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Giants exceeded expectations in '09

Giants exceeded expectations in '09

SAN FRANCISCO -- The Giants' elimination from the postseason race, which became official Wednesday with Colorado's 10-5 victory over Milwaukee that left only Atlanta alive by a thread in the National League Wild Card race, did nothing to diminish the promise San Francisco showed while climbing into contention.

Most prognosticators dismissed the Giants' chances of sustaining a serious challenge. San Francisco made no dramatic offseason improvements to a team that finished 72-90 in 2008 -- the club's fourth losing season in a row -- and ranked last in the Major Leagues with 94 home runs.

Yet the Giants didn't dwell on what they couldn't do. They focused instead on maximizing their chief asset, a starting rotation that featured Cy Young Award winners Tim Lincecum, Randy Johnson and Barry Zito, the budding Matt Cain and talented Jonathan Sanchez. They believed that airtight fielding, solid relief pitching and a minimum daily requirement of hitting -- enough to generate three or four runs -- would suffice to back the rotation.

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The plan worked. San Francisco led the majors in ERA for much of the year while statistically ranking toward the bottom of most significant offensive categories among NL teams. Despite this imbalance, the Giants topped the .500 mark for good on June 4 -- with Johnson's 300th career victory, fittingly enough -- and occupied first or second place in the Wild Card pursuit until late last week.

"This season is a perfect example of how pitching and defense win baseball games," center fielder Aaron Rowand said. "Our offense obviously is not the greatest, but it's not terrible, either."

It wasn't. Playing his first full big league season, Pablo Sandoval broadened his reputation for free swinging and ferocious hitting while keeping his team-high batting average above .300 from May 23 on.

"As much as I try to get him to be disciplined, it's like caging a lion," hitting coach Carney Lansford said. "He leaves the dugout ready to swing the bat. I literally tell him before every at-bat, 'Swing at a strike.'"

The switch-hitting Sandoval leads the Giants in most other major offensive categories, including home runs, RBIs, on-base percentage and slugging percentage.

Infielder Juan Uribe also provided a significant second-half lift. His .361 September batting average entering Wednesday was the NL's fifth-highest for the month. Uribe's 11 home runs since Aug. 12 were tied for fifth in the NL in that span.

They and others furthered the Giants' vast improvement at AT&T Park. After posting underwhelming home records of 39-42 and 37-44 in 2007 and 2008, respectively, the Giants built a 51-29 mark, the league's best entering Thurday's home finale.

"I don't know if the mindset's different, but we get pumped up from our fans," Zito said. "They like to cheer loud and they're in every pitch."

Mostly, they cheered for the pitching. Lincecum and Cain made the NL All-Star team and relievers Brian Wilson and Jeremy Affeldt formed a strong late-inning combination, helping San Francisco amass a Major League-high 18 shutouts. The most celebrated of those blankings went into the books on July 10 as Sanchez pitched San Francisco's first no-hitter in 33 years, an 8-0 decision over San Diego. Only Uribe's eighth-inning fielding error, a bobbled one-out grounder to third base, separated Sanchez from a perfect game.

The Giants know they must upgrade their offense to make the leap from postseason contender to playoff qualifier. Due to the flexibility of their existing personnel, they don't have to limit themselves to searching for hitters to fill specific positions, though they could use a boost at the outfield corners and either first or third base, with Sandoval occupying the vacant spot. Signing Uribe, who's eligible for free agency, might go a long way toward settling the infield.

"You hope that the issue of the offense is addressed and that they can take this a step further next year," said veteran infielder Rich Aurilia, whose active playing career with the Giants likely will end with this season.

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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