Injuries abound, infield bats rule in Giants' 2015
SAN FRANCISCO -- The Giants' 2015 campaign was literally painful and annoyingly perplexing. The painful part could at least be explained. The rest of it belonged in the "unsolved mysteries" category.
Injuries to top performers largely accounted for San Francisco's descent from World Series champions to postseason non-qualifiers. Numerous position players missed significant stretches of the season, including outfielders Hunter Pence, Nori Aoki, Angel Pagan and Gregor Blanco, shortstop Brandon Crawford, first baseman Brandon Belt, second baseman Joe Panik and backup catchers Andrew Susac and Hector Sanchez.
Moreover, the starting rotation was rocked in April when a strained flexor tendon prevented Matt Cain from starting the season on time and back problems sidelined Jake Peavy after just two early-April outings. They didn't return until July.
Injuries strike every club in every season, to some degree. What pained the Giants as much as their physical ailments, though, was something less tangible, yet easy to quantify: Their struggles in one-run decisions. They owned a 19-28 record in such games, which was enough to wreak any havoc that the injuries didn't.
If this shortcoming could be attributed to a single source or two, the Giants could address it and move on. But that wasn't the case. They hit proficiently in the clutch through much of the year. The starting pitchers, though less spectacular than they were in previous seasons, regularly kept the score close. The bullpen was mostly solid. And, having won three of the last five World Series, they certainly possessed the competitiveness and savvy to survive tight games.
A 5-4, 14-inning loss in the Aug. 31 opener of a crucial three-game series at Dodger Stadium typified the Giants' one-run woes. No individual player accounted for this setback, nor did any single lapse. After tying the score in the eighth, they Giants moved the potential go-ahead run into scoring position three times in the final six innings. But the conclusive hit eluded them. Meanwhile, the bullpen was stellar, allowing three hits through 7 1/3 shutout innings. Then rookie Mike Broadway issued a leadoff walk in the 14th that preceded consecutive singles by Jimmy Rollins, Chase Utley and Adrian Gonzalez to ultimately generate the winning run.
Despite their troubles, the Giants weren't mathematically eliminated from the National League West race until Game No. 157. During the brief periods when the roster was whole, they appeared poised to return to the postseason. They settled for their sixth above-.500 finish in seven years.
"We went through a lot this year," ace left-hander Madison Bumgarner said. "We battled through a lot of injuries and a lot of adversity. I feel really good about the group of guys we have here."
Record: 84-78, second place, National League West.
Defining moment: If you're looking for an upbeat one, refer to the May 10 game against Miami. This exemplified Giants baseball: tight pitching, taut defense and timely hitting. Trailing, 2-1, San Francisco maintained the one-run deficit by throwing out a Marlin at the plate in the ninth inning, then rallied in its half of the inning to score on Aoki's bases-loaded walk and Matt Duffy's game-winning single.
If you're looking for a telling one, the four-game sweep that the Cubs administered to the Giants from Aug. 6-9 was illustrative. Chicago's youthful energy reached its height, and the Giants had no answer for it. This marked the first time all season that the Giants didn't look like a postseason-caliber ballclub for a sustained period.
What went right: Individual achievements merged with collective ones. Bumgarner, Panik, Crawford and Buster Posey made the All-Star team. Bumgarner further entrenched himself as one of baseball's elite starters, defying the skeptics who believed that he would fall prey to fatigue or injury after his record-setting postseason workload last October. Duffy capably replaced not only Pablo Sandoval but also the man who was supposed to inherit third base, Casey McGehee. Santiago Casilla established a career-high save total, Belt reached a personal best with 18 home runs, Blanco and right-hander George Kontos had their most consistent seasons and Aoki was headed for a career year before injuries halted his progress.
What went wrong: McGehee looked stunningly helpless at the plate, which would have left a considerable void in the lineup had Duffy not excelled. Right-hander Mike Leake, a non-waiver Trade Deadline acquisition who was supposed to bolster the rotation, went on the disabled list for the first time in his career with a hamstring injury and needed six starts to win his first game as a Giant. The erosion of Tim Lincecum and Cain continued, as the former co-aces combined to make 25 starts. They were just two of the victims of the rash of injuries that limited every aspect of the team's performance.
Biggest surprise: Right-hander Chris Heston saved the rotation by winning more games than any starter besides Bumgarner. It seemed difficult to believe that the Giants actually designated him for assignment in 2013, making him available for any club to obtain. When Heston commanded his sinking fastball, the results often were impressive, particularly on June 9 when he no-hit the New York Mets.
Hitter of the year: Posey rekindled memories of his 2012 Most Valuable Player Award performance with a balanced and productive effort. He accumulated more RBIs and hit for a higher average than he had in any season since '12. Displaying outstanding bat control, he became one of the toughest players in the Majors to strike out and continued to hit proficiently to the opposite field. He drew a career-high 10 intentional walks, reflecting opponents' increasing reluctance to pitch to him in critical situations. Honorable mention goes to Bumgarner, who clobbered five home runs.
Pitcher of the year: Besides hitting ferociously, Bumgarner handled his primary responsibility just fine. His performance crested against San Diego on Sept. 12 when he maintained a perfect game for 7 2/3 innings. Juan Marichal, the Hall of Fame right-hander who's universally considered the finest Giants pitcher in the club's San Francisco history, has become Bumgarner's biggest fan. "I love his style," Marichal said. "He can throw the ball most of the time where he wants it, and that's what you need to be a winner."
Rookie of the year: Duffy played so well that it's difficult to determine the most impressive facet of his game. Not only did he hit consistently, but he also became a reliable defender at third base, despite having manned the position rarely earlier in his career. Duffy possesses considerable intelligence but avoids "paralysis by analysis" -- thinking too much. He's smart enough to know that he must maintain a simple approach. Typically, he succeeds.