Giants might be able to finish what they started in September

“Baseball,” San Francisco Giants outfielder Aaron Rowand said, “is just like life. Experiences that you get to encounter in the course of your life are learning experiences. You learn from them so that the next time those situations come, you’re better equipped to handle them.”

Rowand may lack polish as a philosopher, but those words do relate to his team’s hopes of contending for a championship in the National League West.

After four seasons in which they finished an average of 14 games under .500, the young Giants were in playoff contention into September last season before stumbling to the finish.

Rowand thinks the painful lessons learned then by 25-year-old right-handers Matt Cain and Tim Lincecum and 23-year-old slugger Pablo Sandoval will pay off this summer.

“Being put in those pressure situations, being put in games that matter late in the season, is a learning experience,” said Rowand, who in 2009 missed the postseason for just the third time in five seasons. “I think you’re going to see them become better for it.”

It might not take much improvement for the Giants to unseat the two-time defending champion Dodgers atop the division.

The Giants’ pitching staff, second only to the Dodgers among major league teams last season, added right-hander Todd Wellemeyer, who won 20 games with the St. Louis Cardinals the last two seasons, and veteran reliever Guillermo Mota.

The Dodgers, meanwhile, have a staff weakened by the loss of left-hander Randy Wolf and the temporary absence of workhorse setup man Ronald Belisario.

The Giants rotation starts with Lincecum, the NL’s Cy Young Award winner in his only two full seasons in the majors. He’s followed by Cain, an All-Star who had a 2.89 earned-run average last season when he led the league with four complete games. Barry Zito, a three-time All-Star and former AL Cy Young winner who has averaged 14 wins the last nine seasons, is the third starter.

“I like chances against anybody with our starting staff,” Rowand said. “If you were to go around the league and ask [players] what they thought about this team, this team can be dangerous.”

That league-wide perception used to be a lot different.

“There was a time just a little while back when people were suggesting what a weak division it is,” Colorado Manager Jim Tracy said. “It’s not to be considered one of the weaker divisions anymore. It’s pitching rich.”

Tracy’s team is expected to be in the thick of things too.

The Rockies, 11 games under .500 and 15½ games out of first on June 4 of last season, won 72 of their final 110 games to win the NL wild-card playoff berth.

Now Colorado gets back former ace Jeff Francis, who missed all of last season with injury, on a staff that includes 16-game winner Jorge De La Rosa, 15-game winner Ubaldo Jimenez and Aaron Cook, the winningest pitcher in franchise history.

“With the work that’s been done in this organization ….and what we’ve built here, it’s a pretty special place right now,” said Tracy, who was the league’s manager of the year in 2009. “We should embrace that and move forward with it and not shy away from it.”

The Arizona Diamondbacks, three seasons removed from a division title, could be another contender.

Arizona’s rotation remains a question mark because Brandon Webb’s recovery from shoulder surgery has been slow. But the Diamondbacks’ offense should improve with the acquisition of Adam LaRoche and Kelly Johnson plus a healthy Conor Jackson.

“Every team in the division could be better,” said Dodgers General Manager Ned Colletti, who has seen his team reach the National League Championship Series the last two years. “I think Arizona is better. I think Colorado is better offensively. It has a chance to be a very competitive division.”

Staff writer Dylan Hernandez contributed to this story.