In 2010, the World Champion San Francisco Giants led all of baseball with a 3.36 ERA. That number was heavily influenced by the staff's dominance in September, when it put up a dominant 1.78 ERA to lead the league by a full run during that month.
The offense for that team was decidedly mediocre, averaging 4.3 runs per game—17th in the league.
Two years later, the Giants' offense is averaging 4.3 runs per game again, which is good for 16th best in the league this season. With Melky Cabrera out for the season due to a failed drug test, the offense isn't likely to carry the team to the playoffs this year.
Instead, they'll need the pitching staff to carry the team back to the postseason. The Giants enter play on Friday with a 3.64 team ERA, seventh best in the game. The starters are fifth in the league in both ERA and quality starts, while the relievers are only 18th in ERA.
The bullpen is not as good as it was two years ago due to the loss of closer Brian Wilson to Tommy John surgery, the departure of Ramon Ramirez via trade and the loss of long-man Guillermo Mota to a failed drug test.
Ramirez put up a 2.07 ERA in two years with the Giants, but has struggled since being traded to the Mets. Clay Hensley has struggled to fill the void left by Ramirez, while Shane Loux, Brad Penny and Eric Hacker have struggled to replace Mota.
The Giants have also been unable to find a permanent replacement for Wilson in the closer role, with Santiago Casilla getting the first crack at the job, only to lose it after blowing six save chances due to his difficulties with the long ball.
Manager Bruce Bochy has resorted to a closer-by-committee approach over the past few weeks with Casilla, Hensley, Sergio Romo, Javier Lopez and Jeremy Affeldt getting opportunities to close the door.
Bochy's strength is managing the pitching staff, and the Giants have closed 77 percent of save opportunities, seventh best in the game. That the Giants have pieced it together without a viable replacement for Wilson in the late innings, Ramirez in the middle innings and Mota in the early part of the game is a testament to the skipper's brilliance at piecing together an imperfect roster.
Bochy's patience with struggling ace Tim Lincecum has started to pay off as well. While people including myself were calling for Bochy to skip him in the rotation or give him some time in the pen to sort things out, the manager stuck by his longtime ace through thick and thin.
After a miserable first half in which he put up a 6.42 ERA and just three quality starts in 18 tries, he's put up a 3.10 ERA with five quality starts in eight tries since the break by lowering his walk rate from 4.63 per nine innings before the break to 2.93 since.
If Lincecum can maintain an ERA around 3.00 going forward, that would give the Giants another ace along with this year's big three: Madison Bumgarner (2.83 ERA), Matt Cain (2.83) and Ryan Vogelsong (2.85).
Fifth starter Barry Zito took a shutout into the ninth inning against the Atlanta Braves on Thursday night, lowering his ERA to 4.31 and giving him 13 quality starts in 25 tries on the year. Zito looked like a candidate to be released during his awful spring training, but pitching coach Dave Righetti helped iron out Zito's mechanics in time for him to throw a complete game shutout at Coors Field when the games started counting.
With Bochy and Righetti at the helm, and with Lincecum, Bumgarner, Cain, Zito and now Vogelsong in the rotation pitching at spacious AT&T Park, the Giants have allowed the fewest runs over the past three seasons.
If the Giants don't make the postseason it won't be due to offensive ineptitude or the loss of Cabrera. With a three game lead over the Dodgers and 37 left to play, the Giants are in the driver's seat. It's on the outstanding pitching staff to carry the team the rest of the way, just as they shut the door on the San Diego Padres in 2010.
The three game sweep at Chavez Ravine earlier this week was a step in the right direction, with the Giants holding the Dodgers to just six runs in three games.
Dominant pitching such as that will make up for what remains an average offensive team. Anything short of excellent from the pitching staff will force the Giants into a heated September race with their long-time rivals from Los Angeles and the always-lurking, defending division-champion Arizona Diamondbacks.