Mariotti: Challenge for wobbly champs: Survival 

click to enlarge Jake Peavy made his season debut for the Giants on Sunday, but surrendered a fourth-inning grand slam. Peavy missed his first start of the year with a bad back. - ALEX GALLARDO/AP
  • Alex Gallardo/AP
  • Jake Peavy made his season debut for the Giants on Sunday, but surrendered a fourth-inning grand slam. Peavy missed his first start of the year with a bad back.

SAN DIEGO — So now they come home, to a ritual that has become a civic formality much like a marvelous vista, a foggy chill, a too-cool-for-code techie in South of Market, a tourist line for a cable car, a burrito in the Mission or something on the bottom of your shoe. This is standard procedure for the Giants in the 2010s — another springtime, another flagpole, another love-in — except that for their latest banner-raising ceremony today, there is a more complex element in play.

Will they have enough healthy limbs to hoist the damned thing? Worse, will another injury happen as they collectively yank the rope or lift the trophy?

And instead of toasting the Champs with wine or beer, should the fans join in by doing cortisone shots?

"It's going to be a great day for our fans, raising the flag," manager Bruce Bochy said. "It will be an emotional day when everybody realizes what we accomplished."

In the here and now, though, the Giants are 3-4, having lost the final three games of an early four-game litmus test against the rejuvenated San Diego Padres. Jake Peavy, lagging in the fourth inning Sunday, threw his 82nd pitch just carelessly enough, down and low, for Wil Nieves to rip it for a grand slam, the symbolic moment in a 6-4 loss. The entire just-trying-to-get-by mantra took a bizarre turn in the sixth, when Bochy didn't pinch-hit for Yusmeiro Petit with Gregor Blanco on third and two out. He preferred to squeeze more innings out of an all-purpose reliever than try to tie the score.

Petit, he of the .049 career batting average, struck out. And allowed a run-scoring triple to Alexi Amarista in the bottom of the inning. And a solo homer to Will Venable in the seventh.

Oh, future Hall of Fame manager? What was that about? That desperate so soon? "You know what, I thought that was my best shot at winning a game," Bochy said. "I had a good pitcher, we've seen what Petit can do in holding the other team, giving us a chance. He had a very nice inning the inning before. At that point, you don't want to start using everybody and tear up the bullpen."

Next inning, in an un-Giantlike braincramp, newcomer Nori Aoki misread a short infield popup and was doubled up by three miles at first base. The next batter, Buster Posey, crushed a solo home run, cutting the lead to 5-4. Do the math.

Already, the Giants' third encore after a World Series title has taken on a survivalist theme. When Casey McGehee injured his left leg by doing nothing more than running to first base on a flyball — Pablo Sandoval, for all his girth, never buckled like that — it became clear that the National League's oldest team is fighting more than the gilded Los Angeles Dodgers and reborn Padres. Though McGehee has merely a bone bruise, the Giants, with every held breath, realize they are battling themselves — their bodies, their age, their inability to generate consistent offense and, increasingly, a sense that their heralded front office left them high and dry in a sleepy offseason. Without Sandoval, injured Hunter Pence and sporadic others, they've scuffled to score runs, managing only three in 31 innings in a stretch against the Padres. And while they did receive hopeful starts in a seven-game road trip from Tim Lincecum, Tim Hudson and rookie Chris Heston, who pitches the home opener against Colorado when half the AT&T Park crowd won't know him from a batboy, ask yourself this:

Do you have any clue where it's all headed in the karmatic odd-numbered year?

"We've got to stay healthy, and you've got to have your guys have their year that you expect," Bochy said. "All that happens, the talent is here. We don't need one guy to carry this club — Buster or Hunter. We need everybody to do what they're capable of doing and we'll be fine. ... It just goes to show how difficult it is to win. A lot of teams would like to do it once. You do it three times and, 'Well, how come you don't win every year?' That's not going to happen."

Nor is the Madison Bumgarner-as-ironman phenomenon going to happen every year, if ever again. A question is lurking, and it may not be fair, but it's being asked anyway: Will Bumgarner, rocked for five runs and 10 hits by the Padres in three innings Saturday night, pay the burnout price for his herculean postseason effort? Is a natural weardown in progress after his 270 innings last year and 1,040 innings in his first five full seasons? Is MadBum turning into BumArm before our eyes, or was this start merely an aberration we should classify as being human?

