Was it just a weird game or an omen for another magical, mystical Giants season in an even-numbered year?
Maybe one day we’ll look back on Wednesday’s 10-4 Giants win over the Atlanta Braves and decide it was the latter.
With the Giants now 11 games over .500 with a quarter of the season gone, and with hot weather officially here, hopeful early signs can begin appearing like legitimate story lines.
In this case, contributions from likely Giants sources (Hunter Pence’s four hits) and unlikely ones (Gregor Blanco’s three steals and three runs) can create an atmosphere of inspiration enveloping the Giants’ franchise again – much to the amazement of the rest of baseball.
Based on “Holy Cow”-sounding stories on ESPN and Fox Sports websites this week, the Giants are beginning to turn heads in a way that evokes 2010 and 2012 – when most everyone outside of this region watched in shock and awe as the Giants won the World Series.
I’m not inebriated as I’m typing this, OK. I know. It’s May 15.
Three-quarters of the season still remains. The Giants haven’t even played red-hot Milwaukee, heavily lauded Washington or the impressive cross-Bay A’s, yet.
On May 15, 2013, the Giants were also in first place – with a 23-17 record very comparable to the current 26-15.
But exactly a year ago Wednesday, the Giants were destroyed 11-3 in Toronto – one of two nightmare losses at the quarter pole of that season that did indeed tell a larger story. The Giants then lost three of four in Colorado and by May 27 had surrendered first place for good while getting smoked by the A’s.
In many ways big and small, the Giants of 2014 are drawing significant distinctions between today and last season. Fundamentally, they are catching the ball much better with Brandon Crawford ascending to an elite-level shortstop.
With bench coach Ron Wotus as the mastermind, the Giants are employing defensive shifts to rob opponents of hits better than many – if not most – teams.
Going into Wednesday’s game, the Giants had the second-best bullpen in baseball and put up four more scoreless innings after starter Madison Bumgarner struggled. Despite concerns about team depth, manager Bruce Bochy has had the flexibility to rest stars while bench players maintain levels of quality that dipped in key areas last year.
Blanco started in center field Wednesday for Angel Pagan – a strategic move to keep the Giants’ offensive catalyst fresh. Last season, Pagan’s leg injury in May and subsequent absence forced Blanco into an everyday role for which he is not suited.
Blanco entered the game hitting just .122 but took advantage of his chance to play – getting three stolen bases and scoring three runs.
How crazy is that stat line? The great Willie Mays never once stole three bases and scored three runs in a game during his storied career. One could blame this on an unusually hot day where the Braves played haphazardly. Sometimes weird stuff happens on getaway day.
But the Giants are measurably stronger in many key areas.
After a cold start that did not damage the Giants’ hot start, Pablo Sandoval got a hit in his fifth consecutive game – lifting his batting average to .203. Significantly lighter than last season, Sandoval can now score from second base on a single – as he did in the first inning when Crawford drove him home. And he can now field his position at third base with enough agility to be removed from the Giants’ list of defensive liabilities.
Pence, the one true offensive standout from 2013, enjoyed a monster game with four hits and three RBIs. He hit a game-tying, two-run homer in the first inning off Julio Teheran – a chest-level offering – so hard that the ball shot like a mortar shell toward the right-field pavilion.
A story to watch for the season is Crawford, graduating from the local-kid-makes-good narrative to that of a full-blown star. He makes the routine plays and the great ones. If he keeps it up, the Giants will have a legitimate Gold Glove contender – one who hit his fifth home run and drove in his 20th RBI.
“It feels good,” Crawford said of his ability to hit with power more consistently than before. “I don’t know what the difference is.”
There is no need for Crawford or any of his teammates to dissect their success. Playing cleaner, stronger and smarter is more than enough for now.