Cody Ross got the Giants off to a good start as the lead off hitter on Monday
The San Francisco Giants have been on cruise control at the top of the NL West for several weeks. It has been considered a foregone conclusion by many that the team will be playing October baseball when all is said and done.
That should be the case; however, there is a lot of baseball left to play, and any number of things can happen to derail the Giants' plans to defend their title.
Let's take a look at a few of the challenges the team faces over the final two months of the season.
Chris Stewart has a good arm and quick release, his hitting leaves a lot to be desired.
Brian Sabean did not hide the fact that he wanted to upgrade at catcher heading into the trade deadline. Ultimately, he was not able to land a catcher that he termed a significant upgrade to Eli Whiteside or Chris Stewart. This could become a bigger issue as the season winds down.
I don't think it is realistic to expect that a team, especially an offensively challenged team like the Giants, can win it all working with two career backup catchers. Yes, they both know the pitchers very well, and that is a plus, but they are both backups for a reason.
When they play too consistently, their defensive inequities show and their offensive output suffers, if that is even possible. Bruce Bochy has done a great job of balancing the amount of time they both play to maximize their use, and I fully expect that he will continue to do so. Expect Sabean to be scouring the waiver wire for an improvement at this position and to act if he finds one.
The Giants are hoping that a healthy, rested Jonathan Sanchez can lead the starters through August and September
In 2010, the Giants suffered a letdown in August that almost derailed their chances at a postseason run. August is notoriously known as the "dog days of summer," and it marks a point of the season where pitchers can experience arm fatigue as they push toward the end of the year.
Dave Righetti, Mark Gardner and Bruce Bochy will have to be extra diligent with their stellar staff in watching for the telltale signs of that arm fatigue. Every staff goes through it, but with the Arizona Diamondbacks breathing down their necks, the Giants can ill afford to stumble like they did in August last year.
The fifth spot in the rotation will get a boost as Jonathan Sanchez returns from his stint on the disabled list and Barry Zito starts another one. Sanchez has his control problems, but more often than not, despite all of the maddening walks, he keeps the Giants in games. Zito obviously does not.
Sanchez has been on the DL for several weeks, and that may prove to be a blessing in disguise. He has satisfactorily taken care of the biceps tendinitis that put him on the DL in the first place and has been able to rest from game stress for a significant amount of time. That should help him drive toward the playoffs.
The bullpen has been absolutely phenomenal and, if anything, underused due to the great performances routinely turned in by the starters. The bullpen may have to pick up some of the slack and help the starters get through the month of August in better shape than in 2010.
Kirk Gibson has his squad playing good baseball at just the right time.
The Arizona Diamondbacks started 2011 as an afterthought in the baseball world. On August 2, 2011, they are anything but. I think most Giants fans and many others expected them to fade by now and end up finishing a distant second to San Francisco. It looks like they will be pushing all season.
Kirk Gibson has the team focused, relaxed and playing a championship caliber of baseball. He has leaned on his young, talented players like Justin Upton and unexpectedly solid pitching. The team added to that pitching staff at the trade deadline with starting pitcher Jason Marquis (Giant killer) and Brad Ziegler.
The D-Backs have the advantage if the Giants start to press. They are relaxed and poised to take any opportunity that the Giants may give them. It's up to the Giants to make sure they don't give them any shot.
The Giants and Diamondbacks will battle it out eight more times after Monday night's game
Before the Diamondbacks beat the Giants 5-2 at AT&T Park on Monday night, the Giants had absolutely dominated them of late. The Giants have to remember that and not panic over one game. The rest of the schedule is not kind to the Giants in the coming weeks before they finish out the season largely against their own division, where they have fared very well this year.
After the Diamondbacks series ends on Wednesday, the Philadelphia Phillies come to town for four crucial games on the shores of McCovey Cove. The upstart and improved Pittsburgh Pirates come into town for three right after the Phillies.
The Giants took two out of three from Philadelphia on its home field just last week and will need to duplicate the intensity with which they played that series this weekend. The Giants haven't played well against the Pirates in recent years; they will need to reverse that trend next week.
The Giants then head out on a brutal road trip to the south that includes four games in Atlanta and three in Florida. The elements will come into play in those series just as much as the tough opponents that they will face.
They wrap up a potentially emotional road trip with three games in Houston, where they have played well of late. The Astros are a different team now, but they are dangerous. If the Giants limp into Houston hoping to regroup after seven tough games, they could end up limping home on the outside looking in.
Once home from that trip, the Giants play 21 of the final 34 games of the season at home. All but seven of those 34 games are against the NL West; six are against Arizona.
Carlos Beltran will produce, who else is going to step up?
The Giants are heading into the stretch run with many of the same questions still unanswered about their offense. Carlos Beltran, Jeff Keppinger and Orlando Cabrera have been nice, much-needed pickups and will prove to be vital in whatever success the Giants have for the rest of the year.
The team will still live and die, though, on the production or lack of production from key players like Andres Torres and Aubrey Huff.
Huff and Torres continue to be mere shells of the players that they were last year, when they truly were the catalysts of the Giants' run to the World Series. There clearly were other contributors, mainly Buster Posey and Freddy Sanchez, who are not available this year, but those two players have to pick up the pace.
Beltran is going to hit, and if the Giants can put runners on in front of him, they will benefit from his presence in the lineup. Bruce Bochy will have to work his magic, tinkering with the lineup to find just the right combination to maximize scoring opportunities. Brian Sabean will most likely try to find this year's Cody Ross on the waiver wire, but by and large, this is the team that will have to get it done.
If Huff and Torres continue to struggle, Bochy will have no choice but to find ways to replace their at-bats with someone who will produce. That is why Ross started in center field on Monday night and why Brandon Belt is here. Eventually, these guys will force the issue.