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Near last place is last place Giants expected to be

NEW YORK -- The Giants are here. The Giants are here and here and still here. For the rest of this week, they're here in the city that long ago was their mailing address. Six games, three in the Big Citi and three in the big ballpark in the South Bronx. Uncommon, and also pretty cool if the Polo Grounds, Johnny Antonelli, Dusty Rhodes and Buddy Kerr are in your memory.

Google "National League West standings, 2013" and a different location is provided for the defending World Series champions. They're down the block from first place and around the corner from competing for a place in the postseason. In the stickball parlance of the 50s' -- remember the photograph of Say Hey Willie playing stickball in the streets of Harlem? -- the Giants are a few "two-sewer" jobs from September relevance.

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Perhaps you didn't expect them to finish in first place again. But with 11 games remaining in their failed encore season, the Giants appear fully capable of finishing in last place, and that's the last place they were expected to be.

How could such a precipitous descent occur? Weren't the Giants loaded with pitching? Isn't pitching at least 119 percent of the game? Yet, when their next loss happens -- they beat the Mets, 7-4, at Citi Field Tuesday night -- they will be assured of a losing record, one season after their second World Series championship in three years.

If nothing else, the performance of the Giants' rotation through the third week of August reinforced the notion that pitching matters most. The Giants had the pitchers -- Matt Cain, Madison Bumgarner, Tim Lincecum, Ryan Vogelsong, Barry Zito, et al -- but not the pitching.

"For a long time, we couldn't pitch our way out of trouble. We couldn't overcome our mistakes," pitching coach Dave Righetti said Tuesday night.

Righetti, though he didn't rock to and fro on the dugout bench or place his hand on the pitcher's shoulder during on-mound visits, has been as effective a pitching coach as anyone this side of Leo Mazzone, Rick Peterson, Mel Stottlemyre, Roger McDowell and Dave Duncan. He knows what goes, or what has gone. He saw his staff not respond this season as it had last.

Righetti suspects long-term fatigue is to blame, that the 2013 Giants are paying the price for the successes of the 2010 and 2012 Giants.

"You pitch an extra month when you play in the World Series," Righetti said before the Giants' latest starter of note, Yusmeiro Petit, beat the Mets.

The Giants' rotation, all except its youngest member -- 23-year-old Bumgarner, suffered from diminished arm strength in the early summer. Contagious dead arm caused in part by their dominance of the Tigers in a four-game sweep in October. Righetti indicated he saw tell-tale signs in Spring Training: a diminished fastball, a flat slider. And once the season began and though the Giants were eight games over .500 through 38 games, he noticed his guys were unable to record the critical outs as they had last season.

It happens, T-shirts and bumper stickers tell us. A ground ball bounces off a base or a potential triple bounces into the stands and becomes a ground-rule double. Teams that don't win can readily identify those unfavorable developments into the following spring.

Manager Bruce Bochy, with assistance from several mindful Giants beat reporters, recalled three plays that denied his team critical, late-inning hits and runs this season -- catches made by Denard Span, Matt Kemp and Will Venable. Three more victories would have helped, so would some success against the Reds (1-6) and the pesky American League (5-12).

"Two of those [plays] aren't made last year," Bochy said.

But in the summer of rotation weariness and a disabling injury to Angel Pagan that unplugged the top of the batting order, those plays and other unfavorable stuff happened every other inning. The unseen hand is a fickle force. The Giants won two World Series in three years. They can't complain about how the ball has bounced this summer. And there is no indication they are moaning even now as the mediocrity of their performance engulfs them.

Buster Posey, the 2012 National League MVP, is in what ought to be his fourth full season. It would be if not for that gruesome collision at the plate in 2011. So, he has a Rookie of the Year season and an MVP season that coincide with the team's two World Series victories, a season lost to injury and the current one.

Posey couldn't identify the least rewarding season of his four. He found positives even in his broken 2011.

"Rehabbing had to be done right," he said. "And I did make it back for a special season. It had its own challenges and rewards.

"And if you step back after the events in Washington, D.C. [Monday], you can't say this is a bad year either."

Marty Noble is a columnist for

San Francisco Giants