BRONX, NEW YORK CITY—It has only been 12 days since the San Francisco Giants ended the unofficial first half of the season with a satisfying 4-0 win over the Arizona Diamondbacks. The victory capped off a series sweep, and featured an absolutely brilliant pitching performance by Madison Bumgarner, who fired a one-hit shutout featuring 14 strikeouts. The next day, Johnny Cueto was named the starting pitcher for the National League in the All-Star Game, a tremendous honor for both Cueto and the Giants franchise, who had last earned the honor to have one of their own start in the form of Matt Cain in 2012.
Things were going well for the Giants. While they still had the season-long barrage of injuries and corresponding question marks to carry around with them, they seemed to have found some solutions and remedies, at least for the time being. Their victory over Arizona on the tenth put them three games up on the next best teams in Major League Baseball, a good position to be in, given the trying circumstances they had to push through and succeed in spite of.
Perhaps Cueto’s All-Star Game start was an omen for what was to come. He struggled in his inning and two-thirds of work, narrowly escaping a two-out David Ortiz rocket down the first-base line with Mike Trout on first base in the first inning, and then yielded a solo home run to Eric Hosmer and a two-run home run to Salvador Perez in the second. Freaking Petco Park left field. But I digress.
That three-run performance foreshadowed what was to come for the Giants starters in the second half, at least early on. For a team that truly runs on pitching (especially in a year where the offense has suffered SO many serious injuries to key players), its starting pitchers have struggled mightily since returning from the break. Bumgarner, five days after his brilliant performance against the D-Backs, allowed four runs to the San Diego Padres in a disheartening 4-1 defeat. Jeff Samardzija allowed five runs in his start on Saturday in the most disappointing game of the year for the Giants. Cueto, who struggled with both illness and injury on Sunday, allowed four runs, one more than the Giants could muster from their offense in a 5-3 loss.
But wait, there’s more. The starting pitching woes continued on Tuesday, when Jake Peavy allowed four runs in six innings. The Giants could not muster A SINGLE RUN in that game, losing 4-0 to the Red Sox. The very next day, returning starter Matt Cain allowed five runs in 2 1/3 innings, and the bullpen allowed six more in an 11-7 loss. In that same game, a seven-run comeback was forgotten. The Giants trailed 8-0 immediately before they made this run, and even though they failed to capitalize on a bases-loaded, no-out situation in the top of the sixth (while only trailing 8-7), they still were close after the end of the top of the sixth, and had three more solid opportunities to tie or take the lead. But the bullpen had other ideas, surrendering two runs in that same sixth inning, and another in the seventh.
For a team whose success is so strictly predicated on the success of its pitching (Yes, it bears repeating. Plus, predicated is just a really awesome word.), this run through the rotation was disastrous. Surely, Bobby Evans, Brian Sabean, and Larry Baer must be working the phones 24/7, and will continue to do so until August 1 rolls around.
This run has exposed the ugly underbelly of the current Giants team, one that they have deftly managed to avoid time and time again. Now, should the Giants go for broke to shore up all perceived weak spots? If they reach the playoffs, they would presumably have a four-man rotation. Right now, all of their pitchers are struggling. It seems reasonable that Bumgarner and Cueto will come around, but what about Samardzija? Maybe most importantly, who will be their fourth starter? The Giants have gone with a four-man starting rotation in each of their World Series runs in 2010, 2012, and 2014. Though each pitcher in each year’s rotation has not been a complete stud, the Giants pitching has, more often than not, been an enormous strength for the Giants in October, and powered them to their three World Series Championships. Even in 2014, Bumgarner made up for the deficiencies of other members of the pitching staff with his historical brilliance. Those other members contributed pivotal starts as well, despite some notable struggles. In each of their runs, starting pitching was a pillar of fortitude for them, and they prided themselves on having a starting pitching staff that exceeded, or at the very least matched, the caliber of any opposing staff they would face.
