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August 9, 2011
Divide and Conquer, NL West
Headed into their game against Arizona on August 26, 2010, the Padres owned a 76-49 record and a commanding 6 ½ game lead over second-place San Francisco. The Padres would lose on that Thursday afternoon at home, 11-5, the first of a 10-game skid. They would go 14-23 down the stretch, missing the postseason by one game after leading the NL West for almost the entire year. The Giants, who took advantage of San Diego's epic faceplant and rode it to a world championship, now find themselves in the midst of a similar run. After being swept in Cincinnati last weekend, San Francisco came home and lost series to Arizona and Philadelphia.
Barry Zito can't get batters out, Brandon Crawford has been an offensive downgrade from the punchless Miguel Tejada, and newcomer Carlos Beltran is hitting like Eli Whiteside without the walks. And while at least one local columnist has begun campaigning for Pablo Sandoval's MVP cause (never mind that Sandoval is having merely a good year, not a great one, and oh by the way he has missed more than a third of his team's games), the Giants have bigger concerns than whether their third baseman might win an award he doesn't deserve.
San Francisco now owns a negative run differential. Although this isn't damning (as we've noted before, the 1987 Twins won it all despite being outscored during the regular season), it isn't the sort of thing a contender aspires to in the so-called dog days. To provide some perspective, the Giants and Padres, who are 12 games out of first place, share identical 57-58 Pythagorean records. “As good as the Padres” might have been considered a compliment last year, but this year it's an indictment on the order of “as delicious as week-old sushi,” “as rockin' as the Bee Gees,” or “as relevant as Bee Gees references.”
Yes, Bruce Bochy has his team winning the close ones, which is fantastic, but a contender has to win the not-so-close ones, too. Getting outscored, 20-5, in Cincinnati didn't help the cause. An 8-1 victory against the Diamondbacks on Wednesday gave San Francisco a rare blowout victory (the Giants are 8-13 in games decided by five runs or more). Still, blowout or not, it represented one of only two Giants wins over a 10-game stretch from July 29 to August 7. And as last year's Padres demonstrated, one bad stretch can be enough to sink a team if another is ready, willing, and able to jump on the opportunity.
The Diamondbacks, if their recent three-games series in San Francisco is any indication, appear to be such a team. We've observed the development of Gerardo Parra and Justin Upton this season. We've celebrated the triumphant return of Brandon Allen, only to see him included in the package that brought Brad Ziegler to town. Now we turn to Allen’s replacement, Paul Goldschmidt. If nothing else, Goldschmidt should be interesting to watch. His top three comps here at Baseball Prospectus are Brandon Wood, Mark Reynolds, and Chris Davis, which suggests that making contact might not be “his thing.”
Comments from the 2011 BP Annual reinforce this notion:
Hey, if “Lucky Gravy” works for Prince Fielder, why can't “Firm Pudding” work for Goldschmidt? Food-based nicknames aside, the 23-year-old Goldschmidt paid immediate dividends for the Snakes, taking San Francisco's Tim Lincecum deep in his second big-league contest. The two-run blast in the fifth inning of last Tuesday's game gave Daniel Hudson all the support he would need en route to a 6-1 victory that saw Arizona briefly reclaim a share of first place.
Alleged Cy Young Award candidate Ryan Vogelsong (great story, but let's be serious) stopped the bleeding a day later, but then the Phillies came to town and, acting like a team that hadn't gotten over last season's NLCS loss, took three out of four against the Giants, outscoring them 15-6 in the process.
The good news is that Pennsylvania's other team is headed to San Francisco for three games. For as cold as the Giants have been, the Pirates have been even colder, dropping 10 straight and 12 of 13, while losing nine games in the standings in just under two weeks. The Padres swept the Bucs in Pittsburgh over the weekend, outscoring them 35-10. The only thing that would make this better for the Giants is if there were evidence that the concept of game-to-game momentum exists.
The Diamondbacks, meanwhile, host the Astros for four games. The Pirates have been lousy for 13 games, but the Astros have been lousy for 114. Then again, San Francisco plays more games against Houston this month. With Philadelphia in the rear-view mirror, the Giants have an easier schedule for the remainder of August (opponent records are through August 7):
The two frontrunners next meet in San Francisco at the beginning of September, and again in Phoenix from September 23 to 25, in each team's penultimate regular-season series. With fewer than 50 games left to play, a half-game separating the Giants and Diamondbacks, and the loser unlikely to win the wild card, this has become arguably (hello, AL West) the most compelling divisional race in baseball.
Now go eat your pudding. Or something...