PITTSBURGH — Accompanying the San Francisco Giants on their current East Coast road trip is a nondescript black case, sharing space in the airplane’s cargo hold with the equipment bags and the trunks full of jerseys and caps. This particular case has its own team-paid caretaker, who guards its contents religiously. It is almost never opened, unless by prior arrangement.
Inside the case is the Commissioner’s Trophy, awarded to the Giants last November upon winning the 2010 World Series. When the Giants, following a four-game series at Nationals Park in Washington that begins Friday night, continue on to New York next week, the trophy will make a pilgrimage upstate to Troy, N.Y., ancestral home of the Giants franchise, then on to Cooperstown, where it will spend some time on display at the Hall of Fame.
If the Giants themselves are tempted these days to sneak a peek inside the case every once in a while, just to remind themselves of their status as the reigning World Series champions, it would be understandable. Right now, both in terms of performance and confidence, they seem far removed from the lovable, roguish band of “castoffs and misfits” who won it all less than six months ago.
“It certainly hasn’t gone as well as we thought,” General Manager Brian Sabean said Thursday morning. “You may not be able to win a pennant in April or May, but you can certainly lose one. I think we need to keep that in mind, without putting extra pressure on ourselves.”
A 5-2 win over the Pittsburgh Pirates on Thursday afternoon pulled the Giants back to .500 (12-12), but it was just their second win in their past seven games, and they still find themselves 41 / 2 games behind the NL West-leading Colorado Rockies.
And they still find themselves in possession of an anemic offense that scored two or fewer runs four times in a six-game span over the past week — including zero on Wednesday night, when the Pirates started a pitcher, James McDonald, with a 10.12 ERA. Entering Thursday’s play, the Giants ranked 13th in the National League in runs per game (3.91), 14th in on-base percentage (.302) and 11th in slugging percentage (.383).
“Nobody’s really gotten hot,” said veteran first baseman Aubrey Huff, who entered Thursday hitting .218 with a .601 OPS. “Nobody’s been consistent. We’re all cold at the same time. If we get hot together, we can score a lot of runs.”
“We’re pressing,” added right fielder Cody Ross.
The Giants say the example of 2010, when they were just 41-40 at the season’s midpoint, with similar problems scoring runs, and had to make up a six-game deficit over the season’s final five weeks in order to overtake the San Diego Padres and make the playoffs, has been a comfort in the early going this year — a reminder of what this roster, largely unchanged from last fall, can accomplish.
“We haven’t really clicked in any facet of the game so far,” said right-hander Sergio Romo, the top setup man in the Giants’ bullpen. “We’re still looking to find that groove as a unit. But there’s no extra pressure on us, no feeling like, ‘We have to get it done right now.’ We’d like to get it turned around. But it’s still too early to put any extra pressure on ourselves. There’s still way more potential for this team.”
But Sabean, the general manager, cautioned against anyone using the “it’s still early” argument, or assuming the 2011 Rockies will fold the way the 2010 Padres did during a 14-23 stretch run.
“Colorado is a pretty damn good team,” Sabean said, “and they’re well-rounded. So we can’t think we can fall behind like we did last year and then rear our heads and catch a team like that.”
Last summer, when the Giants went through a scarcity of runs, Sabean remade the team’s lineup in midseason, signing the recently released Pat Burrell, trading veteran Bengie Molina and handing the everyday catching duties to rookie Buster Posey, and claiming Ross on waivers. By October, only three position players from the 2010 opening day lineup (Huff, Edgar Renteria and Juan Uribe) were also in the lineup for the clinching game of the World Series.
That team popularized a brand of baseball that came to be known as “torture” — for its predilection for low-scoring, tightly contested games — but if that was torture, this is merely tortuous. So far in 2011, the Giants have produced a significantly lower batting average (.241, through Wednesday) and OPS (.685) that they did a year ago (.257 and .729).
The Giants expected more this year after bringing back essentially the same lineup that blitzed through last October. But leadoff man Andres Torres (strained foot) has been out since April 9, Ross (strained calf) didn’t see his first action until April 20, and new shortstop Miguel Tejada — the team’s only significant acquisition this winter — has been abysmal at the plate (.200 batting average, .541 OPS).
This is a better lineup than where we were at this point last year,” Manager Bruce Bochy said, “so that’s a little disappointing.”
By the end of this 10-game road trip, the Giants will have played 22 of their first 31 games away from home. Their task now is to ride out the unforgiving April schedule, wait until Torres returns in a couple of weeks, and try to regain whatever magic it was that carried them through the 2010 postseason.
“We’re kind of in survival mode,” Sabean said. “We know this won’t be easy. But we don’t mind difficult. We just don’t want impossible.”