As Bochy Works to Put Pieces Together, Giants Will Live or Die with Pitching

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As Bochy Works to Put Pieces Together, Giants Will Live or Die with Pitching
Mike McGinnis/Getty Images

SAN FRANCISCO — One night after Madison Bumgarner lit up AT&T Park by taking a perfect game into the eighth inning, Tim Hudson was electric. Stretch-run energy buzzed through the Giants clubhouse in that old, familiar way.

"This is the fun time of year," Buster Posey said after blasting the second walk-off homer of his career. "We're fortunate to be fighting for the division.   

"A lot of us know what we're capable of doing if we do get into the playoffs."

Mmmhmm.   

But this is a tricky team to decipher, one of the most difficult to peg of manager Bruce Bochy's 20-year managerial career.

"I'd say so," Bochy agreed in that gruff, bear-like voice that has directed so many past winners.

No doubt, key injuries have derailed the Giants. He might not be a marquee name nationally, but it is no coincidence that San Francisco's swan dive from those heady days of leading the NL West by 9.5 games (June 8) coincided with leadoff hitter Angel Pagan's two-month absence with a back injury.

Giants 2014 Starting Rotation, Pre-, Post-All-Star Break
Pitcher Pre-All-Star ERA Pre-All-Star K/9 Pitcher Post-All-Star ERA Post-All-Star K/9
Madison Bumgarner 3.47 9.07 Madison Bumgarner 2.02 9.93
Tim Hudson 2.87 5.90 Tim Hudson 2.96 5.18
Matt Cain 4.18 6.97 Jake Peavy 3.18 6.35
Ryan Vogelsong 3.86 7.71 Ryan Vogelsong 3.57 6.02
Tim Lincecum 3.66 8.04 Tim Lincecum 8.07 8.07

ESPN.com

Brandon Belt's frequent trips to the DL, Hector Sanchez's concussion and the Giants' decision to not add significant payroll at the trading deadline this year have opened some holes and limited their ability to plug others, stretching a thin lineup to the point of breaking.

But where the old Giants magic is really lacking is on the mound, with Matt Cain out for the season, Tim Lincecum in a funk, Sergio Romo barred from closing and a rotation that is tied for eighth in the NL with a 3.68 ERA.

Bottom line: Unlike the old days here, San Francisco's pitching is no longer good enough to cover lineup shortcomings.

Which is why this week's hit parade of Bumgarner, Hudson and Yusmeiro Petit, who set a major league record by retiring his 46th consecutive hitter Thursday afternoon, at least offered encouragement.

Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images

"It's been a roller coaster, no question," said Hudson, 39, now 9-9 with a 2.90 ERA. "Anytime you lose one of your top rotation guys."

"He gets that blood-in-the-water sensation whenever he gets a lead," reliever Jeremy Affeldt said of Cain. "He's not going to lose it."

The Giants staff has already lost enough this season.

Cain has been as big a fixture at AT&T as that ginormous Coca-Cola bottle beyond the left field stands. He made 30 or more starts in eight consecutive seasons before he had to pull the plug this summer after 15. Surgery to remove bone chips and have some bone spurs cleaned up was done earlier this month. Given his workload over the years, it could have been worse. Much worse.

As for Lincecum, the Giants should be deeply concerned with him given his 9.49 ERA over his past six starts. Everybody agrees a time out is in order.

"Just trying to take it slow," Lincecum said. "Day by day and see where it goes."

USA TODAY Sports

The immensely likeable Lincecum can be easily derailed, which is leading some to wonder whether the absence of Sanchez, who likely is out for the season with a concussion, has sent him spinning off his axis. Remember, it took Lincecum a bit to gather his wits when the Giants traded one of his favorite catchers, Bengie Molina, in 2010 to clear space for Posey.

"It's a good question," Bochy said of the Sanchez-Lincecum connection. "It's a hard one to answer because I know Tim got used to throwing to Hector. Nothing against the kid, [Andrew] Susac, who has done a nice job. But whether that did play into a part of Tim's struggles, I don’t know."

It is not the only mystery Bochy and the Giants must solve. The phenomenal pitching that carried them to World Series wins in 2010 and '12 is fading. This year's rotation, as noted, is tied for eighth in the NL in ERA after finishing 13th (4.37) in 2013.

That may be an improvement, but from '09 to '12, Giants starters never ranked worse than fifth in the league, and they ranked either second or third in three of those four seasons.

Still, as of Thursday, the Giants are a playoff team. Though they trail the Dodgers by 4.5 games in the NL West, they doggedly cling to the NL's second wild-card slot, 1.5 games ahead of the Braves.

This is all part of why Posey uses the word "fortunate" when describing his team's positioning right now.

Ben Margo/Associated Press

Veteran Jake Peavy was acquired from Boston to pitch. With Cain out, he's a necessity. Petit has replaced Lincecum in the rotation—for how long, Bochy cannot yet say. He simply doesn't know. The veteran manager, whose 1,600th career win Wednesday moved him past Hall of Famer Tommy Lasorda to No. 19 on the all-time list, has had success in the past shuffling the rotation with guys such as Barry Zito and Ryan Vogelsong.

"When you get diminishing returns, you've got to change it up," Bochy said, and so he has.

Scouts were still raving about Bumgarner's dominance a day after he throttled the Rockies. Hudson, Petit...things are beginning to perk back up around San Francisco. Every day left on the schedule is another day for the Giants to minimize the damage done by their 10-16 June, 12-14 July and their 12-24 record over their past 36 home games.

As Affeldt said, "Baseball can turn around in a hurry if you don’t tuck your tail between your legs. If you get knocked down seven times, you've got to get up that eighth time."

 

Scott Miller covers Major League Baseball as a national columnist for Bleacher Report. He has over two decades of experience covering MLB, including 14 years as a national baseball columnist at CBSSports.com.

Follow Scott on Twitter and talk baseball @ScottMillerBbl.

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