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Thursday, June 23, 2011

A couple wins and you remember why you are captive to Giants' wild ride

The Giants' manic depressive symptoms -- the thundering highs and dark lows -- bring out the worst in me.

I don't know how many times, after losses, when I've given up hope on the Giants. Where I've settled things in my mind that this team doesn't have it to defend their World Championship.

And my expectations aren't that high: I'm not holding them to repeating -- that's been proven almost impossible these days, given the equalizing impact of free agency that disburses enough talent around the major leagues to thwart dynasties.

What their losses do is to shake my faith in their ability to even get to the playoffs, to defend their title with dignity.

After their recent five-game losing streak -- punctuated by Madison Bumgarner's historical meltdown -- I was ready to write their obituary. Too many things have gone wrong this season, from the devastating injuries to the ongoing, persistent and thoroughly frustrating hitting ineptness. It must have been the three dozen straight missed scoring opportunities that finally got to me.

Funny, though. I remember telling my brother-in-law sometime last July that the Giants were toast, that they didn't have it. "Some teams have that feel of a champion," I said, "and this one doesn't."

And that's what gives me hope. That I could be so wrong in a year that went so right reminds me that, as the ex-Cardinals pitcher Joaquin Andujar used to say, In beisbol, Youneverknow.

And then suddenly, they win a couple in a row; their pitching returns to form, they get key contributions from all over the lineup, and you remember why you are captive to the wild ride that is the Giants season.

It is a verity: With the Giants' pitching staff, Youcan'tgiveup.

Not that it isn't tempting. With Lincecum having his bad month early, you had to wonder if it was another sign of an off year. The one thing that kept that doubt from growing too large, though, was he was still bringing his fastball at 93 to 95 MPH, even during his string of bad games. It was just his inability to command it. And that affected his off-speed stuff, his slider not as sharp, his split finger not as crisp.

Enter Ryan Vogelsong, Wednesday night.

Vogelsong's presence has been akin to a ballast on a ship. It is almost counterintuitive to say this about a fifth man in a rotation of stars, but he has been the steadying force on the Giants.

He pitches with such determination and focus, has the ability to locate his pitches with such finesse that he reminds you that the game is as much psychological as it is physical. But also, his work this year tells you that a man who has lived through the angst of failure, not to mention the fear of an unkown future, is probably best equipped to deal with the adversities that a professional must face.

The entirety of his outing on Wednesday was testament to Vogelsong's persevering persona. But the moment that stood out as symbolic of it was after the Steve Bartman-like incident in the top of the sixth. A runner, Ben Revere, had just reached first on shortstop Brandon Crawford's error, and, then on a 1-2 pitch, Alexi Casilla hit a foul pop up into the seats by the left field bullpen. Cody Ross reached in to catch it, but an unwitting and later regretful fan, gloved it first.

Things could have escalated. But Vogelsong got Casilla to ground out (on a really nice play by Manny Burriss, who ranged wide to his left and then threw to Huff as the first baseman scrambled to get back to the bag). And with Revere now on second, Vogelsong got out of the jam with an exquisite job on Joe Mauer, one of the toughest hitters in the majors (though he's still trying to get his stroke back). First, a cutter on the inside corner, then a changeup away, fouled, and finally a high fastball that tied up Mauer into a groundout to short.

He had to dig deep in the top of the seventh to get out of a rally with even more potential: runners at first and third with no outs. Vogelsong struck out the next two, but gave up an infield single for the first run -- a play that if Crawford fielded it cleanly, he could have gotten the force out at second. At 100 pitches, Vogelsong was likely on his final batter, pinch hitter Matt Tolbert, who took him to a full count. But finally, on the eighth pitch, Vogelsong won the battle with an inning-ending fly out.

Afterward, talk of Vogelsong as an All-Star heated up -- rightfully so. And though his numbers (5-1, 1.86 ERA) are worthy, it is the doggedness of his approach that defines him best.

And yet ... even in Vogelsong's win, it took the unlikely Eli Whiteside to secure it. Against the backdrop of fan despair at losing Posey, Whiteside has damaged even his place in the game as a backup. The daily grind has exposed a weak bat and, alarmingly, a hole in his defensive game. But by driving in three runs with a triple and a single, Whiteside affirmed one of the characteristics that continue to define the Giants: every day, it's another guy.

The offense remains largely inept (failing, for example, to cash in on a first and third, no-out chance in Thursday's game), which made for yet another tense, thrilling win -- 2-1 over the Twins. But all offensive angst gets swept aside when Lincecum returns to form. The world is right when Timmy shows up. There's nothing like seeing Tim Lincecum in his dazzling Superman's suit. And there's nothing like the story of a journeyman veteran who inspires a two-time Cy Young to greater heights.

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