The Giants took care of business at home against the hot Colorado Rockies with a three-game sweep of their NL West rival. The fact San Francisco got the sweep shouldn't be much of a surprise. But the way they won each game illustrated the versatility and toughness associated with championship-caliber teams. A Hunter Pence home run supplied all the offense for Madison Bumgarner and the bullpen Monday. They played come-from-behind Tuesday night by wreaking havoc on Colorado's deplorable bullpen, which has one too many non major league quality arms. And Wednesday the Giants' bats, like the afternoon weather at the park, heated up in style. A combination of offense led by Buster Posey breaking out and Barry Zito's seven innings of scoreless pitching led to a 10-0 blowout. With momentum built from the home series sweep, the focus shifts to the road. Cubs legend Ernie Banks said, "Let's play two!" How does four games sound? That's what the Giants and Cubs are going to do over the weekend at Wrigley Field.
Early season critics of the Giants' offense were silenced to the tune of a .365 team batting average and a 23-8 run differential over the three games with the Rockies. And they took advantage of RBI opportunities galore all series, including 7 for 18 with runners in scoring position Wednesday afternoon. It was only a matter of time before the bats started to click and the Rockies' pitching staff definitely provided the cure for some of the colder bats in the lineup. Marco Scutaro was batting .087 coming into the Rockies' series and raised his average to .235 with six hits in the three games. After a day off on Tuesday, Posey broke out Wednesday with three hits and three RBIs to raise his average to .276. And Brandon Belt had to feel good with two hits Wednesday to take some of the pressure off his rough offensive start. With more of the lineup involved, the Giants hope they can carry this over to the road.
Pablo Sandoval got a day off to rest his cranky elbow, but Bruce Bochy admitted in his daily pre-game chat with Jon Miller on KNBR that he could have penciled him in the lineup if necessary. Joaquin Arias emerged as one of the most skilled defensive bench players in baseball. There is little-to-no drop off in the field when he spells a regular for a day off. He made a couple nice plays at third base Wednesday to remind people how handy he can be at multiple positions on the diamond. Thanks to the large margin of victory Wednesday, Bochy did not have to contemplate using the back end of the bullpen, so the likes of Jeremy Affeldt, Santiago Casilla, and Sergio Romo got to enjoy a restful afternoon.
The biggest issue amidst all the success against Colorado remains Tim Lincecum. And if critics really want to nitpick, it would also be the continued day offs and first base starts Buster Posey takes in games Lincecum starts. Despite all the political correctness and diplomacy Bochy, Posey, and Lincecum utilize when broached about the subject, there is no denying Hector Sanchez seems more suited to take the routine beating behind the plate that comes with catching Lincecum.
Lincecum was let off the hook record wise Tuesday night by the offense, but the Rockies tagged him for six earned runs and he walked four batters. He is scheduled to pitch in the fourth game of the series against the Cubs and the mystery of his struggles continue. The worlds have turned upside down for Lincecum and Zito. Three seasons ago, it was unthinkable Zito would be the preferred free agent pitcher to retain over Lincecum, but that's become the legitimate debate.
As for the Giants' counterpart, the Chicago Cubs sit at 3-5 in the young season. Their series finale with the Milwaukee Brewers was postponed due to rain and inclement weather. And that weather is not forecasted to let up for most of this four game series with rain and 40 degree temperatures expected. What's more, on Wednesday instead of a baseball game, a goat's head was delivered to Wrigley Field addressed to owner Tom Ricketts. The goat's head, of course, is a reference to the famed "Billy Goat Curse" known to Cub fans as the day a man named Billy Sianis brought his goat to a game, but was asked to leave the stadium during the 1945 World Series. Sianis vowed the team would never win a World Series again and so far he's been right.
