Every Giants fan knows the tale of Hunter Pence and the fiery speech, which helped spur the team back from the brink of elimination in last year's National League Division Series.
Left out of some renditions is what came just before in Cincinnati – manager Bruce Bochy calling the team together and telling them the Old Testament underdog story of Gideon. That Bochy gathered the Giants for a meeting at all, said reliever Javier Lopez, was notable. "It's not something that he does often," Lopez said.
Bochy, entering his seventh season in San Francisco, found his Hall of Fame candidacy suddenly being weighed after he guided the Giants to their second World Series title in three seasons in 2012. None of the discussion, of course, was originating from him. Bochy, a two-time N.L. Manager of the Year whose 1,454 career victories rank third among active managers, has an understated style that Lopez said resonates with players, especially in pressure situations like the postseason.
"You want a guy that's going to be calm and doesn't panic in those situations," Lopez said. "When Bochy stood in front of us and spoke, it was just, 'This is what we're confronted with, this is how we're going to go about it, try to draw some inspiration, and then leave it at that.' "
That, Lopez said, made it all the more stirring when Pence "took that and absolutely flipped it."
Bochy said his managing style is drawn from men he played for – from Dick Williams, a focus on fundamentals; from Bill Virdon, a "fair but firm" attitude toward players.
"(Virdon) never embarrassed his players, and I try not to," Bochy said. "I try to treat them the way I would want to be treated."
Pence, who arrived midseason via trade last year, said he noticed "a lot of charisma" from Bochy, who can appear stoic and, at times, a little gruff.
"That's what it is," Pence said. "A lot of times in all the chaos of a major-league season, having stability and having that presence, it keeps you level."
For the first time since 2008, somebody other than Tim Lincecum will take the mound for the Giants on Opening Day when they begin the season Monday against the Dodgers in Los Angeles. That honor goes to Matt Cain, who established himself as the staff ace with a 2012 season that included a 16-5 record, a perfect game and starts in the clinchers of all three postseason series.
Otherwise, there's not much different to be found in the Giants' rotation – besides Lincecum's hair.
Madison Bumgarner, whose 16 wins last season were the most by a Giants left-hander since Kirk Rueter did it in 1998, follows Cain, with Lincecum, Barry Zito and Ryan Vogelsong rounding out one of the most reliable staffs in baseball in recent years. Their consistency, in fact, breeds one of their concerns – each made at least 31 starts last season, not counting the playoffs, and will have to maintain his conditioning over the slog of another season.
"Biggest thing is having those guys, the trainers, push us to stay on our stuff," Cain said. "Because it's easy to try to get off of it."
Along with Lincecum's unsettling 2012, the biggest question about the rotation may be what it will look like in a year. Lincecum, who is coming off his worst season as a Giant, and Zito, who's coming off his best, are due to become free agents at the end of 2013.
After one of Zito's early Cactus League outings, Bochy was asked how different the left-hander looked this spring compared to last.
"I wouldn't even know where to begin on that," Bochy said.
A year ago Zito was lost – tinkering with his mechanics and getting hit hard by Cactus League lineups in Arizona. This spring, Bochy said, Zito "came in with the same attitude and delivery that he had last year. He's pitching the same way he did in 2012, and that's all we want."
The Giants have won 14 consecutive Zito starts, including his series-saving outing in Game 5 of the National League Championship Series in St. Louis and his victory over Justin Verlander in the World Series opener.
Zito was 15-8 last season, partly due to run support (4.69 per game, eighth in the N.L.) but also because of a looser, more confident attitude from the 34-year-old, who admittedly let public rancor over his struggles and contract eat at him in the past. Zito also relied more on a cutter to offset his signature looping curveball and trimmed his walk rate (3.42 per nine innings) to its lowest since 2004.
The Giants hold a club option on Zito's contract for 2014. With another season like the last, the left-hander could make that an interesting decision.
The 89-mph fastball that Sergio Romo threw past a frozen Miguel Cabrera to seal the World Series was only the flourish on a brilliant postseason by the right-hander, who allowed one run in 10 2/3 innings and got the final out of all three clinchers.
After stepping into the closer's role late last season following Brian Wilson's injury and Santiago Casilla's shakiness, Romo will begin this season getting the majority of the save opportunities. But with his relative newness to the role, the Giants have other options to ensure they aren't overtaxing Romo, whose career high is 62 innings and whose signature pitch, the slider, can be tough on the elbow.
