MLB.com Columnist

Marty Noble

No special thrill to beat defending champs

Noble: No special thrill to beat defending champs

Now that Jason Bay, Zack Greinke and Brian Wilson are again among the functional, most of the ripples caused by developments in Spring Training are gone or at least forgotten. One of the rites of the February and March has not faded yet, though -- the suggestion that the Giants and Rangers face greater challenges this year because they played in the World Series last season.

Participants in the previous World Series are wont to say in Spring Training, "We're a marked team this year," or "We're the team everybody wants to beat now," or "They're all going to bring their A game against us," or words to that effect.

It's a variation on the phrase "Looking out for No. 1." Defending champions are convinced -- or they claim to be -- that opposing teams are intent on beating them. It has to do with feathers in their caps, Dave Righetti suggested Wednesday night. Some players might believe beating a defending league champion is a special accomplishment, though no bonus points are awarded. The other side of that understanding is that some members of the defending champions believe they have become targets for all.

But it ain't so. Or, if it is, almost zero tangible proof of it exists. Righetti knows of none, and as pitching coach of the 2010 World Series champion Giants and the 2011 Giants, he is in position to see. No Giants opponents have slid more forcefully this year, opposing hitters haven't been more patient, outfielders aren't making more circus catches against the Giants, even though San Francisco was guilty of characterizing itself as "a marked team" after it gathered in Scottsdale, Ariz., in February.

"Yeah, one of us probably did say something like that," Cody Ross said. "Sounded good at the time."

But he has no evidence that would stand up in court either. "I can't say I saw anyone running extra hard to first base," Ross said. And his colleagues are similarly empty-handed. "I think what we did last year," Righetti said, "might keen other teams' awareness of us. But do players come at us harder? No."

Righetti is familiar with the signs. In his seasons pitching with the Yankees, he saw opponents play with greater energy and intent. But he wasn't sure their motivation was pure. He figured some were auditioning, looking for a job next year or at least some evidence of George Steinbrenner's blind generosity and affection for players with the designation "pending free agent" affixed to their names.

Righetti hasn't seen that in the 30 games the Giants have played this season. And San Francisco would be a wonderful place to spend a few summers.

But there must be something to this "marked team" thing if it can be heard each spring in the camps of the league champions or even the division champions. Proof must exist. Maybe folks don't know what to look for. Perhaps they do and can't describe it. "I can't define it, but I know when I see it," seemed to work for the Supreme Court.

Javy Lopez, the Giants reliever, believes he witnessed an example in 2008, his second season with the Red Sox. The Sox had won the '07 World Series, and they were playing the Rays early in '08. With Coco Crisp trying to return to second base on an attempted pickoff, Rays second baseman Akinori Iwamura blocked the base with his knee. Not that such a maneuver constituted a declaration of war, but that tactic, once commonplace in the game, rarely occurs before Labor Day these days. And if does, it involves the first- and second-place teams or is part of a larger feud.

Lopez went so far as to link the knee to the Rays beating the Red Sox in the ALCS that year.

"They were after us all year," he said.

Chances are Giants' record -- 15-15 after Tim Lincecum-plus shut out the Mets on Wednesday night -- is not so much an indication of "pennant envy" among National League teams as it is their own inability to perform at a level approaching what they attained last summer. General manager Brian Sabean didn't say that, not in so many words, but he acknowledged opponents probably were more envious of the Phillies after they won the 2008 World Series than teams have been envious of the Giants this year.

"The Phillies had been there the previous year," he said. "They said we came out of nowhere last year."

Lou Piniella now works as special scout for Sabean, evaluating American League teams as they pass through Tampa. He played for two Yankees World Series champions and in their subsequent seasons; he managed the Reds in 1991 after their upset sweep of the A's in '90.

"It might be that, once you've won, you get a sense of security that isn't a good thing to have," Piniella said Tuesday night. "That might have happened to us in '78 after we won the whole thing in '77. The other teams wanted to kick our butts. They wanted to beat the best. Plus we had the 'NY' on our caps. And we fell behind by 14 games.

"But no, I can't tell you I ever saw a guy go out of his way -- doing something he wouldn't do against other teams -- just because we'd won the World Series the year before. I know guys say it. But it's just words."

And what about the defending champions? Does anyone really believe that stuff?

"Only," Piniella said "if they lose a lot games early. It's a good way to rationalize."

Marty Noble is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.