Gi­ants’ fill-ins per­form­ing su­perbly, but for how long?

The Mercury News Weekend - - SPORTS - By Kerry Crow­ley kcrow­ley@ba­yare­anews­group.com

SAN FRAN­CISCO » As left han­der Derek Hol­land doused short­stop Bran­don Craw­ford with wa­ter from a jug, the Gi­ants slapped hands with in­fielder Alen Han­son, who de­liv­ered a pinch hit, ty­ing two-run home run to make Craw­ford’s walk- off sin­gle pos­si­ble on Wed­nes­day.

The 5- 4 10-in­ning vic­tory over the Di­a­mond­backs capped a 5-1 home­s­tand in which rook­ies An­drew Suárez and Dereck Ro­dríguez com­bined to throw 13 in­nings of onerun ball and ended a sixgame stretch in which Pablo San­doval raised his bat­ting av­er­age 17 points, thanks to eight hits in­clud­ing two home runs.

Of all the Gi­ants players listed above, only Craw­ford en­tered spring train­ing with a ros­ter spot in the bag.

“With all the in­juries that have hap­pened, ev­ery­body that came in and filled their spots, they did a good job of keep­ing us in this race,” Hol­land said. “That’s what’s huge about this whole team. Each guy that’s got the op­por­tu­nity to come in and help this team, they’ve done what they’ve been asked to do.”

With 62 down and 100 to go, the Gi­ants sit 1 ½ games out of first place, right in the mid­dle of a hunt that prom­ises to run through Septem­ber. What must the Gi­ants do to re­main in play­off con­tention? Let’s look at the ques­tions the club must an­swer.

1. CAN JOHNNY CUETO AND JEFF SAMARDZIJA RE­TURN TO FORM? »

Cueto was base­ball’s most dom­i­nant pitcher in the month of April be­fore an el­bow sprain forced him to the dis­abled list and put the rest of his sea­son in jeop­ardy. Samardzija has dealt with a shoul­der in­jury since the mid­dle of spring train­ing that’s ren­dered him in­ef­fec­tive.

The Gi­ants are pay­ing the duo more than $ 40mil­lion in 2018 and ev­ery missed start forces a lesser op­tion into ac­tion. San Fran­cisco’s bullpen has the pieces to be a spe­cial group, but if the Gi­ants want a shot in the di­vi­sion, they need at least one of their high- dol­lar starters to re­turn to the mound and eat in­nings ev­ery fifth day.

2. ARE THEY CA­PA­BLE OF WIN­NING ON THE ROAD? »

The Gi­ants have played 32 of their first 62 on the road and are headed for their fourth three- city trip of the sea­son as they’ll visit the Na­tion­als, Mar­lins and Dodgers over their next 10 games.

With a 12-20 record away from AT&T Park this sea­son, the Gi­ants’ win­ning per­cent­age is more than 250 points worse on the road than it is at home. A bru­tal month of May fea­tured 18 road con­tests against win­ning clubs, but the Gi­ants’ most dif­fi­cult trips are out of the way and the sched­ule in July is down­right fa­vor­able. 3. WILL AN­DREW MCCUTCHEN AND EVAN LON­GO­RIA BREAK THROUGH? » Gen­eral Man­ager Bobby Evans traded for two face of the fran­chise-type players this off­sea­son, but nei­ther An­drew McCutchen or Evan Lon­go­ria has pro­vided the type of spark the Gi­ants an­tic­i­pated.

While both are heart of the or­der hit­ters ca­pa­ble of hurt­ing op­pos­ing pitch­ers, McCutchen is bat­ting .253 with four home runs and is strik­ing out at the high­est rate of his ca­reer. Lon­go­ria has a .275 on-base per­cent­age and is tied for the Na­tional League lead in er­rors.

McCutchen has de­vel­oped a rep­u­ta­tion for break­ing through in June and July while Lon­go­ria still boasts strong power num­bers, but the Gi­ants need more con­sis­tency out of both to climb atop the di­vi­sion.

4. CAN THE BRANDONS KEEP THEIR PACE FOR THE FI­NAL 100GAMES? »

Even though Craw­ford’s av­er­age hov­ered be­low .200 for most of April and Bran­don Belt is ex­pected to miss two more weeks due to an emer­gency ap­pen­dec­tomy, both Brandons are poised to earn All- Star se­lec­tions in 2018.

Craw­ford is far and away the most pro­duc­tive short­stop in the Na­tional League, daz­zling with his glove and car­ry­ing the Gi­ants of­fense with a .423 av­er­age over his past 33 games.

Belt re­mains the Gi­ants’ leader in WAR at 2.5 and ranks third in the NL with a WRC+ of 160 (an av­er­age mark is 100), mak­ing him one of the most valu­able players in the league to date. If they keep it up, the Gi­ants could fin­ish with the best of­fense in the di­vi­sion.

5. WILL ENOUGH REG­U­LAR STARTERS HOLD UP THROUGH THE SUM­MER?

» Aside from los­ing their top three start­ing pitch­ers to in­jury be­fore the­month of May, the Gi­ants played with­out sec­ond base­man Joe Panik for four weeks and have spent a de­cent por­tion of the year search­ing for solutions in left and cen­ter field.

Man­ager Bruce Bochy over­sees one of the old­est rosters in base­ball and he’s ju­di­cious when it comes to rest­ing veter­ans, as ev­i­denced by the 13 games catcher Buster Posey has al­ready sat out. Bochy doesn’t want to stress young starters or tax re­liev­ers too heav­ily, so the Gi­ants have in­sisted on car­ry­ing 13 pitch­ers for most of the year.

For the Gi­ants to gain ground in the di­vi­sion, they’ ll need younger starters like Panik, Mac Wil­liamson and Gorkys Hernán­dez to play and per­form on an ev­ery­day ba­sis while a deeper bench fea­tur­ing the likes of Han­son, San­doval, Hunter Pence and Nick Hund­ley eases the load on other reg­u­lars.

AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS FILE PHOTO

Gi­ants pitcher Johnny Cueto had a stel­lar April, but is cur­rently on the dis­abled list with a sprained el­bow.

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