"(The closer) is a guy you get up a lot, and you may score a run, so it may not be a closing situation," Bochy said. "They may come in two, three games in a row. So Sergio's got to understand we may give him a day off when he may not want it, but we've got to take care of him."
Along with Casilla, the Giants could use left-handers Jeremy Affeldt or Lopez to close games when Romo is unavailable. Romo has said he's willing to pitch whenever the Giants need him.
"He'll get tested as a closer for a whole year vs. a month," Bochy said. "But we believe he can handle it."
THREE QUESTIONS WORTH CONSIDERING
1. CAN THEY STAY HEALTHY?
The Giants' last quest for a repeat was derailed largely by the plate collision that ended Buster Posey's 2011 season. The plan this season is to give Posey about the same amount of time at first base as in 2012, when he returned to hit .336 and win the MVP. Pablo Sandoval has no more hamate bones to break, but an elbow issue cropped up this spring, and he and many Giants are coming off a short offseason for the second time in three years. The mileage can add up, particularly on the rotation, all of whom made at least 31 starts last season. Each starter tailored his offseason throwing accordingly, but keeping an eye on their conditioning and workload throughout the season will be paramount.
2. WILL LEFT FIELD WORK?
Gregor Blanco was key down the stretch last year after Melky Cabrera's drug suspension, batting .291 in September and October and playing great defense in the playoffs. But the Giants had enough doubt about Blanco as their everyday left fielder to re-sign Andres Torres with designs on using a righty-lefty platoon to start the season. Blanco batted .244 last year and had a slightly higher average against left-handers (.248) than right-handers (.242). Torres hit .286 right-handed for the Mets but just .230 overall. Both started slowly in spring, Torres due to an oblique injury. If one distinguishes himself – or struggles mightily – early on, it will be interesting to see how long the platoon strategy lasts.
3. CAN TIMMY BOUNCE BACK?
Perhaps no fall in baseball was more astounding last season than that of two-time Cy Young Award winner Tim Lincecum, who had the highest ERA (5.18) of all qualifying pitchers in the National League and career highs in losses (15), home runs allowed (23) and walks (90). Lincecum showed up this spring with a new haircut and new physique shaped by an offseason workout program meant to restore explosiveness to his delivery. There's life again on his fastball, but this is about results. The Giants may not be able to carry Lincecum again as they did last year, when they often trailed early and leaned on the bullpen in his starts. And Lincecum will be a free agent when the year is up, so the stakes are high.
– Matt Kawahara
THE TEAM AT A GLANCE
2012: 94-68, won World Series
Manager: Bruce Bochy (seventh season)
They're here: OF Andres Torres, RP Chad Gaudin
They're out of there: IF Emmanuel Burriss, OF Melky Cabrera, RP Clay Hensley, IF Aubrey Huff, RP Guillermo Mota, IF Freddy Sanchez, IF Ryan Theriot, C Eli Whiteside, RP Brian Wilson
Projected lineup: CF Angel Pagan (.288, 8 home runs, 56 RBIs, 95 runs, 29 stolen bases), 2B Marco Scutaro (.306, 7, 74, 87 runs with Rockies and Giants), 3B Pablo Sandoval (.283, 12, 63), C Buster Posey (.336, 24, 103), RF Hunter Pence (.253, 24, 104 with Phillies and Giants), 1B Brandon Belt (.275, 7, 56), LF Gregor Blanco (.244, 5, 34), SS Brandon Crawford (.248, 4, 45)
Rotation: RH Matt Cain (16-5, 2.79 ERA, 193 strikeouts), LH Madison Bumgarner (16-11, 3.37, 191), RH Tim Lincecum (10-15, 5.18, 190), LH Barry Zito (15-8, 4.15, 114), RH Ryan Vogelsong (14-9, 3.37, 158)
Key relievers: RH Sergio Romo (4-2, 1.79, 14 saves in 15 opportunities), RH Santiago Casilla (7-6, 2.84, 25 of 31), LH Javier Lopez (3-0, 2.50), LH Jeremy Affeldt (1-2, 2.70)
Outlook: There's no secret to the formula – the Giants will count on their experienced starting rotation and defense to keep them in games and look for the production they got in late 2012 from a lineup anchored by reigning MVP Posey. Scutaro may not hit .362 again, but if Sandoval can stay healthy and Pence returns to his career norms, it would be a boost. Lincecum and Zito both have the added incentive of being in a contract year.
– Matt Kawahara