Depth, pitching has Giants atop bigs at break

Depth, pitching has Giants atop bigs at break

SAN FRANCISCO -- Maybe playing in an even-numbered year revived the good karma of the Giants' previous three World Series titles and prompted their first-half success. Perhaps the addition of starters Johnny Cueto and Jeff Samardzija through free agency made San Francisco a big winner. Whatever the reason, the Giants entered the All-Star break with the Major Leagues' best record for the second time since the franchise moved west in 1958.

A pair of eight-game winning streaks helped the Giants outdistance the Dodgers, who were widely considered preseason favorites to capture the National League West. Unexpected depth has enabled the Giants to weather injuries that sidelined right fielder Hunter Pence, second baseman Joe Panik, third baseman Matt Duffy and other key performers for significant portions of the season.

"Talent-wise, I feel like this may be the best team that I've been a part of," said ace left-hander Madison Bumgarner, who was essential to the World Series triumphs in 2010, '12 and '14. "The thing is, most of our young guys have been through the fire already. They know what it's about. There are a few that don't, but enough that do to show them the way."

The Giants compiled a 39-15 record in games started by the pillars of their rotation -- Bumgarner, Cueto and Samardzija. Their excellence was so unwavering that, after the club dropped five consecutive games April 17-21, the Giants endured only three losing streaks that lasted as long as three games. A variety of players who began the season at Triple-A, such as Jarrett Parker, Mac Williamson and Derek Law, helped sustain the club. Throughout the first half, the Giants beat the teams they needed to defeat, posting a 31-15 mark against NL West rivals.

The Giants probably hoped for more than a .248 batting average and a .328 on-base percentage from center fielder and leadoff batter Denard Span, another free-agent acquisition. They also would have preferred to avoid the injury-imposed absences of Pence, Panik, Duffy, left fielder Angel Pagan and right-handers Matt Cain, George Kontos and Sergio Romo. But the bench and the Triple-A reinforcements compensated so well that nobody was truly missed.

Parker and Williamson just might possess enough skill to become everyday corner outfielders. Williamson particularly made an impression with his sheer "toolsy" ability, such as his throwing arm and his power. He was somewhat shaky on defense initially, but has noticeably improved. Need a big out in the late innings? Cory Gearrin can get it for you. Like Romo, he's capable of using his slider to toy with hitters.

It's shortstop Brandon Crawford, without a doubt. Despite not making the NL All-Star team, Crawford appears to be a strong candidate to repeat as the league's Gold Glove and Silver Slugger winner at his position. If he can maintain his team lead in RBIs (61), he would become the first shortstop to top the ballclub in that category.

Crawford's two-run double

Bumgarner has performed as a No. 1 pitcher should. But Cueto has been nothing short of unbelievable. The Giants are 16-2 when he starts. He's on pace to win 23 games, the most by a Giant since Ron Bryant amassed 24 in 1973. As advertised, Cueto has been entertaining, displaying an assortment of deliveries. Also as advertised, Cueto has been diligent, maintaining a rigorous workout regimen between starts.

Bumgarner's one-hit gem

Albert Suarez bolstered the staff as a replacement for Cain in the rotation and as a versatile hand in the bullpen. Though his ERA as a starter was 4.13, he yielded three runs or fewer in each of his six assignments. He also recorded a 2.76 ERA in seven relief outings.

Chris Haft has covered the Giants since 2005, and for since 2007. Follow him on Twitter at @sfgiantsbeat and listen to his podcast. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.