Others have begun to discuss Buster Posey and his case for the 2012 National League MVP award, and as should surprise nobody (especially since I’ve mentioned this before), I’m also on the “Posey for MVP” bandwagon. The competition for NL MVP is rather tight, with several players standing out as strong candidates. The contenders can reasonably be cut down to the following seven players: Buster Posey, Ryan Braun, Andrew McCutchen, Yadier Molina, David Wright, Jason Heyward and Chase Headley. You could actually make a serious case for a few others (Aaron Hill, even?), but those are probably the big seven.
The Giants caught a huge break when it was announced earlier that Clayton Kershaw would not be making tonight’s start, and that Joe Blanton would be starting in his place. The Giants definitely lucked out in the opposing-team’s-injuries department: not to be forgotten was Matt Kemp‘s absence, which left Hanley Ramirez and number-eight hitter A.J. Ellis as the only legitimate right-handed threats in the Dodgers’ starting lineup. And they took advantage of it.
Barry Zito came up big tonight, giving the Giants six-plus innings’ worth of scoreless work. He wasn’t outright dominant, but he didn’t need to be. He worked his way out of some jams, kept his pitch count from getting out of hand, and by the time he exited the mound in the seventh inning, the Giants had a four-run lead in a crucial game. You really couldn’t have asked more of Zito than what he did tonight. (I was most impressed with how he handled Hanley Ramirez, striking him out twice — both times looking — and yielding a groundout in the other at-bat). Zito’s final line: 6.1 IP, 0 R, 4 K, 3 BB, 4 H.
On the offensive side of things, the Giants wasted no time getting runs up on the board. They nearly batted around in the first inning, the big hit coming off the bat of Hunter Pence, who doubled to drive in a couple runs. There were several great at-bats in that inning, most notably from Pablo Sandoval and Brandon Belt. Sandoval drew a seven-pitch walk, one day after seeing four pitches in four plate appearances (it seemed as though he was making a conscious effort to see more pitches); Belt, too, worked himself a walk, after an eleven-pitch battle against Blanton (although it didn’t end up being significant, as Gregor Blanco then struck out to end the inning). Anyway, these were particularly impressive considering that Blanton entered this game with a BB/9 of 1.6; he’s stingy when it comes to allowing free passes.
Those two first-inning runs were all the Giants really needed, but they padded their lead as the game went on. Angel Pagan tripled for the 11th time this season and came around to score on a sac fly; he’s got a pretty good shot at breaking the San Francisco Giants record for triples (12). And Buster Posey added a fourth run by homering to lead off the sixth inning.
Posey, if I may go off on a tangent now, has built himself a pretty strong MVP case this season. I’m biased, of course, but I think the objective case holds up under scrutiny. Posey has now hit .327/.402/.531 in 527 plate appearances this season, all while playing good defense at the toughest position on the field. He’s hit very well with runners in scoring position, and in the situations that matter most. And he just so happens to lead the National League in TAv (a stat that accounts for some of the important stuff that wOBA ignores). Accurately assessing catcher defense is pretty tough, given the intricacies of catching, but it’s pretty clear to me that Posey is an above-average defender.
Anyhow, there will be much more time to discuss this as the season draws to a close. The main focus right now: the first place Giants. They salvaged the series win, extending their division lead to five and a half games. With 22 games remaining on the schedule (and just 21 for the Dodgers), that’s huge. Not that you needed me to tell you that. The Giants’ magic number is down to 17, and at this point, they’re all but guaranteed to make the playoffs. I’d really like to see them wrap it up before that final three-game series in Los Angeles, and it looks like they’re well on their way toward doing that. I’m nothing but pleased with how this team has performed.
Last night, it looked like the Giants were going to waste yet another strong outing from Matt Cain. With the game tied 1-1 in the eighth, Cain surrendered a run, giving the Astros the lead. The Giants entered the ninth with a one-run deficit to overcome and the bottom of the order taking on the task; the odds weren’t promising. But four pitches later, Brandon Belt had singled to lead off the inning, and Joaquin Arias had ripped a double down the left field line to drive him in. A couple batters later, Hector Sanchez blooped a single into shallow center field, and the Giants took a 3-2 lead. It was the kind of game the Giants have lost hundreds of times over the past several years; except they didn’t lose last night.
August sure has been kind to the Giants. Well, in the win-loss column, at least. The Giants are now 16-10 on the month, good for a .615 winning percentage. That makes this their best month so far, which is somewhat odd considering that they’ve gone Melky-less since the 15th. But that’s the thing — others have been picking up the slack. Buster Posey should win NL Player of the Month at this point, as nobody in the majors has had a better August. In fact, this month has firmly placed Posey in the MVP race, and assuming he can finish the season well, he’ll have a strong case come voting time. If Posey weren’t putting up otherworldly numbers this month, Angel Pagan (.353/.422/.608) would probably be deserving of player-of-the-month honors. Given his extended struggles, it’s been especially refreshing to see Pagan hit a stride. In the month of August, he’s actually surpassed his combined June/July totals for walks and total bases. And then there’s Joaquin Arias, who’s posted a 200 wRC+ in 54 plate appearances. His 2012 offensive numbers are now somehow better than Carlos Pena‘s.
And like that, the Giants now have a 3.5 game lead in the NL West. It’s not huge, and it’s certainly close enough to make things interesting, but it affords the Giants some breathing room. The Dodgers have made some big splashes, most notably the recent mega-trade for Adrian Gonzalez, Josh Beckett, Carl Crawford, and Nick Punto. While I’m confident that the trade hurts — maybe even cripples — the Dodgers in the long-term, it’s very difficult to write them off in the short-term. There’s no denying the collection of talent on the Dodgers’ current roster. But the Giants are starting to pad onto their division lead, and with 33 games to go, things are looking good.