San Francisco Chronicle
Top takeaways heading into Giants’ final stretch
With the Giants’ stunning season down to the final two weeks, here are some takeaways and story lines to consider following their penultimate homestand and in advance of their final regular-season trip of 2021:
The fun factor: These guys are having a ball. It’s not just a business, after all. Kevin Gausman turned into a 12-year-old boy when he hit a medium-deep fly to right field Friday night, good for an 11th-inning, walk-off sacrifice fly.
The pitcher’s joyful exuberance radiated into the night as the Giants celebrated an unlikely victory, one of the most memorable in 2021. It wasn’t atypical. Fun stems from winning, but also the confidence of believing in winning.
“I think laughter and having fun playing this game in a pennant race is an indication of confidence,” said manager Gabe Kapler, citing Brandon Belt recently wearing a electricaltaped C on his jersey as the self-proclaimed team captain.
“That sort of playfulness and taking the game lightly and not getting too wound up is an indication the players are confident. It’s very hard to be smiling, laughing and enjoying yourself if you’re lacking confidence.”
The MVP: The deeper into the season, the louder and more pronounced the chants of “MVP.” No player is more responsible for the Giants’ success than Brandon Crawford, who deserves a place on all voters’ 10-man Most Valuable Player ballot.
“I think they’re inspiring and encouraging,” Kapler said of the chants. “I have no doubt Craw appreciates them, hears them and uses them as motivation and fuel.”
At 34, the shortstop is at the top of his game both at the plate and at shortstop, where he used to make an incredible play once a series, and now it’s once a day. Like Friday, when he dived into the hole and threw a laser to first base, earning a tip of the helmet from Austin Riley, who hit the ball. Sometimes twice a day. Like Saturday, when he twice ranged deep in the hole to register outs.
Plus, the man brought a .900 OPS on the season into Sunday’s game, especially remarkable for someone who never had an .800 OPS season in his previous 10 years in the majors. His single on a 3-0 pitch Saturday set up Curt Casali’s game-deciding, two-run single.
The schedule: The Giants have 12 games left, half on the road and half at home. Kapler said, “Between now and the rest of the season is sort of a minilifetime.”
Fortunately for the Giants, they needn’t travel too far east. The final trip starts Tuesday in San Diego, home of the tailingoff Padres, and finishes in Colorado, home of the also-ran Rockies.
The focus is avoiding letdowns, maintaining a distance in front of the second-place Dodgers and considering every foe a legitimate challenge. And never mind the strength of schedule. Or lack thereof.
“The Rockies have played good baseball recently and have all season long played very tough at home,” Kapler said, “and the Padres are as tough as any group in baseball. They have a nasty bullpen. We don’t have to touch on how good the middle of their lineup is. Everybody knows it.”
The rotation: Alex Wood’s return to the mound Saturday was a big boost, giving the Giants a fourth starter, which is all they’d need in the playoffs, though Johnny Cueto seems determined to contribute, too.
The Giants decided to amp up Cueto’s rehab after he felt good playing catch in recent days. He’s scheduled to throw a bullpen session Monday and, if it goes well, make a rehab appearance for Triple-A Sacramento in the next week. His presence and experience in October would be an asset.
“Obviously, the healthier our regular starting pitchers are for us, the better,” Kapler said. “Johnny’s veteran leadership would be welcome and meaningful for us.”
The Giants (97-53) already have the fourth-most wins in their San Francisco history, and the top three aren’t out of reach.
The 1962 and 1993 teams each won 103 games, and the 2003 team won 100. It would be a surprise if the 2021 Giants don’t surpass them all. In fact, even the all-time franchise record is in striking distance: 106 wins by the 1904 New York Giants.