Overpowering Giants claim first place in West

Overpowering Giants claim first place in West

SAN FRANCISCO -- The Giants have reached the summit. Maintaining their footing upon that lofty perch for the final 15 games becomes their new challenge.

San Francisco claimed first place in the National League West in commanding fashion Thursday night, as Aubrey Huff, Buster Posey and Jose Guillen homered through the fog to complement Jonathan Sanchez's career-high 12-strikeout performance in a 10-2 pasting of the Los Angeles Dodgers.

The Giants (83-64) edged a half-game in front of the San Diego Padres (82-64), who lost, 4-0, at St. Louis. They haven't occupied first place this late in the season since they won the West in 2003.

San Francisco, which also owns the same record as Wild Card pacesetter Atlanta, claimed sole possession of the division lead for the first time since May 6 -- Willie Mays' birthday and the anniversary of Tim Lincecum's Major League debut, for those who truly believe there's magic inside.

But the only date the Giants are focused upon is Oct. 3. That's the end of the regular season, when being in first place actually counts.

Non-participants wanted to celebrate anyway. Shortly after the final out, the remnants of a noisy AT&T Park crowd cheered as stadium workers rearranged the team flags denoting the West standings and ran them back up the pole overlooking right-center field with the "Giants" banner on top.

This represented the culmination of the rally the Giants began after Aug. 28, when they trailed San Diego by six games. Since then, they've erased that deficit by going 12-5.

The Giants realize that they must maintain or at least approach that pace to end their six-year absence from the postseason.

"It's a good feeling, but we have baseball left," manager Bruce Bochy said. The race, he added, is "so tight right now I don't think you get concerned with where you're at as much as doing what you're supposed to do. That's try to win a ballgame."

"You have to go out there and win series," echoed Huff, whose three-run homer broke a 1-1 tie and highlighted a four-run, third-inning uprising against Dodgers starter Ted Lilly (8-11). "That's the deal. Just keep going."

Dodgers manager Joe Torre was suitably impressed with the Giants, who finished 9-3 against Los Angeles after the All-Star break.

"They're on a roll right now," Torre sdaid. "They're hot at the right time of year. Posey has made a huge difference. They're playing with a lot of confidence."

Sanchez (11-8) looked supremely self-assured. He recorded at least one strikeout per inning and retired each of Los Angeles' starting position players on strikes except Ryan Theriot.

"Anything I threw today was going to be good," said Sanchez, who shook off the effects of being grazed on the outer edge of his pinkie by a fourth-inning Lilly pitch.

Sanchez walked none, which might have been more impressive than his dozen strikeouts. By contrast, he walked a career-high seven in his previous start last Friday against San Diego. The last Giants left-hander to strike out at least 12 batters and walk none was Atlee Hammaker, who did so on June 26, 1983, against San Diego.

"That shows you he's pounding the strike zone and throwing any pitch at any time," Bochy said of Sanchez. "He's pitching with a lot of confidence and going after the hitters. He throws hard and he has his secondary pitches working. With that kind of stuff, when you're locating, you're going to be tough."

Sanchez improved to 3-0 with a 1.70 ERA in his last six starts. That mirrors the overall effectiveness of the Giants' pitchers, who trimmed their Major League-low September ERA to 1.58.

The Giants' hitting completed their dominance. Having scored nine runs in their previous five games, they exceeded that total by rapping 15 hits, including eight for extra bases.

Part-time shortstop Edgar Renteria galvanized the offense and earned another start Friday with a 4-for-5 effort. Recovered from his sore neck, Guillen garnished his slugging by going 3-for-3.

The outcome enabled the Giants to capture the season series from the Dodgers, 10-8, for the first time since 2005. But as Bochy said, "Right now, the only thing that's important for us is to win ballgames. We're not into season series."

Chris Haft is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.