The Cubs have undergone an ownership and front office change in recent seasons. The Ricketts family took over majority wise in 2009 and brought in the architect of the Red Sox winning ways, Theo Epstein in 2011. Dale Sveum was brought in last season to manage after having prior experience in Milwaukee. The North Siders are hitting .198 as a team and averaging under three runs a game despite a 5-3 comeback victory over the Brewers Tuesday night. Former Giant Nate Schierholtz leads the Cubs in batting average at .304.
Reliever Carlos Marmol possesses one of the nastiest sliders in all of baseball since he debuted back in 2006 as a 23-year-old. But his potential as a dependable closer has waned in the past three seasons and he is now 30. Sveum pulled the plug early on Marmol this season due to struggles on the road in Pittsburgh and Atlanta to open the season. He has replaced Marmol with newly acquired Japanese reliever Kyuji Fujikawa to close for the time being.
Chicago's biggest offseason acquisition might have been the somewhat unpredictable and well traveled right hander Edwin Jackson. Jackson is only 29 but on his eighth team. Right handed starter Jeff Samardzija, shortstop Starlin Castro, and former San Diego first base prospect Anthony Rizzo are three players Epstein would probably seek to build around as he sees fit moving forward. Alfonso Soriano is also still around playing left field and is no stranger to giving the Giants fits from time to time.
In addition, the Cubs are dealing with injuries to four of their regulars. Starters Scott Baker and Matt Garza, second baseman Darwin Barney, and third baseman Ian Stewart are all on the shelf. Chicago last won 80 plus games back in 2009 under Lou Piniella, but they have never lacked for being tough outs in their home yard. The green ivy has not come in on the outfield brick walls yet, but Wrigley Field can be one of the scarier places for any road team. The park's heavy wind factor and numerous day games, due to a long standing agreement with the neighborhood, can turn pure singles hitters into sluggers on any given day.
The Giants have the benefit of traveling off a day game, but they will still mostly likely feel some jet lag with an 11 a.m. start scheduled weather pending. Ryan Vogelsong and Matt Cain will surely be looking to avenge their poor starts at home. Both will go in the first two games with Madison Bumgarner and Lincecum finishing the series. Chicago will counter with an all right handed rotation of Scott Feldman, Carlos Villanueva, Samardzija, and Jackson.
If the Giants can get to the Cubs' starters early, there's no reason to think this first series of the Midwest road trip shouldn't be a success. The Cubs lack of pitching depth, especially in the bullpen, mirrors the futility of the Rockies. However, any team can be had if the better team is not focused at the task at hand. Who saw the Houston Astros scoring 16 runs on the Seattle Mariners after being on a record setting pace for team strikeouts early in 2013? Anything can happen in baseball because of the number of games played. And it's too much to ask a team to keep razor sharp focus for 162 regular season games, but Bochy and his team understand the value of winning series.
Vogelsong owns a 3-1 record with a 3.31 ERA over his last four starts against the Cubs. Scott Feldman was scheduled to pitch Wednesday, but the postponed game pushed his start a day later. Feldman is no stranger to the Giants because he has faced them as a member of the Texas Rangers in past seasons. The Bay Area native from Burlingame High School is 0-3 with a 5.54 ERA in four games versus the Giants.
Bumgarner and Cain both own career ERAs under three against the Cubs and Lincecum posts a respectable 3.43 ERA. Chicago's Villanueva has a 4.15 ERA versus San Francisco, but only one career start. Samardzija's career 2.53 ERA comes in six games with only one start. And in four starts against the Giants, Jackson has a 4.73 ERA.
The biggest challenge could come Thursday, purely because of the travel day, jet lag, and uncertainty of playable conditions at Wrigley. Throughout the season, oddsmakers often hold off on setting lines well before Cubs home games because of how much the wind conditions play a role at the legendary ballpark. The elements can sometimes become more of a factor than the opposing teams on the field.
The Giants need to take a business-like approach to this road trip. Successful teams find ways to avoid the pitfalls of looking past inferior opponents and get wins. The Giants are the better team on paper and on record over the Cubs, but they must avoid a potential letdown to prevent being caught off guard if their focus is lacking this weekend.
- Matthew Lottice