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Resilient Giants overcame much for West title

SAN View Full Game Coverage FRANCISCO -- The Giants' regular season wasn't just a race against their National League West foes. It also was an obstacle course.

And they scaled every hurdle and skirted each obstruction better than anybody could have envisioned.

When elbow surgery sidelined closer Brian Wilson, Santiago Casilla converted 19 of his first 21 save opportunities. Once Casilla lapsed, Sergio Romo, Javier Lopez and Jeremy Affeldt capably shared closing duties under manager Bruce Bochy's closer-by-committee plan.

Pablo Sandoval's pair of prolonged stints on the disabled list gave Joaquin Arias a chance to excel -- particularly against left-handed pitchers, off whom he batted .314, and especially in August, when he hit .417 overall.

The most stunning setback occurred Aug. 15, when left fielder Melky Cabrera, the league's leading hitter and the Most Valuable Player in this year's All-Star Game, received a 50-game suspension after testing positive for testosterone. That required renewed effort from virtually every Giant.

The players delivered it, too.

Since losing on the day Cabrera's suspension was anounced, San Francisco posted a 25-9 record through Saturday, when they clinched the division with an 8-4 victory over San Diego. The Giants captured their eighth NL West title since divisional play began in 1969 and their 10th postseason berth since the franchise moved to San Francisco in 1958, including the 1962 NL pennant and the 2002 Wild Card. They qualified for the opportunity to reach their fifth World Series, which they won for the first time in 2010.

Bochy and his staff have some serious tasks remaining during the regular season's final week and a half, most notably selecting his postseason starting rotation -- one pitcher from the current five will have to be dropped -- and finding a balance between resting everyday players and keeping them sharp.

Those priorities could wait Saturday as the Giants celebrated and Bochy praised the Giants' resilience in the face of adversity.

"They've continued to come out here and keep the focus on winning," he said.

It was difficult to imagine a more focused Giant than Buster Posey. The 2010 NL Rookie of the Year, who sustained multiple left leg injuries in a home-plate collision with Florida's Scott Cousins on May 25, 2011, returned to the lineup with his winning attitude and wondrous swing intact. Posey particularly thrived in the second half, compiling a .384 batting average after the All-Star break through Saturday.

"He's a great player," said Bochy, who's not given to hyperbole. "You're seeing one of the best young players in the game. He's fun to watch. He's so relaxed. There's never any panic with him."

Not suprisingly, the Giants' fortunes ascended with Posey's as he batted .381 in July. They moved into first place in the division July 14 and spent only three days out of the top spot before assuming the West lead for good Aug. 20.

Posey received plenty of help in keeping the Giants on top. As he said, "To be successful in this game it takes a lot of people, and I think this team is a great example of a lot of different guys geting it done on different nights."

Marco Scutaro proved to be one of the team's best Trade Deadline acquistions ever, hitting .361 with 38 RBIs in 53 games with San Francisco and solidifying second base.

Left-hander Barry Zito learned all about Scutaro when they were Oakland A's teammates from 2004-06.

"When he came over here, people were like, 'So, how is this guy? Is he a guy who's going to help us?' He's probably the most clutch player I've ever seen in my career," Zito said. "He just went and did it again. It's unbelievable what he's doing, man. It's really fun to watch. I think he enjoys hitting with two strikes more than he does without two strikes."

Hunter Pence compensated for a modest batting average (.227 in 49 games as a Giant) with run production, driving in 37 runs after coming to San Francisco from Philadelphia in a four-player trade.

Deposed from his season-opening role as leadoff hitter, Angel Pagan returned to the top of the order in early August with a vengeance. In 49 games from Aug. 1 on, the center fielder hit .328 and built his triples total to a Major League-high 15, establishing a San Francisco-era franchise record.

Sandoval's first stint on the DL included surgery to remove his left hamate bone, which matched an identical procedure on his right one last year. Perhaps his lack of power upon returning to the lineup should have been expected, but it still confounded observers. Sandoval finally ended a 41-game drought without a home run last Wednesday, prompting him to hit four homers in three games.

The Giants were rewarded for their patience and faith in their pair of infielders experiencing their first full seasons -- first baseman Brandon Belt and shortstop Brandon Crawford. The subject of much debate among fans, many of whom felt he should play every day, Belt rewarded them and the Giants by hitting .327 from July 27 through Saturday. Bochy even kept Belt in the lineup frequently against left-handed pitchers. owing partly to his solid defense.

When it came to defensive excellence, nobody could match the scintillating Crawford. He proved capable of making every play and covering much more than his own ground with his vast range and impossibly strong arm.

"I don't know who's playing better," Bochy said, referring to Crawford's infield wizardry.

These players and others collaborated on an offense that was on pace to finish the regular season with 724 runs -- not an overwhelming figure but considerably better than last year's 570.

"There's a feeling in the dugout that when things aren't going right, we're still in the game," right-hander Matt Cain said. "I've been on teams before that, when you're down runs, you just don't feel like you're in it anymore. This team really feels like no matter what the score is, they're going to keep trying to find ways to score runs. Even if we don't come back and win, it still has a good vibe."

Starting pitching remained the most significant constant for the Giants as they posted their fourth consecutive winning season. Cain was the master of the mound, fashioning the first perfect game in franchise history and the 22nd in Major League annals as he subdued Houston, 10-0, on June 13. Cain also earned starting status -- and a victorious decision -- for the NL in the All-Star Game.

"Matty has gone under the radar for too long," said Washington Nationals utility man Mark DeRosa, a former Giant. "I think the whole world's figuring out how dominating he is. He's a bulldog, you know? You can give the ball to him in a big spot any time."

The same could be said of the Giants' other starters. Madison Bumgarner won 16 games while continuing to display maturity beyond his 23 years. The resurgent Zito built his first winning record (13-8) since he joined the Giants in 2007. Ryan Vogelsong followed his 2001 All-Star campaign with a solid 13-9 showing. And Tim Lincecum, the two-time Cy Young Award winner attempting to remake himself as a pitcher, cast aside his first-half troubles (3-10, 6.42 ERA) and provided encouragement in the second half (7-4, 3.06 ERA).

Only 12 active Giants remained from the 25-man postseason roster that won the 2010 World Series. But, fortified with their additions, the Giants believed they could duplicate that success.

"It's the same mentality, the same mindset, the same goal and really, the same concept all the way around," Romo said.

San Francisco Giants, Brandon Belt, Madison Bumgarner, Matt Cain, Brandon Crawford, Tim Lincecum, Angel Pagan, Hunter Pence, Buster Posey, Pablo Sandoval, Marco Scutaro, Ryan Vogelsong, Barry Zito