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Bay City Rollers

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The San Francisco Giants have the best defense in the National League, according to the fielding statistics, but this is a team that tends to be defensive in another way as well.

Suggest that the team’s recent success--the surprising Giants won the West Division title last year and lead the league’s wild-card race this season--is proof that a team of limited talent consistently overachieves, and first baseman J.T. Snow says, “I don’t know if you can overachieve as long as we have. I think it’s more a case of having a lot of good players.”

General Manager Brian Sabean says, “We’re sick of all that. We’re sick of being referred to as ‘The Little Engine That Could.’ We may not be a rotisserie [league] favorite. We may not be the most sexy team with a lot of big names. But we have an astounding number of guys who have been to the playoffs and World Series, who have been around the block. We have a clubhouse full of good players.”

Even Manager Dusty Baker bristles a little and says, “No one is doing it with mirrors here. If [the players are] doing it with mirrors, it’s only to check themselves out after working out.”

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OK, OK. The Giants have Barry Bonds and a lot of other good players, but no one is comparing their lineup to the New York Yankees’ or their rotation to the Atlanta Braves’ are they?

Even Sabean acknowledges, “To have a good year, we have to maximize everything we have.”

Which they have done. And that’s the point.

“We’ve proven the last two years that we play hard and play to the last out of the game,” Sabean said. “Credit Dusty and the coaches.”

Most do.

Last season was named after him--a Year of Dustiny--until the Giants were eliminated in the divisional series by the eventual World Series champion Florida Marlins. Baker swept the manager-of-the-year awards.

Now the Giants, with a $40-million payroll that is lowest among the division rival Dodgers, San Diego Padres, Colorado Rockies and Arizona Diamondbacks, are 48-35 and one game ahead of their 90-victory pace of last year as they open a three-game interleague series against the Angels at Edison Field tonight.

The sizzling pace of the Padres has tended to overshadow the improved pace of the Giants, but only half the race has been run.

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San Francisco is 5 1/2 games behind in what Sabean calls a “hold-our-own mode” until second baseman Jeff Kent returns from a knee injury after the All-Star break.

The Giants are 7-11 without Kent, a consistent run producer, having slipped from only one back.

“The Padres are playing as good as you can play,” Sabean said. “If they maintain this pace, no one will catch them. But we don’t expect them to run away. The schedule has a way of humbling everyone, and the lead in itself doesn’t scare us.

“I mean, we’re cognizant of how well they’re playing, but we picked up six games on them in a short period earlier this year [winning 11 in a row] and we saw how the Dodgers came back from the six-game lead we had last year.

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“It’s certainly possible to catch the Padres, but right now we have to focus on the game-by-game battle not to lose any more ground and to keep our position in the wild-card race until we get Kent back. We want to win the division again, but we want to reach the playoffs again, and the wild card is part of the process.”

Sabean boldly tried to insure the ’97 division title by trading six minor leaguers, among them touted shortstop Mike Caruso, to the Chicago White Sox for pitchers Wilson Alvarez, Roberto Hernandez and Danny Darwin on the eve of the July 31 deadline.

“I think we’re a better team with better overall depth [than last year at this time], but I’d definitely like to find another bat, maybe another arm,” Sabean said. “Right now, our sense of urgency is stronger than the teams I’ve been talking to, but ownership has given me the luxury of making a move, and we still have people in our system that seem to interest other teams. I think there will be a lot more conversation after the All-Star break.”

The Giants made no attempt to retain Alvarez or Hernandez, who signed lucrative contracts with the Tampa Bay Devil Rays. Sabean saw it as a way to spread limited resources and rebuild the system through compensatory draft choices. The departures of free agents Alvarez, Hernandez and relief ace Rod Beck netted seven picks in the first two rounds of the recent draft.

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The economics allowed Sabean to sign starter Orel Hershiser as a free agent, pick up the remaining two years of closer Robb Nen’s contract as the replacement for Beck in a trade with the Marlins, and sign 19-game winner Shawn Estes to a three-year contract.

“Pitching and defense put us in position to win a lot of games,” Sabean said. “We don’t give away the extra out. We’re better the longer the game goes. We have a lot of guys with interchangeable roles and positions, and our bullpen has been the best in baseball.”

The rotation, which has veterans Darwin, 42; Hershiser, 39; Mark Gardner, 36; and second-year player Estes, has completed only three games. But the Nen-anchored bullpen has a 2.53 ERA, best in the majors, and the Giants are 39-0 when leading after eight innings. Nen shares the league lead with 42 appearances and has converted 23 of 24 save opportunities.

“No one asks your age at crunch time,” said Hershiser, defending the veteran-oriented rotation.

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Still, the Giants may pay a second-half price for the frequency with which Baker has had to use the bullpen.

Then again, an offense that is already fourth in the league in runs and has what Manager Jack McKeon of the Cincinnati Reds recently called “the best situational hitting in baseball,” figures to be that much stronger with the return of Kent. Expected as well are a resurgence of Snow after a first-half struggle while coping with his late mother’s battle with cancer, and the ongoing maturation of third baseman Bill Mueller. There may also be the addition of a more productive hitter in right field.

Bonds, having another All-Star season, has lobbied for another bat, even to the point of offering to defer salary so that it can be applied to another player.

“Do we have enough talent to win it all?” he asked. “No, not on paper. But what I like about this team is that we have a lot of guys who have been through it and know what it takes to win. Another hitter would help, but you play the hand you were dealt.”

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For Baker, that hand includes “a stronger bench, better bullpen and more consistent rotation” than last year.

Then, he said, “I had to do a lot of convincing to make them believe they were good. I don’t have to do as much convincing now. I’m just the conductor. I have a pretty good idea of how to reach the destination, but the arms and legs have to take us there.”

Let them play, be themselves, maintain some spontaneity, he said. “Remain alert to all possibilities and probabilities. Nothing very profound.”

Perhaps, but Baker’s senses are so sharp that he even brings in dinner occasionally for a player he suspects is not eating properly.

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Said Hershiser, “Dusty gets a mature response because he knows how to treat men like men. He knows how to find a player’s heart. He crosses cultural barriers.”

Added Nen, “He doesn’t attempt to hide his emotions. He’s into the game, and guys respond, going the extra mile because they know the manager is behind them. He makes you want to say, ‘Hey, thanks for putting me out there.’ ‘

Baker was once the heart and soul of the Dodger clubhouse.

He’s proving that a manager can be just that, translating to a team of grinders, a group that comes to play.

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“We basically had an all-star at every position in Florida,” Nen said of last year’s Marlins. “There’s not as much talent here, but guys play hard every day, and that can be better than having an all-star at every position.”

Bonds, of course, is the Giants’ star, but when he struggled in the first half of last year, several other players said they were eager to prove they weren’t a one-man team, that they could win despite him, an underlying facet of the 1997 success that has carried over.

“I was on that ’88 Dodger team that wasn’t in my top five ability-wise but won a World Series,” Hershiser said. “I went to the World Series twice and the playoffs three times with a Cleveland team that was in my top five but never won the Series. This team is more like the ’88 Dodgers.”

By any name, an overachiever, which Baker, understanding the flip side, can accept.

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“The one thing you don’t want is that underachiever rap,” he said, knowing he doesn’t have to explain that to Los Angeles fans.


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