SAN FRANCISCO Melky Cabrera had it all working. He was averaging .346 and leading the major leagues in hits. He was chasing balls down in left field and throwing runners out on the bases. He was a quietly popular Bay Area sports figure this was one of the Giants' good guys, remember, the outfielder in the white hat and a legitimate MVP candidate.
Or so we thought. Now we don't know what to think.
In the midst of a tense, tightening National League West race, Cabrera tested positive for performance-enhancing drugs (testosterone) and was suspended 50 games by Major League Baseball, extending beyond the end of the regular season. The Giants and the six-year veteran were notified of the suspension a few hours before Wednesday's much-anticipated duel between Tim Lincecum and Stephen Strasburg at AT&T Park.
Lincecum barely lasted four innings. Strasburg and his much-discussed right arm earned the victory. The Giants dropped the game and the series to the hard-charging Washington Nationals.
But the news about Cabrera ruined the mood long before the 12:45 p.m. first pitch.
While fans were learning about the suspension (via Twitter and cellphones) as they crowded into entrances and area parking lots, Giants general manager Brian Sabean and manager Bruce Bochy were processing the stunning information and summoning Cabrera to a closed-door meeting.
Moments later, Bochy said, he hastily scribbled Gregor Blanco's name onto his lineup card and met with his players.
"We're disappointed," an unusually subdued Bochy said afterward while absently fiddling with one of the tape recorders positioned near his microphone. "Melky was having a real nice year for us. But our thoughts are right now 'you move on.' That's all you can do, whether it's an injury or something like this. That's where we are.
"Sometimes you are dealt things you have to handle. This is one of them."
But again? Another performance-enhancing drug controversy involving a Giants left fielder with a hefty batting average? The steroid era was supposed to have ended with those testy congressional hearings, protracted internal investigations and tightened drug policies.
And around here, of course, with Barry Bonds' retirement in 2007; the Giants have spent much of these last few seasons quietly but insistently distancing themselves from their former slugger, who insists that he never "knowingly" used banned substances.
Not so Cabrera, who acknowledged using testosterone and issued a written public apology.
What he didn't do was address two of the more pertinent questions, specifically, his reasons for violating baseball's drug policy in the midst of a pennant race (he failed the test last month) and the impact his absence would have both on the Giants' postseason prospects and his pending free agency.
At 28, Cabrera doesn't fit the steroids profile. He is neither an unproven schoolboy nor an aging, physically battered old-timer desperate for one final splash. The kudos have been there; he hit .305 last season with Kansas City. That lucrative paycheck was coming. Whether it was a three-year deal for $27 million or a longer-term contract that afforded more security, plenty of teams besides the Giants were interested and intrigued by his numbers.
But after Wednesday? Who knows what Cabrera's financial future holds?
If he ever again wears a Giants uniform?
Don't count on it, though. That Bonds factor lingers. While AT&T Park is the ballpark essentially built by Barry his initial signing was the economic impetus the Giants won the World Series three years after his departure, and the formula hasn't changed much. The Giants remain rooted in great pitching, timely hitting, improbable contributions from role players and few controversies involving their significant players.
"It's tough," said first baseman Brandon Belt, one of the few Giants willing to publicly address the matter.
Angel Pagan appeared particularly pained. The center fielder, who routinely serves as a translator for the Spanish-speaking Cabrera, patiently but repeatedly uttered "no comment" when asked his reaction.
"I don't think anybody had a clue, so I think it's safe to say everybody was shocked," Belt added. "He (Cabrera) was a big part of our team, a big part of our success. At the same time we've been through this before, had some big guys (Buster Posey, Brian Wilson, Pablo Sandoval) going down for us. And there's been people to step up every single time, so we kind of expect this to be the same."
Maybe that happens. Maybe Blanco provides a boost, Sabean makes a move, Lincecum recaptures his magic. Maybe the Dodgers and the Diamondbacks stumble in the N.L. West.
Or maybe, with no Wilson and now no Cabrera, this becomes last season all over again.