Grindin’ With The Champs: Fighting for first

Crawford is challenging Tejada for playing time.

The Giants, just finishing a 20-game stretch without a day off, head to Arizona for a showdown with the surprising Diamondbacks. The first-place San Francisco club only manged a 10-10 record over that three-week span, mostly because of a seriously weakened offense. Buster Posey‘s season-ending injury on May 25, an event that will forever be known to Giants fans as The Collision, put a huge dent in the lineup.  An injury to starting second baseman Freddy Sanchez on June 10 added to the misery as his return date from a dislocated right shoulder is uncertain. Starters Cody Ross, Andres Torres, and Pablo Sandoval have all seen time on the disabled list. Valuable utility man Mike Fontenot and promising rookie Brandon Belt have also gone down, and veteran Mark DeRosa faces the real possibility of never playing again, so the Giants can be forgiven for a low-scoring lineup.

Lack of production from Miguel Tejada forced Bruce Bochy and Brian Sabean to raid the minor leagues for help. Brandon Crawford, a 2008 4th-round draft pick from UCLA who had never played above double-A, got the call on May 27. He responded with a grand slam off Shaun Marcum to help the Giants beat the Brewers. It remains to be seen if he can hit consistently in the bigs, but his range, arm strength and poise at shortstop are serious threats to Miggy’s job. Struggling Pat Burrell has seen his playing time eclipsed by 27-year-old Nate Schierholtz, who has never been a full-time starter. If he could be a reliable hitter, it would be a huge lift in the middle of the order. Aubrey Huff, coming off an exceptional season in 2010, has a .234/.288/.393 line so far and hasn’t seen much of an uptick, even after a three-homer game on the second of June.

The pitching, of course, has done the heavy lifting. The team has allowed only 233 runs, the third fewest in the league. The big story has been 33-year old Ryan Vogelsong, who has given up only 13 runs in nine starts while filling in for injured Barry Zito. The highest-paid player on the team may find himself in a bullpen role when he returns to full health. Madison Bumgarner has reeled off nine straight quality starts since April 27 but the Giants have won only three of those games, scoring a paltry total of 24 runs. Matt Cain has been steady but unspectacular until his last start, an 11-strikeout complete game against the Nationals on June 8 for his fifth win, which tied him for the team high. Tim Lincecum has given up 16 runs in his last 15.1 innings, but, remarkably, the Giants have won two of those three starts. The bullpen is finally healthy with the return of Santiago Casilla. He’ll pair with Jeremy Affeldt as part of a righty-lefty swingman duo. Fine relief work in the weekend series with the Reds helped the Giants salvage a split.

The Diamondbacks are one game behind the Giants and send Josh Collmenter out to face Cain on Tuesday. The converted reliever has only allowed four runs in his six starts (34.1 IP) and is part of a resurgent staff that will feature lefty Joe Saunders on Wednesday against Bumgarner and Ian Kennedy against Vogelsong on Friday. The Giants are fortunate to miss co-ace Daniel Hudson, who is second to Kennedy on the club in innings pitched but first in strikeouts. They are tied with seven wins apiece for the team lead. The Giants are 5-1 against Arizona and 18-10 against the West.

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