With Hunter Pence, the Phillies are 8-0. With Carlos Beltran, the Giants are 2-8.
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But let’s go easy on the credit and blame, OK?
Two months ago, in the good old days when US credit carried a AAA rating, I interviewed Beltran (then a New York Mets player) about his star turn with the Houston Astros in 2004.
Beltran was the biggest prize at the trade deadline that year, moving from Kansas City to Houston on June 24. It was one of the most impactful midseason moves in recent baseball history. He swatted a season’s worth of home runs (31) in 102 games, including the postseason.
Beltran had switched leagues, stepped into the brightest spotlight of his career and thrived. When I asked how he did it, Beltran didn’t talk about his approach, or the hitter-friendly ballpark, or the supercharged atmosphere that comes with playing in a pennant race.
He said this: “I had such good teammates.”
Beltran batted second in Houston. The hitter in front of him (Craig Biggio) and the three hitters immediately after him (Jeff Bagwell, Lance Berkman, Jeff Kent) all finished with at least 24 home runs. That is the definition of lineup protection.
Seven years hence, Beltran is somewhat less fortunate.
Sure, being with the San Francisco Giants has its perks. Beltran is playing for the defending World Series champions and spending a couple months in one of our nation’s most captivating cities. He reports for work every day at AT&T Park, the best ballpark in the major leagues, where every home game this year has been a festive sellout.
But there is no Biggio, no Bagwell, no Berkman, and certainly no Kent on the 2011 Giants. Right now, no one is on pace to hit 20 home runs for San Francisco this year. In fact, the way Aubrey Huff is swinging right now, Pablo Sandoval might be the only hitter who surpasses 15.
Remember: The Giants won down the stretch and in the postseason last year because Pat Burrell, Juan Uribe and Buster Posey hit home runs in support of a superb pitching staff. None of them are hitting home runs here right now.
And it’s the Phillies, not the Giants, who can lay claim to having the best rotation in baseball.
So is it any wonder that Beltran responded to a two-on, no-out opportunity in Saturday’s fourth inning with a fidgety, three-pitch strikeout? Since joining the Giants, Beltran has exactly zero extra-base hits in 19 at-bats with runners on base. Perhaps he already has discovered the essential truth of this team: If neither he nor Sandoval can drive in the run, no one else will.
“I’m not (pressing),” said Beltran, who is hitting .244 with no home runs and one walk since the trade. “I feel good. We need to do a better job as a team. And we will.”
It didn’t happen on Saturday, when the Giants lost 2-1 to Cole Hamels and the Phillies. For the second time in this series, the Philadelphia starter worked a complete game.
San Francisco has dropped eight of nine overall, wasting plenty of good pitching performances along the way. “We can’t play worse than what we’re playing right now,” Beltran said, and a lot of folks in the Bay Area are left with little choice but to hope that he’s right.
It’s not that the Giants made a bad trade by acquiring Beltran for pitching prospect Zack Wheeler. They didn’t. In fact, the Phillies tried to trade for Beltran before they landed Pence, so it’s not as if Ruben Amaro Jr. completely outfoxed Brian Sabean on this one.
But the sad reality for the Giants is that there is no one player who can rescue their lineup — with the possible exception of Posey, and he’s still shuffling around with a crutch and walking boot.
Despite three additions in the past month — Beltran, Jeff Keppinger, and Orlando Cabrera — the essential character of the Giants’ lineup remains unchanged. They don’t hit for power. They don’t steal bases. As a result, opposing pitchers, even those not named Cliff Lee or Hamels, aren’t faced with an abundance of pressure situations.
Pence, of course, has found the exact opposite to be true with the Phillies. Not to discredit his scorching start — a .382 average and five extra-base hits — but the powerful and unorthodox right fielder is in an atmosphere conducive to success.
He’s anchored in the No. 5 spot, sandwiched between left-handed power threats Ryan Howard and Raul Ibañez. Before facing Pence, pitchers must navigate several hitters who understand how to grind through at-bats and are fully capable of sending a ball into the seats.
Unlike with Beltran, there is no pressure on Pence to be The Guy. He just has to play and let the winning take care of itself. He has a pretty good gig, really. After spending most of the season with the worst team in the majors, the happy-to-be-here clichés don’t sound out of place.
“It’s overwhelming,” Pence said this weekend. “I’m ecstatic to be a part of what these guys have done and hopefully just come in and mix in and try to do the little things to help us win some more.”
On Sunday, the Phillies have a chance to sweep the defending champions, sending whatever message they wish in the process. And there is only so much that Carlos Beltran can do about it.