Freddy Sanchez watches his three-run homer soar down the left field line
As much as a club can point to a series at the beginning of June and say that it might just end up being the most crucial four games of the year, the San Francisco Giants left St. Louis last night knowing that they might have just saved their entire season.
When the Giants arrived at Busch Stadium May 30, they had just lost two out of three in Milwaukee to open the road trip, after being swept at home by the Florida Marlins in a series during which their star catcher and team captain Buster Posey was lost for the season to a broken leg.
To make matters worse, San Francisco limped into the Cardinals series with nearly all of their starters in terrible offensive slumps, continuing a downward slide that had them near the bottom of the National League in batting average and runs scored.
And they would be facing a team that had the highest batting average in the league, scoring runs at a furious pace and burying opponents with their bats.
The big question facing the Giants was whether they could rise to the occasion when it counted.
And did they ever in St. Louis...
When news broke that Buster Posey would be out for the remainder of the season, the mood around the Giants clubhouse was grim.
It showed just how much of an impact Posey has on this team.
With the captain out for the year, the Giants not only had a huge leadership void to fill, they also had a huge offensive hole to fill in an already decimated lineup after Pablo Sandoval's hand injury.
With San Francisco already struggling to score runs and falling behind in the standings to the streaking Arizona Diamondbacks, the Giants had to be thinking that this could be a make-or-break series, setting a tone—good or bad—for the season going forward without Posey.
With the Giants coming to town ranked near the bottom of the NL in runs scored and batting average, Tony La Russa had to feel pretty good about the upcoming series, as his club was hitting extremely well, generating offensive production that could crush the likes of any team, let alone the poor-hitting Giants.
How did San Francisco fare?
The Giants, who for the season are averaging just 3.7 runs/game, scored 29 runs in the four-game set with St. Louis, averaging 7.3 runs/game.
Effectively doubling their average offensive production/game without their leader and cleanup man Buster Posey, the Giants rose to the occasion by surprising everyone with their outburst.
While St. Louis scored many runs as well, including five against Giants ace Tim Lincecum in the third game of the series, they couldn't keep up with San Francisco's bats, an unusual occurrence to be sure, but a welcome one for Giants fans.
Aubrey Huff hit four home runs and drove in seven in the last two games of the series with the Cardinals
The Giants have looked to Pablo Sandoval and Buster Posey to lead their offense so far in 2011. But with both of them on the disabled list, Aubrey Huff, the Giants home run and RBI leader from 2010, had even more pressure on his shoulders to regain his 2010 form.
After two long months of slumping, Huff finally broke out in the final two games at Busch Stadium.
Huff is a huge key to San Francisco's offense. Even if others on the club produce, in many ways, as goes Huff, so goes the Giants' offense. As Freddy Sanchez put it after Thursday's series finale in St. Louis, "When Huffie gets going, he can carry the team. He did it last year ... I don't think it's any coincidence that he's getting it going and we're getting going."
Huff, who entered the final game of the Cardinals series hitting just .219, raised his average by 14 points in a single day, after going 4-5 with three home runs and six RBI. While in St. Louis over the last four games, he doubled his season home run total, from four to eight.
This series may be looked back on as the turning point for Huff's season. And if Freddy Sanchez is right, it could be looked upon as the turning point for the Giants' offense in 2011.
Nate Schierholtz hit a game-tying single with two outs in the ninth, and then a single to put San Francisco ahead in the 11th against St. Louis Wednesday night
With the Giants trying to avoid a disastrous road trip after dropping two out of three in Milwaukee, followed by a heart-breaking loss the night before to the Cardinals after leading 3-1 in the eighth, Nate Schierholtz stepped into the batter's box with two outs in the top of the ninth Wednesday night at Busch Stadium.
With two strikes and the tying run at second, he singled up the middle to tie the ballgame 5-5 and give San Francisco new life.
The Giants pushed the contest into the 11th inning, when Schierholtz came up again, this time hitting a line drive to right field for another RBI single, this one giving San Francisco a 6-5 lead. The Giants went on to win that game 7-5, capping the most crucial victory of the season so far.
A loss in that game would have meant a fourth loss in six games on the road trip, and the prospect of losing three out of four to the Cardinals before having to fly home to San Francisco to take on division rival Colorado without so much as 24 hours of rest.
The Giants refused to lose Wednesday night, coming back from a 3-0 deficit to take a 4-3 lead, only to see that lead evaporate when pinch-hitter Allen Craig homered off of Tim Lincecum to give St. Louis a 5-4 edge. After Schierholtz's heroics, the Giants were able to return to the field the next night and take the series from the surging Cardinals.
Cody Ross watches the flight of his home run in the series opener Monday
The San Francisco Giants and offensive firepower. Those two don't go together in the same sentence.
So to the shock of many observers, the Giants' offense exploded for 29 runs in the four game series in St. Louis.
In so doing, the Giants literally rose to the occasion, knowing full well that playing the Cardinals would likely involve a barrage of offense and not only matching St. Louis, but outscoring the Red Birds.
What San Francisco showed in this series was that they can, indeed, hit. They can produce offensively.
For various reasons, including injury and sheer bad timing, virtually every Giant in the lineup has been in an offensive coma.
But they awakened in big ways over the past four days, and it's a sign of good things to come.
The San Francisco Giants had every reason to fall apart as they flew into St. Louis to play one of the hottest teams in baseball.
Still trying to cope with the loss of their captain, as well as two difficult losses in Milwaukee, including a walk-off loss after a suicide squeeze by the Brewers, the Giants were on the brink.
A series loss to the Cardinals, while certainly not the end of the world, could have set a very bad precedent going forward without Buster Posey.
In the crucial third game of the St. Louis series, with the Giants down to their last strike, they were on the verge of falling to 2-4 without Posey, with a difficult road ahead of them.
But the Giants refused to lie down, and showed amazing grit to not only get the job done in St. Louis and reclaim first place in the NL West, but to do it with an offensive outburst that has to be comforting to Bruce Bochy and Giants fans everywhere.
Will this series end up being the most crucial of the season when we look back on 2011?
Time will tell, but its importance at this stage of the Giants' campaign to repeat as champions can't be understated.