First, San Francisco lost closer Brian Wilson at the start of the season. Then they found out Tim Lincecum lost his mojo.
Still, the Giants, who have relied heavily on their pitching in recent years, managed to stay competitive this season through mix of improved offense, a deep bullpen and a rotation so deep that it hardly mattered if the team's two-time Cy Young winner wasn't himself.
Then came the biggest bomb of the season: The team's leading hitter, Melky Cabrera, was suspended for the rest of the regular season for enhancing his performance in an unacceptable manner.
However, not even that punch to the gut has slowed the Giants. In fact, they've actually improved their record since Melky's exile.
With so much adversity proving not to be, well, all that adverse, the Giants are showing no signs of stumbling in light of the most recent challenge: recent efforts by the Dodgers—their fiercest rival and greatest obstacle to winning the division title this year—to assemble a super team.
They might not have a true closer, nor their ace of yesteryear or their leading hitter from earlier this year. But the Giants, just two years removed from a World Series title, have plenty going for them as they head into the final month of the season with a division title in sight.
Here are five predictions of things to come as the Giants charge toward the playoffs.
Losing Melky Cabrera for the rest of the regular season seemed like a major blow when the suspension was first announced. The Giants' 8-4 record since Melky’s banishment suggests otherwise.
Having the recently acquired Hunter Pence in the lineup seemed like it was going to lessen the blow of Melky’s absence. Pence’s very pedestrian .668 OPS and five RBI in the last 12 games tell a different story.
So how are the Giants winning? Improved production throughout the lineup.
Angel Pagan looks like an all-star right now. Marco Scutaro is proving to be the team’s most valuable midseason pickup. The young Brandons—Belt and Crawford—are coming around of late. And Posey is the National League's hottest hitter since the all-star break.
While the bats could go cold at any moment, the Giants have plenty of motivation and enough leadership to keep their focus on winning games. Many of the Giants have been part of a successful playoff race before. Others, such as Pagan and Scutaro, are showing that they want to be a part of one.
And if Pence starts hitting, that will be a nice bonus.
When a manager announces that he will be using a closer-by-committee, it’s almost always a sign that the bullpen is in trouble. But that has not been the case in San Francisco.
Manager Bruce Bochy certainly would not mind having a healthy Brian Wilson, but the combination of Sergio Romo, Javier Lopez, Jeremy Affeldt and Clay Hensley is working out quite well, particularly since Santiago Casilla petered out as the team’s exclusive closer earlier in the season.
Certainly, there’s a question of whether this is sustainable. World Series champions generally have dominant closers—Mariano Rivera, Jonathan Papelbon and the Bearded One come to mind. But the Cardinals managed to take the title last year, capping a season in which eight different pitchers registered saves—half of whom had at least four saves each.
And considering that San Francisco’s entire bullpen has been stellar all season—except for Hensley's recent string of ugly outings, there’s no reason to think that this group is due for a collective meltdown.
While the Dodgers have a good chance of reaching the playoffs, Matt Kemp spent too much time on the disabled list for anyone to even entertain the idea of him as a candidate. Plus, the blockbuster trades that have added Hanley Ramirez and Adrian Gonzalez to the lineup would likely be heavily credited for ensuring a playoff berth.
Andrew McCutchen has been the leading candidate since the all-star break, but a bad August in the win column has the Pirates slipping out of contention.
The Cardinals have three candidates in Carlos Beltran, Matt Holliday and Yadier Molina. But does any one stand out over the other?
Their scenario is reminiscent of a predicament that two of their teammates found themselves in three years ago. Chris Carpenter and Adam Wainwright both had spectacular years on the mound, but Cy Young votes were split between the two, clearing the way for Giants ace Tim Lincecum to win the award.
Ryan Braun and David Wright are two of the best players in the league, but neither is on a competitive team. The Washington Nationals are the best team, but none of their offensive players is having a standout season.
That leaves Posey, who is the best player on a first-place team—as well as at a position in which elite offensive production is rare.
Melky may have carried the Giants for much of the first half, but Posey is carrying the team when it’s most important.
Nick Punto is a marginal addition. Carl Crawford is out for the season. Josh Beckett was once a star, and maybe a return to the National League (and a general change of scenery) will galvanize him, but recent history suggests that he’s just an average pitcher.
So, really, in terms of this year, the recent blockbuster swap that the Dodgers pulled off with Boston comes down to Adrian Gonzalez. Of course, that's in addition to pre-deadline deals that brought in Hanley Ramirez and Shane Victorino.
The potential is huge. Grouping him with Kemp, Andre Ethier, Ramirez and Victorino makes this lineup as scary as any in Major League Baseball—and certainly the most potent in the NL West.
But whatever lift Gonzalez may provide, it has not happened. After winning their first game with him in the lineup, the Dodgers dropped three in a row. Meanwhile, San Francisco's division lead expanded to three-and-a-half games.
It’s a tiny sample size, one that could easily be forgotten if the Dodgers reel off a perfect week in the win column. Yet, it’s a strong indicator that acquiring Gonzalez by no means guarantees the Dodgers the division or even a playoff berth.
Which leads us to...
The National League playoff races are setting up beautifully for the final week of the regular season—and perfectly for the Giants to roll into postseason while sticking it to their rivals.
San Francisco will host the Dodgers for a three-game set that very well could determine the division, as well as a spot in the NL wild-card game. St. Louis, which is also fighting for a wild-card berth, will host division rival and presumed NL Central champ Cincinnati.
If the season ended today, Washington would take the NL East, and division foe Atlanta would grab the first wild-card spot. Pittsburgh, while out of contention for the NL Central crown, is technically still in the wild-card race, but after a rough August, the Pirates appear to be fading from the picture.
The West and the second wild-card opening, meanwhile, will remain battles through the last series of the regular season.
Much could change in the standings by then—after all, it is more than a month away—but the way things are going, the Giants will be positioned to smack the Dodgers with a double whammy in one fell swoop: taking the division from the Dodgers and knocking them out of the playoffs entirely.
While the Reds and Cardinals have about as much love for each other as the Giants and Dodgers do, the Reds will likely be in cruise control at that point, upping the odds that St. Louis will finish strong—and with a better record than the Dodgers.
That leaves the Giants and Dodgers fighting each other for the division and the Cardinals for a wild-card spot. That’s a tough road for Los Angeles, considering how it will be battling the last two World Series champs.