NL West Report: San Francisco’s Back In The Race

What had to happen finally did happen, and it’s that the Los Angeles Dodgers have come back to earth and the race is on in the NL West. San Francisco, at 30-24, is coming off a week where they first won a series against Arizona, then took advantage of playing the Chicago Cubs and delivered a three-game sweep. Coupled with a slump by the Dodgers, Frisco is back within three games of the lead and there’s no reason to think this is just a flavor-of-the-week type thing.

Doing with pitching has been the San Francisco way in recent years and the 2012 is the same, with the third-best ERA in the National League counteracting the negative effects of an offense that’s better than just four NL teams. But the ’12 staff is doing it in spite of a terrible first 2 ½ months from Tim Lincecum and a season-ending injury to closer Brian Wilson. The Giants were known for the bullpen depth and it has paid off in spades this year. Santiago Casilla stepped into the closer’s role and has nailed 14/15 save chances with a 1.54 ERA. Since Casilla was already one of the NL’s top setup men this wasn’t much of a surprise. What’s been critical is that his replacements have been excellent. Clay Hensley’s ERA is a buck-77, Jeremy Affeldt’s at 2.55 and Sergio Romo is a surreal 0.51. The basic principle of beating the Giants remains—you better do it in six.

And even with Lincecum struggling, getting a lead off the starters is still not easy. While we can certainly point out Matt Cain having another stellar season or Madison Bumgarner continuing to be reliable, or Ryan Vogelsong showing last year was no fluke, let’s single out Barry Zito. The lefty has tapped into a fountain of youth somewhere and is 5-2 with a 2.98 ERA. Given how little was expected of the man on the 10th anniversary of his 2002 Cy Young Award in Oakland, it’s fair to say that Zito has covered for Lincecum to this point.

Offensive depth remains a substantial problem. The burden of carrying the lineup falls on Buster Posey and Melky Cabrera. The latter’s .413 on-base percentage and .548 slugging are one of the great revelations in all of baseball thus far. Not only can that not keep up—even though Cabrera is a good baseball player who will have a good year—but the drop-offs from the haves to the have-nots in this order are dramatic. While San Fran has benefitted from a nice year from Angel Pagan in center (.354 OBP) and can hope for Brandon Belt to improve at first (good plate discipline for the kid turns a .230 batting average into a .347 OBP), there’s no reason to think Joaquin Arias, Emmanuel Burriss, Brandon Crawford or Gregor Blanco will be anything but huge liabilities. Therefore the return of third baseman Pablo Sandoval from the DL this month will be a badly needed shot in the arm. Sandoval, one of the best offensive third baseman in the NL, had a .357/.537 OBP/Slugging line when he went out and he’s got the pop to make scoring runs a little easier.

Ultimately though, when you pitch like San Francisco, you’re going to be okay for the long haul. As last year demonstrated, it doesn’t make you immune to a September slump, but you’ll at least have a shot. That’s what the Giants have now and they won’t disappear any time soon.

Around the rest of the NL West…

LA Dodgers (33-21): I’m thinking right now of the 18-point lead the Boston Celtics built on the Miami Heat in the NBA playoffs last night. As a Celts fan, I knew it was great, but I also knew deep down it wouldn’t last and that eventually we needed to make some plays to win a tough one. That’s the mindset Dodger fans have to be in right now. They enjoyed being at high tide, but now the race is tightening and the injuries are adding up—Matt Kemp is going to be out until at least mid-June, according to the injury report and all anecdotal reports say it will be longer. Ted Lilly will miss a couple starts with a shoulder problem. It’s well past time for Chad Billingsley to stop pitching like a back-end starter (4.09 ERA in a pitcher’s paradise).

Arizona (25-29): The Diamondbacks are a lot like the Angels were a couple weeks ago. You could see they were playing better, that they had stopped the bleeding, but a real move up the standings hadn’t yet come. LAA got it put together recently and Arizona now has the chance to do the same. They’ve gotten good years from Jason Kubel and Paul Goldschmidt, and now Justin Upton and Aaron Hill need to get their bats going. On the pitching staff, Daniel Hudson has only made five starts due to injury and has a 4.65 ERA in that quintet. He needs to pitch better, as doe Ian Kennedy and Trevor Cahill. All of which is very possible, so a team that’s gone 9-6 since its low point in mid-May can get back in striking distance.

Colorado (23-30): I ripped this team apart a couple weeks ago, so now I have to come back and eat crow. The Rockies’ offense has gotten unleashed and is now the top run-scoring machine in the National League. Carlos Gonzalez is batting .332 with 14 home runs. Troy Tulowitzki has to make a brief stop on the DL with a groin injury, but is finally swinging the bat well. Michael Cuddyer has been productive and Dexter Fowler’s .400/.582 line is almost as stunning as what Cabrera is doing in San Francisco. The problem is closing out their chances to win games. While closer Rafael Betancourt is fine, the rest of the bullpen is an astonishing 1-of-11 on save chances.

San Diego (18-37): Offensively, they rely on Yonder Alonso, Chase Headley and Will Venable. The problem with this is nothing against those players, especially Alonso who is proving to be a nice line-drive hitter with a good career ahead of him. The problem is that none of them hit for power and the rest of the offense is awful. As for the pitching…in a series with the Cubs last week, they not only lost all three, but gave up an average of eight runs a game. What else needs to be said?