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Giants well-armed for run at playoff spot

Giants well-armed for run at playoff spot

SAN FRANCISCO -- For the San Francisco Giants, this is the era of ERA.

All-Star right-handers Tim Lincecum and Matt Cain have led a renaissance by the bay that has the Giants poised to end their streak of four consecutive losing seasons. Club management committed itself to strengthening the team with pitching and defense after Barry Bonds left the scene after the 2007 season. Lincecum and Cain have helped this goal become a reality quicker than the Giants expected.

2009 Midterm Report

As a result, the Giants will enter the second half as legitimate contenders for the National League Wild Card spot, since the first-place Dodgers might remain beyond reach in the NL West race. Besides Lincecum and Cain, the Giants have another budding star in third baseman Pablo Sandoval, who has established himself as a formidable switch-hitting force at age 22.

But Sandoval alone can't carry the offensively challenged Giants, who rank near the bottom of many significant offensive categories. Don't be surprised if they deal for a proven hitter who can deepen their lineup, which manager Bruce Bochy altered 65 times in the first 85 games.

The biggest change Bochy has made, though, is restoring a winning atmosphere to the clubhouse.

Club MVP: Early in the season, Bengie Molina was the only obvious choice, but Sandoval began surging at the plate in mid-April and hasn't stopped. Minor League performance doesn't always reveal how a player will fare in the Majors, but there's a definite correlation in Sandoval's case. His infectious joy and effective hitting galvanized every team he joined in the Giants farm system, and the same holds true now.

Call him "Ace": Better call them aces. Choosing between Lincecum and Cain would be impossible. They're the first pair of Giants pitchers to reach double-digit victories before the All-Star break since John Burkett and Bill Swift in 1993. Lincecum strikes out more batters and Cain allows more home runs, but otherwise their statistics are remarkably similar.

Greatest strength: The pitching staff has ranked among the NL's best for most of the season. Though Randy Johnson is not the dominant force he once was, his presence stamps the starting rotation with legitimacy. Closer Brian Wilson has continued to perform at an All-Star level, while Jeremy Affeldt, the star of a competent setup corps, has displayed All-Universe skills.

Biggest problem: The Giants remain offensively challenged. Their 41-8 record in games when they score first reflects their stout pitching -- as well as the lack of hitting they need to overcome deficits. Molina is an admirable player, but he wouldn't bat cleanup for any other team. The lineup is full of free swingers, leaving the Giants susceptible to finesse pitchers who can prey on their eagerness. Johnson's shoulder injury, which has forced him to begin the season's second half on the disabled list, will trouble the Giants if he's out for a prolonged period.

Biggest surprise: The Giants knew that Sandoval would contribute. They didn't realize he'd help this much. He has emerged as the club's best all-around hitter, and while he'll always chase pitches in the next ZIP code, he has gained a measure of patience that enhances his presence in the batter's box. Defensively, he has displayed sure hands, a strong arm and, most importantly, steadiness at third base while remaining capable at first base or behind the plate.

Team needs: An experienced, competent hitter who can complement Sandoval and Molina or get on base ahead of them. Since many Giants regulars are capable of playing more than one position and can move to accommodate a fresh acquisition, general manager Brian Sabean can widen his search to include virtually every available hitter. But a deal might be difficult to swing, since the Giants are reluctant to part with their top pitching prospects and tend to shy from "rent-a-players" eligible for free agency after the season.

He said it: "I think that's outstanding to have two pitchers like that doing what they're doing on a high level every fifth day. It's pretty exciting to watch. ... I hope they can continue to do that in the second half, because that's what it will take, especially when we start playing the Dodgers and the Colorado Rockies and Milwaukee again -- teams that are right behind us in the Wild Card and ahead of us in the division." -- Johnson on Lincecum and Cain

Mark your calendar: A two-week stretch in August could determine whether September will be meaningful for the Giants. After facing the Dodgers (Aug. 10-12) for the first time since May, San Francisco will embark on a three-city, 11-game trip through New York, Cincinnati and Colorado that promises to test the pitching staff.

Fearless second-half prediction: San Francisco will remain in the Wild Card race until the very end and will even make the Dodgers look over their shoulders. The guess here is that the Giants will claim the Wild Card -- but they can't afford any slips, because this is a club with little margin for error.

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

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