Last season, the San Francisco Giants were four games ahead of Arizona on July 29 when they traded for the best bat on the market, Carlos Beltran. What followed was a blurry meltdown. The Giants went 6-16 over their next 22 games. Beltran was hitting .222 as a Giant before going on the DL. By August 20, the Giants were 3.5 games out of first, and two weeks later, seven games out. Beltran was not pursued in the offseason.
Fast forward to this year. The Giants were up two games on the Dodgers when rumors started floating about Hunter Pence making the move to San Francisco. With Pence suited up, they promptly lost six of seven, bringing back that oh-so-familiar feeling. Pence has been completely irrelevant, with only four hits in 32 plate appearances.
So how can this season turn out differently? For starters, there is nobody named Eli Whiteside or Chris Stewart on the roster. Instead, the Giants upgraded to baseball's hottest hitter in Buster Posey. Also, the Dodgers haven't exactly been putting the pressure on, only going 12-12 since the All-Star break.
The 2011 Giants fell out of the race because the whole lineup stunk up the joint. They scored about seven runs over their last 40 games. Here are five players whose performance over the last seven weeks 2012 will determine the Giants' fate in this three-team NL West race.
Since throwing a perfect game back in June, Cain has been much less than the Cy Young candidate that emerged in the first half. Since that magical night, Cain sports a 4.47 ERA and has given up a troubling 10 HR in 57 IP.
This is a major problem going forward for one main reason: Matt Cain is the Giants' ace this year. After years in the shadow of Tim Lincecum where a few rogue starts might go unnoticed, the Giants are relying on Cain this season. He will likely be the Game 1 starter in any playoff series.
While Lincecum's masquerade as a fifth starter continues, Cain must be rock solid down the stretch. While Cain's brilliance may have been a luxury in seasons past, this year it is a necessity.
The Panda has had a tumultuous season with injuries, renewed fitness questions and off the field distractions. He has been in and out of the lineup constantly, further fueling Bruce Bochy's habit of daily lineup shakeups.
Sandoval is scheduled to come off the DL this weekend. His presence (or non-presence) in the lineup affects the role of no fewer than seven other Giants. How much time will Buster Posey play first? How much longer must we bear Brandon Crawford? Is Brandon Belt finished?
All these questions and more turn on Pablo Sandoval's ability to stay healthy and productive. An Arias/Crawford/Scutaro/Belt infield could be instantly transformed into a Sandoval/Scutaro/Theriot/Posey infield if Pablo could just stay healthy.
At this point, it seems unlikely that the Giants are going to bring in a top-flight (or even a middle-flight) closer. And they shouldn't need to, assuming that Santiago Casilla can find some sure footing in the role. It's clear that Bochy considers Casilla as the only man fit for the job at this point. Jeremy Affeldt and Sergio Romo may poach a save here and there, but Casilla has a long leash.
A long leash doesn't necessarily bode well given Casilla's struggles after a hot start filling in for Brian Wilson. If Casilla breaks down, the Giants will probably follow suit. Giving one journeyman reliever this much power is unsettling to say the least.
New shiny acquisitions sometimes take a while to find their footing. Pence has been a homeless man's Nate Schierholtz thus far in San Francisco. Luckily it has not cost the Giants much in the standings, but another wasted midseason trade would certainly be frustrating for Brian Sabean & Co.
Considering what they gave up, the Giants front office obviously believed they could not win the West without Hunter Pence on board. Logic only tells us then that if Pence cannot out-hit Tim Lincecum, the Giants will probably not win the West. Unless Sabean was wrong, which has happened before.
Perhaps this last spot belongs to Tim Lincecum given his prominent role in the fans' consciousness. If Lincecum regains ace status, the Giants probably win the West. However, with Timmy looking like a known quantity at least for this year, the burden falls on Barry Zito to pick up some of the slack.
With Cain struggling, the Giants staff is not as bullet proof as in years past. In short, Barry Zito must find some level of consistency through the rest of the season. You may see this as a tall order given that it's never happened, but we are not asking for much.
Zito cannot have any three-inning, six walk, five-run meltdowns. Those are automatic losses. And in September, they will be devastating. The Giants are .500 in Zito starts, and their ability to remain that way will go a long ways towards determining whether the postseason is in the cards in 2012.