The San Francisco Giants (64-53) enter today in an exact tie with the Los Angeles Dodgers (64-53) in the NL West after being pummeled 14-2 at home against the Washington Nationals on Monday. With just seven weeks left in the season, the Giants and Dodgers will go to war in 45 more games, 9 of which pit the top teams out west on the same turf (6 in LA, 3 in SF).
The Dodgers lead the season series 5 games-to-4, and recently swept the Giants at AT&T Park while outscoring them 19-3. That was before the Giants acquired Hunter Pence, however. That was also when All-Star third baseman Pablo Sandoval was on the shelf with a strained hamstring, an injury he earned from virtually doing the splits on an elongated stretch at first base.
The Giants have recently excelled offensively, despite Pence’s exasperated struggles at the dish since donning the orange and black (11 hits in 62 plate appearances), and Sandoval’s absence in the line-up. San Francisco ranks second in the National League in team batting average since the All-Star Break (.270) and is also second in on-base percentage (.339) behind the Washington Nationals (72-45), who have outscored the Giants 39-20 in 5 games this season.
Buster Posey has solidified himself as an MVP candidate, compiling a ridiculous .441 AVG., 9 home runs, and 33 RBIs since the midsummer classic. The Giants’ All-Star catcher has proven himself to be a consistent run producer in the clean-up spot, while catapulting his team into offensive relevancy.
Melky Cabrera (.346 AVG., 11 HRs, 60 RBIs) has maintained the same level of production that earned him a starting spot in the All-Star Game. The switch-hitting outfielder leads the MLB in total hits with 159 and has also sustained a .908 OPS, but his season could be over after testing positive for testosterone. The 28-year old will miss 50 games and will become a free agent after the conclusion of the 2012 season.
It’s so often that writers and analysts attribute the Giants’ success to pitching, but San Francisco has managed to sustain a first place tie with Los Angeles in the NL West in spite of Tim Lincecum’s abysmal season (6-12, 5.35 ERA), and the season-long absence of eccentric closer Brian Wilson. The Giants score 4.25 RPG, which ranks middle-of-the pack in baseball, but is good enough to support a pitching staff that ranks fifth in baseball.
The addition of Hunter Pence has not immediately boosted the Giants’ offensive production. Pence (.186 AVG. since joining SF) smashed a go-ahead 3-run home run in the 8th inning of San Francisco’s 9-6 victory over the lowly Rockies on Sunday, but has yet to make a legitimate impact. It’s possible that Sandoval will assume the fifth spot in the batting order upon his return, dropping Pence to the sixth spot, and eliminating some pressure.
The Giants are ultimately going to need more production out of Pence though. They cannot expect Posey to continue to rake at his current rate. Look for Pence and Sandoval to largely determine how far the Giants go. Sandoval (.295 AVG., 34 RBIs) has played just 64 games in 2012, while spending most of the season on the disabled list. Pence has managed a horrendous .188 batting average in 29 games in the second half. His strikeout to walk ratio is atrocious (6:1) and his slugging percentage is .274, numbers that signify an elongated slump that Pence needs to climb out of in order for the Giants to win the West.
Still, if the Giants are going to win the NL West, then they are going to need consistency out of former-Ace Tim Lincecum. The two-time Cy Young champ has posted a 3-2 record and 2.72 ERA in his 5 second half starts, which is a strong indicator that Lincecum is beginning to more closely resemble the guy that won the clinching game of the 2010 World Series. The most encouraging stat in Lincecum’s second half split is that he’s managed to pitch at least 6 innings in 5 of 6 starts. In comparison, Lincecum failed to finish the 6th inning in 11 of his 18 first half starts.
The most dominant advantage the Giants hold over the Dodgers is the schedule. The Giants combined opponent win percentage for the remainder of the season is just .475. San Francisco has nine games left with San Diego (52-66), seven with Colorado (43-71), three with Chicago (45-70), and three with Houston (39-79). That’s 22 games against teams that mostly feature minor league talent. Still, the Giants will have to win head-to-head against Los Angeles and Arizona to clinch their second NL West crown in three seasons.
The Dodgers remaining opponent win percentage is .507, and their schedule includes trips to Atlanta, Cincinnati, and Washington, not to mention a crucial 4-game set at Dodger Stadium against St. Louis. The Cardinals (63-53) took 3-of-4 from the Dodgers last month, and they’re going to be in a dogfight for a wild card birth. The most pivotal series comes last though… when the Giants visit Chavez Ravine to face off with their hated rival for 3 games, a series that will likely decide who wins the West.