By Michelle Dingley
Pablo Sandoval achieved one of his career goals this year when he made it to the All-Star Game. His next goal was to compete in the Home Run Derby. His wish has come true… sort of. On Sunday, the Giants played a one-sided home run derby against the Rockies in the thin air of Coors Field. This was the Giants’ eighth straight win and the team’s longest winning streak since April 2007. The Orange and Black are inching closer in the NL West and the wild card race, keeping our postseason dreams alive.
On a rare day when Matt Cain didn’t have his “A” game, he finally got some run support, which has been equally rare for the pitcher throughout his career. The homer barrage started in the very first frame, when Mike Fontenot smashed a two-run shot off the facing of right field’s second deck. The Panda led off the fourth with a long ball to the opposite field on the first pitch of the inning. Two batters later, the Baby Giraffe belted one, his third home run in his past three games. Two more batters later, with Brandon Crawford on second, Matt Cain shot one out of the park into the Christmas tree lot in deep center. This was the first homer by a Giants pitcher since Cain himself launched one back on May 13, 2008. The Giants weren’t done yet. Carlos Beltran’s single brought home another run, chasing Rockies starter Esmil Rogers from the game. Then Sandoval, batting for the second time in the inning, smacked a three-run big fly out to right. When the Giants had finished the inning, they had sent 12 batters to the plate and scored 8 runs. Crawford, one inning late to the party, went yard to right center in the fifth. The Giants won in convincing fashion, 12-5. The Giants earned a four-game sweep of the Rockies, and as a bonus, they got to have a little fun knocking the ball out of the park.
Our surprising resurgence is keeping September interesting, more so than it looked like it would be before the eight-game winning streak. The Giants had been just awful for about a month and a half. The team had been struggling to string any number of wins together. The last time the Giants won three straight was July 17-19, one week after the All-Star break. Their offense, weak all year, looked so atrocious in August that it seemed possible the team could end the year in third place behind (gasp!) the Dodgers. Suddenly, the Giants are scoring, and it’s fun to watch them again. Instead of looking forward to the 2012 season (we’re going to be great, by the way), we can actually stay in this moment. We can embrace our team, warts and all. We’ve been through a lot this year. We knew it wasn’t going to be easy to defend the title, but we didn’t expect all this. Our favorite players have been hurt, our bats have been silent, and our defense has sometimes let us down. We’ve experimented with rookies, free agents and trades with varied success. Our lineup today looks nothing like the lineup that won it all on November 1, 2010. Somehow, despite the weak second half of July and the horrible August, we’ve managed to keep just close enough to the D-backs and the Braves to see the light at the end of the tunnel, no matter how faint.
We are playing meaningful games, and we are looking good doing it. We are finally getting some bats to heat up. Panda was just named NL Player of the Week, a well-deserved honor for his tremendous performance. He smashed a triple on Sunday, in addition to the two homers in one inning, and he hit for the cycle on Friday. Carlos Beltran also has been swinging a hot bat, as had Cody Ross until he injured himself on Friday. The guys look like they are having fun, and that is definitely making a difference. Both Brandons have been looking better at the plate. The offensively-challenged Chris Stewart hit the second home run of his career in the Colorado series, and he is finally off the interstate. Brett Pill (.333 with 2 triples and 2 homers in 6 games) has made us wonder what took the Giants so long to bring him up. Our pitching staff is joining in on the fun. Jeremy Affeldt is out for the season with (of course) an injury, but Brian Wilson was activated and Barry Zito pitched a scoreless inning of relief. We’re still missing pieces, but it feels good that some guys are trickling back. We feel like a team again.
Things are looking up for the Giants for the first time in a while, but we have a long way to go, and it will not be getting any easier. From here, we venture to the unfriendly confines of Dodger Stadium for three games. Then we face the D-backs for three, in yet again the biggest series of the season. We’ve lost so many “must-win” games (including dropping early September’s series against Arizona 1-2) that it’s amazing that we’re in the race at all. Going into Tuesday, we’re 5 1/2 out in the West and 3 1/2 games back in the wild card with only 9 games left to play. Though they still lead in the wild card, Atlanta has been faltering a bit, but to take this playoff spot, we have to leap-frog the Cardinals, who are currently in second place at 2 1/2 games back. In the West, Arizona is showing no signs of a 2010 Padres-style collapse, but we have three games against them with which to gain ground. Other than those head-to-head games, none of the teams in these races are facing particularly strong opponents, with the possible exception of Atlanta. The Braves wrap up the season with three against the Phillies. Having already clinched their division, Philadelphia may not be quite the threat they normally are, potentially sending out a rookie lineup for these games that essentially don’t matter to them. At this point, we can’t do it all ourselves. We’re going to need some help. The Giants have to win, and the D-backs, Braves and Cardinals have to choke.
With only nine games left to play, our postseason chances are not great, but it is not impossible. Teams have come back from huge deficits. Teams with a big lead have completely collapsed. It is possible. It was just last year that we took it down to the wire, all the way to game 162, to win the division. If there’s one thing we learned last season, it’s that you can never give up, never stop believing. It’s a long shot, but these past eight wins give us a glimmer of hope. And that’s more than we had at the beginning of the month.