I think we're all in agreement: He deserves the benefit of any doubt. He says the current issue involves mechanics and "sloppy mental mistakes," and even a semitrained eye noticed he was just sort of winging it, as if playing dodgeball. "I got a little side-to-side with my delivery," Bumgarner said. "I was battling to put pitches where I wanted. I just wasn't very effective, and I need to get that squared away. Everything was flattening out a little bit, and I didn't have crispness on pitches." Before any alarmist foghorns are sounded in McCovey Cove, do note that the best starting pitcher on the planet, Clayton Kershaw, hasn't won in two starts and has a 5.84 earned run average.

Yet even the most loyal fans are wondering if the Giants are headed for another off season the year after winning a World Series. As Bumgarner was morphing into an unrecognizable person, the San Diego starter, James Shields, was holding the Giants to a run and three hits in seven innings Saturday. This is the same Shields who asks why the Giants and others didn't chase him aggressively in free agency, a call that may haunt Giants boss Brian Sabean and his deputies. We've learned not to doubt this management group — three rings in five years has a calming effect — yet a sidebar is developing: Did Sabean and Bobby Evans underaddress the pitching rotation and the offense, particularly when this team is flush with an embarrassment of profits?

Bochy isn't going within a solar system of that thought process, knowing that he, too, is a central influence in personnel decisions. He'd prefer to have faith in the process, a common-sense equilibrium that has kept his clubhouse sane and happy during the title run. BochyBall works for a reason: He doesn't lose his cool. "We'll be all right," he said. "We've had tough times. We're a little nicked up, but we can't talk [about] our bad luck. We have to play through it."

Still, what the Giants learned is that baseball no longer is an afterthought here. They now have 34 tough divisional games ahead — 19 against the Dodgers, 15 against the Padres — and if they want to reach the playoffs, Sabean and Evans must seek upgrades. Come midseason, they'll be expected to be in the big-ticket hunt when major names are available, and, as the sellouts keep driving the economy at Third and King streets, they'll have to spend some of the wealth that has made this franchise a $2 billion behemoth. They may need a big-time starter. They may need a third baseman, given McGehee's struggles defensively. They may need a bat or two.

They didn't spend as much as they could have over the winter. Rather than outbid the division rival for Shields, who signed for $75 million over four years, the Giants — who had offered much more for Jon Lester — settled for Ryan Vogelsong and Jake Peavy. Vogelsong has been brutal, allowing five runs and nine hits in 3²⁄³ innings of long relief Saturday after yielding six earned runs in a spot start in Arizona.

Peavy? He didn't look ready only days after a lower bad back almost put him on a crowded disabled list. He departed after the fatal fourth. "I made a bad pitch there. Can't let that happen," he said. "Ends up obviously costing us the game."

He was back at the scene of his thriving baseball youth, Petco Park, armed with title rings from successive seasons in San Francisco and Boston. It's refreshing to hear an accomplished veteran, in these mercenary times, get emotional when rewinding. San Diego is where he won a Cy Young Award, yet it's also where the ownership group at the time, led by former agent Jeffrey Moorad, didn't want to pay big salaries and wound up cutting ties with Peavy and Adrian Gonzalez. Peavy sees how the Padres are spending under their current owners, with a $58 million offseason splurge, and he wishes he had those advantages then.

But happy as he is for the fans, Peavy moved on to the ultimate team success with better organizations. The Giants thought enough of him to re-sign him for $24 million over two years. Was it a good idea? How much does he have left?

For every flash of comfort — Justin Maxwell, Thursday's batting hero, climbed the right-field wall to rob Yangervis Solarte — there is another reason for concern. For now, Giants fans are advised to enjoy today's festivities, the Bumgarner postseason MVP bobblehead giveaway Tuesday night and then the ring ceremony Saturday night.

A championship does not happen every year. It is not supposed to happen three times in five years. And if it does not happen this year, we are beginning to see why.

Jay Mariotti is sports director and lead sports columnist at The San Francisco Examiner. He can be reached at jmariotti@sfexaminer.com. Read his website at jaymariotti.com.

About The Author

Jay Mariotti

Jay Mariotti

Bio:
Jay Mariotti is sports director and lead sports columnist at the San Francisco Examiner. He can be reached at jmariotti@sfexaminer.com. Read his website at jaymariotti.com.
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