As they pieced together their rotation and bullpen and tried to prove that this powerful lineup is for real, the Giants very nearly were undone by an element of the game they never expected to struggle with this year.
This is a group that should be at least solid defensively, and during spring training, they looked ready to be better than that under the watchful eye of new bench coach Kai Correa. That's why it was so frustrating when the Giants started out with 16 errors over their first dozen games, with plenty of game-swinging mental mistakes thrown in as well.
The defense stabilized over the final couple weeks of August, in large part because Brandon Belt and Evan Longoria got fully up to speed after missing time with injuries and Brandon Crawford became an everyday player again. On Sunday, the defense won them a game, but not because of any of the usual suspects.
Wilmer Flores, Darin Ruf and Alex Dickerson are all here because of their bats, but they all stepped up in big spots, making defensive plays that helped lead to a 4-2 win over the Arizona Diamondbacks that got the Giants within a game of .500.
Flores threw a runner out at the plate on a squeeze play, Ruf made a sliding catch with the bases loaded and two outs, and Dickerson snuffed out a potential late rally with his own diving catch in the outfield. Afterward, Ruf and Dickerson both said this shouldn't be a surprise. The defense always was bound to get better, and they both said the short run-up to the season wasn't enough to get the gloves ready.
"Early on, you've got to realize that we started up and it was a three-week startup with very little of the practice and reps that you're used to," Dickerson said. "I think a lot of the early defensive mistakes this season you really could chalk up to, we hadn't been out there that much. I think everybody is kind of hitting their stride now."
The Giants played simulated games throughout summer camp, but veterans often acted as designated hitters, with a lot of the fielding reps going to prospects. Dickerson estimated that the veterans only got five or six games worth of work in before the July 23 opener. They normally would have a month of spring training exhibitions in Arizona to ramp up.
"A lot of it was getting reps, getting positioning down," Ruf said. "I think especially with us, but all across baseball, you're seeing a little bit cleaner baseball and guys are just starting to settle in to playing the game again."
The Giants have played 41 games now, and that accounts for a lot of this improvement. But some of those early mistakes were ones that shouldn't be made in any situation, such as Flores' infamous ill-advised throw to second on a play when all he had to do was take one more step to first. Manager Gabe Kapler has continued to run Flores out there, playing the platoons even as Brandon Belt has turned into the hottest hitter alive, and on Sunday he was so thrilled with a heads-up play that he spoke about it before taking questions from reporters.
Tim Locastro tried to put a squeeze down against Johnny Cueto with runners on the corners in the fifth, but Flores was there and flipped the ball to the plate just in time.
"I think that was the most important moment, the most important play of the game," Kapler said. "The safety squeeze is such a difficult play to make and such a difficult thing to defend. If he doesn't make that play at the plate, not only do they score a run, but we haven't recorded an out. He understood that play was coming. He was right on top of it."
"I know Wilmer has taken some heat over the season," Kapler continued, "And that was just a tremendous defensive play that I think he deserves a lot of credit for making."
The good glove work allowed the Giants to stay within striking distance, and Donovan Solano gave them the lead with another barreled homer. Belt hit a solo shot to extend it, picking up his 27th hit in 55 at-bats.
Dickerson came on late, and he helped Tony Watson get through the eighth with a diving catch that kept the tying run from coming to the plate. It looked like a trap at first, but replay confirmed the catch and Dickerson smiled as he watched on the $10 million scoreboard at Oracle Park.
"I was honestly just as curious as anybody else," he said. "It was so fast and so close that I wasn't sure whether I got my thumb under the ball or not."
A month ago, that ball might have skipped under his glove for a double. But the Giants are playing much cleaner baseball right now, and that has them right there in the Wild Card race.
"We're comfortable and kind of hitting our stride as a baseball team right now," Dickerson said.