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Giants have ideal pitching staff for a playoff contender

If your mission was to assemble the perfect pitching staff, you would want balance in the rotation -- ideally three right-handers with varying styles, and two lefties with different looks -- backed by a deep, resourceful bullpen, heavy on power arms, with a finesse guy or two thrown in for good measure.

Tying it all together, you'd need a smart, tough-minded catcher who lives for the game and can't get enough of the hours of preparation going into every game. You'd like to back him up with a similarly dedicated athlete capable of handling a wide range of styles and temperaments.

Finally, it would help immeasurably to have an experienced manager with a feel for the right arms for the occasion, supported by a pitching coach, respected by everyone, to accentuate the positive while spotting telltale signs of trouble that would escape a less qualified individual.

In other words, you'd want the San Francisco Giants.

Twenty-one months after delivering one of the most remarkable pitching performances in postseason history, culminating in a World Series triumph against the formidable Texas Rangers, manager Bruce Bochy and Co. are at it again.

The arms are alive and in command, catchers Buster Posey and Hector Sanchez are calling all the right pitches, and pitching coach Dave Righetti is pushing all the right buttons.

Heading into Friday's start by ace Matt Cain against the Reds at AT&T Park, the Giants have produced four consecutive shutouts -- the first time that's happened since the 1995 Orioles ruled starts by Scott Erickson, Kevin Brown, Ben McDonald and Mike Mussina.

Curiously, those Birds didn't have a chance to make it five straight. The 36 straight zeroes came in the season's final four games, lifting Baltimore to a 71-73 record.

The Giants' run began with the club chasing the Dodgers in the National League West, and San Francisco now has the division lead. After Barry Zito, Ryan Vogelsong and Tim Lincecum each pitched seven scoreless innings in a three-game sweep of the Dodgers, Madison Bumgarner followed with a one-hit, complete-game, eight-strikeout performance against the Reds on Thursday night.

"It's been quite an impressive run these guys have been on," Bochy said. "That's how good they are. They all have been locked in. Four consecutive shutouts -- I've never seen it. It's so hard to do."

In the grand scheme of things, the most encouraging development during this run of excellence was the return to form by Lincecum on Wednesday in finishing off the reeling Dodgers.

The Giants have been waiting patiently, and not without anxiety, for the two-time NL Cy Young Award winner to emerge from his baffling early-season struggles. He'd endured 10 consecutive starts without a win, going 0-6 with a 6.23 ERA during that span.

Lincecum's silencing of the Dodgers followed a breakthrough outing in Oakland when he pitched out of a bases-loaded, nobody-out jam in the first inning by striking out the side.

Even though he came off the mound with a three-run deficit, he felt he found the command he'd been seeking and shut down the Mariners for five more innings.

Dispatching the Dodgers, Lincecum had eight strikeouts while allowing six baserunners, walking only two. That's 12 consecutive zeroes for Timmy.

"I found myself at exciting points in the game, feeling a little bit of emotion and getting excited myself," he said. Imagine how "The Freak's" suffering fans felt.

In the shadows of the dominant rotation stands a collection of relief standouts filling the Brian Wilson void (Tommy John surgery) beyond reasonable expectations.

Santiago Casilla's 13th professional season has brought new responsibilities -- 21 saves in 23 chances -- with familiar results. His 1.85 ERA over the past two seasons was identical to that of Mariano Rivera. Sergio Romo continues to excel along with Jeremy Affeldt, Javier Lopez and newcomers Clay Hensley, George Kontos and Shane Loux.

Now here comes Cain, whose perfect game in AT&T Park on June 13 against the Astros seemed to set in motion this run of dominance by his team.

"He's as even-keeled a player as I've ever seen, and I've seen a lot of players," said Loux, a well-traveled reliever. "I watch film of him to study how he handles situations. He's always the same, no matter what the situation is. He doesn't let anything faze him.

"The guy throws a perfect game, and the next day he's the exact same person -- not that you'd expect anything else from him."

Calling Cain "bull strong and unflappable," Bochy has the 27-year-old craftsman among the game's elite pitchers with his mental and physical toughness.

"We're all doing a lot of things right," Cain said. "We've been swinging the bats well, picking each other up."

October pressure certainly didn't faze Cain. He was perfect in the 2010 postseason run: three starts, 21 1/3 innings, zero earned runs.

There seems to be a theme here. The Giants are as well armed as anyone for the challenges ahead.

San Francisco Giants, Madison Bumgarner, Matt Cain, Santiago Casilla, Tim Lincecum, Shane Loux, Sergio Romo, Ryan Vogelsong, Barry Zito