4 Things San Francisco Giants Must Do to Catch Diamondbacks in Playoff Chase
There's still time for the San Francisco Giants to win the NL West title.
Yes. There. Is. Still. Time.
Repeat that over a cold beverage, and catch my next piece in the morning.
Seriously. Even after splitting the first six games of a critical 12-game home stand and slipping four games behind Arizona.
Four weeks, 28 games—six against Arizona. There's still time.
For one thing, San Francisco is chasing Arizona, not Philadelphia. These D-Backs haven't yet survived the heat of a pennant race. The Giants have.
For another, the Giants are still winning their share of one-run, low-scoring games. That takes pitching, and that can keep a club—even one this offensively inept—in the race.
But there is a catch: Manager Bruce Bochy needs to discard some tendencies and embrace a few others.
Will he? Won't he? Who knows?
Here's my take on four things that must happen for the Giants to stay in contention.
Make Chris Stewart the Everyday Catcher
Bruce Bochy probably sees a bit of himself in Eli Whiteside, the Giants' backup catcher since 2009.
Like Whiteside, Bochy was a light-hitting (career .239 BA) reserve catcher who appeared in no more than 63 games in any of his nine big-league seasons.
That, plus the lack of a better option in the Giants farm system and Bochy's well-known loyalty to his veterans, surely influenced his naming Whiteside to replace Buster Posey in late May.
Chris Stewart, another career backup with scant major-league experience, was promoted from Class AAA Fresno to serve as Whiteside's backup.
Bochy gradually increased Stewart's playing time to the point that he and Whiteside were effectively splitting catching duties.
Neither has been much of an offensive weapon, but Stewart has emerged as a better receiver and a far stronger deterrent to would-be base-stealers.
Every key defensive statistic heavily favors Stewart over Whiteside: pitchers' ERA: 2.51/3.46; percent of base-stealers thrown out: 43 percent/24 percent; passed balls: 2/7.
Of course, other clubs know all this. Which explains how, in the just-concluded series against Houston, the Astros stole Whiteside blind—5-for-5, including a steal that set up their first run on Sunday—but rarely tested Stewart, who threw out two of three Astro runners.
For Bochy, loyalty needs to give way to logic. Unless there's a waiver deal in the next few days, Stewart needs to play every day.
Stick with Eric Surkamp
The Giants desperately need to stabilize the fifth rotation spot, occupied (sort of) previously by Barry Zito and Jonathan Sanchez.
On Saturday night, Eric Surkamp provided momentary stability and a quality start to boot.
The 24-year-old lefty wasn't commanding. But he was crafty—and tough.
He stranded nine of the 10 baserunners he allowed (six hits, three walks, one hit batter) and consistently made big pitches whenever necessary.
Considering that his last start for Class AA Richmond (Va.) was witnessed by fewer than 7,000 patrons, what Surkamp did in the heat of a playoff chase, in front of a packed house at AT&T Park, is astounding.
Because of an upcoming off day, the Giants' fifth rotation spot next comes around this weekend against Arizona—an even more pressurized setting.
If the Giants skip Surkamp, they could send the rookie to Class AAA Fresno, freeing up a roster spot and allowing him to take another start before rejoining the Giants in San Diego on their next road trip.
Doing that would also allow Matt Cain and Tim Lincecum to face the D-Backs.
Whichever direction the Giants go this week, the fifth spot will come up three, possibly four more times before the regular season ends.
Who would you rather see—Barry Zito, Jonathan Sanchez or Surkamp?
Promote Speed, and Use It
The Giants' lack of team speed has been all but ignored in 2011, but it's a significant deficiency—especially on a club that has profound difficulty advancing baserunners.
Entering the weekend, San Francisco ranked 13th in the NL in stolen bases. Bruce Bochy has had very, very few weapons with which to hit-and-run or otherwise generate offense.
With rosters expanding next Thursday, GM Brian Sabean ought to gift-wrap for his manager a couple of early holiday gifts: speedsters Emmanuel Burriss and Darren Ford.
Burriss can play several infield and outfield spots, can switch-hit and can pinch-run for any of several thick-legged Giant regulars late in tight games.
Darren Ford, however, is the ultimate speed weapon. Injured for most of 2011, he's back playing regularly for Fresno. On Saturday against Akron, Ford swiped three bags.
You remember Ford's memorable scramble around the bases in last year's pennant chase. Do you recall that he stole five bases in in only 12 plate appearances earlier this season?
Speed alone can't improve the Giants' anemic on-base-percentage, but it can help win one-run games—especially for Bochy, who otherwise seems to despise small ball.
Gotta get that speed up here—now.
Use the Vets, Selectively
I've hammered the Giants all season for utilizing underperforming vets like Aubrey Huff, Miguel Tejada, Aaron Rowand and Cody Ross long past the point that it seemed to make any sense.
And, of course, 36-year-old Mark DeRosa.
DeRosa, the oft-assailed two-year, $12 million mistake.
So let me be (among) the first to say how much fun it was to watch DeRosa contribute this weekend against Houston, and how much fun it was to watch him have fun.
He made a critical defensive play Friday. He singled, stole a base and scored the winning run Saturday on a base hit by Jeff Keppinger. He nearly did the same thing Sunday, driving in the tying run in the ninth before being (erroneously) called out trying to stretch his base hit into a double.
Too bad we can't say the same thing about Aaron Rowand, who struck out on three pitches (and seemed pretty unconcerned about it) with the tying run at second base in the 10th inning Sunday.
The 13.6-million-dollar man has five hits in his last 41 plate appearances and has not drawn a walk since July 5.
What about Miguel Tejada, who appeared to skip lazily up the first-base line on a bunt attempt that sacrificed a runner to second base but could have set up a big inning by reaching first before the throw.
The point? Bruce Bochy can and should utilize those veterans during the season's final month, but selectively—not mindlessly.