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.”

Mets leaning on Jay Bruce, Neil Walker as Lucas Duda insurance

LOS ANGELES, CALIFORNIA - MAY 12:  Pinch hitter Lucas Duda #21 of the New York Mets walks back to the dugout after striking out for the first out of the ninth inning against Clayton Kershaw #22 of the Los Angeles Dodgers at Dodger Stadium on May 12, 2016 in Los Angeles, California.  The Dodgers won 5-0.  (Photo by Stephen Dunn/Getty Images)
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The Mets have begun working outfielder Jay Bruce and second baseman Neil Walker at first base as potential insurance in the event Lucas Duda continues to experience back discomfort, Mike Puma of the New York Post reports. Duda has been sidelined recently due to back spasms and missed all but 47 games last season as a result of a stress fracture in his lower back.

Manager Terry Collins spoke about Bruce’s work at first base on Sunday, saying, “I liked everything I saw today. “It looks like he’s got the athleticism, he’s got the hands, he’s got the arm angle. He made some throws in our drills that you wouldn’t expect an outfielder to be able to make, but yet he does. If that’s where we have to go, I think we’ll be fine.”

Bruce has only three games’ worth of experience at first base at the major league level, but still has high expectations for himself. He said, “I am going to work at it. I want to give myself a chance and the team a chance. I am not going to go over there and be a butcher. It’s just not the way I go about my business on the baseball field and it wouldn’t be fair to the team if I wasn’t capable to do it, so I am going to work at it and we’ll see what happens.”

The Mets made Bruce available via trade over the offseason but didn’t get an offer that whet their appetite. As a result, Michael Conforto appears to be the odd man out in the Mets’ crowded outfield.

Jason Kipnis diagnosed with a strained rotator cuff

CLEVELAND, OH - NOVEMBER 02:  Jason Kipnis #22 of the Cleveland Indians celebrates after scoring a run on a wild pitch thrown by Jon Lester #34 of the Chicago Cubs (not pictured) during the fifth inning in Game Seven of the 2016 World Series at Progressive Field on November 2, 2016 in Cleveland, Ohio.  (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)
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Indians second baseman Jason Kipnis has been diagnosed with a strained rotator cuff in his right shoulder, MLB.com’s Jordan Bastian reports. Kipnis has received a cortisone shot and will be shut down from throwing for the next four to five days.

There’s a lot of spring left, so it’s perfectly sensible for the Indians to play it safe with their star player. The club already had Kipnis on a shoulder strengthening program.

Kipnis, 29, helped the Indians to the playoffs after batting .275/.343/.469 with 23 home runs, 92 RBI, 91 runs scored, and 15 stolen bases in 688 plate appearances during the regular season last year. He then helped the Indians reach Game 7 of the World Series against the Cubs, where they were eventually stopped, as he provided a .741 OPS including four homers and eight RBI in 15 playoff games.