GLENDALE, Ariz.—When you come to Scottsdale, Ariz., in September to talk to scouts advancing the Giants for the playoffs, they always talk about the fundamentals the team, with such remarkable organization, continually carries from practice fields to big league ballparks, from March through October.
Remember in 2014, when Brandon Crawford threw out three runners at home plate in June? When he was shown the video of the three plays, he said, “I love baseball. I love being on the field. I love practicing relays."
Then Crawford proceeded to recall the play in Game Two of the 2012 World Series in San Francisco when Prince Fielder hit a ball into the left-field corner that eluded Gregor Blanco. Crawford was supposed to be the cutoff man, but Blanco overthrew him. In this case Marco Scutaro anticipated the play, sprinted from second base to the left-field line, grabbed the overthrow and nailed Fielder trying for an inside-the-park homer to preserve a 2-0 win. As bench coach Ron Wotus says, “That was the biggest play of the series," which turned out to be a Giants victory in five games.
Rangers manager Jeff Banister talked about his team's spring work on outfield fundamentals, pointing out that Texas led the majors in outfield errors in 2016. “When an outfielder makes an error, it usually results in big trouble," Banister said. The Giants committed just 10 in 2016.
Wonder why Giants pitchers led the National League with 33 RBIs and ranked fourth in OPS? Their pitchers work at their hitting.
The Giants' two-strike approach also helps mitigate a home park that suppresses offense. When Giants batters got to two strikes last season, their .263 on-base percentage trailed only the elite offenses of the Red Sox and Cubs.
“We have to play that way," manager Bruce Bochy said. “We're not a big offensive, home run-hitting team. We play in a ballpark that isn't conducive to offense. We have to do the little things, from defense to situational hitting to getting the bunts down against the shift if we're going to win."
And despite a season in which the bullpen blew seven leads handed to them by Madison Bumgarner, the Giants still made the Wild Card Game, beat the Mets and gave the Cubs a scare in the Division Series. With new closer Mark Melancon and a host of younger arms, San Francisco believes its bullpen woes are solved. And if Matt Cain doesn't make it all the way back, they expect 2014 first-round pick Tyler Beede to come up.
Dodgers Change The Culture
Manager Dave Roberts, team president Andrew Friedman and all of the Dodgers' people are well aware of the Giants' two-strike success. They're also aware that Dodgers batters tended to drop their back shoulders with two strikes as they tried to yank the ball to their pull side. Los Angeles ranked 20th with a .239 two-strike OBP.
“It's what we've emphasized all spring," Roberts said. “It is getting better. Things are very different."
Two and three years ago, in the earlier stages of this ownership and with so many name big-name players, the Dodgers' culture was often called “toxic."
The culture now is different. “This is a fun place to be," says first-base coach George Lombard, a thought echoed by hard-nosed third baseman Justin Turner. Roberts, like Cubs manager Joe Maddon, brings something to his clubhouse meeting every morning. One day, he arranged to have a piano brought in so that righthander Trevor Oaks could play a mini-recital. Incidentally, Oaks' hard sinker may play big in the second half.
Almost everyone in the clubhouse points to the impact Chase Utley has on the team, especially the young players. As Utley remained unsigned during the offseason, Friedman said that Roberts, the coaches and players—especially Corey Seager—were constantly begging him to re-sign Utley. Friedman and general manager Farhan Zaidi kept Utley informed, and when Friedman explained that he had to first get a righthanded-hitting second baseman, Utley called him back and suggested Logan Forsythe. The Dodgers traded for Forsythe, and now have Turner and Forsythe on either side of shortstop Seager.
The Rivalry Remains
The Giants and Dodgers play 57 games either against each other or the Rockies and Diamondbacks. That makes having even two NL West teams qualify for October a challenge.
But there was no expressway to the World Series when the Giants and Dodgers went head-to-head in New York in the 1940s and '50s, before the franchises relocated to California. It's more complicated this year because the Rockies and D-backs appear to be vastly improved.
But the rivalry, like the song, remains the same.
— See more from Hall of Famer Peter Gammons at GammonsDaily.com