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.”

Free agents who sign with new teams are not disloyal

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Most mornings my local newspaper is pretty predictable.

I know, when I navigate to its home page, that I’ll find about eleventeen stories about Ohio State football, even if it is not football season (especially if it’s not football season, actually), part 6 of an amazingly detailed 8-part investigation into a thing that is super important but which no one reads because it has nothing to do with Ohio State football and, perhaps, a handful of write-ups of stories that went viral online six days previously and have nothing to do with anything that matters.

Local print news is doing great, everyone.

I did, however, get a surprise this morning. A story about baseball! A baseball story that was not buried seven clicks into the sports section, but one that was surfaced onto the front page of the website!  The story was about Michael Brantley signing with the Astros.

Normally I’d be dead chuffed! But then I saw something which kinda irked me. Check out the headline:

Is Michael Brantley “leaving” the Indians? I don’t think so. He’s a free agent signing with a baseball team. He’s no more “leaving” the Indians than you are “leaving” an employer who laid you off to take a job at one of its competitors. This is especially true given that the Indians made no effort whatsoever to sign him. Indeed, they didn’t even give him a qualifying offer, making it very clear as of November 2 that they had no intention of bringing him back. Yet, there’s the headline: “Michael Brantley leaves Indians.”

To be clear, apart from the headline, the article is unobjectionable in any way. It merely recounts Ken Rosenthal’s report about Brantley signing with the Astros and does not make any claim or implication that Brantley was somehow disloyal or that Indians fans should be upset at him.

I do wish, though, that editors would not use this kind of construction, even in headlines, because even in today’s far more savvy and enlightened age, it encourages some bad and outmoded views of how players are expected to interact with teams.

Since the advent of free agency players have often been criticized as greedy or self-centered for signing contracts with new teams. Indeed, they are often cast as disloyal in some way for leaving the team which drafted or developed them. It’s less the case now than it used to be, but there are still a lot of fans who view a player leaving via free agency as some kind of a slap in the face, especially if he joins a rival. Meanwhile, when a team decides to move on from a player, either releasing him or, as was the case with the Indians and Brantley, making no effort to bring him back, it’s viewed as a perfectly defensible business decision. There was no comparable headline, back in early November, that said “Indians dump Brantley.”

Make no mistake: it may very well turn out to be a quite reasonable business decision for Cleveland to move on from Brantley. Maybe they know things about him we don’t. Maybe they simply know better about how he’ll do over the next year than the Astros do. I in no way intend for this little rant to imply that the Indians owed Brantley any more than he owed the Indians once their business arrangement came to an end. They don’t.

But I do suspect that there are still a decent number fans out there who view a free agent leaving his former team as some sort of betrayal. Maybe not Brantley, but what if Bryce Harper signs with the Phillies? What if Kris Bryant walks and joins the Cardinals when he reaches free agency? Fans may, in general, be more enlightened now than they used to be, but even a little time on talk radio or in comments sections reveals that a number of them view ballplayers exercising their bargained-for rights as “traitors.” Or, as it’s often written, “traders.” I don’t care for that whole dynamic.

Maybe this little Michael Brantley headline in a local paper that doesn’t cover all that much baseball is unimportant in the grand scheme of things, but it’s an example of how pervasive that unfortunate dynamic is. It gives fans, however tacitly, license to continue to think of players as bad people for exercising their rights. I don’t think that belief will ever completely disappear — sports and irrationality go hand-in-hand — but I’d prefer it if, like teams, athletes are likewise given an understanding nod when they make a business decision. The best way to ensure that is to make sure that such decisions are not misrepresented.