Let's just get the bad pun out of the way from the start. The San Francisco Giants caught a bad break on Monday night in their game against the Washington Nationals.
Though the Giants did shut out the Nats, 8-0, to snap a three-game losing streak, the defending World Series champions lost starting pitcher Ryan Vogelsong with a broken finger. Vogelsong was hit on the right pinkie finger while swinging at a pitch from Craig Stammen, suffering two fractures and a dislocated knuckle in the finger.
CSN Bay Area's Joe Stiglich reported that the initial diagnosis is for Vogelsong to be out for four to six weeks, but Giants manager Bruce Bochy said the team will have a more definite timetable after Vogelsong has surgery to place pins in the finger. (Vogelsong's wife tweeted that he would be sidelined for six weeks. But factor in rehabilitation and Vogelsong having to build his arm strength back up and it could be a longer time frame.)
Even more frustrating for Vogelsong is that he was pitching his best game in what's been a rough season for him thus far. Vogelsong threw five scoreless innings and gave up only three hits before getting his pinkie finger crushed.
Coming into Monday's start, he'd allowed nine earned runs and 13 hits in just 6.1 innings during his past two starts. Vogelsong had given up four runs or more in six of his nine appearances this year, looking nothing like the pitcher who had emerged from mediocrity and obscurity to become one of the Giants' top three starting pitchers over the last two seasons.
Overall, his record was 2-4 with a 7.19 ERA. That ERA ranks dead last among the 107 MLB pitchers who have pitched enough innings to qualify for consideration.
Vogelsong's struggles reflect the poor performance of the entire Giants starting rotation to this point of the season. Matt Cain, who pitched like a NL Cy Young Award candidate most of last year, has a 5.43 ERA after his first nine starts. Tim Lincecum has carried last year's struggles into this year, carrying a 4.70 ERA. Madison Bumgarner (3.09 ERA) and Barry Zito (3.91) are pitching well, but they have been the exception.
San Francisco's current team ERA of 4.12 ranks 20th out of 30 MLB teams. Opponents are batting .256 against Giants pitching, also among the bottom 10 clubs in baseball. Their 207 runs allowed are the second-most in the NL as of May 21.
The last thing the Giants needed was for one of their starting pitchers to get hurt, forcing the team to scramble for a replacement.
Some might argue that Vogelsong sitting down might not be the worst thing. But if he was beginning to turn himself around — and Monday night's performance seems to indicate that was the case — this is terrible timing for San Francisco.
In the short term, Bochy has options to replace Vogelsong in the rotation. Reliever Chad Gaudin has been a standout, compiling a 2.10 ERA and 24 strikeouts in 25.2 innings.
Yet Bochy is a bit hesitant to take Gaudin out of the role he's been performing so well and possibly hurting the Giants' bullpen in the process. It might be one thing if this was a spot start for Gaudin, but as described above, Vogelsong's replacement — whether it's one or several — might be in the rotation for a while.
The other possibility appears to be Michael Kickham, who has a 2-4 record and 4.72 ERA in nine starts for Triple-A Fresno this season. However, the 24-year-old left-hander does have 50 strikeouts in 47.2 innings. Minor League Ball ranked him as the seventh-best prospect in San Francisco's system before the season.
Shane Loux, with a 4-1 record and 3.68 ERA in seven starts for Fresno this year, could also be a replacement. Chris Weston is yet another option. He's lugging a 5.33 ERA and has allowed 65 hits in 50.2 innings, but has struck out 46 batters.
A trade should always be considered a possibility as well. But are any clubs willing to deal starting pitching at this point? If the Chicago Cubs' Matt Garza comes back healthy, perhaps he could be a target. The Houston Astros would surely love to deal Bud Norris or Lucas Harrell. And the Miami Marlins can always be counted on to dump a player, so Ricky Nolasco will be available. But such moves will surely be made closer to the July 31 trade deadline.
Regardless of who replaces Vogelsong or any outside help general manager Brian Sabean is able to acquire, the Giants need the pitchers already on hand to improve. While providing the production that's helped San Francisco win championships in two of the past three seasons might be too much to ask for, this team won't win if those depended upon for a high level of performance don't come through.
"We don’t stink as a club or as pitchers," Bochy told reporters, including the Mercury News' Alex Pavlovic, on Sunday. "We’re going to have off days, but you don’t have the success we have had and not be good as pitchers. They have to remind themselves how good they are."
But maybe this was simply to be expected with the number of innings that Giants starting pitchers have thrown over the past few seasons, a concern that the San Francisco Chronicle's Henry Schulman has raised.
Cain has averaged more than 220 innings over the past three years. Lincecum has pitched more than 200 innings in four of his previous six seasons. In his two years as a full-time major league starter, Bumgarner has exceeded 200 innings. And Vogelsong averaged 185 frames during the last two seasons, more than he'd ever thrown in the majors, minors or Japan.
That sort of workload tends to take its toll on a pitching staff eventually. Perhaps that's catching up with the Giants now.
While the pitching staff tries to right itself, San Francisco's offense might be what keeps them in contention for the NL West title or a wild-card playoff spot. Fortunately for the Giants, that offense appears capable of shouldering that load so far. Their .274 team batting average ranks second in the majors, while a .330 on-base percentage and .740 OPS each put them eighth among MLB clubs. The Giants' 210 runs scored are the third-most in the NL.
Despite its struggles, San Francisco is only one game out of first place in the NL West. Just imagine if the Giants begin to pitch the way they have for the past few seasons. Combined with a productive offense, that might be enough to push them past the surprising Arizona Diamondbacks and Colorado Rockies in the division.
As we've seen with this team before, the Giants are capable of anything once they get into the postseason.
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