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.”

Joe Panik says he’s “100 percent” recovered from back injury

San Francisco Giants second baseman Joe Panik follows through on a single off Colorado Rockies relief pitcher Scott Oberg in the eighth inning of Game 1 of a baseball doubleheader Saturday, May 23, 2015, in Denver. The Giants won 10-8. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski)
AP Photo/David Zalubowski
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Giants second baseman Joe Panik missed nearly all of August and September last season due to a nagging back injury, but he told Alex Pavlovic of CSNBayArea.com on Friday that he’s feeling “100 percent.”

Panik, who earned his first All-Star selection last season, originally landed on the disabled list in early August due to what was described as lower back inflammation. He made his return in September, but appeared in just three games before being shut down. The good news is that he was cleared by doctors in mid-December and considers himself “back to normal.”

“It was right around the time of all the signings,” he said, smiling. “I was able to fly under the radar. I got tested and everything had healed up. I got cleared and was able to have my full offseason workouts. I’m good to go. I’m happy to be feeling good and going back out on the field to show that I’m healthy. My swing feels strong.”

Panik altered his offseason workout routine and plans to spend less time in his spikes in the early part of spring training. The hope is that these changes will prevent future issues.

After a strong showing as a rookie in 2014, the 25-year-old Panik proved to be one of the best second baseman in the majors last season by batting .312/.378/.455 with eight home runs and 37 RBI over 100 games while playing solid defense.

Baseball America names Corey Seager as baseball’s top prospect

Los Angeles Dodgers' Corey Seager follows through a single that scored Austin Barnes, in front of Colorado Rockies' Wilin Rosario during the sixth inning of a baseball game, Wednesday, Sept. 16, 2015, in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Danny Moloshok)
AP Photo/Danny Moloshok
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Baseball America unveiled their top 100 prospect list Friday night during a special on MLB Network. It should come as no surprise that Dodgers infielder Corey Seager came in at No. 1.

This makes Seager the consensus top prospect in the game. He was also ranked first by MLB.com, Baseball Prospectus, and ESPN’s Keith Law. Twins outfielder Byron Buxton was ranked second on all four lists.

Baseball America has the most aggressive ranking of Cuban infielder Yoan Moncada from the Red Sox, who checked in at No. 3. He was followed by pitching prospects Lucas Giolito from the Nationals and Julio Urias from the Dodgers to round out the top five.

You can see Baseball America’s full top 100 list here.

Jenrry Mejia: “It is not like they say. I am sure that I did not use anything.”

New York Mets' Jenrry Mejia reacts after getting the last out against the Milwaukee Brewers during the ninth inning of a baseball game Friday, July 25, 2014, in Milwaukee. The Mets won 3-2. (AP Photo/Jeffrey Phelps)
AP Photo/Jeffrey Phelps
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Mets reliever Jenrry Mejia was permanently suspended on Friday after testing positive for a third time for a performance-enhancing drug. The right-hander is maintaining his innocence, as ESPN’s Adam Rubin notes in quoting Dominican sports journalist Hector Gomez. Mejia said, “It is not like they say. I am sure that I did not use anything.”

Mejia has the opportunity to petition commissioner Rob Manfred in one year for reinstatement to Major League Baseball. However, he must sit out at least two years before becoming eligible to pitch in the majors again, which would mean Mejia would be 28 years old.

Over parts of five seasons, Mejia has a career 3.68 ERA with 162 strikeouts and 76 walks over 183 1/3 innings. He was once a top prospect in the Mets’ minor league system and a top-100 overall prospect heading into the 2010 and ’11 seasons.

Bryce Harper on potential $400 million contract: “Don’t sell me short.”

Bryce Harper
AP Photo/Nick Wass
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Nationals outfielder Bryce Harper is at least three years away from free agency, but people are already contemplating just how large a contract the phenom will be able to negotiate, especially after taking home the National League Most Valuable Player Award for his performance this past season.

When the likes of David Price and Zack Greinke are signing for over $200 million at the age of 30 or older, it stands to reason that Harper could draw more as a 26-year-old if he can maintain MVP-esque levels of production over the next several seasons. $400 million might not be enough for Harper, though, as MLB.com’s Jamal Collier reports. He said, “Don’t sell me short,” which is a fantastic response.

During the 2015 season, Harper led the majors with a .460 on-base percentage and a .649 slugging percentage while leading the National League with 42 home runs and 118 runs scored. He also knocked in 99 runs for good measure. Harper and Ted Williams are the only hitters in baseball history to put up an adjusted OPS of 195 or better (100 is average) at the age of 22 or younger.