Giants’ slow start to test manager Bochy

Bruce Bochy is an excellent manager. He demonstrated as much with the San Francisco Giants last autumn. He shepherded a young starting rotation through the postseason. He deployed the right relievers in the right moments. He manipulated his lineup in ways that were occasionally daring and usually effective.

Bochy lost only four postseason games. He won a world title. At times, he made it look easy. But as professional challenges go, the 2010 playoffs have nothing on the 2011 regular season.

The defending world champions are 2-4.

And it gets harder from here.

Madison Bumgarner, who dominated the Texas Rangers in Game 4 of last year’s World Series, couldn’t record an out in the fourth inning against the ordinary San Diego Padres on an ordinary Tuesday. He struggled to locate his pitches. He walked three batters.

He reminded us that he is, after all, a 21-year-old starting pitcher.

But let’s not fret too much about Bumgarner. The Giants’ pitching was, is and will be above average — particularly with the imminent return of closer Brian Wilson.

Bochy’s biggest problems are elsewhere, and his most pressing concern might be keeping his hitters (a) sharp, and (b) happy — not necessarily in that order.

At their best, the Giants have a deep, veteran roster, including reserve players who possess the skill and experience to play every day. At their worst, the Giants have a redundant roster, clogged with one-dimensional, all-or-nothing types who aren’t as athletic as they once were.

Lately, they’ve looked like the latter.

“We have a group of guys here that doesn’t get caught up in where they’re hitting in the lineup, where they’re playing,” Bochy told me over the weekend. “That allows you to stay away from any distractions, or second-guessing, so you can focus on the job you’re trying to get done.”

And yet …

“Believe me, I don’t keep everybody happy,” Bochy added. “There’s always frustration on the club. It’s hard to keep 25 guys happy. They all want to play.”

It’s far too early to theorize that the charming misfits will turn dysfunctional by the All-Star break. I mean, let’s at least wait until after they collect their World Series rings on Saturday.

But the more you watch the Giants, the more oddities you notice.

  • Aaron Rowand, the highest-paid position player on the team, has started one game this season — and is 4 for 7.
  • Aubrey Huff is playing right field — and not playing it well — because the Giants believe in Brandon Belt’s long-term potential at first base. (Huff started at first in all but one of San Francisco’s postseason games last year.)
  • Miguel Tejada batted leadoff on Saturday. Tejada hadn’t done that since 1999.
  • Mark DeRosa signed with the Giants before last season to be an everyday player, but was injured for most of the season. Now he’s a $6 million utility man — at least as his surgically-repaired left wrist allows.
  • Pat Burrell lifted the offense when he joined the team last June, but now he’s hitting .143 with two home runs. As a sub-par defender, he must hit for power in order to remain a viable major leaguer.
  • Pablo Sandoval is lighter and happier. He has regained his swing, but he’s also made a series of damaging miscues at third base.
  • Belt, who looked like a rookie sensation over the weekend at Dodger Stadium, is batting .182.

Ladies and gentlemen: the San Francisco Giants.

Maybe this will start making sense once outfielder Cody Ross returns from his strained right calf, which should happen later this month. Ross will reclaim his customary position in right field, enabling Huff to move to a station where he does less ill — perhaps left field, in place of Burrell, or first, at the expense of Belt.

At that point, Bochy will weigh a veteran’s pride against a prospect’s confidence. Not an easy call.

“We have some tough decisions with the lineup we put out every day — who plays, who doesn’t,” Bochy said, speaking generally. “They tell you it’s a good problem, but I feel for some of the guys who aren’t playing as much as they would like.”

In the retelling of the Giants’ run to the 2010 title, it’s easy to forget that Ross, the NLCS MVP, wasn’t even an everyday player until the playoffs began. Jose Guillen (remember him?) was starting in right field. For most of September, Ross waited on updates from Bochy about when he was playing — and when he wasn’t.

“He’s the best in the business when it comes to that,” Ross said. “He’s really good at matching guys up (against the right pitchers). We all trust him. That’s huge.”

World champions, as a general rule, don’t like being told to sit on the bench. But a number of them will receive that message — every day — when they look at the lineup card.

Hailed as a genius in October, Bochy needs to be even more brilliant now. The self-esteem of millionaires can be fickle indeed.

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