Fast start, big finish? Giants again look sharp
Unlike their two title teams, defending champs appear strong early on
Maybe the San Francisco Giants aren't going to tease us this year. Maybe, just maybe, they're going to keep rolling out quality starts and not wait until the last minute to make those playoff reservations. Regardless, we know not to take our eyes off them.
It's the quiet ones you've got to watch. That means you, Brian Sabean. You, too, Bruce Bochy. Fooled us once, shame on you, etc.
In 2010 and '12, when the Giants won the World Series, they stumbled out of the gate and looked mediocre for long stretches. But every time the rest of the National League West thought they might have put the Giants away, they'd reel off another few victories and stay within striking distance.
San Francisco was in fourth place at the 2010 All-Star break and didn't climb atop the division for good until the 156th game of the season. When the Giants were done, they were reminded how a bunch of seemingly small things can add to up to one big trophy.
Sabean, the general manager, did his usual magic, summoning Buster Posey to the Major Leagues on May 29 and Madison Bumgarner on June 26. One of his last free-agent additions, Aubrey Huff, was huge down the stretch. He then added Cody Ross and Jose Guillen for the final push.
And there was all that pitching. San Francisco's top four starters, led by Tim Lincecum and Matt Cain, averaged more than 200 innings each. Bochy, the manager, did the rest, having long ago established himself as the best on earth at getting the most out of a bullpen.
This spring, Bochy marveled that the Giants' rotation has been so good the past four years that he hasn't even had a long man in his bullpen. He fretted that kind of good fortune won't last forever, but maybe, thanks to Sabean and Bochy, the Giants make their own luck.
Anyway, by the time the 2010 playoffs began, the Giants were a machine. They eliminated the Braves in four, the Phillies in six and won their first West Coast World Series with a Game 5 victory over the Rangers in Arlington.
Last summer, they were 7 1/2 games behind the Dodgers in late May. By August 20, they were atop the division for good.
The thing that's so special about the Giants is that they never seem to panic. Sabean and Bochy let things play out, and rather than make a headline-grabbing move, they make three or four smaller ones.
Last season, first baseman Brandon Belt and shortstop Brandon Crawford established themselves as everyday players. And then it was again Sabean's turn to shine, adding Angel Pagan in the offseason and Hunter Pence and Marco Scutaro down the stretch.
Again, it was also about the pitching. Cain and Bumgarner combined to win 32 times and pitch 427 innings. The Giants were knocked down twice in the playoffs, trailing the Reds, 0-2, and the Cardinals, 1-3. They rallied twice and had plenty left in the tank, sweeping the Tigers in the World Series.
This season has a different feel already. The Giants are already eight games above .500 at 23-15 and have a two-game lead in the NL West. Their bullpen has been baseball's best. They've scored the third-most runs in the NL, doing it again with doubles and triples rather than home runs.
If the starting pitching, the thing that has carried them to two championships, comes around, the Giants may be unbeatable. In a weekend sweep of the Braves, Lincecum, Bumgarner and Cain allowed a combined three earned runs in 22 innings. With Barry Zito also going good, the Giants could again have baseball's best rotation.
For Lincecum, his Sunday outdueling of Kris Medlen and the Braves was especially satisfying. Far from the problems he's had the past couple of years, Lincecum didn't leave balls in the middle of the plate and had some of the same movement he had in his best years. He cautioned that there was still work to do, but for both a franchise and one of its most important players, it was a huge step in the right direction.
Meanwhile, Posey and Pablo Sandoval are off to good starts, and at the moment, there's nothing not to like about the Giants. This season's beginning is so different from the championship seasons that it's impossible not to look ahead to another October against the Cardinals.
Or maybe the Nationals or Braves will be coming through AT&T Park this time around. Regardless, the park is again packed, the crowds are loud and the Giants have to be feeling this could be another special ride.
Richard Justice is a columnist for MLB.com. Read his blog, Justice4U. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.