PHOENIX -- Giants manager Felipe Alou vows that vital bullpen issues -- the closer and the eighth-inning relievers -- should be settled soon, perhaps by the end of the week. It has to be. Sure, the team needs to hit better, move runners along, bring them home when in scoring position, but clarifying the 'pen is a top priority, and Alou will do it with "the people we have here."
Alou would look at the whiteboard in his office at AT&T Park and peruse the list of candidates for the late-inning jobs, but now he says he'll do it in person, looking them in the eye. Vinnie Chulk, acquired from Toronto as kind of a "throw-in" in the deal for Shea Hillenbrand, has blossomed with the Giants, looking strong in relief with a 94 mph fastball and is all but inked in as the eighth-inning man. But the iffy situation with closer Armando Benitez remains unresolved. Alou will bring in the right-hander frequently during the junket, determined to settle who the real closer is one way or another. He flatly stated Benitez's splitter has no life on the end of it, it's plane-flat albeit swift. "We have to see what happens," said Alou. "Chulk has thrown the ball well and even pitched in the ninth [Sunday]. We have to get away from that, we have to have a guy to save the game." Benitez has blown each of his last three save situations and has a 9.82 ERA over his last five outings, the opposition hitting a lusty .333 off his throws. So what is it with Benitez? Mental or physical? "I think it's probably both," said Alou. "When a guy gets wild, I don't know whether it's mental or physical. If a majority of your fastballs are up, it's a matter of him making an adjustment. Physically, I don't believe there is a problem. "The road trip is going to tell the story. We can't allow Benitez to be rusty or have him lose confidence. We've got to help him with a comeback. If we don't, we have a problem." Young master Cain: Giants rookie pitcher Matt Cain has flown under the National League radar for fledglings this year with an 8-8 record, but Alou believes he'll be the staff ace in a few seasons. "He's matured quickly," said the skipper on Monday, a day after Cain struck out a career-high 12 batters in the team's 6-2 victory over the Rockies at AT&T Park. "He's only 21, has tremendous stuff and is a hard guy to be shaken." Alou noted being around veterans Matt Morris and Jason Schmidt has helped him in the nuances of pitching, but says the character of the man -- "fearless, challenging" -- is something inborn, "brought from home." "The truth is he has a tremendous future," said Alou, "and it's here now." Cheering section: Hillenbrand returned to his homeland Monday night, and a crowd of about 45 family and friends greeted him with enthusiasm and colorful gear while sitting together down the first-base line. His mother-in-law, Sheryl Pepas, and wife Jessica organized the welcome for his first trip here with the Giants, and the contingent wore matching orange T-shirts with the San Francisco skyline on the front and Hillenbrand's name and number (8) on the back. "It's just nice to see the support, especially with the times I've been going through," said the 30-year-old veteran, an ex-Diamondback who still lives in the area and who was acquired July 21 from Toronto. "I really enjoyed my time here -- it's a classy organization." Hillenbrand, whose reputation took a beating in Toronto as he got into a feud with manager John Gibbons, is delighted to be with the Giants. He agreed the situation in Canada was blown out of proportion. Alou said the new first baseman is beginning to find his hitting stride after a slow start with the Giants. "He's going to break out of his slump just by swinging the bat," said Alou, "and he's already starting to feel confident. Even if he gets beat at the plate, he's going to attack the ball. He's a cut-and-slash guy, and he reminds me of my brother, Jay [Jesus]. He's gonna break loose." Coming up: Right-hander Jamey Wright (6-9, 5.04 ERA) is in a funk, going 1-6 with a 6.20 ERA over his last 12 outings, but hopes to return to winning ways Tuesday night against Arizona in a 6:40 p.m. PT duel. The D-Backs will feature right-hander Juan Cruz (4-6, 4.64).
Rich Draper is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.