Giants living dangerously in title defense - NBC Sports

Giants living dangerously in title defense
Strong pitching, clutch hitting helping injury-prone team stay in first
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Pablo Sandoval's return is key to a Giants offense that doesn't have a lot of room for erorr.
June 21, 2011, 8:06 pm

"Look at that, Jose Reyes has 11 triples,'' Bochy said.

And a few moments later: "Reyes is hitting .395 at home. That's pretty good in that park (referring to pitcher friendly Citi Field).''

As speculation grows about Reyes' possibly imminent departure from Queens, you can't blame Bochy for noticing. No tampering intended, of course, but what contending team without a front-line shortstop couldn't use Reyes, after all?

But when you think about it, Reyes isn't what the defending World Series champions are all about, anyway. No, this is who the Giants are in what is unfolding as a fascinating title-defense season:

  • Buster Posey is lost for the season, Freddy Sanchez could be facing season-ending shoulder surgery and Brandon Belt is walking around with a cast on his left wrist, where a broken bone is healing.
  • Sadly, Miguel Tejada appears to be near the end of the line in a great career. And more than a shortstop, their biggest need is behind the plate, where backups Eli Whiteside and Chris Stewart are splitting the duties - and to their credit, with no loss of effectiveness from the pitching staff they are handling in Posey's absence.

All that, and the Giants sit in first place in the National League West.

And now they have their Panda back. Pablo Sandoval came off the disabled list last week, his infectious personality helping to liven up the clubhouse, and more importantly, his bat lengthening the middle of a Giants order in need of help.

And he didn't waste any time making a difference. In his first at-bat, Sandoval lined an RBI single to right-center. In his third at-bat, he saw 10 pitches and worked a walk, showing the six weeks he spent recovering from surgery to repair the hamate bone in his right hand brought some patience. He also made a nimble defensive play.

"Story-book comeback,'' closer Brian Wilson said. "We're excited he's back. He's a threat.(Opposing) pitchers know about his power and his timely hitting.''

Bochy immediately installed Sandoval in the third spot in the order, in reality because there is no better choice. The Giants' home-run leader is primary cleanup hitter Aubrey Huff (with eight), but three of those came in the same game. Other than Huff, no other active player has more than 24 RBIs.

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Image: Albert Pujols

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So it figures that in his first start with the Giants, Hall played a key role in a 5-2 win over the Diamondbacks on Wednesday. Hall's sixth-inning RBI single scored the go-ahead run, and in the ninth he belted a double off the center-field wall and made an excellent stop on a hard ground ball up the middle that turned into a game-ending forceout.

This came in the same game that Whiteside and slow-footed Burrell legged out triples, and Tejada was in the middle of a perfectly executed relay that cut down the potential tying run at the plate to end the eighth. All of which prompted Bochy to echo the familiar Giants mantra: "It's everybody helping out, contributing something.''

Hall is thrilled to be part of it. He says he had a couple of other options, but jumped at the Giants' offer because of the chance for immediate playing time in Sanchez's absence.

Hall was hitting .221 with 56 strikeouts in 149 at-bats when the Astros pulled the plug, deciding instead to give playing time to younger players. But the veteran firmly believes he's far from finished at 31, and after some work with Giants hitting instructor Hensley Meulens, Hall made some lower-body adjustments he says have steadied his head position and corrected swing flaws.

"I haven't put that swing on a baseball in a really long time,'' Hall said about a ninth-inning double. "Thirty minutes in the cage with 'Bam' (Meulens), and I found something that's been missing for three years. This was a great ball club before me. But I feel like I can do something to help this team win. We all know pitching is the key. Three or four runs can win us every game with the staff we have.''

But the Giants sure are cutting it close in that regard. They are 19-11 in one-run games, and sit six games over .500 despite a -6 run differential - 248 to 254. There are two ways to look at that. One is their run differential suggests the Giants' record should be .500, so expect a slide.

But the flip side poses the question - what if the Giants start hitting just a little bit with the additions of Sandoval, Hall and perhaps another bat closer to the July 31 trade deadline? That could help them pull away in the NL West, where the overachieving Diamondbacks and underachieving Rockies are the other contenders.

"That's how we play,'' Wilson said. "We've been winning a lot of one- and two-run games. It's not easy coming back after a World Series victory and (trying to) maintain perfect health. A lot of stories are being made - positive and negative. The only thing we can do is play baseball and focus, and try not to let any of these injuries affect us.''

The experience of 2010 certainly gives Wilson and his teammates the knowledge that it's possible. And this time, the first-place Giants won't have to play catch-up and run down the San Diego Padres down the stretch.

"This is a September division; you know that,'' Wilson said. "It's going to come down to those last couple of series. Who wants it more? Whose bullpen is going to lag? Whose starters are going deeper in games? Who gets more timely hits? That's how this division goes.

''We don't lack confidence. Nobody's arrogant. Nobody's trash-talking. We just go about our business every day, and Bochy nails it every day (handling the pitching staff).''

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