more consistently, that would be a huge plus for the Giants' offense.
Buster Posey has made a strong recovery from his 2011 ankle injury
At the start of the 2012 season, the Giants were not sure how many games Buster Posey would be able to catch and if his surgically repaired ankle would hold up. Posey has passed those tests with flying colors.
He has caught a lot more games than originally expected and has also played several other games at first base. The Giants need him and his bat in the lineup as much as possible. Posey has played in 80 of the Giants' first 89 games.
Posey is currently hitting .297, with 11 home runs and 47 RBI. He leads the team in home runs and RBI. Posey has a solid OBP of .370 and OPS of .840.
The one area where the Giants and Posey have struggled is hitting with runners in scoring position. Posey's batting average in those situations is around .230, and he must do better if the Giants hope to win the division and make a run in the playoffs.
If Posey can improve his hitting with runners in scoring position and be a bigger run producer, it will make the Giants' offensive attack much more potent. This is something they desperately need from their All-Star catcher.
Brandon Belt has not been as productive as the Giants had hoped
Brandon Belt has had more than enough chances to prove himself this year as a major league hitter. Last year and also early in the 2012 season, manager Bruce Bochy had Belt in and out of the lineup. That most certainly affected his confidence and hindered his development.
However, in the past two months, Belt has been given the vast majority of the starts at first base. Aside from one brief hot streak, mostly against the lowly Astros, Belt has been frustratingly inconsistent.
Belt is currently hitting just .250, with four home runs and 31 RBI, in 196 at-bats. Belt's lack of power and inability to hit the ball with authority with any consistency is cause for concern among the Giants' brass.
Belt is a good defensive player and draws a lot of walks, so his OBP of .360 is decent. However, his SLG of only .408 is a problem. These numbers are more suited for a leadoff hitter, not a first baseman who is needed to provide more punch and drive in runs.
Belt still has holes in his swing that big league pitchers can exploit. He has trouble getting around on the inside fastball and is also prone to rolling over off-speed pitches and hit weak grounders to the right side of the infield.
Manager Bruce Bochy simply cannot afford to keep running Belt out there every day, given his lack of run production.
Belt will get even more chances because the Giants do not have an adequate replacement, unless they move Posey to first base and give Hector Sanchez more opportunities to catch. Do not look for this to happen regularly, however, as Posey is an outstanding pitch-caller and defensive catcher.
If Belt can start hitting with more authority and drive in runs more consistently, it will go a long way toward solidifying the Giants' offense.
Santiago Casilla has struggled of late
At the start of the season, if you said Giants closer Brian Wilson would pitch in two games and be lost for the season, but Santiago Casilla would have converted 23 out of 28 save opportunities, you would be very happy with Casilla.
That is exactly what has happened. The problem, however, is that Casilla has blown four of his last six save opportunities. A blister on his pitching hand may have been the culprit in three of those games, as Casilla had to ultimately sit out for a few days to let the blister heal.
Bochy has stated that Casilla is still the Giants' primary closer, but that Sergio Romo will also get some chances. The issue with Romo has always been his durability. Bochy and pitching coach Dave Righetti do not want to overwork Romo, because his effectiveness wanes and he has a tendency to get hurt.
So, barring a trade for a closer, the Giants will mostly live or die with Casilla. He registered his 23rd save of the season on Sunday getting the final two outs for a clean save. The Giants are hoping that this helps Casilla get back on track and will enable him to have a strong second half.
The success of Santiago Casilla will go a long way toward determining the Giants' fate the rest of the way.
This has been a tough year for Tim Lincecum
How can one pitcher go from being a back-to-back Cy Young award winner to being the worst pitcher in the National League, in just three seasons?
Just ask Tim Lincecum. He has struggled mightily this year, as his 3-10 record and 5.93 ERA attest. Lincecum's WHIP ratio is also at a career worst 1.519.
In reality, Lincecum has been adequate at home, in the friendly confines of AT&T Park. His ERA at home is below four. Where Lincecum has had major issues has been on the road. His ERA on the road is at nine, which means he gives up a run for every inning he has pitched, away from San Francisco.
Lincecum has had flashes of brilliance and has struck out 115 hitters in only 104.2 innings of work. That is an outstanding ratio.
Lincecum's problems stem from allowing the big inning. This year, when an inning starts to go bad, Lincecum has not been able to limit the damage, instead allowing a crooked number to go up on the scoreboard.
A big issue with Lincecum has been his loss of velocity. He used to throw in the 95 to 96 mph range when he first broke in to the big leagues. Now, his fastball velocity averages about 91 mph. There have been times when Lincecum has thrown up to 93 or 94 mph, but he is unable to maintain that speed for long.
Lincecum's velocity is down, but his biggest problem has been with his lack of command. He is not locating his pitches where he needs to and will have to improve in this area if he hopes to regain his winning form.
With Matt Cain, Madison Bumgarner and Ryan Vogelsong, the Giants have three excellent starting pitchers. If Lincecum can step it up and regain his form, he would provide a huge impetus for the Giants to win the NL West.
In his last start, Lincecum threw eight shutout innings against the Astros. Lincecum and the Giants are hoping that this is a great starting point to the rest of the year.
I believe Lincecum is the biggest key to the Giants winning the NL West and advancing in the playoffs.
Bruce Bochy has done a very good job this year
The San Francisco Giants are poised to make a big run to win the NL West. If they can get the players mentioned here to step up, along with the other players maintaining their level of play, the Giants will have found something special.
The beauty of baseball is that it is played every day and the 162 game season is a marathon. With 73 games remaining, it's now time for the Giants' players to "put up or shut up."
I look for the Giants' excellent starting pitching to lead the way into the playoffs. The remainder of the season promises to be a fun ride.