When the San Francisco Giants reconvened in Scottsdale back in February, they were only a few months out from their first World Series Championship ever in the City by the Bay. All the dust had settled, the emotions running high had quelled, the reality had sunken in. It was time to get back to business, and the team was hungry for some more hardware. Yet with all the story lines and personalities of last season, the first half of their 2011 campaign has been just as compelling.
It all began under the scorching sun in the Arizona desert, with the Giants' expectations high and confidence higher. The talk of Spring Training was Pablo Sandoval's transformation during the offseason, losing 38 pounds, almost looking like a completely different ballplayer. His quickness and agility in the infield had never been greater, and at the plate, he was mashing balls out of Scottsdale Stadium in batting practice as well as in games. Veteran journeymen like Marc Kroon, Jeff Suppan and Ryan Vogelsong were serious contenders to make the regular season squad, Giants fans were drooling over Brandon Belt, while Cody Ross and Brian Wilson were on the disabled list to begin the season. The Giants finished the Cactus League with a 23-12 record, tops in the National League. They truly looked like contenders coming into the season, I saw it myself in person.
Then the Giants got out of the gate with more of a thud then a bang, losing four of their first six games to NL West rival opponents in Los Angeles and San Diego. Aubrey Huff was forced to the outfield with the arrival of Brandon Belt; the usually dominant starters looked less then their championship selves. The Giants offense once more looked sporadic, scoring 10 runs in their first four losses but 18 in their two wins. The devastating Bryan Stow incident would bring two lifelong rival teams together in solidarity for a common cause; to cease fan violence at ballgames. The Giants would finally return to AT&T Park, the place with all the magic inside, and proved so with dramatic wins over the Cardinals as they raised the championship banner, received their World Series rings, and recognized Buster Posey for his rookie of the year award.
The Giants then proceeded to take their show on the road, and for elongated periods of time. They played 33 of their 54 games in April and May, including road trips of 10 and 7 games with a 6 game homestand between the two. They played through terrible weather in Chiacgo and Washington, and during one of their shorter roadies during of the month of April they lost Barry Zito to a right ankle sprain; the first of a laundry list of injuries the Giants would suffer their first few months of the season. But Zito's loss was another players gain as the injury opened the door for Ryan Vogelsong to step into his moment., and he certainly took advantage of it. Belt wouldn't last long either, being optioned back to Fresno with the return of Cody Ross from the DL. Through it all the Giants were still top dogs in their division.
Then in May the injuries started to mount up. Pablo Sandoval broke the hamate bone in his wrist, which required surgery. Andres Torres and Mark DeRosa had stints of the DL, eventually forcing DeRosa to be shut down once again due to his nagging wrist. Disaster would strike the team at the end of the month as Buster Posey was knocked out for the season with a collision at the plate, breaking bones in his ankle and tearing ligaments in his knee. Mike Fontenot would sprain his groin on the same night, while speedster Darren Ford, an injury call up from AAA, would find himself on the DL as well. But it didn't matter, the Giants would continue to persevere.
June came, and it was Freddy Sanchez's turn to visit the doctor with his dislocated shoulder, threatening his entire season and forcing the Giants to sign Bill Hall. Jonathan Sanchez and his bicep injury/much needed vacation would move him out of the lineup, while Brandon Belt, recalled by the Giants once again, would fall on tough luck as he broke a bone in his wrist after being hit by a pitch. The amount of injuries and the frequency of their occurrences were almost laughable, but all the while the Giants kept winning.
The offense was coming in spurts, and minor ones at that, floating around the bottom of the barrel in most team offensive categories. Aubrey Huff, Andres Torres, Miguel Tejada, and Pat Burrell struggled at the plate; though they showed flashes of greatness. Brandon Crawford, Emmanuel Burriss and Chris Stewart were minor league call ups trying their hardest to fill in, although none blew people away save for Crawford's welcome-to-the-show grand slam in Milwaukee. Yet despite all this the remained in or around first place the whole time, and rarely left their fans at AT&T go home without a win (and an exciting one at that). They were scratching just enough runs on the board almost every night, rarely blowing out any opponent and keeping true to their torturous reputation they've built with their fanbase. They were selling out every game in China Basin, and still winning.
But for all the injuries the Giants churned out just as many good stories too.
Pablo Sandoval would return, taking a historic 21 game hitting streak into the All-Star game (of which he was chosen for). Ryan Vogelsong, who fought through minor and international leagues for years, would take the majors by storm and his 6-1 record and 2.17 ERA to the All-Star Game with him. Matt Cain and Tim Lincecum would head to Chase Field as All-Stars as well, causing skipper Bruce Bochy to catch some flack. Nothing is ever insipid or mundane with this team.
Madison Bumgarner, sporting an abysmal 4-9 record at the break while having a pitcher's nightmare come to life in front of him, eight earned runs in 1/3 of an inning against the Twins. But right before that he had nine quality starts, looking incredibly dominant. Nate Schierholtz emerged as a fan favorite and one of the best hitters on the team in the clutch (not to mention his laser of an arm). Barry Zito would return with the departure of Sanchez, racking up three quick wins before the All-Star break and showing some of his old Cy Young self during his days in Green and Gold.The bullpen has been ridiculous all year behind All-Star Brian Wilson's beard (and dented Gatordade Cooler), Sergio Romo's filthy slider, and Javy "Nightrain" Lopez's mysterious sidearm action.
They celebrated the greatness of Willie Mays with his 80th birthday party, created the ‘champions walk' and searched for the "world championship baby" to pay tribute to their amazing fans. The club's braintrust understands their importance.
Amidst all of the drama, the torture, the one-run games, the call-ups and the injuries the Giants remained a winning ball club. They are defending champs for a reason, they know how and expect to win every ballgame. Their trial by fire down the stretch in 2010 forged this mentality in them. No matter the odds, no matter who's on the field, no matter what happens, they are going to win the game.
And with "The Franchise" debuting on June 13, baseball fans around the globe can take in the Giants season from all angles; to further enjoy the theatre of the Black and Orange. This club certainly has given one heck of a melodrama to capture on film, hopefully it only gets better from here for the 2011 San Francisco Giants.