Not many new faces as Giants get ready to defend world championship
AP Baseball Writer
SAN FRANCISCO – Aubrey Huff walked away from AT&T Park after a thrilling victory parade last fall on a championship high. He was a World Series winner in his first postseason after an 11-year wait to finally get there.
The first baseman made it clear entering the winter that he wanted to come back to the Giants – and his wish was for the San Francisco brass to bring back as many of his teammates as possible for the chance at another playoff run in 2011.
A self-described bunch of castoffs and misfits somehow pulled off the improbable and won a long-awaited title for the Giants, the franchise’s first since moving West in 1958 and first overall since the New York Giants won in ’54.
Now, just as Huff had hoped, this club looks nearly identical to how it ended that remarkable run in five games over the AL champion Texas Rangers. The main new addition: durable shortstop Miguel Tejada replacing World Series MVP Edgar Renteria. Utility infielder Juan Uribe departed to the rival Dodgers.
“I was hoping in the offseason they’d bring as many people back as they could,” Huff said. “For me, you win it all, let’s try to defend it. Why go out there and change a whole lot? I can understand making a couple moves maybe. Let’s keep it intact and see what happens.”
Repeating is far from easy.
The Giants captured their first NL West crown since 2003 on the season’s final day after missing chances to clinch in the two previous games against the San Diego Padres.
Then, they not only eliminated the Atlanta Braves and retiring manager Bobby Cox but stunned the favored Philadelphia Phillies in six games to reach the organization’s first World Series since 2002.
This group was able to do something the other great Giants teams hadn’t in the Bay Area – not Hall of Famers Willie Mays, Willie McCovey, Juan Marichal and Orlando Cepeda, or home run king Barry Bonds.
“It’s awesome. I’m thrilled almost everyone came back,” right fielder Cody Ross said. “Why not (do it again)?”
The Giants had the pitching with ace Tim Lincecum leading the way after his career-worst, five-start skid in August, and enough timely hitting and defense to get by a rotation as dominant as Philadelphia’s featuring Roy Halladay, Roy Oswalt and Cole Hamels.
“We know what’s at stake. We did put a stake in the ground here and we want to defend this championship. To say last year was a fluke, that’s the last thing these players want,” manager Bruce Bochy said. “They’re a very talented ballclub. We need to improve in some areas on the field. …
“We probably do have a target on our back but that’s a good thing,” he added. “Let’s go out and defend this championship.”
The Giants are counting on a comeback season from slimmed-down slugger Pablo Sandoval, who is determined to rebound from a tough year. After the season, Bochy and GM Brian Sabean made it clear the Kung Fu Panda would have to shape up to keep his job at third base. He did just that.
Several key contributors Sabean acquired along the way last season will be around for the entire year this time, not to mention that the Giants get a full season from reigning Rookie of the Year catcher Buster Posey after he was called up in late May and went on to hit 18 home runs.
Pat Burrell joined San Francisco in early June after signing a minor league deal following his release by Tampa Bay. He re-signed this year for a bargain $1 million to get another chance in this close-knit clubhouse.
Then, there’s Ross, the unlikely postseason hero claimed off waivers from Florida on Aug. 22.
“It’s going to be nice to have them all for a full year,” Bochy said.
Ross is back on a $6.3 million, one-year contract ready to resume where he left off as NL championship series MVP. He drove in 10 runs during the playoffs, two in the World Series.
Relievers Javier Lopez and Ramon Ramirez also came aboard midseason.
“Obviously we’re not going to be as much underdogs as we were last year. Going into the last series I think people thought San Diego still might be able to pull it out,” Ross said. “Obviously in the division series the Braves were favored and then the Phillies, then the Rangers. We were the underdog pretty much the whole time. I doubt if that’s going to be the case this year but we can still have that chip on our shoulder that people are trying to take a run at us and we have to defend. We’re all on board with that.”
Sandoval and pitcher Barry Zito probably have the most to prove.
Sandoval showed up at spring training down about 30 pounds to a fit 240 after a rigorous offseason workout regimen. The free-swinging slugger batted .268 with just 13 home runs and 63 RBIs in his second full season in the big leagues only a year after he was among the last players left off the All-Star team.
Sandoval committed 13 errors and grounded into an NL-high 26 double plays. He played in only six of the Giants’ postseason games, including one appearance in the five-game World Series win over Texas.
Zito didn’t play at all. The left-hander was left off the roster for all three postseason rounds, and now the 2002 AL Cy Young Award winner is eager for a fresh start in year 5 of his $126 million, seven-year deal.
Zito finished 9-14 and failed to reach 10 wins for the first time since his rookie season in 2000. His 4.15 ERA was the fourth-highest of his career. He went 1-8 with a 6.72 ERA over his last 11 outings and 10 starts and only had one victory in his last 15 appearances. The stretch included a career-worst nine-game losing streak from July 21 to Sept. 14.
The way No. 3 starter Matt Cain sees it, last season is now history – the ups and the downs. This one will be scrutinized: A camera crew will be following the club closely for a television series about the reigning champs.
“I think we’ve got to in a way carry some of the stuff we did last year with us but I think we’ve also got to wipe the slate clean,” Cain said. “A lot of teams are different and we’ll definitely be a different team this year with a lot of the same guys and we’ll have to start over as well.”
Even Huff has a fresh approach after receiving a new $22 million, two-year contract this winter. He announced early in spring training he was retiring the red rally thong that he believes helped him in 2010. He hit .290 with a team-leading 26 home runs and 86 RBIs while playing in 157 games, then batted .268 with one homer and eight RBIs in the postseason.
“Just play baseball this year and try to keep the antics at home,” Huff said, noting the notorious undergarment is back at his house in Florida.
Bochy, for one, will appreciate that focus while also acknowledging it’s the variety of personalities on his club that makes things click so well.
“I think when you get a taste of it the way they did you’re going to have it even more,” Bochy said. “You realize how much fun it was and how much the fans appreciated what happened. That makes you even want to do it again more.”