Mariotti: Oh, Giants playing best ball in majors 

Giants' Brandon Belt, right, is greeted by third base coach Roberto Kelly after hitting a home run off Atlanta Braves starting pitcher Shelby Miller during the seventh inning of a baseball game Thursday, May 28, 2015, in San Francisco. - AP PHOTO/ERIC RISBERG
  • AP Photo/Eric Risberg
  • Giants' Brandon Belt, right, is greeted by third base coach Roberto Kelly after hitting a home run off Atlanta Braves starting pitcher Shelby Miller during the seventh inning of a baseball game Thursday, May 28, 2015, in San Francisco.

You'll hear and read much in coming days about The Drive, The Fumble, The Shot, The Move, The Blown Save, The Catch, The Quit, The Decision — and how LeBron James is supposed to exorcise The Hell for Cleveland in the NBA Finals. No city presents a more pitiful example of people wrapping their identities and self-esteem around sports teams, only to be backstabbed and heartbroken by John Elway, Earnest Byner, Michael Jordan, Art Modell, Jose Mesa, Willie Mays ... and, oh, LeBron James, who expects us to have amnesia about his episodes.

They've been waiting 51 years for the ultimate championship cloth in that place. As opposed to this place, where you leave Oracle Arena with confetti on your shoes after a Western Conference title bash, then take the train a few hours later to AT&T Park, where a 2014 World Series Champions banner flaps in the wind on the same right-center-field pole where 2012 and 2010 banners flapped.

America will say the Bay Area has caught a fortuitous wave. Anyone who has studied the Giants and Warriors knows better. Both franchises have created their own good luck, and it was appropriate Thursday night, between the second and third innings, that the AT&T Park videoboard featured Buster Posey, Sergio Romo and other Giants players congratulating the Warriors.

"We've been watching them closely," said Bruce Bochy, the manager with the three-ring bling, who said he and his players viewed Game 5 on the flight home from Milwaukee. "It's an exciting time. I didn't realize it's been 40 years since they were in the Finals. We had the game on our iPads, following it, and we were able to watch the last few minutes at home. Just a great run by them. Congratulations to Steve Kerr. I admire their way, how they play together as a team. They're a lot of fun to watch."

The Giants are fun to watch, too, after navigating April as if still hungover in Kansas City. Establishing again that we never should doubt them, they shook off an abysmal start and quieted my premature cries that baseball bosses Brian Sabean and Bobby Evans shortchanged the roster in a quiet offseason. That's not to say they'll have enough to repeat as National League champs — been watching Bryce Harper and the Washington Nationals lately? — but, one by one, some of their early problems have turned into robust solutions. That's why the Giants are 25-10 since late April, best record in the major leagues in that span, with the latest gem a 7-0 trouncing of Atlanta behind right-hander Chris Heston, who continues to be a godsend with 7 1/3 innings of four-hit ball.

That's four consecutive shutouts and 37 straight shutout innings for Giants pitchers at AT&T, where the seagulls have more success picking up post-game peanut shells than opponents have had scratching out runs. Eight of their major-league-high nine shutouts this season have come at home. The days of Barry Bonds never have seemed more distant, with the neon SPLASH HITS sign stuck on 68. This story, again, is about dominant pitching.

And clubhouse-wide humility.

"Honestly, I didn't even know we had a streak. I just try to throw as many zeroes as possible," said Heston, who bounced back from two rough starts to regain Bochy's confidence.

"Humble," someone shouted as the rookie spoke.

They are, in effect, two different teams when comparing their home and road profiles. Because it's difficult to drive a golf ball out of AT&T unless you're loading up on human growth hormone, the Giants average just over three runs a game at home and rely on their time-proven formula — pitching — more than any team in baseball. That's why it's vital to see Tim Lincecum, in his continuing evolution from unhittable freak show to crafty veteran, beginning to emerge as a reliable No. 2 starter. And why it's critical to see Ryan Vogelsong, after a dreadful April that had us questioning whether alcohol was involved in the decision to re-sign him, allow only four runs in his five May starts. "He's throwing the ball as well as anybody," said Bochy, who not long ago wasn't ready to commit to him in a firm role.

