At the beginning of every baseball season you often hear players say that it’s not how you start, but how you finish that is most important. During any other season I might be inclined to agree with this line of thinking. However, for this year’s San Francisco Giants squad a quick start is pivotal. How this team starts may go a long way towards determining whether or not they will be playing well into October or sitting at home watching the playoffs with the rest of us.
I am sure some of you are sitting there reading this and thinking to yourselves “This guy is crazy to be making such a bold statement. A Pennant isn’t won or lost in April! The baseball season is six months long!” Before calling the firing squad hear me out on this one. Let’s face it, this team is not getting any younger. There is a sense of urgency surrounding this team for the first time in nearly a decade. Barry Bonds 41, is playing what is likely to be his final season. Several other key veterans are a year closer to obtaining their AARP cards or will be free agents at the end of the season. The day of reckoning has arrived and the time to win for this team is now or never.
Unfortunately for the Giants, the schedule makers didn’t do them any favors in April. To begin the season, the Giants will square off against three of the four National League playoff teams from last season; the San Diego Padres, Atlanta Braves, and the defending National League Champion Houston Astros. This means that the Giants will be facing their fair share of aces early on this season going up against the likes of Tim Hudson and John Smoltz (Braves), Roy Oswalt and Andy Pettitte (Astros), and Jake Peavy (Padres). It doesn’t end there however, as 16 of the Giants first 26 games are against National League West foes with all but three of those divisional games taking place away from the friendly confines of AT&T Park. Talk about getting thrown right into the fire. The Giants can ill afford a slow start out of the gate this year.
Despite their brutal April schedule, there are several reasons that lead me to believe this club is primed for a fast start. One of the reasons I am optimistic that the team will hit the ground running is the health of Barry Bonds. After battling back from three knee surgeries last season he is finally healthy. Despite some minor aches and pains his balky knees made it through those rigorous spring training workouts in pretty good shape. That is great news for Giants fans and bad news for the rest of the National League. I don’t have any questions about whether or not he’ll be able to come back after a long layoff and swing the bat like the Barry Bonds we’ve been so accustomed to seeing over the years. The guy will probably be able to fall out of bed when he is 50, bad knees and all, and still be able to hit a ball five hundred feet. Heck, after taking almost an entire year off, he came to spring training and proceeded to go 10 for 16 with four home runs! So much for needing a little time to shake the rust off. Bonds impact on the middle of the lineup is unmistakable. He changes the game unlike any other player who has ever set foot on the diamond. When Bonds is in the lineup he strikes fear into the heart of opposing pitchers. The hitters in the lineup around Bonds get better pitches to hit because pitchers do not want to face him with runners on base. Bonds is the fuel that makes this engine run and having him in the lineup on Opening Day means the Giants have a great chance to start the season clicking on all cylinders.
A strong starting rotation should also help the Giants navigate their way through the treacherous early season schedule. Heading into last season many people believed, myself included, that the Giants rotation would be the strength of the team. After all, Jason Schmidt was coming off his best season in the majors the year before, Kirk Rueter was good for 12-14 wins every season, Jerome Williams and Noah Lowry had burst on the scene the year before and were on the verge of stardom, and Brett Tomko was the team’s best pitcher down the stretch in 2004 and who was also appearing as though he was finally starting to live up to expectations. Well, we all saw how that turned out. They all struggled out of the gate and were never able to recover, setting the tone for what would turn out to be a disappointing 2005 season. While there are still questions regarding the Giants rotation heading into this season, there is one big difference and his name is Matt Morris. Morris is a proven winner who, since 2001, has averaged 15 wins and nearly 200 innings pitched per season while pitching for the St. Louis Cardinals. His addition to the staff to go along with a healthy Schmidt, who by all indications has regained the life on his fastball this spring, gives the Giants a formidable 1-2 punch at the top of the rotation which is something they did not have last season. It’s up to Schmidt and Morris to set the tone for the season. If they throw like they are capable of throwing, it will help ease the burden on the shoulders of their young guns Noah Lowry and Matt Cain. On paper, this rotation has the potential to be one of the deepest in the National League. Each one of these guys should be able to go deep into ballgames on a consistent basis during the first month of the season and if they can do that, this team will win a lot of games.
The Giants possess one of the best benches in baseball and with only two days off in April, they will be crucial to the team’s success early on this season. With the acquisitions of Steve Finley, Mark Sweeney, Jose Vizcaino, and Todd Greene to go along with Jason Ellison, this team has plenty of depth which will give manager Felipe Alou the flexibility to give some of the aging veterans an occasional day off. Finley, who was traded to the Giants in December, gives the team that potent bat in the middle of the lineup they sorely missed last season when Bonds and Moises Alou were out with injuries. He also brings with him five gold gloves and Felipe Alou will not hesitate to bring him into the game as a defensive replacement. Mark Sweeney who has excelled as a pinch hitter over the years, gives the team a reliable bat coming off the bench that they can count on to get that key hit with the game on the line. With so many division games early on, Sweeney’s presence will be huge coming off the bench. With Ray Durham hampered by a foot injury, Vizcaino gives the team a viable option at second base if Durham is unable to play everyday at the start the season. Should the Giants suffer a minor injury or two early in the season, with such a deep bench, they should be fine.
All the pieces are in place for the Giants to have a successful April. It is crucial for this team to get out of the gates fast and set the tone by sending a message to the National League that they will be a Giant force to be reckoned with this season. If they get off to a great start I see no reason to believe that this team won’t be playing deep into October.
I am a life long Giants fan, who bleeds orange and black. I'm not afraid to speak my mind and express my opinion. Whether you agree or disagree with what I have to say, feel free to write me and let me know what you think at firstname.lastname@example.org
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