The San Francisco Giants are 12 games into the 2009 season—four series against three division rivals and the Milwaukee Brewers. It's still an incredibly small sample size (not even 10 percent of the slate), but one thing seems pretty bankable.
The young club has the potential to contend, but it will have to figure out a way to win on the road.
In the friendly confines of AT&T Park, the Orange and Black have managed to take two of three from the aforementioned Brew Crew, as well as two of three from the Arizona Diamondbacks.
Both clubs (as well as SF) currently sit at 4-8, but focusing on the subpar records mischaracterizes the situation.
I don't expect Milwaukee to be a contender this year. They've dropped those other six games to the Chicago Cubs (twice), Cincinnati Reds (twice), and New York Mets (twice). In other words, the Beer Makers have fallen to three teams that figure to be in the hunt right down to the wire.
The Snakes' record is a more accurate reflection of their current level of play, but they're a division rival and one of the favorites to take the National League West flag.
However, the more significant cause for concern is the feel away from the City.
San Francisco has yet to win a game on the road, going 0-3 in both Los Angeles and San Diego. More so than the losses, it is the way the Giants lost those games—once the pitching started to take on water, all hope seemed lost.
It's not just that the bats looked weak away from home—it's that they looked overwhelmed. The youngsters seemed to lose a bit of composure, manifested by an almost total abandonment of plate discipline, and the vets looked like they were pressing to compensate.
Of course, Bengie Molina had some rotten luck despite hitting the ball hard, and Randy Winn kept plugging away, plus the pitching was spectacularly atrocious. Maybe it was just a slow start to the @ games.
We should get a better idea when the Gents travel to 'Zona to face the Snakes in a roadie trio over the weekend.
I say that we should get a better idea, because SF looked pretty good against the D-Backs at home this weekend. Since the two series will only be separated by an odd two-game set against the cooling Fathers, any marked difference in performance could reasonably be attributed to the change in locale (especially since SF should be sending the same three starters to the bump).
During the last three games at AT&T, the formula for optimism that many of us fans drank before the season got under way finally started to materialize.
Jonathan Sanchez used his newly acquired changeup in the opener to keep the young Arizona hitters off balance and off the scoreboard. The young lefty tossed 6.2 scoreless innings, surrendering only two hits, four walks, and whiffing four.
The Giants' offense (a phrase that should become a pretty good oxymoron by the end o' the year) only scratched out two runs, and one came on a solo shot off the bat of Andres Torres, who is probably not a reliable source of run production going forward.
But the home nine still managed to win the game behind Sanchez's strong outing and nice work from the bullpen.
In the second game, Tim Lincecum finally shook off the rust and butterflies of defending his 2008 Cy Young reputation with eight scoreless innings, five hits, zero free passes, and 13 el take-o, el hike-os. The 'pen was not comparably stingy as SF gave the game away in the ninth.
The splinters again lay dormant, held down by the mighty Doug Davis this time. Oh well, we knew there would be games like these.
The finale saw yet another contest end in a 2-0 score with the good guys emerging victorious behind a third stellar pitching performance, courtesy of 45-year-old Randy Johnson. If the Big Unit had his mid-'90s heater back, it would've been vintage Johnson.
Instead, it was a damn close approximation—the big (skinny) fella took a no-hitter into the seventh and left, having allowed merely the single knock. The bullpen—clearly more adept at preserving a lead than a tie or small deficit—came in and slammed the door on the Big Unit's 296th career victory.
All in all, there were three games decided by a total score of 4-2, and the Giants won twice. We'll take it.
Furthermore, Sanchez's performance is something to really get excited about, and not simply because it was a fabulous performance without his "A" game.
Consider that Sanchez went out without his typical electric stuff and beat a club that had absolutely owned him.
In 10 games against the Snakes including his virtuoso start on Friday, Sanchez has a record of 2-5 with 36 IP, a 6.50 ERA, a .178 WHIP, a .298 average against, and 30 K versus 22 walks. To boot, he's coughed up six big flies.
And yet the Giants lefty, coming off a terrible first start of the year, took the hill and out pitched Dan Haren to snap San Francisco's six-game losing streak. Nice.
If he can deliver such a performance on a more reliable basis (as hinted by a good start without his best stuff), San Francisco will be in business. Even with an offense that manages to average three runs a game.
Lincecum is already elite, Matt Cain looks intent on becoming so this year, the Big Unit still has flashes of brilliance against a very good background, and Sanchez would make a quartet of sterling starting arms.
And then there's Barry Zito.
Hey, four out of five ain't too shabby.
Again, it's only 12 games, and there are still 150 to go. To draw any firm conclusions from such a minuscule fraction would be hilariously misguided. But the picture is starting to take shape, and the first shadowy images look a lot like the rosy flights of fancy that many of us diehards indulged before the first official pitch of 2009.
They could all easily dissolve into a 70-92 morass of anemic offense and sporadic pitching, but the arms are starting to look ready for the challenge.
At least at home...