With Madison Bumgarner back to his MadBum self, the Giants now have a rotation that will keep them in games, important to know with no guarantee that Matt Cain is ready to contribute reliably in the second half and no confidence that Jake Peavy — rocked for six runs and nine hits in his first rehab start for triple-A Sacramento — is over his back issues. The bullpen has been in lockdown mode, natch. So what has been missing?

The ridiculous weapon, of course.

That's how Hunter Pence described himself when he texted Bochy, while on his rehab assignment, and declared that his broken left forearm was officially healed. "I am a ridiculous weapon right now. IT'S TIME," he wrote, or something close to it.

Since then, he has been on a mission to "rock and roll." Always moving, he is a fast-twitch turbojet, his energy as infectious now as it was during the World Series runs. If it's sacrilege to say he has become more popular than Posey, the Bobblehead people tell me that Pence's model is the hottest at the ballpark. Activated not two weeks ago, he already has two home runs and 12 RBI and has scored 11 times. The bigger number is the team's record when he starts: 12-1. Some would say that's the stuff of Most Valuable Player campaigns, as we saw last season, but Brandon Crawford has been hearing some of that talk lately. After each game, he quietly sits by the clubhouse video machines, studying his at-bats with hitting coach Hensley Meulens and others. He needn't examine his defense, which is approaching elite status. In this series, he will match leather with the acknowledged wizard, Andrelton Simmons — who, by the way, appeared to miss a tag on Angel Pagan in a seventh-inning rundown. "That's `Craw.' He's as good as there is at short," Bochy said. "He's got a lot of range and is so athletic."

We actually can say the Giants are dangerous offensively when Pence is in the lineup. Ask Brandon Belt, who, by no coincidence, has been swinging a hot bat since Pence's return. His seventh-inning solo homer off Shelby Miller was all the Giants needed against the Braves, though they scored six runs in the eighth on Joe Panik's two-run double, a two-run triple by Pence, a wild pitch and a Crawford double.

"This is probably what we thought it could be from the get-go," Belt said of the raging offense. "We have a lot of good hitters on this team. With everyone back, we can score a lot of runs."

On the road, the Giants score about five runs a game. Their earned run average also is two runs higher: 4.60 to 2.69 at home. Getting the picture? Just as they have home and road uniforms, they have home and road ways of winning. This is another reason why they've won three World Series in five years, and another reason why a critic should be forced to eat vats of garlic fries every time he questions the braintrust.

"Our offense has been scoring a lot of runs. I guess if there's a key, it would be to drive in more than we let in. We'll go with that one,'' said Bumgarner, reminding us that baseball explanations don't have to be complex.

Will the Giants be active at the trade deadline? They'd better be, given the enormous revenues pouring in — 351 straight regular-season sellouts — and their $2 billion valuation. The organization has become a political force in San Francisco, with CEO Larry Baer building mixed-use developments and setting himself for a mayoral run if he wants. But community clout doesn't happen without championship cloth. The Giants may not win a fourth this year, but they continue to be smarter and more fiscally responsible than the Dodgers, who hired a metrics geek baseball chief, Andrew Friedman, and still seem capable of the same October dysfunction.

"It comes down to execution," Bochy said, "and playing good baseball."

So dry, so true.

While we were watching the Warriors, Sabean and Evans acknowledged an offseason blunder. They cut Casey McGehee, who was awestruck and in over his head as Pablo Sandoval's successor, and did so on Memorial Day weekend when everyone was too busy to call up a talk show. Is Matt Duffy an everyday third baseman? I think he's best as a super-utility player, meaning the Giants might want to look at power in the form of Milwaukee's Aramis Ramirez or another versatile hand such as Oakland's Ben Zobrist, a Giant if there ever was one.

This time, I refuse to demand a deal. I just sit in a beautiful ballpark, on a cool but comfortable night, and marvel at the ongoing symphony.

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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