Giants built around new infield, starting rotation
April 4, 2009
SAN FRANCISCO ” For his encore, Tim Lincecum has a winning season in mind.
Not for the slim right-hander personally, of course: He already went 18-5 and won the Cy Young award last year with a major league-best 265 strikeouts. Lincecum really wants a winning record for his San Francisco Giants, who are on the precipice of their fifth straight losing season ” which would be the most for the franchise in the modern era.
“My expectations are that we come out and play ball the right way, do the right things, and that will lead to success,” said Lincecum, who will start Tuesday’s home opener against Milwaukee. “If you play the game right, things are going to go in your favor a lot of the time. I emphasize that a lot. We’re not a big power team, so we have to do the fundamentals: baserunning, pitchers getting the bunts down. We have to not let up on teams when we have them down.”
The Giants have been down for nearly a half-decade, first while extricating themselves from the unpleasant pageant of Barry Bonds’ march to the career home run record, followed by last season’s work on a post-Bonds identity.
That identity never emerged last season, but San Francisco clearly is built this spring around a pitching rotation that could be among the majors’ best.
“We have to build off the strongest point we have, which is pitching,” Barry Zito said. “I think that takes all the pressure off the hitters, because we can win a ballgame with only a couple of runs, and I think our offense will surprise some people as well. We have good hitters in the lineup. I think we can (contend). We’re capable of playing good baseball.”
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But the marquee in San Francisco displays its starting pitchers most prominently. It has a premier young talent in Lincecum; a veteran superstar in Randy Johnson, who’s closing in on his 300th career victory in his native Bay Area; a maddening enigma in Zito, the wildly disappointing $126 million lefty hoping to revitalize his career; and a hard-luck hurler in Matt Cain, whose talent has been no match for his lack of run support and bullpen help.
“We’re going to be in every ballgame with those guys on the mound,” outfielder Aaron Rowand said. “I think everybody in here feels like we have a chance to contend in this division this year. I’m pretty positive all the way around.”
San Francisco has the first staff since Atlanta’s 2003 collection to field three Cy Young winners. Almost every night at the Giants’ waterfront ballpark will have a compelling story line on the mound ” but whether that pitching talent translates into a winning record still isn’t certain.
“I don’t think it’s a secret that pitching is going to be our strong point,” outfielder Randy Winn said. “We believe that we’re going to hit and score runs. We’re not a home run-hitting team by any stretch, so you have to do the little things: bunt game, hit and run. If you’re going to win, you have to have pitching and defense. Obviously, it would be nice to have three guys to hit 30 home runs in the lineup, but you can’t always have that. Pitching and defense is a constant.”
Yet the Giants also hit well during the spring, ranking near the top of the NL in batting average, hits, doubles and homers in Arizona. That’s a mild surprise for a team with an entirely new starting infield and three returning outfielders who didn’t exactly light it up last season.
First baseman Travis Ishikawa, third baseman Pablo Sandoval and second baseman Emmanuel Burriss all won starting jobs during the spring, joining free-agent acquisition Edgar Renteria at shortstop in the reconfigured lineup. Fans might see an infield full of unknown quantities, but manager Bruce Bochy has seen exactly what he expects to get.
“Each has had a terrific spring defensively, and swinging the bat,” Bochy said. “Sandoval has played third base as well as we could have expected, and he will continue to get better over there. We’re really happy how they have played and the progress they have made. Coming into spring, we felt (Ishikawa and Sandoval) were the best two, but you have to see them in the spring. I’ve been very pleased with the way they have handled their positions.”
Most fans already know Johnson is five victories shy of becoming the 24th major leaguer with 300 wins, but he also needs just three more 10-strikeout games to tie Nolan Ryan’s major league-record 215.
The Giants, no strangers to milestone chases, expect plenty of attention when Johnson gets close to the marks, but they know the 45-year-old is valuable for more than publicity. He’s already having an impact on Zito, the massive chunk of San Francisco’s payroll who went 10-17 last season to drop to 21-30 in his two years with the Giants.
“You can get better,” Zito said. “I’ve talked to Randy about that. He has five Cy Youngs. It’s not often you come across a staff with three Cy Young winners. No one has to take over the game. Everybody just has to do their job.”