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Giants Can Still Win The NL West

(originally written 6/27/13)

With a record of 23-15 on Mother's Day, the defending champion San Francisco Giants—under siege from injuries, hamstrung by a dormant offense and let down by a generally unreliable starting staff much of the season—own a 15-25 post-Mother's Day record, which is MLB's worst to date.

The G-Men now find themselves in fourth place after dropping six of seven to the Marlins and Dodgers over the past week. Dropping six of seven to those clubs would hardly create any waves if this were 1997. This year, it's cause for grave concern as both of those clubs rest in the cellar. 

I do not feel it's necessary to enter full-on panic mode just yet—San Francisco remains only 3.5 games behind Arizona. That said, the stagnant Giants offense can accelerate a turnaround if it can break some of the following bad habits sooner rather than later:

Brandon Belt needs a re-introduction to left field

Belt quietly became one of the team's pull-happiest players, and some defenses have resorted to over-shifting to the right side—not quite as dramatic a shift as Ryan Howard sees, but enough to matter. (The big first baseman attempted to bunt against it on June 17 versus San Diego, unsuccessfully.)

In early June, Belt had his opposite-field swing working well, but over the past two weeks he's hit exactly three balls well to left field—two being caught (though he has put up a pair of "oppo" bloop hits.)
Belt is not pounded inside with regularity. He does often see hittable balls on the outer half from both righties and lefties but always fouls them off—perhaps intentionally, Wade Boggs-style, in an effort to elicit the perfect pitch to hit. Perhaps, but most likely not, "Baby Giraffe" isn't enough of a slugger at this point for this level of pull-happiness.

Gregor Blanco has got to stop calling late timeouts

No fewer than four times in the past couple of weeks, Blanco has waited until the opposing pitcher is in motion before signaling for time; even announcer Mike Krukow took an uneasy notice.
Umpires have generously granted it in each instance, which they are not required to do. (Bo Jackson famously homered after being denied a time-out once, but I'm not here to talk about the past.)

Last month, as I reported at the time, Brett Lawrie of Toronto earned himself a nice bruise, courtesy of Chad Gaudin, when he committed such a "code" violation. He seemed fully aware of what he'd done and sheepishly took his base after being plunked. Blanco is fortunate to not have suffered a similar far.

Given the number of Giants injuries caused by the baseball recently—in times of tranquility—the last thing this team needs is an angry fireballer sending a message at 95 mph.

San Francisco needs to be more aggressive on 3-0 counts

Buster Posey's long double against the Dodgers on June 24 came on such a count. It was so shocking to see a Giant swing 3-0, Buster literally made me flinch. 
San Fran has only put three 3-0 pitches in play this year; Angel Pagan's memorable three-run double April 21 stands as the only other hit besides Posey's. If there were ever a time for Bruce Bochy to green-light his hitters in these spots and not settle for walks—this is it.

Strike first! Get ahead early and often

Blanco, save for the stretch immediately following Angel Pagan's hamstring pull, has played well all year in what was initially a part-time role. Since Pagan went down, he's spent a lot of time batting leadoff and held his own. But I feel Andres Torres—whose discipline and pitch recognition has improved by roughly 200 percent since his dreadful 2011 season—offers more impact as a leadoff man.

Torres can do everything Blanco can do—plus he's a switch-hitter, and he's got more pop. Blanco's slugging numbers outpace Torres in 2013, but he has eight lifetime homers in five seasons. Torres hit double that many in 2010 alone. I like the odds of Torres "running into one" far more than Blanco, though the latter is better in the clutch, and a tougher out.

Hunter Pence must lay off the high fastball

Though he's one of the few Giants to execute a home run trot here in late June and leading the club in many hitting categories, Pence could be even deadlier if he would let letter-high fastballs pass.

He often turns potential 2-1 counts into 1-2 counts with these unwise swings. Not shockingly, he doesn't put these pitches in play. Few of these at-bats have ended favorably, as he's unnecessarily forced to protect the plate.

Count leverage is not insignificant in baseball, and on a struggling team like San Francisco, its second-most productive player needs all the hitting counts he can get. It is absolutely crucial at this point.

Get it together on the basepaths

The Giants have only been successful on three of their past eight steal attempts. Since June 18 they've had three runners doubled off (although two were victims of terrible luck.) Two men were gunned trying to stretch their hits. Another was picked off first base.
That doesn't even include poor Gaudin, forced out at second on a hard-hit one-hopper to right field.

Then there are the ELK's.
It is common knowledge to never, ever run from second to third on a ground ball hit in front of you, and in many cases behind you. Most players have had that drilled into them since Little League, hence ELK—Even Little Leaguers Know.

Yet the Giants continue to make ELK outs. Though the alarming early-season rate has tapered off, Blanco and Posey were both wiped out this month ELK-style, and Marco Scutaro barely missed a similar fate. Only defensive gaffes saved indecisive Nick Noonan and Brandon Crawford from costly outs.

Every baserunner, especially those in scoring position, is precious these days, Whatever instructions coaches Roberto Kelly and Tim Flannery are giving, they're not being received. That must change.

(Not offense-related but...)

Don't overuse Jake Dunning

Dunning has been impressive and shown exemplary command (except on pickoff throws) since being called up earlier in June and has found himself eating up the innings Jean Machi had been in recent weeks.

Machi had become so reliable for Bruce Bochy, he was pitching in (or warming up) practically every game—regardless of situation. Eventually, as noted in a previous article, it caught up to him. 
Understatement: Bochy's starters have not consistently performed to expectations or capabilities. That can't be disputed. To their credit, they've managed to re-focus and last six-plus innings in many of their ugly starts.

That, coupled with timely roster tinkering, has spared the bullpen from overuse—even after the 11-inning marathon versus Miami on June 22. With seven good relief arms at his disposal—plus Machi and Dan Runzler in Fresno—Bochy shouldn't have to rely too heavily on Dunning, and I don't think he will.

A smart trade or two obviously can't hurt, but I don't believe in counting on a savior from a bottom-feeding team to ride in and save the day. Even so, since a trade isn't happening right away, S.F. has got to right itself from within until Brian Sabean makes a move—if he even decides to make one at all.

Since I'm aware of these correctable flaws in the Giants offense, surely they are, too.
If they make the necessary corrections, avoid further injuries, find a way to make Barry Zito effective on the road and receive continued production from the rookies, the National League West Champion flag can—and will—hang high at AT&T Park three months from now.

Go, Giants!!!

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