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Castoffs play key roles in Giants' success

San Francisco beats San Diego, 3-0, to win the National League West title and five players who joined the team during the season helped significantly.

October 03, 2010|By Kevin Baxter

Reporting from San Francisco — In late May, Pat Burrell was unemployed and Buster Posey was in the minors. In August, Cody Ross and Mike Fontenot were put on waivers by teams that had given up on them. And six weeks ago, Jose Guillen was released by the Kansas City Royals, who were buried in last place.

But on Sunday, all five players were pouring champagne on one another in the San Francisco clubhouse, having gone from the scrap heap to the top of the heap after the Giants beat the San Diego Padres, 3-0, to win their first National League West title in seven years.

"I guess I get the last laugh," Ross said, smiling. "When you hear that your old team just let you go, it's not a very good feeling. [But] this is what you dream of.

"It doesn't matter, all the personal stats, the grand slams, the amazing catches. None of that compares to being a team and winning."

Especially when it's a team that has came together in pieces since a third of the Giants' postseason roster was playing elsewhere during the first two months of the season. The transformation began in May but really picked up steam at the All-Star break, when San Francisco was mired in fourth place in a five-team division.

Before he was done, General Manager Brian Sabean had added two slugging outfielders in Burrell and Guillen, a sure-handed defender in Ross and three relievers who turned the Giants' bullpen into the deepest in baseball.

"We brought the right guys in," Manager Bruce Bochy said. "They all blended in well with the other guys. What Brian did has helped get us over the top."

Facing a winner-take-all season finale with San Diego on Sunday, however, the Giants turned to home-grown left-hander Jonathan Sanchez, a 27th-round draft choice who has been the topic of frequent trade rumors. And Sanchez responded with both his arm and his bat, holding the Padres to three hits over five innings and hitting a triple with one out in the third inning before scoring what would prove to be the winning run on Freddy Sanchez's two-out single.

Aubrey Huff followed that with a run-scoring double and the Giants never looked back, adding an insurance run on a home run by Posey in the eighth inning and riding four innings from a bullpen that hasn't given up an earned run in 36 innings.

"Biggest hit of my life," Huff, who led the Giants in every significant offensive category this season, said of his double. "You felt like you were walking on air right there."

Huff is something of a reclamation project, having signed as a free agent in January after passing through four organizations in the previous four seasons.

"It's so awesome," he said, celebrating a postseason berth Sunday for the first time in an 11-year big league career. "I don't have the words. It's really a special time for me."

And for the Giants, who haven't made the playoffs since 2003, one of only 10 teams that can say that. And though the Giants stumbled a bit in their series with the Padres, they are charging into the division series opener with Atlanta on Thursday riding a stretch drive worthy of Zenyatta, having won 21 of their last 32 games.

It was a run fueled by Sabean's acquisitions as well as two blunt, sometimes emotional, clubhouse meetings.

The first meeting came in late August when the normally mild-mannered general manager ripped into his underperforming rotation after the team had fallen 6½ games behind San Diego in the division race.

The pitching staff responded with a 1.78 earned-run average in September, the fifth-best mark by any team in any month in the last 90 years and the second-best September mark since the start of the live-ball era in 1920.

The second meeting came 12 days ago, when Bochy gathered the hitters in the cramped visitors' clubhouse in Chicago's Wrigley Field and told them they were embarrassing themselves and challenged them to do better. Over their next seven games, the Giants hit 15 homers and averaged nearly six runs, winning six times.

And that got them to the final weekend needing only one win to extend their season. The Padres, meanwhile, needed a sweep.

On the season's final day, San Diego came up three runs short.

"It's miserable. It stinks," outfielder Ryan Ludwick said. "But it's baseball and you move on."

And so will the Giants. Only they'll be moving on to the playoffs.

kevin.baxter@latimes.com

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