Bruce Bochy AP

Brand new race in NL West, as Giants fall into first-place tie with Dodgers

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SAN FRANCISCO -– It became a meme on Twitter and beyond last summer, when the defending World Series champions took one gut shot after another and everyone in the Giants clubhouse wondered whether the most recent loss would represent #Rockbottom.

The Giants are not defending champions now. Halfway through this season, however, they are still a first place club. They’ve led the NL West at the conclusion of 79 of 90 days. They still have the second best winning percentage in the National League; the fifth best in the majors.

And yet …

“We’ve definitely seen our worst days,” Tim Hudson said. “Hopefully they’re behind us.”

Sound like a year-old echo to you?

No, the Giants did not get no-hit by the Reds’ Homer Bailey for the second consecutive year, but they came close. Three days short of the one-year anniversary of that frustrating afternoon in Cincinnati, it took Buster Posey’s two-out single in the seventh inning to keep it from happening again in a 4-0 loss.

[RELATED: Instant Replay: Giants swept by Reds, free fall continues]

That was their only achievement as the Giants were swept in a four-game series for the first time in 15 years at AT&T Park. They have lost four in a row, six of their last seven and 15 of their last 19. Over that rotten run, they’ve lost nine of their last 10 in front of their home fans at Third and King — and the lone exception was Tim Lincecum’s no-hitter against the Padres.

With 82 down and 80 to go (or a little less, actually, since they have an in-progress game to resume at Coors Field in September), the Giants are still a first place team.

With one caveat. They don’t hold sole possession of it now.

The Dodgers won to draw even atop the division. The Giants led them by 9 ½ games just 21 days ago, before drifting into the breakdown lane. And Manager Bruce Bochy spoke as if airbag had just deployed in his face.

“It’s really unbelievable,” Bochy said. “The way it’s gone these last two weeks, you’d think we’re 15 games back. But we’re in a fight now. It wasn’t going to be easy, and we knew that. Things have changed and we’ve got to come out of this, find a way to keep the line moving. We had that magic going early. We have to remember how good we were and that can happen again.

“We’ve just got to keep on believing.”

The Giants aren’t exactly propping up strawmen when they bring up their 46-36 record and their standing atop the division. Look at this year’s defending World Series champs. The Boston Red Sox are 37-44 and chasing three teams in the AL East. They have authentic reason to buck up and feel reassured.

But if those reassurances sound like hollow platitudes, that’s a reflection of how poorly they’ve fared over these last three weeks. You don’t notice how pretty the flowers are when the quicksand is taking you.

“Obviously there’s disappointment,” said Hudson, who trailed 1-0 when he walked off the mound following the Reds’ leadoff single in the ninth. “We’ve just got to try to be mentally strong and tough. We know we’re a better team than what the results are showing now. We need to put the brakes on somebody. Maybe that will get us going.”

Said shortstop Brandon Crawford: “I think we come in here with a pretty good attitude every day. I feel we come in here ready to win. It’s just not happening right now.”

[RELATED: Sergio Romo out as Giants’ closer]

They are making small mistakes and they aren’t coming close to outhitting them. Gregor Blanco, the only baserunner until Posey’s hit in the seventh, made a big one when he tried to time Bailey’s first move and ended up getting thrown out at third base.

With Posey at the plate.

(There seems to be growing fan discontent over Blanco, who has flatlined once again when asked to play every day in Angel Pagan’s absence. But any wrath shouldn’t be directed at Blanco, or even at Bochy for playing him. The Giants’ lack of depth in this area is an organizational failure. Former first-rounder Gary Brown, a leadoff hitting center fielder, was supposed to be ready by now. He isn’t. That is an issue that goes beyond Blanco and Bochy.)

What was Blanco thinking when he tried to run on Bailey?

“He was going at the same time on every pitch,” Blanco said. “He held it longer that time.”

How can the Giants hope to hold on to first place, given their current trajectory?

Well, a second wind from the rotation has to help. The five starters posted a 1.99 ERA over their last turn, but only Lincecum received a win and needed a no-hitter to do it.

Another turn like that could be what the Giants need. They hope to get Angel Pagan back on Tuesday and Brandon Belt as early as Friday. That can only help, too.

“The offense will come around and we’ll get a full deck here pretty soon,” Bochy said. “That’s going to help. Meanwhile, you’ve got to fight.

“They’re taking it hard. It’s tough to go through things like this. They’re not happy with it and I know they’re fighting, but they’re pressing a little bit. And when you press against a good pitcher, you can compound the problem.

“We ran into as hot a team as there is in baseball, and we’re as cold as any team with the bats. You deal with these things and you handle it. You put it behind us and you’re thankful you’re still in a good position, and thankful for the start we had.”

[RELATED: Sergio Romo reacts to being pulled from Giants closer role

The Reds blew through here with a rotation that posted a 3-0 record and 1.11 ERA in four games. Amid a dangerous lineup, it was No.8 hitter Zack Cozart who collected three game-winning RBI and also tied Dave Concepcion on Saturday for the most assists in a game (11) by a Cincinnati shortstop in more than 30 years.

The Cardinals are next. They can pitch a fair bit, too. They’ll face potential NL All-Star starter Adam Wainwright on Wednesday, and they’ve beaten him once already this season. That was back on May 30, when they were drinking from a bottomless stein.

Now … #Rockbottom. They can only hope, anyway. They have half a season to find out.

“You know what? Obviously I’d like to still be eight or nine games up,” Hudson said. “But that’s not the case. It’s about this moment for us from here on out. The Dodgers got on a roll and won some ballgames and we haven’t. It’ll be a race to the end.”

