At the All-Star break, during a podcast with my colleagues Anthony Castrovince and Mike Petriello, taped deep in the bowels of Petco Park, I asked whether or not this 2016 version of the San Francisco Giants was perhaps the best of any in the past 10 years.
This was no small question. They came into the break with a five-game winning streak and, after all the early season excitement about the Chicago Cubs, the Giants were in fact the team with baseball's best record, at 57-33, three full games ahead of the Cubs. The rotation was rolling, but what was most impressive was the offense: Top to bottom, this looked like the most dangerous Giants team yet. They might have just gotten hot and ridden Madison Bumgarner in past Octobers, but at the ASG, they looked like the best team in baseball.
Then it all fell apart. After the break, the Giants lost six in a row, and eight of nine, and 11 of 13. From the All-Star break until Aug. 24, the Giants went 11-25, the worst record in all of baseball. Their 6 1/2-game lead in the National League West over the Dodgers turned into a three-game deficit. And the team looked totally lost. Some of this was injury-related, some of this was a leveling out of good fortune and some of this was the lineup slumping. (And all of it was a bullpen imploding.) Baseball's a funny game: From April 4 to July 10, the Giants were the best team in the sport. From July 10 to Aug. 24, they were the worst.
The Giants have spent the rest of this season trying to figure out whether they are that April-July team or that July-August team. They seem to have figured out their answer at the right time.
Wednesday night, the Giants beat the New York Mets, 3-0, thanks to a familiar old formula: Bumgarner dominating and a timely hit. It has been a while since one swing of the bat so instantly shut down a stadium as Conor Gillaspie's homer at Citi Field did on Wednesday night.
Just a week ago, we were all making fun of the three teams in the NL fighting for two playoff spots -- the Mets, Giants and Cardinals stumbling all over each other. Some Cubs fans were joking on Twitter that their team, which won 103 games this year after all, should just receive a bye into the NL Championship Series. But now that we're here, despite being all bunched together last week, the Mets and Cards don't look close to being in the Giants' league. San Francisco might be the scariest possible matchup for the Cubs.
The five games the Giants have now won in a row -- one against Colorado, three huge ones against the Dodgers and the NL Wild Card Game victory, all of which were must-wins -- are instructive. In those vital, October-atmosphere games, the Giants showed how they win in the postseason. They allowed six runs, total, in the five games. Two of which were pitched by Bumgarner, which is roughly how often he'll pitch in a typical series. And, notably, the offense has kicked into gear. It didn't look that way against Noah Syndergaard and the Mets, but this team is knocking the ball around, including beating up solid starters Rich Hill, Kenta Maeda and Jon Gray in the past week.
Now that they're healthy, the Giants look legitimately scary, top-to-bottom, particularly if Gillaspie, in for the injured Eduardo Nunez, is capable of more big hits. Brandon Belt is perfect in the No. 2 slot -- he's actually the Giants' best hitter -- Hunter Pence is a regular playoff terror, Brandon Crawford has been coming back around, and of course there is Buster Posey. This is the team you have gotten used to seeing in October. They're back.
But the scary part, for the Cubs and for everybody else, isn't just that the lineup is starting to click, or that Bumgarner is Bumgarner-ing again. It's that the rest of the staff is scary too, scarier than it has been in past seasons. There is no aging Jake Peavy or wobbly Barry Zito now. NLDS Game 1 starter Johnny Cueto put up a 2.79 ERA this year -- just a touch off of Bumgarner's 2.74 -- and Game 2 starter Jeff Samardzija has been his best in the season's last two months, with a 2.85 ERA since August. (His K/BB rate doubled in September.) And Trade Deadline acquisition Matt Moore has come around as well, if he's needed for a Game 4. And then Bumgarner.
There are still issues with the bullpen, though it seems to have stabilized now that Sergio Romo has been reinstalled as the closer. The Giants have made their way through the wilderness and are back, in another even year, peaking at the exact right time. The jokes about the Cubs getting a bye to the NLCS look awfully silly now. This Giants team doesn't resemble that collapsing team anymore. It looks like the team that won all those World Series. This season has been a breeze for the Cubs this year, with no real challenges, just an ongoing party. That ends now. The Cubs just drew the scariest possible opponent, a team that is playing its best baseball since, well, since they had a better record than Chicago. The Cubs probably should have been cheering for the depleted Mets on Wednesday night. Because it's serious now. The Cubs are going to have to earn this, and they're going to have to do so. The Giants are back. Look out.
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