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Richard Justice

Starting pitching key in this golden era for Giants

Rotation members did not allow an earned run in first four games of the season

Starting pitching key in this golden era for Giants

One day early in Spring Training, Giants manager Bruce Bochy reflected on his starting pitching and its almost unbelievable run of excellence.

"I haven't even had a long man in the bullpen for the last four years," he said. "That's pretty special."

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His starting pitching has been so good for so long that one of the goals the Giants had this spring was to identify organizational depth for the inevitable. At some point, the Giants are going to lose a starter to an injury or they're going to have someone going so badly he needs a turn or two off.

Yeah, at some point, the Giants are going to have some of the same problems every other organization has. On the other hand, it may not be anytime soon.

Four games into the 2013 season, the Giants still had the best starting rotation in the land.

Their ERA was 0.00. Yes, you read that correctly.

"It's unbelievable," Bochy said.

In 26 innings, Matt Cain, Madison Bumgarner, Tim Lincecum and Barry Zito walked 11, struck out 22 and compiled a 0.88 WHIP. The last Major League team to go that long without allowing an earned run at the beginning of a season was the 1976 Brewers, who went 31 2/3 innings.

The starting staff was finally proven to be mortal when Ryan Vogelsong allowed an earned run in the first against the Cardinals on Saturday.

In this era of unprecedented parity, it's almost impossible to figure out which teams are good enough to make the playoffs and which aren't.

So here's a simple formula: Judge every team by its rotation. That's where everything begins anyway.

It's why the Yankees won four World Series championships in the Joe Torre era. It's why the Blue Jays, Nationals and Tigers are hot commodities in 2013.

And it's why the Giants, who've won the World Series twice in the past three seasons, keep on keeping on.

Perhaps the most impressive part of this story is that the names have changed. Cain has been a 217-inning rock for six seasons. Lincecum has averaged 214 innings the past five seasons despite his problems last year.

But Bumgarner and Vogelsong have emerged only in the past two seasons.

And there's Zito.

He was considered a huge acquisition for the Giants when he left the A's after the 2006 season for what was the largest contract ever signed by a pitcher -- $126 million over seven years.

He's 10 games under .500 in his six-plus years with the Giants and has a 4.44 ERA. But not many people have handled tough times better than Zito.

He has worked hard to find solutions, whether it be training or location or whatever. Maybe, just maybe, he has found them.

After being left off the Giants' postseason roster in 2010, he was one of the heroes last season by pitching 7 2/3 shutout innings to force the National League Championship Series back to AT&T Park for the final two games. Zito then got the ball in Game 1 of the World Series and responded by allowing one run in 5 2/3 innings.

Now, the Giants have won 15 straight starts by Zito. In that time, he's gone 10-0 with a 3.18 ERA. His breaking ball has some of the bite back from his Oakland years, and his control has been precise.

Zito was especially important at the end of last season, when Lincecum was going so poorly that Bochy put him in the bullpen. Lincecum seemed to rediscover his magic in that role and got through a shaky five innings to win his first start of 2013.

All in all, it works. The Giants are baseball's model organization, beginning with arguably the best general manager (Brian Sabean) and best manager (Bochy) in the game. One of Sabean's lieutenants, Dick Tidrow, is among the most highly regarded pitching gurus in the game. Likewise, Giants Major League pitching coach Dave Righetti.

Bumgarner, Cain and Lincecum were all first-round Draft choices. Vogelsong was also a Giants draft pick who had a 10-year odyssey with three other organizations before returning to San Francisco and becoming a star.

In short, these are good days to be a Giants fan. They have arguably the most beautiful ballpark in the land. They have terrific executives and a manager who is headed for the Hall of Fame.

They've got a core of guys who are easy to root for, beginning with Buster Posey. They've got large personalities, like Pablo Sandoval and Lincecum. They've got two of the game's really good young players in Brandon Crawford and Brandon Belt.

Once upon a time, they were the franchise that couldn't get over the hump. In their first 52 seasons on the West Coast, they got to the World Series three times without winning one. Now, they're one of the franchises every other is measured against. Enjoy the ride, Giants fans. These are the good days.

Richard Justice is a columnist for MLB.com. Read his blog, Justice4U. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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