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After spending nearly the entire season buried in fourth place in the division, the Giants have put together a five-game winning streak to leap over the Diamondbacks and Dodgers and move into second place in the NL West, just 5 ½ games behind the Padres.

Now, this isn’t as impressive as it sounds. They Giants are still just 62-73, and they’ve been outscored by 77 runs. Being in second place in the NL West is a bit like being the second-cutest guy in the BP team photo; that .459 winning percentage would be fourth or worse in the four other five- and six-team divisions in MLB. Still, you have to take seriously any team that controls its own destiny, and the Giants, with seven games left against the division-leading Padres and just three (against the Nationals) against teams above .500, certainly fit that description.

Any analysis of the Giants is going to conclude that they’re not very good. You can’t hand-wave away a -77 run differential, being last in the league in Equivalent Average, 13th in OBP, 15th in SLG. Their pitching staff hasn’t been much better: 14th in strikeout-to-walk ratio, 15th in walks allowed, 12th in OBP allowed.

The recent hot streak (seven of eight) has appeared to be the result of improved pitching, but may just be lousy opposition. The Mets, Rockies and Diamondbacks have combined to score just 19 runs in the eight games; however, the three are seventh, 15th and 11th in the NL in EqA. Is Matt Cain very good (2.25 ERA in 12 innings) or are his numbers, like Felix Hernandez‘s, in part a function of facing poor lineups? Is Jason Schmidt finally 100%, or just feasting on the Mets and Snakes? It’s hard to separate cause and effect.

Getting Armando Benitez back certainly hasn’t hurt. He’s allowed two runs and struck out 10 men in 8 2/3 innings since returning from a torn hamstring. The closer myth aside, getting Benitez back gave the Giants another power right-hander, someone to miss bats late in games. That’s important to a team covering a vast outfield with marginal defensive talents. The Giants need to be able to get strikeouts late in games.

The Giants’ bullpen has been a strength in the second half. Surrounding Benitez, LaTroy Hawkins (1.77 ERA since the All-Star break) and Scott Eyre have been an effective set-up tandem. Jeff Fassero has even chipped in 19 strikeouts and a 1.77 ERA in 20 1/3 innings. They’ve needed the good work, as until Cain arrived, they were getting very little from starters aside from Schmidt and Noah Lowry: fewer than six innings a start and an ERA above 5.00. Lowry is someone to watch down the stretch: he’s pitched very well for two months, well enough that Felipe Alou has put the whip to him recently, with 128, 122 and 117 pitches in his last three outings. Twenty-four and coming to the end of his first full MLB season, Lowry may be a candidate for a fade in the wake of that usage.

Any hopes the Giants have rest in their ability to prevent runs, because they’re not going to score many. A typical Giants’ lineup includes Todd Linden (.295 OBP), Pedro Feliz (.311) and Mike Matheny (.310). With J.T. Snow (.276/.341/.365) and Edgardo Alfonzo (.285/.337/.354) looking their age, the Giants are reliant on having runners on base for Moises Alou‘s at-bats, and hoping Alou comes through.

That evaluation, of course, leaves out a detail. We’re describing the supporting cast of a star who isn’t there. The 2005 Giants have done a good job of proving what I’ve been saying for years: that for years this have been a .450 team yanked into contention by having Barry Bonds on the roster. In fact, I think what the Giants have looked like in the absence of Bonds should cause us to re-evaluate the work of both Dusty Baker and, to a lesser extent, Brian Sabean. How much of the credit for the Giants’ success in the late 1990s and early 2000s should really go to them, when we see how poor the team is in the absence of Bonds?

It’s not as simple as comparing records, of course, and the $18 million that Bonds makes this year ties Sabean’s hands a bit. I’m saying that a review of the relative importance of each man to the success those teams had may be of value, especially in light of what Baker has failed to accomplish in Chicago, arguably with a more talented cast.

The Giants could become a .580 team again if Bonds finds his way back to the lineup. The most likely scenarios have him playing a little in September, not a lot, whether as an occasional regular or just a threat on the bench. It doesn’t seem like his knees will hold up to even four games a week in left field. Squeezing whatever they can from him will be an ongoing challenge as they try and close the gap on the Padres.

Whether Bonds plays or not, the Giants have the same opportunity that six or seven other NL teams do: get hot and win the important head-to-head games against the other contenders. There’s no way to predict which team is going to go 20-6 over these next four weeks; after the last two years, we should know that any team, no matter how good or bad their core talent, is capable of virtually any record in a one-month period.

That’s not very useful or analytical or insightful. What it is, however, is baseball. The two NL playoff spots that remain in doubt are going to be won by the team that plays the best baseball down the stretch, and we have no good way of predicting who will play well in the short term. It’s at once frustrating and delightful that the game, which lends itself so well to analysis, refuses to submit to it at its most important points, forcing us to sit back and watch.

Enjoy September. It’s the game’s great gift to us.