SAN FRANCISCO – At the risk of validating those eye-squinting notions that swirl around in Mat Latos'(notes) head, he's right: The everyday San Francisco Giants bear almost no resemblance to their former selves, the ones Latos' San Diego Padres were dusting a couple of months ago.
In fact, as much as Latos might disapprove, you're unlikely to find a club that has been so radically and fundamentally altered, that has benched and otherwise discarded so many critical parts, that has feathered in risky alternatives, and that has won, too.
Of course, it hasn't changed the Giants' game entirely. They cling to what has become a great pitching staff and hope their handful of reasonable at-bats show up in the same inning. What has changed are the results – the Giants beat the Arizona Diamondbacks on Thursday for their fourth consecutive win, their 17th in 24 games and their 91st overall. One more and the National League West is theirs, remarkable considering this opening-day lineup:
It's not that those eight would be so terrible necessarily, had they hit and maintained their health and didn't get run out of jobs by other guys.
But, when the Giants arrived at Game 159 on a warm afternoon when the wind blew over the right-field wall at AT&T Park, this is what they looked like:
In barely six months, the first two in the lineup – Rowand and Renteria – have gone from core necessities to postseason-roster long shots. Sandoval, the three-hitter and an MVP dreamer, was benched and overhauled, then returned as the guy they hope doesn't make the last out so the pitcher doesn't lead off the next inning. DeRosa had wrist surgery before his 100th at-bat. Molina was about to become Buster Posey's backup when they traded him to Texas. And right field, well, they've played everybody there but Lou Seal, who nevertheless is getting a long look as a late-inning defensive replacement for Guillen.
Giants GM Brian Sabean, who'd had this project on his hands since the final days of Barry Bonds, built and rebuilt and thrust and countered until something worked or didn't or he ran out of time. As Sabean rubbed his hands together and wondered what else, Torres arrived as a big league ballplayer for the first time at the age of 32. And Posey blossomed, as most believed he would. And Burrell, dead and buried in Tampa Bay, rose again in San Francisco. And Huff, having drawn the attention of exactly one ballclub last winter as a free agent, went from an afterthought to one of the clever signings of the offseason.
It's strange how these things work out, when the diligence of a few baseball minds can prove so keen at about the time a lightning-bolt three-run homer is all that's needed to back your pitcher's three-hitter. It's what the Giants have become, too, considering they've scored their last seven runs by home runs, considering they've scored 62 of their 97 September runs by home runs, considering their pitching staff's ERA in that time is less than two.
While Rowand and Renteria, whose achy elbow is no longer the reason he's not playing, fade into the background (along with the $21 million they'll earn together in 2010), up step Torres, Cody Ross(notes), Mike Fontenot(notes), Guillen and a few other guys who've recently had "San Francisco Giants" slapped across their chests, as Latos might observe.
In spite of the local howling, Sabean did not acquire the really big bat. But he did go get some folks who occasionally carry some heft, who have their moments, who get Burrell-hot at Burrell-times, who rub a little dirt on an appendectomy wound and are back in the lineup in 13 days, whatever it takes.
"It's made us a different club," Giants manager Bruce Bochy said. "I'm grateful Brian went out and got these guys."
And the ones left behind?
"They've done a good job of being good teammates," said Bochy.
Or at least they've kept quiet about it.
While those guys watched, Sandoval homered Thursday, then Torres did, then Posey did. Rookie Madison Bumgarner(notes) and three relievers held the Diamondbacks to one run. The Giants got four. That's how it's worked here for several weeks, how organizational change through injury, circumstance, inability to hit breaking balls, whimsy, continental drift, whatever, over a season might somehow have led to the best Giants team since 2002.
So, when Latos moans from second place that, "We've been the same team all year. We haven't just gone and grabbed guys from other teams," that hardly registers in the clubhouse with the guys from other teams.
They leave a key under the mat for the next guy, for whenever he might show up.
"Doesn't matter," Sandoval said of the stream of new players and new roles. "The only key here is we got a team. A guy comes in, he joins the team. That's it."
It doesn't always work. But it works when you win. And it's worked in San Francisco.