Marc Rzepczynski signs two-year, $11 million contract with Mariners

WASHINGTON, DC - OCTOBER 9: Marc Rzepczynski #23 of the Washington Nationals looks on before pitching against the Los Angeles Dodgers in the sixth inning during game two of the National League Division Series at Nationals Park on October 9, 2016 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images)
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After rumors of the deal surfaced on Thursday, the Mariners officially signed veteran reliever Marc Rzepczynski to a two-year, $11 million deal on Friday night. Per a report by ESPN’s Jerry Crasnick, the lefty is due $5.5 million in 2017 and 2018.

The signing marks the left-hander’s fourth trade since July 2015. He bounced from the Indians to the Padres at the 2015 trade deadline, then to the Athletics in the offseason, then to the Nationals in late August of 2016. Last season, he pitched to a career-best 2.64 ERA during 47 2/3 innings with the Athletics and Nationals, but hit an all-time low with 5.5 BB/9 that fed into a 1.59 K/BB rate. While the 31-year-old’s split against right-handed batters are underwhelming (a career .277/.377/.431 line with 123 walks and 24 home runs), he’s held lefties to a respectable .222/.291/.298 line with just 52 walks and eight homers.

Adding Rzepczynski to the bullpen should check off another to-do item for Mariners’ GM Jerry Dipoto, though FanRag Sports’ Jon Heyman notes that the club is still likely to pursue an additional reliever and a No. 4 starter before the offseason comes to a close.

2016 Winter Meetings Preview

NATIONAL HARBOR, MD - FEBRUARY 26: The Gaylord National Resort and Convention Center is seen along the Potomac River February 26, 2014 in National Harbor, Maryland.  (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
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The baseball world will descend on Washington D.C. — well, the Maryland suburbs of Washington, at the Gaylord Resort at National Harbor — this weekend for the 2016 Winter Meetings. There’s a lot of work to be done.

Twenty free agents from a class of 191 have signed thus far. Among the notable: Yoenis Cespedes, Edinson Volquez, Neil Walker, Josh Reddick, Bartolo Colon, and R.A. Dickey. That, of course, leaves a ton of notables left, including Edwin Encarnacion, Justin Turner, Jose Bautista, Aroldis Chapman, Kenley Jansen, Mark Trumbo, Mark Melancon, Rich Hill and a host of others. Here is our rundown of this offseason’s top free agents if you’re curious. As you have come to expect from us, we’ll have a writeup of everyone who signs, faster than almost anyone else will.

Despite the sheer number of available free agents, this is an historically thin free agent class in terms of talent. That means that, for a team to improve significantly, they may be better served by making a trade. We’ve seen a couple already, most notably the deals which sent Taijuan Walker to the Diamondbacks, Jaime Garcia to the Braves and Brian McCann to the Astros. Most experts believe there will be plenty more this winter, and the ball could really get rolling on that in the next week with guys like Andrew McCutchen, Chris Sale, Chris Archer, Jay Bruce, Curtis Granderson and Brandon Phillips on the block.

Another major activity of the Winter Meetings is the Hall of Fame Veterans Committee vote. Except, this year, there is no Veterans Committee, at least in name. It’s now the “Today’s Game” committee. Here are links to breakdowns of the candidacies of all ten men on the ballot the new committee will consider:

Harold Baines
Albert Belle
Will Clark
Orel Hershiser
Mark McGwire
George Steinbrenner
Davey Johnson
Lou Piniella
John Shuerholz
Bud Selig

Trade deals, free agent negotiations and Hall of Fame votes take place behind closed doors at the Gaylord Resort. One of the major public activities of the Winter Meetings is when all 30 of the managers meet and greet the press. This year’s new faces are Torey Lovullo with the Diamondbacks, Rick Renteria with the White Sox and Bud Black with the Rockies. Brian Snitker, now the permanent manager of the Braves, will get his first go-around at the managerial cattle call. I’ll be in the scrum for a lot of these guys — they do them two at a time so I can’t see everyone — and will let you know if they say anything fun.

Outside of the transactions and the Hall of Fame stuff, we have the more mundane Winter Meetings business. And a lot of it. Indeed, the vast majority of the people at the Meetings aren’t there for transactions. They’re there to network, seek jobs and discuss the business of baseball like any other industry convention. Ever year we hear about a rule change or a proposal for future rule changes at the Meetings, though this year’s brand new Collective Bargaining Agreement should overshadow that. We’ve already discussed the major points of that and, yesterday, I speculated that, as time goes on, the way this agreement was reached could lead to some serious strife going forward, particularly on the union side. Expect to hear some anonymous rumblings about all of that in the next few days, from players, agents and other interested parties who may not be all that pleased with how it goes.

The final event of the Winter Meetings is the Rule 5 Draft, which will take place at 8am on Thursday morning. You likely have no idea who most of the players who will be selected are, but here’s a good place to start your research on that. If your team takes someone in the draft, the most important thing to know is that he’ll either be on the big league roster all year or he’ll have to be returned to his original team. Well, they could be stashed on the disabled list with phantom injuries so they won’t have to be returned, but no team would ever do that, would they? Perish the thought.

So, yes, there’s a lot to be done. I’ll be on the scene at National Harbor, bringing you all the best hot stove business we have to offer and, as usual, some more fun odds and ends from baseball’s biggest offseason event. As they used to say in radio, tune in to us and rip off the dial. Or, at the very least, keep a tab open to us and refresh a lot.