This is not like 2005 when only the San Diego Padres managed to finish above .500. This year, the four other clubs made significant improvements, at least on paper. Beyond that, the Rockies and the Diamondbacks are better than most people anticipated. The Padres are roughly the same as they were last year when they won the division. The Dodgers have assembled the most impressive contingent of talent, but they are severely injury-prone.
That leaves the Giants, a popular process-of-elimination preseason pick. They have perhaps the largest individual and collective reputations in the division. But there is some question about whether they can still play up to those reputations.
They were up to standards Wednesday night, ending a four-game losing streak and breaking out of a collective hitting slump with a resounding 11-4 victory over the Diamondbacks.
"It's nice to that we are capable of doing it," manager Felipe Alou said. "We were really struggling at the plate."
The team that the Giants started at the regular positions on Wednesday night in Chase Field averaged 37 years of age. This is a team that must win now, because it has no credible element of later. Starting pitcher Matt Cain, at 21, was basically two baseball generations removed from the rest of the crew.
The Giants have been hurt by injuries, although this might not be an unexpected development with advancing age. The impact of the loss of Mike Matheny, out with a concussion, cannot be overstated. Matheny is a Gold Glove catcher and a tremendously positive clubhouse presence. He cannot be suitably replaced.
Moises Alou missed a month with an ankle injury. Barry Bonds has had the bad knee, the bad elbow, the nagging problems with his left side. One of the reasons that the Giants' offense has not met expectations is that Bonds this season has been more mortal than monumental.
But Wednesday night he looked more like his more powerful self. In the fifth inning he hit a mighty shot high off the wall in center field. He reached first base. This was not a great moment in the history of the game. In the ninth, he spared himself the trouble of running the bases by hitting the 717th home run of his career, a three-run shot off Jose Valverde.
"Best batting practice of the year," Felipe Alou said of Bonds' pregame work. "You could see something was going to happen."
This was an obviously encouraging development for the Giants. But the other half of Bonds' game is not in ascendance. He did make a leaping catch at the wall on Tuesday night. But, on a ball hit to the gap by Shawn Green in the same game, Bonds, backing up center fielder Randy Winn, could not get his glove down far enough to make a routine pickup of the ball. What should have been a double became a triple. And when Green scored on a sacrifice fly and the Giants lost by one run, the importance of this misplay was magnified.
Bonds, fairly, unfairly, plus or minus, became the greatest hitter of this generation. But defensively, he is, at this late date in his career, essentially a designated hitter playing in the wrong league.
If you were going to lean in the Giants' direction in this five-way debate, you could happily note that they have had some positive pitching developments. Reliever Steve Kline was a nice addition, as he demonstrated Wednesday night with two shutout innings.
In the rotation, Jason Schmidt has returned to something like his better form, Jamey Wright has turned some of his vast potential into production. If Matt Morris pitches to the level of the rest of his career, this could be a real area of strength, or, in this division, at least relative strength.
In the other dugout, the D-Backs are a work in progress, which still makes you a competitor in this division. They are playing with some younger folks and this usually means a mixture of promise and pitfalls. Tuesday night, 23-year-old rookie starter Enrique Gonzalez stopped the Giants on one hit over seven innings and thus stopped a seven-game losing streak.
The Diamondbacks have the infield corners manned with two young players of unquestioned potential, Chad Tracy at third, Conor Jackson at first. When the issue Wednesday night was still in question, however, Tracy committed three errors; two fielding, one throwing. Tracy's hitting prowess is a matter of record, but this was not a performance that projected a future Brooks Robinson in the field.
Brandon Webb (8-1 with a 2.06 earned run average) is pitching as well as any starter in baseball, but the depth of the D-Backs' pitching is in question. Valverde, victim of Bonds' blast Wednesday night, owner of a 7.36 ERA, has lost the closer's role to Jorge Julio, at least for the moment. The Diamondbacks are still searching for a competent fifth starter, but at least after pulling the plug on Russ Ortiz, they can't be tempted to lose with him every fifth game.
So with 65 of this season's 162 precincts reporting, this race is way too close to call. None of these teams is enough of a push-button operation that it could pull away from the rest of the group. On the other hand, none of these clubs is bad enough to completely disappear from sight. At this juncture, it would probably be unwise to predict anything other than a five-way tie.