We are now four weeks into the new season and after waiting so long to win a series, the Giants have now delivered two in a row. The Angels will not lose many series at home this year, and the Nationals are still hotly tipped to make the playoffs despite a poor start, so a pair of 2-1 series wins which edge the Giants closer to .500 is very welcome indeed.
The news on Friday that Mac Williamson was to be called up after a raking start to his season with triple-A Sacramento was well-received, and there was an air of inevitability to his promotion given how poor Hunter Pence had been since opening day. His struggles with the bat were confounded by some poor defensive showings in left field, and it is hard to see a way back to regular playing time for Pence if Williamson can continue to play anywhere close to the level he has reached this week.
Williamson has talked about needing to take his chance this time after feeling disappointed with himself in the past, but it is hard to see what more could be asked of him so far. Game-winning performances littered his first week up, and three home runs in just 19 plate appearances so far leaving have left fans drooling at his power with the bat.
Of Giants batters, only Brandon Belt can stake a claim for having been more important to the Giants this week than Williamson, with six extra-base hits in his 25 plate appearances against the Angels and Nationals, including four home runs. His epic 21-pitch duel with Jaime Barria on Sunday might have ended with a harmless fly-out but demonstrated his ability to make contact at will, and helped to grind down the rookie in his second top-level start. Belt also benefitted from the competitive practice – going deep in the fifth off reliever Blake Parker.
Belt receives a lot of unfair criticism from the Giants faithful and has been benched at times this year to accommodate other, less-talented batters. But in a week in which Crawford, as well as Panik and Posey, have struggled to varying degrees, and in which Longoria and McCutchen have again failed to reach the heights hoped of them despite improvement, Belt has shown leadership, skill and power to help lift his team after a disappointing offensive start to the season.
Another guy starting to show leadership is Johnny Cueto. I imagine he would have been disappointed not to have been given wider consideration for an opening day start in the absence of Bumgarner and Samardzija, but he has in his first four starts firmly established himself as the de facto staff ace. Like I mentioned in my roundup last week, Cueto has started every season as a Giant very strong, but he’s never started this well. His strikeout rate is healthy again, and he looks to be dealing with his niggling ankle injury well enough. Long may it continue.
Samardzija came back last week and pitched twice. Both times I thought he looked a bit rusty, but it is understandable given the time he missed and I’m hopeful he’ll tune up sooner rather than later. I would hope to see his fastball velocity increase a little bit more., and he was bruised up a bit by the Nationals on Wednesday night but looked strong enough against the Angels in his first outing of the year.
I was again impressed this week by Chris Stratton, who seems to be getting better and better. Although he doesn’t strike out loads of hitters, he is walking fewer than three batters per nine innings so far, and his FIP is an impressive 2.70.
Special mention, too, to Hunter Strickland, who pitched three innings last week and allowed three baserunners but ultimately did what he had to and gave up no earned runs. I’m wincing less and less every appearance and starting to believe in him more and more.
With a bit of momentum behind them, the Giants play seven home games in six days now against the Dodgers and the Padres. On balance it has not been a bad first four weeks of the season, but this next week could make or break the first month. If they go 4-3 the Giants will be a game under .500 in early-May, something even the most optimistic of fans would have been happy with on the eve of the season I’m sure. Lose the next couple of series, however, and finish this week 3-4 or worse, and the Giants will be reflecting on a disappointing first month of the season.
The Dodgers, struggling to get things going both in terms of their pitching and their hitting, might not seem the daunting prospect they were before the start of the year, and the Padres have been pretty mediocre when not playing the Giants(!), so the series are both there for the taking if the rotation can keep up their great start and a few or more of Posey, Crawford, McCutchen and Panik can up their game a little.