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Watching The San Francisco Giants, So Strange And So Blessed

The San Francisco Giants have won the World Series in every even-numbered year this decade. They could do it again this year. That's not even the weird part.

by Robert O'Connell
May 31 2016, 3:28pm

Photo by Cary Edmondson-USA TODAY Sports

Last Monday, with a runner on first and two outs in the ninth inning of a scoreless game against the San Diego Padres, San Francisco Giants outfielder Hunter Pence pinch-hit for his team's starting pitcher, Johnny Cueto. When Pence popped up a fastball and tossed his bat away in a huff, the game seemed to be headed to extra innings. Then the ball found a kind patch of air of the sort unique to San Francisco—high enough to catch a current off the bay and get to wobbling, low enough to drop in a hurry—and it landed just beyond the outstretched glove of Matt Kemp. Seconds after the ball hit the grass, Brandon Belt crossed the plate, giving the Giants one of the season's strangest and least beautiful walk-off wins.

Anywhere else, that win might have registered as a fluky example of the slim margins that sometimes separate wins from losses. But in San Francisco in 2016, this sort of thing has already taken on the look of fate. The Giants have won the World Series in every even-numbered year in the 2010s, and the 2010s are honestly not even that young anymore; each of those championships was characterized by the same good-but-also-smiled-upon vibe.

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So far, this season has kept up that tradition. Despite having a run differential in the middle of the pack, the Giants hold the second-best record and second-largest division lead in baseball. They've won nine one-run games. Every evening, they seem to be playing not only to win but also to type.

It might all fall apart, of course. As has been the case in each of the seasons in which they've won a World Series, every indicator suggests that there's an entire industrial-sized coop of chickens waiting to come home to roost. In the meantime, though, it's worth checking in on this decade's favored sons. This year's version makes for a pretty handy study in what has made them what they are—so inexplicable, so inexorable, and so unique. This team, like the others, doesn't necessarily have to be the best in baseball. It only has to be good enough to catch a break or two, and to take advantage when the breaks come.

When you're good, and showing all the emotion you're comfortable with, to be honest. Photo by Kelley L Cox-USA TODAY Sports

If Major League Baseball's organizational philosophies lie on a spectrum, with the big-money/big-name Los Angeles Dodgers of recent years at one end and the fetishized pragmatism of the St. Louis Cardinals on the other, the Giants sit somewhere in the middle. They like to draft and develop their own talent, but aren't uncompromising in that preference; they spend with the frequency of a mid-market team, but when they do make moves, they splash out the dollar figures of the rich club that they are. Over the half-decade since that first dizzy World Series run in 2010, they've transitioned from leaning hard on a world-beating rotation to surrounding a generational pitcher and hitter with competence at most every position.

The two players at the middle of things remain Madison Bumgarner and Buster Posey, and that is a pair as pedigreed and reliable a combination as any in the game. Bumgarner throws 200-plus first-rate innings every year, skimming through entire months with his spotted fastball and sidearmed, diving-turkey slider. Posey ends each year with an OPS in the .850s and the adoration of his pitching staff, all the more impressive considering how few catchers can manage either, let alone both. Their own bona fides aside, they may be most valuable for how they let the Giants refurbish the roster around them. Problems—the last-place offense in 2011, the droopy pitching in 2013, the fogey-stuffed staff of last year—are a lot easier to solve when a pair of players gets you halfway there on their own.

What little support Bumgarner and Posey do need has come, this season, in various forms. After an iffy stint with the Kansas City Royals over last year's second half, Cueto again looks like every bit the shimmying-shoulder changeup artist he was during his days as Cincinnati's ace. Jeff Samardzija and Denard Span, last winter's two other free agent splurges, have respectively added depth to the rotation and an outfield that tends to get a little thin whenever Angel Pagan sees his annual DL time. The best parts of the endearingly spunky 2015 Giants have stuck around. The infield is still full of homegrown players with good feet and quick gloves who can be trusted to pull a few homers and send a few gappers the other way. Pence, long may he wave, is still gyro-thwopping doubles down the line.

When you're a weird puppet that just hit a home run. Photo by Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports

So: this is a fine team, one belonging to the class that might reasonably expect to chase the 2016 championship. But competence alone doesn't account for the whiff of fable that accompanies this team's wins. Honestly, even the uncanny even-year thing doesn't quite cover it, either. If most any other team had fallen into that pattern, we'd all be trying to reverse engineer their accelerated rebuilds. With the Giants, the temptation is to turn out their uniform pockets looking for rabbits' feet.

I suspect this is because their place in the hierarchy of baseball celebrity roughly matches their middle-ground approach. San Francisco's best players aren't quite the best in the game, and their complementary pieces don't tend to show the flashes that suggest they might be on their way to something more. Simply put, Madison Bumgarner is not Clayton Kershaw, Buster Posey is not Bryce Harper, and Brandon Crawford—an excellent shortstop in the field and at the plate, shot through with the sort of quickness that makes it seem like he's actually tethering the game around him back to his own comfortable tempo—is not Carlos Correa or Francisco Lindor. Taken as a whole, the Giants have the type of talent that can get very good results while suggesting, quietly, that something more than talent must be at work. The results are the results, but the getting-there is significantly more mysterious.

How we name that mystery depends upon generation and inclination. It can be "chemistry" or "destiny" or "luck." By any name, it is notoriously hard to forecast, but plain as day in retrospect. It blessed Edgar Rentaria's bat in 2010 and Pablo Sandoval's in 2012 and 2014, and it may or may not be what has Giants popups catching helpful gusts this year. It has rejuvenated Cueto and Samardzija and nailed down Crawford and Joe Panik. It's turned stolid, large-headed manager Bruce Bochy into a prophet, and a likely Hall of Famer.

If the precise workings of this thing are a little tough to figure, though, the Giants have at least provided a process by which it might be summoned. Be a certain kind of good for a certain length of time—having a couple potential Hall of Fame types doesn't hurt, here—and it might come around every year or two. It's as easy, and as impossible, as that. Good luck.