Although the San Francisco Giants had a very similar record at the same point in 2010, they did not have the added pressure of being the defending World Series champions.
Now, in 2011, every game and every play is scrutinized by fans and analysts trying to see if last year's most surprising team can have a repeat performance.
After the sweep of the Colorado Rockies over the weekend, the Giants are sitting just one game back of first place in the division. However, there is still a lot of baseball to be played, and if San Francisco wants to maintain control in the West, they will need to work on more than just a few aspects of the game.
With that in mind, let's take a look at the specific areas that the champs must focus on heading towards the All-Star break.
The team's ability to win games last year stemmed from great pitching and the ability to consistently score just enough runs of support. We're not talking about five or more runs here; even three a game could be enough.
With a very similar pitching staff to last year's title team, the Giants only need those few runs of support every game once again. Aside from a few off-starts from the rotation (i.e. Madison Bumgarner and Jonathan Sanchez), the staff has posted a lot of zeros.
Still, Bruce Bochy's lineups have remained consistently inconsistent. All season, the team has gone long stretches of scoring between zero and three runs a game before they break out for seven or eight and then return to mediocrity with the bats.
But how can a mostly punchless lineup put more runs on the board?
Last year, the Giants offense relied heavily on the long ball. Their seemingly random power displays essentially got them through the playoffs, especially in their championship series matchup against the Philadelphia Phillies.
Now, with the loss of Juan Uribe and a drop in production from Aubrey Huff, the Giants are stuck as a home run-centric team without home run hitters. They need to either trade a pitcher for a big bat or focus on small ball to scratch across a few runs on a regular basis. With Brian Sabean running the show, I think their best option is the latter.
Up until this point, Bochy has been indecisive about which path he wants to go down. For example, in the first inning of Saturday's game against the Rockies, the Giants put runners on first and second with nobody out (Aaron Rowand and Freddy Sanchez). Although the No. 3 hitter was coming up, the batter was Mike Fontenot—not exactly known for his power stroke.
Instead of bunting to put two runners in scoring position with less than two outs, Bochy let Fontenot hit, and he accidentally moved the runners over by grounding to second. Another groundout by Buster Posey scored a run.
Even if there still is some magic inside, the Giants cannot afford to rely on luck like that to help them score. Put in Emmanuel Burriss and Darren Ford to put pressure on the opposing pitcher and move around the bases. Bunt!
The Giants can win more games and score more runs, but it's going to take strategy, not luck, to do it.
Every Giants fan is aware of Miguel Tejada's fielding woes since Pablo Sandoval was injured a few weeks ago. Even though Tejada no longer has the range in the field that he once did, he is still a capable fielder. However, he's lost his throwing accuracy and ability to hit as well, making his extended playing time very questionable.
Tejada is not the only culprit, of course. We all know what a nightmare it was to watch Aubrey Huff twist and fall and drop balls in the outfield while Brandon Belt was getting a shot at first base. Pat Burrell knows how to play the outfield just fine, but his lack of speed is often a problem on anything hit hard.
Mike Fontenot has done a pretty admirable job filling in at shortstop, but that is not his natural position and mistakes there are likely.
Without a powerful offense, the Giants need to be as stout on defense as they can to prevent runs that make it even more difficult to win. The defense has seemed to improve as of late, so hopefully that becomes the norm and not the exception.
I know you may be thinking that if the Giants can do one thing right consistently, it's getting a hit when it matters most. While this is true to some extent, as they displayed in back-to-back walk-off wins against Colorado, the truth of the matter is that they would not be in those situations if they had timely hitting earlier in the game.
Think about it. How many times have the Giants gotten a runner or two on base, only to see them removed on a double-play groundout?
Last year, the Giants hit into almost one double play every game (.95), and so far this season, they are on a similar pace (.85). On April 17 against the Diamondbacks, they hit into five double plays in the first six innings. Take a moment to reflect on that statistic. The problem was not getting on base but moving the runners over once they were on. That is just unacceptable.
Currently, the Giants are sixth in all of baseball in GDP (no, not that GDP) with 29. They are also near the top of the league in ground-ball-to-fly-ball ratio, so the trend is not looking good. Not to point any fingers, but a certain squatting center fielder has hit quite a few of those ground balls that usually go for outs. Not good for a guy making more than $13.5 million this year.
As simplistic as it sounds, the Giants need to hit better. With the lineup they've got, it may seem like a daunting task, but the bats need to pick it up for the team to contend.
Freddy Sanchez cannot be your go-to guy with a line of .272/.321/.392 along with two homers and 11 RBI.
Sure, the injuries to Sandoval, Torres and Ross have taken their toll, but that does not excuse the lines of Buster Posey and Aubrey Huff: .241/.333/.366 and .207/.261/.339, respectively. The two big guns have combined for just seven dingers and 35 RBI. Not horrible, but not good enough.
If Sunday's game was any indication, Cody Ross should be getting back into the groove he had going in spring training, which should definitely help. He did knock in all three runs in the shutout.
I don't know what it's going to take, but these guys have shown they can hit well enough to win a World Series. Something is bound to click, and hopefully, it's sooner rather than later.
As difficult as "avoiding injuries" may be, injuries are the very reason for struggles on both the defensive and offensive sides of the game.
Pablo Sandoval finally looked to be back to his 2009 form, hitting .313 with a .904 OPS before going down with a wrist injury. Andres Torres was hitting .286 early on with three doubles out of his eight hits and a .375 OBP. Even Mark DeRosa was hitting .333 in limited playing time, and he was supposed to take over at third for Sandoval.
Injury-plagued though the 2011 Giants may be, it is obviously better for these things to happen earlier rather than later. Even with the multitude of issues, the team is starting to see some light at the end of the tunnel with Ross' return and Torres slated to come back in the upcoming series against the Diamondbacks.
For a team batting .235 with a K/BB ration of 2.5, along with 25 errors in 34 games, the Giants need all their best, healthy players out there as much as possible.
Stat: The Giants have only come away victorious in one game in which they gave up more than four runs. They are 17-6 in games in which they give up four runs or less.
Spy a trend, anyone?
Clearly, the bats are not going to provide too much help when one of the starting pitchers has an off day. However, with better defense and the incredible pitching staff this team has, it's not too unreasonable to expect those four runs or less.
With a team ERA of 3.28, including the inflated numbers of Barry Zito, Dan Runzler and Brian Wilson (though he has been fantastic of late), this staff has what it takes to keep the Giants in every game. Specialists Ramon Ramirez and Javier Lopez have a combined ERA of 0.91 with a WHIP of 0.93. Ridiculous.
Setup man Sergio Romo's stat line is non-human: 9.1 IP, 4 H, 1 ER, 1 BB, 14 Ks, 0.54 WHIP, 0.96 ERA. More ridiculous.
This is a pitching staff that can be and has been spectacular. More of the same will bring a lot more wins to the Bay and, hopefully, an NL West lead at the All-Star break.