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Giant steps: Streaking San Francisco showing some even-year magic

Winners of 11 of their last 12, the Giants have ridden some fantastic pitching to the top spot in the National League West.

The Giants have scored just two runs in their past two games, but that hasn't stopped them from continuing their surge to the top of the NL West. On Sunday night, Madison Bumgarner delivered 7 2/3 innings of shutout work against the Cubs and drove in the game's only run. On Monday night, Johnny Cueto spun a two-hit shutout of the Padres as pinch-hitter Hunter Pence delivered a walk-off double via a bloop to righfield that should have been caught—a slice of even-year magic, perhaps.

At 28–19, the Giants are now 4 1/2 games ahead of the flailing Dodgers in the NL West and have won 11 out of their last 12. The run started with a 13-inning walk-off win against the Blue Jays on May 11 followed by sweeps in Arizona and San Diego, then a return home to take two out of three from the Cubs plus the opener of their series with the Padres. Meanwhile, the Dodgers have gone 6–7, swinging the division lead by 5 1/2 games in a two-week span. The Giants have only outscored opponents by seven runs thus far (199 to 192), but they've gone 11–5 in one-run games, including 5–0 within that 12-game span. Only the Phillies have more wins (14) in one-run games this season.

Last night, Cueto dominated the Padres, who admittedly had to be rather tuckered out after losing Sunday's 17-inning marathon against the Dodgers. He didn't allow his first base runner until Matt Kemp's two-out single in the fourth and retired 21 of 22 hitters faced through seven innings, going to a three-ball count just once. He found trouble in the eighth when he hit Alexei Ramirez with a pitch on the wrist and then yielded a single to Alexi Amarista, but he struck out pinch-hitter Yangervis Solarte looking at an inside fastball to end the threat and recovered to pitch a 1-2-3 ninth.

More on his night momentarily, but here's Pence's game-winning "hit" off Brad Hand, which at first looked like a routine popup save for his comically wild swing and reaction. The ball found its way into no-man’s land, as neither Amarista nor Kemp could get to it in time. With two outs, Brandon Belt was running from first base on contact, so he came all the way home with the winning run, the Giants’ fourth walk-off win of the season:

Cueto threw 114 pitches on the night, 81 for strikes, and struck out six, walking none. His changeup baffled the light-hitting Padres, netting seven of his 13 swings and misses. He didn't go past 15 pitches in any inning except the eighth, when he threw 21; meanwhile, he needed fewer than 10 pitches in three of those frames. It was the 30-year-old righty's second complete game in a row, following a four-hit, one-run effort against those same Padres last Wednesday in San Diego, and his third complete game, tied with Clayton Kershaw for the league lead.

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Indeed, in his first year with the Giants, Cueto has carved out several spots among the league leaders. He's first in home run rate (0.2 per nine), second in innings (75 2/3), third in FIP (2.19) and walk rate (1.4 per nine), fourth in WAR (2.3) and strikeout-to-walk ratio (5.6), and seventh in ERA (2.38) and strikeouts (67). At a time when $200 million men David Price (5.53 ERA) and Zack Greinke (4.59 ERA) are scuffling, Cueto—who signed a six-year, $130 million deal this past winter—looks like quite a bargain and a perfect fit for the Giants.

He's not alone among the San Francisco rotation's newcomers, as Jeff Samardzija is carrying a 2.66 ERA and 2.76 FIP through nine starts. The Giants are 22–7 in games started by that duo and Bumgarner (2.17 ERA, 2.95 FIP) but 6–12 in those started by Matt Cain (5.37 ERA, 4.46 FIP) and Jake Peavy (8.21 ERA, 5.12 FIP). At least Cain has strung together three strong starts (four runs, 21 innings)—his best stretch since at least mid-2014 and perhaps longer, given his injuries.

The rotation as a whole ranks just seventh in the NL in ERA (3.95) and eighth in FIP (4.05), but the bullpen ranks third in ERA (3.33). The unit has withstood the loss of Sergio Romo to a strained flexor tendon and a brief rift between closer Santiago Casilla and manager Bruce Bochy, with Hunter Strickland asserting himself as the team's top setup man in Romo’s absence. The team is 22–2 when leading after six innings.

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Still, Giants are just middle-of-the pack in both run prevention (4.09 per game, sixth) and scoring (4.23 per game, eighth). Buster Posey, mired in a 10-for-61 slump, is hitting an atypical .263/.324/.421 for a 102 OPS+, 37 points off his career norm. Belt (140 OPS+) and Pence (136) have done the heavy lifting with support from Joe Panik (108), but Brandon Crawford (101), Denard Span (88) and Matt Duffy (76) have all struggled mightily. Angel Pagan went just 4 for 28 between missing 11 games due to a Grade 1 strain of his left hamstring, then landed on the disabled list on Tuesday after reaggravating the injury over the weekend. Pence has been nursing a tight right hamstring, missing the two games prior to Monday's pinch-hit appearance.

With their next nine games coming against the downtrodden Padres (19–27, including 0–7 against the Giants), Rockies (21–22) and Braves (12–31), the Giants have a chance to continue building their NL West lead while the Dodgers go on the road to grapple with the Mets and Cubs. It’s a bit early to suggest that they look like the class of the division given their run differential relative to that of the Dodgers (+16), but right now, the magic certainly appears to be in San Francisco's favor.