The schedule did the Giants no favors over the past three weeks, but they couldn't have asked for much more than what was waiting for them after they finished off a sweep at Coors Field on Wednesday afternoon.
After playing 16 games in 16 days, the Giants got that long-awaited off day in Chicago, one of the marquee stops on the National League schedule. The weather is supposed to be perfect for the four days the Giants are in the Windy City, and to top it all off, a team full of football fans and fantasy football junkies has the night off as the NFL season kicks off.
You can bet this will be one of the more relaxing days of the season for the best team in the National League, but manager Gabe Kapler wouldn't fully commit to sitting back and putting his feet up for the first time in more than two weeks. Asked on Wednesday how he plans to relax, Kapler smiled.
"We've been playing some poker on the plane a little bit," he offered. "We'll mix an off day with some prep; how about that?"
The Giants won't take the Cubs lightly, in part because they're playing really good baseball this month, but mostly because they don't take anybody lightly. They are very deserving of a few hours away from the grind, though.
The past two-plus weeks were the most difficult of the season, but the Giants went 10-6 through the gauntlet and remained in first place. As they flew to Chicago, the Dodgers lost in St. Louis, extending the NL West lead to two games for Kapler's group.
The 16-game stretch started with a sweep in New York and ended with one at Coors Field, where the Rockies had not been swept all season. It included a brutal week at home against the Milwaukee Brewers and Dodgers, one that started poorly but ended with three wins in four games against the other two top contenders in the NL.
The stretch also included the first two COVID-19 positives of the last two years for the Giants, and starter Johnny Cueto went down to an elbow strain that could end his regular season. But all in all, this group did a pretty good job of surviving. Kapler was aggressive with days off, resting Kris Bryant on the first night of the 16-game stretch and Buster Posey and Brandon Crawford during the Dodgers series. With Donovan Solano (COVID-19) and Wilmer Flores (hamstring) on the way back, the Giants are close to full strength.
"No matter how today's game played out I would have been proud to go through the stretch like we did and come out as healthy as we are and as prepared for the final stretch of games here in September," Kapler said. "We want to win every single night and we're going to continue to raise the bar for our players as individuals and for ourselves to get players in positions to succeed, and for our club as a group. We'll continue to challenge ourselves and ask for more, but I'll say that I think we did a nice job through a very, very difficult stretch of games. I think at some point we'll look back and really recognize what a grind that was."
The Giants started the 16 games with a 2 1/2 game lead in the division, and while they briefly lost their grip on first, they ultimately lost barely any ground at all, in part because they were able to take two of three from the Dodgers over the weekend. That sets them up well to try and end the Dodgers' eight-year stranglehold on the NL West.
After this series in Chicago, the Giants play 10 of their final 19 games against the San Diego Padres, with the others coming against the Atlanta Braves, Arizona Diamondbacks and Rockies. The Dodgers have six left against the Padres, along with a nine-game road trip to Cincinnati, Colorado and Arizona, and home series against the Diamondbacks and Brewers.
No matter how the division race ends, the Giants, with this 10-6 run, have put themselves in position to clinch a playoff spot as soon as Sunday. Their magic number to at least get into the Wild Card Game is six, and if there are no sweeps this weekend, they are all but guaranteed to clinch the postseason spot next week at Oracle Park. It would be their first since 2016 and would come at least a year ahead of most expectations.
That would be the latest in a line of accomplishments that have come far sooner than could have reasonably been expected. The Giants on Wednesday became the first MLB team to 90 wins for just the second time in the last 100 years. They are the first Giants team since 1913 to win 90 of their first 140 games.
"I think it's an appropriate time to reflect, and in particular after the stretch we just went through," Kapler said. "We're in a really good spot and we've worked really hard to get here and we've worked really hard as a team and as a unit. I think it's a great accomplishment to be that far above .500 and I think it's totally fine to compare records to teams in the past. I'm a baseball fan and I've been loving statistics since I was a kid looking at baseball cards, so I can appreciate it.
"I think it's also a good time to remember that we've got a long way to go and a lot of work to do. I think it's great reflecting on the things that we've done well recently and I've done enough of that. I'm going to go ahead and turn the page and get ready for Chicago."