If you’re a San Francisco sports fan having waited since 2003 to see a professional team make it to the playoffs, you may be in for a Giant surprise this fall.
After a 20-8 month of July, the Giants are in the midst of close division and wild card races with a chance of reaching the playoffs for the first time in seven years.
Though making the playoffs is far from certain–San Francisco remains one game behind division leader San Diego and is tied for the wild card lead–the Giants have a better shot at playing in October than the 49ers do in January. The Orange and Black’s depth, though often criticized, is not too shabby, despite a range of challenges: last year’s hitting core has for the most part been traded away, fan-favorite Pablo Sandoval has experienced a 70-point drop in batting average down to .264, and the starting rotation has become much less dominant. Even with that, the streaky Giants are still in the mix late in the season.
San Francisco’s success is thanks to the contributions of 3-4-5 hitters Aubrey Huff, Buster Posey and Pat Burrell, additions this year that are all hitting better than .280. The team’s spectacular July was sparked perhaps most of all by Posey, who went .417 in the month and had hits in 21 consecutive games.
As Posey has cooled off somewhat since the end of his hitting streak, gracing us mere mortals with his presence by hitting under .400, the question becomes: Can the Giants hold on to their slim wild card lead, or have they peaked too early?
Indications are that San Francisco has a good shot at making the playoffs. Despite strong wild card competition from Cincinnati, St. Louis and Philadelphia, the Giants have solid hitters lying dormant in Sandoval, Aaron Rowand, Freddy Sanchez, Juan Uribe and Edgar Renteria. If a couple of those players can get hot, San Francisco’s lineup will be strong enough to carry it into the postseason.
Easing first-half woes by filling some gaps in the bullpen, the Giants acquired relievers Javier Lopez and Ramon Ramirez at the trade deadline, making their playoff stock much stronger. On Wednesday, infielder Mike Fontenot joined San Francisco, building a deep lineup with room for injuries (such as Renteria’s current bicep strain).
And with a strong coaching staff, exemplified when manager Bruce Bochy bought the team a game after noticing a tiny ninth-inning gaffe by Dodgers hitting coach Don Mattingly on July 20, the Giants might have what it takes to make it further into the playoffs than expected.
Regardless of how long a 2010 playoff run would last (if it happens at all), it would surely be a welcome experience for fans, who have seen just one team make it past the first series since 1989. That 2002 World Series appearance came to a disappointing end after the Giants tossed away the championship with an eighth-inning error in Game Six, and San Francisco’s playoff run the following season was cut short in the first series.
Fans have been waiting seven years for the Giants to get that far again. The San Francisco faithful already seem to appreciate the strides that the Giants have made, as home attendance is up nearly 2,000 per game this year. It’s harder to find tickets nowadays, but that’s just the way it should be to watch the exciting team that the Giants have become.
Though success by the 49ers–whose last playoff appearance also came in 2003– would also be welcomed, opportunity in 2010 will be knocking on the gates of AT&T Park, not Candlestick.
And San Francisco needs the Giants to answer that knock.