LOS ANGELES -- The Giants have been a .500 team since the start of May, and at times it has seemed much worse. The defensive lapses piled up and the big hits never did, and for long stretches of the first half, the team played dull and disappointing baseball.
But the last couple of months also included several series that brought hope. In early June, the Giants swept the Dodgers at Oracle Park. Earlier this month, after losing eight of nine, Carlos Rodón and Alex Wood sparked a split with the Padres at Petco Park. And last week, the Giants closed their first half with a series win over the Brewers that included a stunning rally against one of the best left-handed relievers in MLB history.
The Giants have had plenty of struggles this season, but they also have played some of their best baseball against the NL's best, the teams they'll see if they reach the postseason. They'll try to keep that going this weekend with a four-game series at Dodger Stadium, and while the NL West title is just about lost -- the Dodgers lead the Padres by 10 games and the Giants by 12 1/2 -- the playoff hopes for last year's division champs are still very much alive.
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The Giants entered the break just half a game back of the Phillies, who currently hold the third and final NL Wild Card spot. They will be set up as well as anybody if they reach the postseason, with Rodón and Logan Webb lined up for the first two games of a short series, but first they must do the necessary work to get there.
Here are five ways the Giants can improve their outlook in the second half and lock up a postseason spot:
Keep It Rolling
Rodón was named an All-Star after his first three months with the Giants and Webb very easily could have joined him, but for much of the first half, they were carrying too much of the weight for the rotation. That changed just before the break, with Wood finding more consistency and Alex Cobb finally seeing the results match what the advanced metrics said he was doing.
San Francisco Giants
Those four will open the second half, with Jakob Junis, who has a 3.06 ERA, likely sliding into the fifth spot on Monday. If Junis pitches as he did during his first run in the rotation, the Giants likely will focus their trade assets elsewhere, knowing that they have one of the better rotations in the NL. Even with the first-half inconsistency, the Giants lead the Majors in FIP, which strips away the issues caused by the defense when balls have been put in play.
To reach the postseason that'll need to continue. This team was built around the rotation in the offseason, and even with Anthony DeSclafani out for the year, this group still needs to lead the way. Health will be a key factor, too, as Rodón, Wood and Cobb are all Giants in part because of past injuries. There's not much behind them unless Matthew Boyd can make a quick recovery from his rehab setback.
Follow The Captain
Brandon Crawford got the MVP votes last year, but in the second half it was Brandon Belt who so often led the way as the Giants held off the Dodgers. Belt had a 1.085 OPS and 18 homers in 38 second-half games before an inside pitch ended his season, and there were multiple series when he carried the offense. Through 52 games this year, Belt has a .781 OPS and eight homers.
The 2021 season likely will stand as a career year for Belt, but he started to find his swing the last week before the break and a couple of hot streaks in the second half would go a long way. The key for him, as always, will be staying in the lineup. Belt has had his knee drained so many times since the spring that he's ready for a second punch card, but the Giants desperately need him on the field and in the heart of their lineup.
Beat Up On The Little Guys
The path to 107 wins was paved with 17 wins over the Diamondbacks and 15 over the Rockies, but some of this first half's lowest moments came against teams headed for high draft picks. The Giants lost two series to the Reds, dropped a series in Phoenix and got swept by a White Sox team that came in limping but caught fire at the end of the half.
The second half opens against perhaps the best team in the NL, but then the Giants return to Arizona and come home for four against the lowly Cubs. It's a nice way to prove that they're truly contenders worthy of buying at the deadline, and in August they play the A's, Pirates, Diamondbacks, Rockies and Tigers in a three-week span. The September schedule is brutal at the start, but also includes a two-week stretch of only the Diamondbacks and Rockies.
The Giants are 25-19 against teams under .500 but can certainly play much better when the schedule lightens up. They'll have to pile up wins where they can when they're competing for a postseason spot with two teams -- the Brewers and Cardinals -- who will beat up on the poor NL Central for the next two months.
Clean It Up
See if you can spot the outlier here:
There's not much the Giants can do about baserunning with this current group. They are old and slow -- it is what it is, and even they admit it. The lack of athleticism will limit the Giants defensively, too, but still, it shouldn't be this bad. All of the metrics, including the one above, line up with the eye test. Outs Above Average has the Giants as the 29th-ranked defense and they're 28th in Defensive Runs Saved.
Getting Brandon Crawford back to 100 percent will help and Evan Longoria always stabilizes things when he's at third. The Giants also need to hope that Belt's knee can handle first base more often in the second half. But some of this simply comes down to focus and making the plays you should make. That would hugely benefit the starting staff and help the bullpen, as well, most notably Tyler Rogers, who is reliant on grounders finding gloves.
"That's been our biggest weakness so far and it's really the lowest-hanging fruit," president of baseball operations Farhan Zaidi said of the defense. "It's something that's kind of most under your control."
It's Your Time
The rally against Josh Hader began with a booming homer from Joey Bart, who had a very nice finishing stretch after Curt Casali got hurt and he was recalled from Triple-A. Bart slashed .276/.344/.552 after returning, and while he still struck out 12 times in 11 games, he did lower a rate that hovered close to 50 percent at the start of the season.
Bart's return was forced by an injury, but there's no doubt that he's the best catcher in the organization when he's right, and even a modest uptick in production would be huge for a lineup that relies on turning things over at the bottom and getting guys on base for LaMonte Wade Jr., Mike Yastrzemski, Belt, etc. The defense has the potential to be elite down the line, and this older group could certainly use Bart's emotion and competitiveness.
A lot of fans gave up on Bart after the strikeout-filled stretch in May, but this team will be much, much better off if he can play the way he did the last two weeks.