Giants

Crawford playing like an MVP candidate: 'He's not talked about enough'

Crawford playing like an MVP candidate: 'He's not talked about enough'

WASHINGTON D.C. — There was a time early in his career when Brandon Crawford was all too aware of the number .250. He batted .248 in his second full season, .248 the next year, and .246 the year after that. 

Hitting .250 is not what Crawford grew up dreaming of, but in a sport built on numbers, it’s an early milestone. From there, you can think of batting .275 as a big leaguer, or perhaps .300. Crawford, now in his eighth big league season, is skipping a lot of steps in the middle. With one of the hottest stretches in franchise history, he’s up to .338, and a legitimate contender for the batting title a season after batting .253. 

Crawford said he is not thinking about a batting title or individual accolades. “It’s June,” he pointed out, smiling. But when a player is going this hot, and when his team is on the kind of run that should keep it in contention, you can start to look at the big picture. 

After Crawford had four hits, three off of Max Scherzer, and provided the only runs in a 2-0 win over the Nationals, here’s where the paint has dried: The Giants have a shortstop who is a lock to return here for the All-Star game next month, a threat in the race for the batting title, and a legitimate MVP candidate as the season approaches the halfway point. 

“I think he deserves more credit than he gets,” said Derek Holland, Sunday’s winning pitcher. “He’s not talked about enough.”

There were a couple of players on the other side Sunday who annually get MVP attention and have been mentioned plenty already this season by the national media. Scherzer entered as the National League’s leader with 3.9 Wins Above Replacement, and he bolstered his resume by striking out nine over seven strong innings. Bryce Harper is a former MVP and annual candidate, and he hit his 19th homer during this series. 

But it is Crawford, not Harper — his former Fall League teammate — who finds himself near the top of the WAR lists that are so popular come voting time. Crawford entered play Sunday at 2.0 Wins Above Replacement, 10th in the National League, and he’ll wake up a couple ticks higher after a homer, two doubles and a single. He nudged his WRC+ to 150, which ranks him sixth in the league. Throw in his Gold Glove and you have one of the best players in the National League. 

This is where Crawford would tell you to take a deep breath. He is famous for rarely showing emotion on the field, and he wasn’t about to give anything away when asked about a scorching stretch that has reached six weeks. Since May 1, Crawford is batting .439 with 16 doubles, six homers and 27 RBI, but ... 

“A cliche is a cliche for a reason," he said. “It’s something I’ve at least always tried to do and done a decent job of, take every game one game at a time, whether it’s last year and we’re coming to the park late in the year and getting close to 100 losses, or this year, playing better. Every day is a new day.”

This day, the Giants admitted, was easy to pencil as a loss. Scherzer is the best pitcher in the league and struck out six straight at one point. He was facing a pitcher, Holland, who entered with a 4.91 ERA. But Crawford smacked a hanging cutter and Holland and a strong bullpen made the shot hold up. 

“It’s like he knew he had to be good,” Bochy said of Holland, “And he stepped up.”

Holland agreed with that, but only to a point. He gave all due respect to Scherzer, but then chastised himself for failing to go deeper in the game. Five shutout innings ended up being plenty. 

“I’ve got to go out and do my job,” Holland said. “Anybody can beat anybody on any given day.”

That’s become a daily routine for Crawford. He took Gerrit Cole, an AL Cy Young contender, deep in May. On Sunday he repeatedly put Scherzer in his book, becoming the first Giant to get three hits off the hard-throwing right-hander. Crawford faced Matt Grace in the eighth, needing only a triple for the cycle. He smoked a double down the line that tapped the chalk and then briefly spun away from Juan Soto. It was then that Crawford made his only mistake of a day that otherwise could serve as a bullet point for an MVP case. 

“Right when I hit it I was thinking about (a triple) and I was running hard out of the box,” Crawford said. “I saw it curve and I was thinking it was going foul, so I slowed up a little, which might have cost me. I was a little disappointed (in myself) when I saw it got by him.”

