After closing out a home series against the hated Los Angeles Dodgers Wednesday night, the San Francisco Giants began an interesting three-week stretch.
It may tell us that, as constituted, the Giants are serious contenders to defend their title. Or it may say they are at best darkhorses.
Between Thursday, July 21, and Thursday, August 11, the Giants play 19 games.
If getting a day off before, during, and after those 19 games does not get their bodies on playoff time they handled last season so effectively, the competition will. And they play six series against teams who are either in first place or within four games of it: vs. Milwaukee, @ Philadelphia, @ Cincinnati, vs. Arizona, vs. Philadelphia and vs. Pittsburgh.
In the bottom of the first, the Giants got a leadoff double from Andres Torres, who aggressively advanced to third on Jeff Keppinger's to short. Pablo Sandoval then drove him in with a line-drive out off Marcum.
The Brewers got things going in the second when Prince Fielder led off with a single and Rickie Weekes walked. With Ryan Braun out of the lineup, Casey McGehee would have to deliver.
He hit a sharp ground ball right to Panda at third, and the obvious play was to tag third and see if he could get a strong throw to first to double off an average runner. But he elected to go for the double play with a throw to second, and that was the only out the Giants got.
It was the wrong move because it was if anything a lower probability of getting the double play and left the lead runner 90 feet away with only one out against a good lineup. However, it is quite possible he would not have gotten McGehee either way, in which case the mistake made no difference.
Shortstop Yuniesky Betancourt doubled home Fielder and brought McGehee to third. Catcher John Lucroy singled to left, scoring McGehee before a perfect strike from Cody Ross beat Betancourt to home plate.
Except Eli Whiteside could not handle it, and the Brewers were up 3-1. Throws like that may be tough, but a major league catcher has to be able to at least smother it and pull it with him as he covers home plate. However, it was not ruled an error.
After that, the pitchers took over. Marcum gave up just a pinch-hit home run to Aaron Rowand, and Cain only gave up a two-out RBI single to Betancourt because a Keppinger throwing error got things going.
But that did not mean the game was without drama. From my view of my childhood team vs. my hometown team in the first row of the upper deck between home and third base, there was commotion in the outfield after a catch in the alley by San Francisco native Nyjer Morgan showed his range.
After seeing replays closely, I can understand the entire incident. Morgan, who has a history that includes questionable judgments, interacted with fans heckling him and pointed toward them with his pinkie and index finger up to signify two outs.
There is nothing wrong with players interacting with fans, even if it is responding to hecklers. But as he got unnecessarily exuberant, he again exercised poor judgment.
No, it was not in flipping off the fans. Despite what fans at the game and a few afterward think, a close look at the replay shows that he did not do that.
But by swinging his arm beneath the other, it looked like a defiant gesture that frequently accompanies "the bird." Because he still had his fingers extended, they were understandably mistaken for the middle finger.
Morgan may not care if he makes himself a target, but he gets distracted by it and it can be distracting for the team. It also can serve as a motivator for not just opposing fans, but players.
That is not something you see out of championship teams. Think of the last champion to have an agitator in baseball—it is something that Morgan should have left on the ice when he played hockey growing up in the area.
Still, it was the only bad sign for the Brewers. They had gotten clutch hitting against an elite pitcher with an elite hitter not in the lineup.
The Giants, meanwhile, may have failed to stop three of the four runs because of defensive letdowns. They had two meaningful hits in the game and lost to a team that struggles on the road.
It looked like the Giants might have gotten fat off a weak division. The difference between the Brewers and Giants was even without Braun was the defensive positions that hit seventh and eighth.
Catcher and shortstop both delivered in those spots, and both hitters are about 50 points better than who the Giants have in those spots. The Brewers also have better hitters higher in the lineup since Buster Posey is out, even now with Keppinger (one for 17 as a Giant) being an adequate replacement for Freddie Sanchez.
And it looked like they had a good enough starting rotation and bullpen (Francisco Rodriguez and John Axford is a very good setup/closer combination) to look like they should take the series. But the Giants bounced back in the final two games, including contributions from backups at catcher and shortstop.
In Saturday's game, catcher Chris Stewart threw out Morgan in a foolish attempt to take third on a ball in the dirt (who does not know that you do not make the first or last out at third, especially with Braun at the plate?). In Sunday's, shortstop Mike Fontenot drove in the winning run on a sacrifice fly.
And that is why you cannot judge the Giants by what they are on paper. It this first game is any indication, San Francisco can defend its title because the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.
They still know how to win the close games. After splitting two games decided by two runs, they take the rubber match with another one-run victory.
With seven of the next 16 games against the Phillies, we will soon know whether the Giants are able to keep up with truly elite teams. The Brewers might be contenders, but on paper the Phillies are the best team in the league.
The Giants have pitching matchups lining up favourably in Philadelphia. They will face only one of the three pitchers in the top-five in WHIP and of the two in the top five in ERA, Cole Hamels. They will be sending Tim Lincecum and Cain on either end of the series.
If the Giants find they cannot stay close well enough to take this series against the Phillies, they will have a decision to make about whether they must add another hitter in the lineup.