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Lengthy test against West sets tone for season

Giants had great success against division foes last year, face them in first 22 games

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. -- The season's first six weeks won't settle the Giants' fate. But that stretch could determine whether they sail confidently through the rest of the season or struggle against the current of the remaining schedule.

The Giants begin the season with 22 games against National League West foes. The single-flavor schedule continues through May 11, by which time San Francisco will have faced division rivals in 29 of its first 38 games. A whopping 10 of those games are scheduled against the Los Angeles Dodgers, the Giants' archrivals who are heavily favored to repeat as West champions.

So before June hits the calendar, the Giants should know whether they're legitimate contenders or, if they find themselves wanting, whom or what they'll need to recover.

Ignore the every-other-year theory suggesting that the Giants could win the 2014 World Series simply because they captured baseball's grand prize in 2010 and 2012. This year presents an entirely different set of challenges, starting with the schedule.

But all challenges come with opportunity. The Giants, who finished an NL-best 44-32 against their West counterparts, believe they can instantly catapult themselves toward success and stay on that course.

"Knowing who we have, I know we put together a winning ballteam," left-hander Madison Bumgarner said. "Everybody's got their different opinions on what that might be, but we feel like we have a team that's capable of winning the World Series. That's what we're playing for."

The Giants encouraged themselves with their Cactus League performance. They maintained airtight starting pitching early in the exhibition schedule, began mashing the ball toward the final week of spring and showed flashes of effective defense throughout the preseason. Illusory as March excellence can be, it helped dissolve memories of 2013, when the starters sagged, the offense went limp and the defense disappointed. All that precipitated a 76-86 finish and a tie for third in the West.

"We don't believe what happened last year is who we are," right fielder Hunter Pence said. "There's a chip on our shoulder. And I like that."

Maybe the Giants can use a defiant attitude, a little swagger, to fuel the confidence that can turn potential into reality.

"We know what we can do," right-hander Matt Cain said. "Not that we're talking about it, but I think we all can see it in each other."

Improved starting pitching is imperative for the Giants. Their formerly elite rotation recorded a 4.37 ERA, the NL's third-highest and the club's worst since 2006 (4.58). That ended a four-year stretch in which San Francisco ranked among the league's top five in starters' ERA.

"We know that we didn't carry the load we needed to last year," Cain said.

To put matters bluntly, Giants pitchers will have no excuse if they slump again. Theirs is the only rotation in the Major Leagues with All-Stars in all five spots. Moreover, closer Sergio Romo also is an All-Star.

The offseason acquisition of Tim Hudson should help the Giants. Hudson's fiercely competitive nature, which partly explains his total of 205 victories tying him with the Yankees' CC Sabathia for the most among active Major League pitchers, should influence the rest of the staff. A similar phenomenon occurred in 2009, when Randy Johnson's wisdom and imposing presence hastened the development of Cain and Tim Lincecum.

Though pitching has become the Giants' hallmark, their offense has the wherewithal to build its own reputation.

Catcher Buster Posey, whose batting average sank 42 points last season, performed impressively during Cactus League action and looked primed to regain his 2012 NL MVP form.

Third baseman Pablo Sandoval, eligible for free agency after this season, lost 30 pounds by some estimates and should be motivated to set new personal standards for productivity.

Obtaining free-agent left fielder Michael Morse gave San Francisco a legitimate power threat, if he can stay healthy. "He brings the thunder," Pence said. Remaining physically whole also was a priority for center fielder Angel Pagan, who missed most of last season with a hamstring injury.

The Brandons, shortstop Brandon Crawford and first baseman Brandon Belt, appear to be ascending in their careers. Pence's appearance in all 162 games last year, accented by his non-stop, all-out style of play, enhances his emergence as a team leader.

This group could give the Giants a deeper batting order than they possessed during their recent World Series-winning years, even with second baseman Marco Scutaro sidelined by back pain.

"The whole idea of a lineup is to not have any breaks for a pitcher," Hudson said. "Teams that seem to go far in the playoffs and win World Series are the teams that don't give away spots in their lineup offensively. I feel like we're definitely moving toward that. Obviously, it's a long season. Guys can have great years and guys can have subpar years. But right now, I like where we stand with our lineup. If guys can do what they're supposed to do, I think we're going to have a good shot to do something special."

Chris Haft is a reporter for Read his blog, Haft-Baked Ideas, and follow him on Twitter at @sfgiantsbeat.

San Francisco Giants, Brandon Belt, Madison Bumgarner, Matt Cain, Brandon Crawford, Tim Hudson, Tim Lincecum, Michael Morse, Angel Pagan, Hunter Pence, Buster Posey, Sergio Romo, Pablo Sandoval