Are the world champion San Francisco Giants a lesson for the rest of baseball?

By Dave Sheinin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, November 2, 2010; 8:20 PM

ARLINGTON, TEX. - Had the 2010 Major League Baseball postseason field been arranged by seeds, the San Francisco Giants might have been no better than fifth or sixth out of the eight teams. They had snuck into the playoffs only when the San Diego Padres collapsed, the Colorado Rockies ran out of steam and the Los Angeles Dodgers never mounted a charge. Their lineup, objectively, appeared no better than that of the Washington Nationals.

But the fact is, by the wee hours of Tuesday morning, the Giants were the firm No. 1 team in all the land. The fact is, they won the World Series in five games over the Texas Rangers. The fact is, they were better than most everyone thought.

Yes, the Giants won the World Series with a lineup that, on any given night, included six or seven players given away by other teams. They won the World Series with Cody Ross as their cleanup hitter in Game 5. (Trivia question: Name the cleanup hitters of the last four teams to win the World Series. Answer: Manny Ramirez, 2007 Red Sox; Ryan Howard, 2008 Phillies; Alex Rodriguez, 2009 Yankees; and Ross.)

Are the Giants a lesson for the rest of baseball as to how to build a champion, or just a fluke - a band of "misfits and castoffs," to use their own manager's label, that found itself on fate's good side for a solid month this fall?

Let's assume the former is true. And if so, here are three things to take away from the 106th World Series:

1. Pitching wins, period. The Giants may have found the majority of their hitters in the baseball equivalent of trash dumpsters and free-to-a-good-home classified ads, but their starting rotation was elite - perhaps the best seen in October since the heyday of the Maddux/Smoltz/Glavine Atlanta Braves - and 100 percent homegrown.

Tim Lincecum, Matt Cain, Madison Bumgarner and Jonathan Sanchez were all drafted and developed by the Giants - the first all-homegrown World Series rotation since the 1986 Red Sox - and all but Sanchez were first-round picks.

"Pitching and defense," veteran center fielder Aaron Rowand said late Monday night when asked what was the key to the Giants' success. "It's a cliché, but it's the truth. You can get through a season with great offense, but when you get to the playoffs, it's pitching and defense that wins championships. Thanks to our pitching we can hang our hats on this for the rest of our lives."

If there's a lesson here, it is an echo of one of the favorite phrases of Baltimore Orioles General Manager Andy MacPhail: "Grow the pitching, buy the bats."

2. Great managing matters. This was the month the greater baseball viewing public learned two things about Giants skipper Bruce Bochy: He has an enormous head (8 1/4 hat size), and he knows how to use it.

Asked on Monday what a kid would need to do to dress like him for Halloween, Bochy said, "He'd have to blow his head up somehow. I don't know how he'd do it."

But he was also the man responsible for moving and shifting the collection of misfits and castoffs that made up his daily lineup - and he did so with remarkable skill (and perhaps a little luck). In the five World Series games, he used three different cleanup hitters. In the six-game NLCS, he used four different shortstop-third base combos.

For all the brilliant individual performances the Giants produced this postseason - from the home run exploits of Ross and Edgar Renteria, to the pitching of Lincecum, Cain and Bumgarner - you could make an argument that no one had a better month than Bochy.

He rode the hot hand and benched the cold bat. Renteria, the veteran shortstop who hit go-ahead homers in two of the Giants' four World Series wins, made only two starts in the Division Series.

"He's been nailing it all year," said closer Brian Wilson.

He is firm enough to make tough decisions (leaving Barry Zito off the roster, sticking veterans such as Rowand on the bench, benching Pat Burrell in Game 4 of the World Series), but has a soft enough human touch to keep everyone on board with the program.

"He's the most understated and underrated manager in baseball," General Manager Brian Sabean said. "The guy just amazes me. He's got a great way in the clubhouse, whether it's behind closed doors or mixing with the players on the plane."

Bochy, a former big league catcher, spent much of his childhood in Northern Virginia, where his father was in the military. He was a paperboy for The Washington Post and attended his first big league game at RFK Stadium in 1965, when he was 10 years old.

He evidently started absorbing the nuances of the game at an early age, filing away his observations and insights. There was certainly room for plenty of both in that head of his.

3. There are nuggets of gold in that trash heap. The Giants remade their roster this summer. They signed Burrell, who had been released by the Tampa Bay Rays. They made a waiver claim for Ross, and the Florida Marlins gave him away. They made a waiver-trade for left-handed reliever Javier Lopez in August.

All were essentially given away by their former teams, but all had some value, even if it was in a very narrow category.

And in the most impactful move of all, they called up rookie catcher Buster Posey from the minors in May and installed him as their starting catcher in July. Catcher, where the Giants have a young future superstar, is now arguably the only position on the field where they would not prefer an upgrade.

The result? From July 4 on, the Giants posted the second-best record in baseball (51-30), behind only the Philadelphia Phillies. Perhaps then, in hindsight, we shouldn't have been so blindsided by these Giants, so oblivious to the power of "torture" - the self-deprecating label the Giants gave to their nail-biter style of play - or the simplicity of the old axiom that said great pitching beats great hitting.

"Misfits and castoffs. [Bochy] nailed it when he said that's what we are - a lot of guys getting a second chance," Ross said. "A lot of guys had pretty good years and their teams didn't want them, for whatever reason. We all came over here and came together and meshed together. We picked the road less traveled. We all came together, and we did it."

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