As Crawford stood on second and stared in at the dugout, the scoreboard whirred. That average that once chased .250 climbed up to .338. Only Matt Kemp (.351), Scooter Gennett (.342) and Freddie Freeman (.340) have been better.

“It’s been impressive, to sustain the quality of at-bat that he has for this long,” manager Bruce Bochy said. “He’s in one of those zones that good athletes get in and you ride it out. It’s been a long ride.”

Johnny Cueto impresses Bruce Bochy, Giants staff with bullpen session

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AP

Johnny Cueto impresses Bruce Bochy, Giants staff with bullpen session

PHOENIX -- Johnny Cueto always stands out in spring training, because while every other pitcher in the row tries to show Giants coaches how well he's throwing, he seems to be playing a light game of catch.

Saturday was the exact opposite.

Cueto, about nine months removed from Tommy John surgery, threw in front of the Giants' staff at Chase Field and opened eyes with his 40 fastballs.

"He threw really, really well," manager Bruce Bochy said. "I think he surprised a lot of us with where he's at as far as his stuff, how hard he threw, his command."

Cueto's progression has been just about seamless, and he has matched the rehab work by dropping more than 20 pounds. Beyond the weight loss, he has toned up, replacing fat with muscle.

"Right now I feel like I'm a 25-year-old kid," Cueto said through interpreter Erwin Higueros. 

"I think this is the best shape I've seen Johnny in," Bochy said. "He looks very determined to get back as soon as possible."

Knowing how long the recovery process is, Bochy wouldn't commit to Cueto making an appearance this season. But the Giants always have targeted Sept. 1 as a return date, and Cueto has told members of the organization that he would like to return in the first half of August. On Saturday, he certainly looked like a pitcher capable of hitting that mark.

[RELATED: Bochy to 'keep pushing' despite ejection and another loss]

Cueto has thrown five bullpen sessions and started throwing his changeup off flat ground. He will throw the changeup in a bullpen session next week, and a week later will mix in breaking balls.

It is full steam ahead, with the goal of returning in time to make a few starts this season that set him up for a big return in 2020.

"My arm is telling me it wants to pitch," Cueto said.

Giants vs. Diamondbacks lineups: Evan Longoria replaces Pablo Sandoval

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USATSI

Giants vs. Diamondbacks lineups: Evan Longoria replaces Pablo Sandoval

The Giants were shut out by the Arizona Diamondbacks on Friday, but manager Bruce Bochy isn't making many changes to his lineup Saturday.

Evan Longoria replacing Pablo Sandoval at third base and batting fifth is the only change from Bochy. Longoria missed Friday's game because of an illness. 

Longoria is off to a slow start at the plate this season. The 33-year-old veteran is batting just .228 with six home runs and a lowly .276 on-base percentage. 

[RELATED: Why Giants moved Duggar back to center, Pillar to right]

To get back in the win column, the Giants will send ace Madison Bumgarner to toe the rubber at Chase Field. Bumgarner is 2-4 with a 4.04 ERA this season, but the left-hander has enjoyed plenty of success in Arizona, going 7-3 with a 2.81 ERA in 18 appearances.

Here are the full lineups for Giants-Diamondbacks, which you can watch on NBC Sports Bay Area at 7:10 p.m. PT and streaming on the MyTeams app. Pregame coverage begins at 6 p.m. PT on NBC Sports Bay Area.

San Francisco Giants (18-25)
Joe Panik, 2B
Steven Duggar, CF
Buster Posey, C
Brandon Belt, 1B
Evan Longoria, 3B
Brandon Crawford, SS
Kevin Pillar, RF
Mac Williamson, LF
Madison Bumgarner, LHP (2-4, 4.04 ERA)

Arizona Diamondbacks (25-20)
Adam Jones, RF
Ketel Marte, CF
Eduardo Escobar, 3B
Christian Walker, 1B
Wilmer Flores, 2B
Nick Ahmed, SS
Blake Swihart, LF
Carson Kelly, C
Zack Godley, RHP (1-3, 7.65 ERA)