The starting pitching struggles are notable, and other teams will struggle with their starting staffs as well. But the most troubling development of all has been the bullpen. If we focus only on games since the All-Star Break (of which there have only been five), the relievers have given up nine runs in 16 2/3 innings of work, which amounts to a 4.86 ERA. The starters have given up 22 runs (21 earned) in 24 1/3 innings pitched, which amounts to an 8.14 RA (run average, runs per nine innings—factoring in ALL runs allowed, earned and unearned) and a 7.77 ERA. The entire cast of pitchers has accumulated a 6.80 RA and a 6.59 ERA.
In these isolated five games in the second half, the starting staff has been the bigger problem. However, as the statistics above dictate, the pitching PERIOD has been pretty bad for the Giants so far in the second half of the season. Speaking of the overall/entire season, the relievers have a 4.00 ERA, the starters carry a 3.65 ERA, and when the two are aggregated, all the team’s pitchers share a 3.70 ERA. Amazingly, this team ERA ranks them sixth in the majors and fifth in the National League. However, the Giants must get better on the mound if they want to go toe-to-toe with the Nationals or Cubs, for instance, in a postseason series.
At least 20 of those hours the Giants front office executives will spend on the phone each day must be devoted to the bullpen, their biggest need. The Giants pen has been stretched thin, and has not been the lockdown force they need to possess in order to have success winning close games down the stretch and in October. They may look to pick up a starting pitcher before the deadline as well, which would be a good move.
It seems doubtful the Giants will trade for an extra offensive player with the wealth of players that should return from injuries fairly soon. However, if they do want to sign an offensive player, I think Michael Morse would be a good option. Morse, a hero of the Giants’ 2014 World Series campaign, is an unrestricted free agent and can sign a major or minor league contract with any team. I think Morse would be a good signing if Hunter Pence’s hamstring continues to get reaggravated and have problems. Morse is a veteran player who can provide instant energy and offense off the bench for the Giants, and can be called up in September to help with depth. Additionally, if the Giants carry 12 pitchers into the postseason, Morse could make the postseason roster as the fifth outfielder.
Of course, the Giants could always go a more traditional route, and trade valued prospects for a “proven” high-level major league performer. Don’t get me wrong—this paid off splendidly for them when they traded for Hunter Pence, but Carlos Beltran completely flopped after being traded to the Giants at the deadline in 2011. Morse has already proven himself on the biggest stage for the Giants (NLCS Game 5, anyone?), and would help build camaraderie. Plus, he’s just the best and I miss him. I don’t say that about many former Giants players.
In addition to all the Giants’ woes, recent and accumulated, the Dodgers are surging despite the losses of Clayton Kershaw and Hyun-Jin Ryu (again). Their offense carried the team to a series win against the Nationals. In Thursday’s game, the rubber match and the series winner/clincher for the Dodgers, they handed Stephen Strasburg his first loss of the season. Strasburg was 13-0 before Thursday’s game. They are now four games back of the Giants in the NL West. Like the Giants, they face an opponent fighting for a playoff position (though the Yankees are also fighting simply for relevancy). While the Giants face the New York Yankees, the Dodgers will be facing the St. Louis Cardinals at Busch Stadium. The Redbirds have just completed a sweep of the San Diego Padres, including a 6-5 walkoff win on Thursday. But the Dodgers are a dangerous team with a dangerous offense, as the Giants well know. The Giants will need to straighten themselves out against the Yanks if they want to continue to remain the pacesetters in the NL West.
In any case, though the Giants have lost five games in a row and things seem kind of bleak right at the present moment, they have a chance to turn it around later today. Madison Bumgarner faces off against Masahiro Tanaka in a battle of aces at 7:05 ET at Yankee Stadium. Bumgarner will look to lower his ERA and raise the spirits of the Giants. It will be key for him to put up some early zeros, as the Giants have a history of doing well when they take the lead first, even more so than other teams. It calms their starting pitcher and relaxes their offense, which, while not overpowering, is effective—13th in the majors and fifth in the National League in runs scored. They hope to do this successfully tonight, and play well in spite of their current deficiencies, which Bruce Bochy and the front office will undoubtedly look to address.