Team concept leads Giants to West crown

Team concept leads Giants to West crown

SAN FRANCISCO -- The longest postseason dry spell among National League West teams has ended.

The Giants finally qualified for baseball's second season by clinching the division title with Sunday's 3-0 victory over the San Diego Padres. San Francisco won the West for the first time since 2003, which also marked its last postseason appearance.

The Giants advanced to the postseason for the eighth time since divisional play began in 1969 and will face Atlanta, the NL Wild Card winner.

A sellout crowd at AT&T Park reveled in the triumph, waving orange rally rags virtually all afternoon and saluting each scoreless inning with a standing ovation -- until the ninth, when they stood and roared as closer Brian Wilson struck out Will Venable on three pitches. It was 4:10 p.m. in the Pacific Time zone.

"Unbelievable," right-hander Sergio Romo said of the fan reaction. "You can't describe it."

After the Giants cavorted for a couple of minutes in the middle of the diamond, third baseman Pablo Sandoval was the first Giant to don a division champions T-shirt. His teammates quickly followed suit.

Shortly after the change of clothes, left fielder Pat Burrell, the graduate of Bellarmine College Prep in San Jose, exhorted teammates to thank the fans. So the Giants took a victory lap around the warning track, exchanging high-fives with adoring rooters.

"Some of them wouldn't let go of our hands," pitching ace Tim Lincecum said.

The scene was familiar to fans whose allegiance to the Giants dates to the late 1990s. Besides 2003, San Francisco also won the West in 1997 and 2000. The Giants reached the Wild Card tiebreaker game in 1998 but lost to the Chicago Cubs. They captured the Wild Card in 2002, the year they advanced to the World Series and a seven-game loss to the Angels.

The Giants also garnered the NL pennant in 1962, emerging victorious in a storied race and three-game playoff with the Los Angeles Dodgers before losing the World Series in seven games to the New York Yankees.

Additionally, this marks the Giants' first postseason appearance without one Barry Lamar Bonds, baseball's all-time home run leader, since they won the West and reached the World Series in 1989. Bonds spent 15 seasons in San Francisco (1993-2007).

Identifying a single turning point for the 92-70 Giants wouldn't be possible. There were multiple occasions or sequences that propelled them forward.

From June 23 to July 4, San Francisco lost 10 of 12 games, concluding that stretch by dropping three of four at division rival Colorado, to fall 7 1/2 games behind the Padres. The final defeat in that stretch was an excruciating 4-3, 15-inning loss to the Rockies.

San Francisco won six of its next seven games, a rally that was interrupted by the All-Star break. Undeterred, the Giants won nine of their first 11 games after the break amid a 21-5 surge that left them one game behind the Padres. Rookie catcher Buster Posey's 21-game hitting streak helped stimulate the Giants' uprising.

But a 13-15 August stalled the Giants' drive. After a particularly galling 11-3 loss to Arizona on Aug. 28, general manager Brian Sabean and manager Bruce Bochy held a private chat with the starting pitchers, who were 5-13 with a 5.56 ERA in August by that point. Sabean and Bochy reminded the starters in no uncertain terms that the team's success, or lack of it, rested with them.

The staff overall and the starters in particular responded admirably. San Francisco recorded a 1.78 ERA in September, the lowest for any club in any month of 20 or more games since the 1968 Cleveland Indians posted a 1.42 ERA in May 1968. It also was the best September ERA since the 1965 Los Angeles Dodgers recorded a 1.59 figure.

Though San Francisco's offense fluctuated through the season, several hitters stood out enough to prompt Bochy to say at various junctures, "Where would we be without him?"

It's impossible to determine whether the Giants would have survived without two of their more experienced clutch hitters -- Juan Uribe, who either tied the score or put San Francisco ahead with 11 of his 24 home runs, and Pat Burrell, an early-June arrival who provided much-needed power and plate discipline, besides being an assertive clubhouse presence.

It's inconceivable to imagine the Giants succeeding without Posey, who assumed an everyday role in early July and promptly elevated the club's postseason hopes -- as well as his own Rookie of the Year candidacy.

It's unthinkable to believe that the Giants could have sustained their postseason bid without Aubrey Huff, who not only remained productive in the middle of the order but also played capably at first base and the corner outfield spots.

Other Giants teams have hit better, pitched more efficiently or won more games. But one would be hard-pressed to identify a San Francisco squad more deeply rooted in the team concept.

"They're all pulling for each other, even when they're not in there, and that's what you need: 25 guys who are all on the same page and want the same thing," Bochy said.

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