On Sunday, June 8th, Tim Lincecum hurled a quality start, all nine Giants starters reached base, and San Francisco earned a 6-4 victory over the Mets to move to 42-21, 9.5 games ahead of the Los Angeles Dodgers. Monday night, with the Giants idle, the Dodgers completed a 22-day, 10-game charge up the standings.
The Dodgers have now won 15 of their last 22 games and outscored opponents by 1.5 runs per game. After another slow start, the Dodgers are starting to resemble the juggernaut that won two out of every three games from July onward last year. Whereas the 2013 team lacked an injured Hanley Ramirez and an undiscovered Yasiel Puig early last season, this year's club suffered through injuries to Clayton Kershaw and Hyun-Jun Ryu early on. Over this hot stretch, the Dodgers were allowing a meager 2.4 runs per game before Cleveland touched them for 10 on Tuesday night.
The Giants, meanwhile, have dropped 15 of 21 and share the dubious honor of worst 20-game stretch in 2014 with the Rockies (pending a suspended game from May 22), Pirates, Diamondbacks, Rays and Astros. These five teams are all well outside the playoff race and sit a combined 48 games under .500.
According to Baseball-Reference's Play-Index, the 2013 season featured 173 20-game stretches in which a team went 5-15 or worse. Not a single playoff team appears on the list. The closest was the Rangers, who went 5-15 between their 134th and 153rd game (and "again" in games 136-155). The Rangers relinquished the AL West and first Wild Card to Oakland and Cleveland with this collapse, and they eventually lost a Game 163 to Tampa Bay to end a streak of three straight postseason appearances.
One playoff team does come up on the list of 15-loss 20-game stretches in 2012: the Athletics, who went 5-15 beween games 35 and 54 to fall to 23-31 and nine games behind the Rangers in the AL West. But over the next four months, Josh Donaldson turned into an MVP challenger, Brandon Moss became Oakland's next big slugger, Sonny Gray became the A's next ace, and the Athletics finished the year 71-37 en route to the division title.
The Giants can at least look forward to the return of Brandon Belt, who is expected to return from a thumb fracture around July 4th. That will force Tyler Colvin and his .240/.280/.430 line back to the bench in exchange for Belt's .264/.317/.504 mark. It's a significant upgrade, but hardly enough to account for the Giants' complete slide over the past three weeks.
The Giants lineup issues have been minor compared to the issues with the pitching staff. Despite no major injuries to the pitching staff, the Giants have surrendered 4.95 runs over their last 20 games against an NL average of 4.01 (the Rockies, for reference, are at 5.17). It's at the point where Sergio Romo (9 ER in 8.1 June innings) could be removed from the closer's role. The rest of the bullpen hasn't helped -- Jean Machi has come down to earth (4 ER in 6.0 June innings) and Javier Lopez has been exposed (4 ER in 5 2/3 June innings, 7:9 K:BB on the season). In the rotation, Tim Lincecum posted a 4.88 ERA in June, despite a no-hitter. More alarming, Matt Cain now has a 4.12 ERA (83 ERA+) over his last 43 starts.
The Giants are still in fine position overall, although the charging teams behind them like St. Louis, Atlanta and Cincinnati are looming. We can't ignore that they not only won two out of every three games in April and May, but outscored teams by over a run per game in the process. Switch April and June and this post is about a Dodgers' struggles to pull away instead.
But the Giants' gigantic margin of error, one that had many calling the club a playoff lock even two weeks ago, is completely evaporated. They spent three weeks mired in a cold stretch the likes of which few playoff teams suffer, because few playoff teams are poor enough to sustain such poor performance over such a long period. Even if it is just a fluke, it has become one the Giants no longer can afford to prolong if they want to stay in the race.