SF aces causing Giant concern

The San Francisco Giants have such great starting pitching.

It has become one of the reflexive sports sayings of our time, alongside laudatory axioms about the San Antonio Spurs’ cohesion, the Boston Bruins’ toughness, or the New England Patriots’ consistency. The Giants relied on their rotation to win the 2010 and 2012 World Series. If Buster Posey hadn’t been injured, they might have done the same in 2011, too.

In a transient era of professional sports, the constancy has been nearly as impressive as the success. Only one rotation spot changed from ’10 to ’12: Jonathan Sanchez out, Ryan Vogelsong in. The other names — Matt Cain, Tim Lincecum, Madison Bumgarner, and Barry Zito — stayed the same. Giants pitching coach Dave Righetti gets a visual reminder when he looks at scouting footage of hitters the team hasn’t seen in two or three years.

“You go to watch the tape, and all our guys who are still pitching now were facing (him) then,” Righetti said Thursday afternoon. “That’s a good thing. We’re trying to ride that as long as we can.”

The long, satisfying trip may end this year.

The Giants face an inconsistent present and uncertain future, not even eight months after spraying champagne in Detroit. The long-acclaimed rotation — never worse than fifth in ERA among National League clubs over the previous four seasons — is now 13th with a mark of 4.79.

“As a group, it’s not where it should be,” Righetti said in an interview with FOXSports.com. “There’s no question it’s affecting our ability to control the baseball game.

“It’s something we’ve been used to over the last four, five years: For the most part, we’ve controlled ballgames. And we’re not doing that. It’s affecting our overall play. Quite honestly, it’s why we’re struggling.”

Righetti had watched the Pittsburgh Pirates run up 20 runs over the two previous nights, in San Francisco losses that saw both Lincecum and Zito fail to complete the fifth inning. Hours later, Cain salvaged Thursday’s series finale with 6 2/3 scoreless innings in a 10-0 win. But if the playoffs started today, the defending world champions wouldn’t have a bid. Unless that changes, those scouting tapes are likely to feature a couple different pitchers by this time next season.

Lincecum, with only four quality starts, is in the final year of his contract. The Giants have 2014 club options on Zito, who has an 11.28 road ERA, and Vogelsong, who won’t return from the disabled list until after the All-Star break and has been replaced by Chad Gaudin. The most stable rotation in baseball has only two pitchers — Cain and Bumgarner — certain to return next year.

The Giants are staring at the end of an era. They’re also in the throes of an identity crisis. Before the championship rings, Lincecum — with his long hair and magic changeup — was the avatar for the franchise’s post-Bonds renaissance. Now the two-time Cy Young Award winner is struggling through what could be his last months as a Giant. Lincecum’s windup mechanics are so far askew that he pitched out of the stretch with no one on base during Tuesday’s loss.

Lincecum’s season could be summarized by one at-bat in Tuesday’s second inning: Pirates rookie starter Gerrit Cole stepped to the plate for his first major league at-bat and quickly fell behind 0-2. Then Lincecum threw three consecutive balls — including two off-speed pitches — which he later admitted “weren’t even close.” The next pitch went for a bases-loaded, two-run single.

Lincecum has a 5.04 ERA since the start of last season. The success he enjoyed as a reliever last October hasn’t endured. So, what is the state of his confidence?

“It wavers,” he said. “I have high expectations for myself. I’m my own toughest critic. When I don’t measure up, obviously I get frustrated. It’s how I respond to it that’s the biggest thing.”

The Giants still have Posey — the organizational heartbeat, the emerging face of baseball, and the competition Cardinals catcher Yadier Molina for the title of Most Indispensable Player in the major leagues. But something is off in the baseball universe, now that the rotation Posey is catching has morphed from superior to subpar — almost overnight.

“They’d be the first ones to tell you they’re not satisfied so far,” Posey acknowledged. “Having said that, we all have confidence in these guys. I mean, they’ve been our backbone for two World Series championships in three years.”

It’s not that the Giants are destined for mediocrity, now or in the near future. The NL West remains eminently winnable, and the Giants (34-31) are on the right side of .500. Bruce Bochy will have a much better team once Angel Pagan, Marco Scutaro and Pablo Sandoval — the top three hitters in his Opening Day lineup — return from injuries.

But the Giants can’t slug their way to another world championship — or even a third division title in four years. They hit the fewest home runs in baseball last year. They are close to the bottom again in 2013. To win, the Giants must pitch exceptionally well, even while trying to ward off the inevitable year-after-World-Series fatigue.

“We haven’t thrown the ball like we want to this year,” Cain said Thursday, after one of his best outings of the season. “We have to take pride as starters, to go out there and get things turned around. We’ve had little blips of it at times and then we get back out of it. We need to get back into doing more good ones than bad ones. That’s what we rely on, going out there and pitching well.”

Most importantly, the rotation must last deeper into games. The Giants are averaging only 5.9 innings per start, which ranks in the bottom half of the league. Last year, that figure was 6.2 — a difference of roughly one out. That may not sound like much. But it is, when projected over a full season. Bochy has had to extend his bullpen in order to make up the shortfall. And overexposed middle relievers almost always (a) break down, (b) perform poorly, or (c) do both.

That’s why the Giants’ three-city road trip has been a blur of disablements, demotions to Triple-A Fresno and new arrivals to the clubhouse.

“I was kidding Bobby Evans,” Bochy said of the Giants’ assistant general manager. “We’d probably save some money if we got a charter just going back and forth. Changes, sometimes they’re needed. We’ve had to make some to help us out.”

One arm that’s not on the way: Zack Wheeler, the Giants’ first-round draft pick in 2009. If he were still with the organization, he’d be looked upon as the heir to Lincecum or Zito. Instead, the long-hyped prospect is days away from his debut with the New York Mets. The Giants traded him in July 2011 for 44 games of Carlos Beltran — and zero postseason berths.

It’s unfair to second-guess general manager Brian Sabean for the move, because the Giants were trying to defend a title and desperately needed a bat. But today, every Giants fan would love to undo the deal.

Instead, Sabean has a difficult trade deadline — and offseason — ahead. The farm system has few high-end prospects to trade, so Sabean can’t part with them for two-month rentals unless he’s reasonably confident he can re-sign those acquisitions this winter. Chicago Cubs right-handers — and Bay Area products — Matt Garza and Scott Feldman could match that description. (Both Garza and Feldman are free agents after this season.)

Otherwise, Sabean would be wise to trade for a pitcher who’s under club control beyond the end of this year. Philadelphia’s Cliff Lee could be the most popular starter on the market, albeit at a heavy cost in dollars and talent. (And Lee’s no-trade clause would allow him to block a deal to San Francisco, sources say.) Houston’s Bud Norris — another Bay Area native — is probably more realistic.

But let’s stop there. Think about what we are saying: The San Francisco Giants’ pitching staff — a model of excellence and stability for several years — is short a starter. Maybe two.

Suddenly, that called third strike to Miguel Cabrera seems like a long time ago.