Mariotti: From champs to Team DL 

click to enlarge With another injury — this one to Brandon Belt, center — Giants manager Bruce Bochy, right, already needs to do some lineup reshuffling. - MATT YORK/AP
  • Matt York/AP
  • With another injury — this one to Brandon Belt, center — Giants manager Bruce Bochy, right, already needs to do some lineup reshuffling.

PHOENIX — It was their first loss in an authentic game since October, when you think about it. Yet the mood in the Giants' clubhouse late Tuesday night was more like that of a hospital ward or a baseball funeral home. There was Matt Cain, his right arm wrapped in mummylike gauze, off to the disabled list with a strained flexor tendon that could portend devastating long-term implications for a club that signed him to a $127.5 million deal.

And there, by his locker, was Jake Peavy, his voice low and his eyes starting to water, explaining that he, too, will have an MRI today to see why the sacroiliac joint in his lower back has locked up. Turning around and showing his sacroiliac joint to the media, Peavy was braced for the worst.

"To me, it sounds like a there's lots of spasms all around it and holding this thing to where it won't release," he said. "A lot of physical therapists and trainers are around. The range of motion isn't there [to pitch]. I'm not a fan of the disabled list, and I'll do my best to stay off it, but I have to do what's best for the ballclub. I can feel it."

So that's two starting pitchers, both once at the top of their craft, sidelined in the season's first week. Anyone else? There, walking toward the trainer's room, was Brandon Belt, who suffered a strained right groin two hours earlier while retreating for a popup. He left the game, and while he wasn't panicked afterward, we do recall Belt's frustrating 2014 season when he played only 61 games with various injuries, including a concussion and fractured hand. And who would replace him? Not Travis Ishikawa, who remains on the DL until Tuesday.

Dressing near Belt was Hunter Pence, who won't return from the DL until May as he recovers from a broken left forearm. And contemplating it all in his office was a manager, Bruce Bochy, who has enjoyed amazing amounts of good fortune in winning three World Series, but right about now, might be wondering if it's time to pay back the gods for their gifts.

"Nah, I can't remember anything like it. It's probably something somewhat difficult to do," he said of the DL train after a 7-6 loss to the kiddie Arizona Diamondbacks, who look more spry than the National League's oldest team. "We're going through a rash of them right now. Some things you can't explain, but I haven't been through what we're going through right now."

What's next? He will huddle with other members of the brain trust, Brian Sabean and Bobby Evans, and determine a mode of attack. Hopefully, after three parades in five years, it is not surrender. Hopefully, they are deciding which big-name arms might be available in a trade this summer, assuming the Giants haven't been eliminated by then. "We've got to figure out what we're going to do," Bochy said.

One couldn't help but notice Buster Posey sort of tip-toeing through the wreckage. He, too, has been embraced by good karma so far in life. Not to upset the all-demographics multitudes who adore him like a Christmas toy, but I dare suggest the Buster craze is a bit extreme. Creepy, even. It's by no fault of his — the man simply wants to play baseball, raise a family and stay real to his small-town, turkey-farm-out-back Georgia roots — but the way he's portrayed by Giants fans and baseball's media machine is absurdly unrealistic.

He is a human being. He does have to shower in the morning and use the toilet. He does trim nose hairs and takes out the trash. Just because he is charmed and blessed — having accomplished more in his first five full seasons than almost any player in the game's history, while getting to hug three different pitchers after three World Series titles in a social-media rage known as #busterhugs — doesn't mean Posey lacks for challenges.

Such as the one taking up residence right now in his catcher's grill: carrying an issue-heavy ballclub that desperately needs him.

Right now, Buster Hugs must be Buster Thumps.

Yet even when he does thump, the rotation-ravaged Giants run the risk of being out-thumped. Despite Posey's early two-run homer, the D'backs torched the first in a series of makeshift starters, Ryan Vogelsong, chasing him in the fifth inning with a three-run homer by Jake Lamb. That clout came after another three-run homer, by David Peralta, almost nailed a Dodge Ram display far beyond the right-field fence.

This is how it will be for a while, if not all season, now that Cain and Peavy are down and Vogelsong looks shaky. Right-hander Chris Heston was summoned from the minors to pitch tonight. Other than the fact Tim Hudson is 39 and Tim Lincecum is only as good as his next brain wave, well, how about those 2015 Giants, already feeding the odd-numbered-year theory?

Seems this developing mess be too daunting for even the mighty Buster to overcome. When Posey is in the house, Giants fans figure there's always hope. We saw a flash in the first inning, when he took a fat offering from Rubby De La Rosa, kicked up that left leg and launched a bullet into the left-field stands. Behind the visitors' dugout, dozens of orange-clad Giants fans stood and shrieked, many wearing his familiar No. 28.

But know this: Posey's role as the elected Face of Baseball, succeeding the retired Derek Jeter in that avatar, is a reflection of his mass popularity as a multichampion athlete and leader and his standing as a model husband and father. It is more about being the sturdiest and most beloved of Giants cornerstones — and less about being a singularly dominant performer. Yes, he has been a National League MVP and won a batting title. Yes, he won that MVP award after returning from a vicious collision at home plate, so sickening that it forced a softening of rules for bang-bang contact. Yes, after hitting coach Hensley Meulens told Posey to start attacking in the batter's box instead of patiently waiting for his pitch, he was the most productive hitter in the majors after the All-Star break last year, hitting .354 with 12 home runs, 43 RBI and a .978 OPS.

But the rotation is dragging in sore-limbed disarray beyond Madison Bumgarner. And the everyday lineup is missing Pence, the departed Pablo Sandoval and now maybe Belt. Thus, Posey must be more than the franchise rock whose presence as a clubhouse paragon and deft handler of pitchers meant as much as his offensive numbers. Now, he must fuel the offense, BE the offense. The table-setters will chip and nick their way on base — Nori Aoki, Joe Panik, Angel Pagan. Behind him, Belt, Casey McGehee and Brandon Crawford will have run-scoring opportunities. But Posey is the cleanup man, the slugger, and with a team formerly reliant on dominant pitching now struggling to find healthy bodies, he must perform like an MVP again.

He says he's trying not to press to do more, believing in the Giants' concept that a collection of contributors always will get the bigger job done. But the pitching problems make it implausible that the Giants can remain a middle-of-the-pack offensive team. Bochy was waxing before the game about the "speed" of Aoki, and how Panik "can maybe bunt to get a runner over." Drawled the skipper, "Those are the energy guys, the catalysts." That's great as long as Angel Pagan, the No. 3 hitter, stays healthy. And great as long as Buster thumps.

At the moment, he isn't giving hugs. He needs them.

All one has to do is look at the Giants' payroll to understand why Posey must keep delivering, early and often. Cain is making $20.8 million this season. Pence is making $18.7 million. Lincecum, whose ERA has soared at the same rate as his salary, is making $18 million. Posey is in the third year of a nine-year, $167 million that suddenly, after subsequent deals given to Giancarlo Stanton and Clayton Kershaw, is a bargain for the Giants.

But just as Bumgarner can't pick up an entire pitching staff on his lumberjack shoulders, Posey's bat can't overcome three-run homers. In the eighth, with two out, he thought the ball had bounced away from Arizona catcher Tuffy Gosewisch — could I make that name up? — and started toward second base. When he realized Gosewisch actually had the ball, Buster was gunned down by Tuffy.

He looked exhausted as he picked himself out of the dirt. On the calendar of a 162-game season, the date was April 7.

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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