Giants limp into second half of season

AT&T PARK — In the fourth inning of Thursday afternoon’s Giants-Cardinals game, Mark Ellis hit a potential inning-ending double play grounder to Giants’ first baseman Adam Duvall.

To make Duvall’s task easier, the slow-running Yadier Molina was at first. Except Duvall’s throw to second was high and wide, and sailed into left field. Molina went to second, and Ellis reached on the error.

The Cardinals went on to score three runs in that inning, blowing a one-run game wide open in an eventual 7-2 shellacking of the Giants.

So goes the last month for the Orange and Black.

On June 8, the Giants held a 9-1/2 game lead over the Dodgers for first place in the NL West. Off to their best start since 1962, San Francisco owned the best record in the majors at 42-21 .

Just three and half weeks later, their division lead has all but completely disintegrated (the Giants trail the Dodgers by a half game as of Thursday night), and their record has fell to 47-38.

They’ve lost 17 of their last 22 games, 14 of 17 home games, and six of their last seven series. During this last 10-game homestand, they went 2-8 and were outscored by opponents 42-19.

Manager Bruce Bochy, who met with General Manager Brian Sabean after Thursday’s loss, was understandably irked:

“We’re too good to have a homestand like this. They’re all frustrated. The effort is there, but if you come home and struggle the way we did, we know it’s not acceptable.”

Whatever was working earlier in the season is not working now for the Giants, who are four games past the halfway point of the season.

From March through May, the Giants playing above their heads, hitting the ball hard, and at the right times as well. The Giants led the majors with 62 runs scored with two outs during March and April.

Michael Morse was a big part of that early success at the plate. The free agent acquisition got off to a booming start with his new club, and one-fifth through the season was on pace to hit 40 home runs. Morse has since cooled off, but still sports a .273 batting average and leads the team in homers (13) and RBIs (44).

But it wasn’t just Morse early on. The production came from up and down the lineup, from leadoff hitter Angel Pagan to eighth-place hitter Brandon Hicks.

Many times the Giants would jump out to an early lead in the first inning thanks to Pagan setting the table for the likes of Brandon Belt, Buster Posey, Pablo Sandoval, and Hunter Pence.

Even Hicks — who made the team out of Spring Training — got off to a hot start, looking like a legitimate fill-in for the injured Marco Scutaro at second base.

Injuries, though, took their toll. Gone is Belt and his much-needed power supply at first base. Gone is Scutaro, the valuable two-hole hitter. Gone is Pagan, his team-leading .307 batting average, and his speed on the base path.

As Pagan’s absence in the lineup dragged on from days to weeks, the offense disappeared along with him.

The aforementioned clutch two-out hitting? Well, the Giants ranked second-to-last in the majors in two-out runs in June. They hit an anemic .192 as a team this past 10-game homestand.

With Pagan out, and Gregor Blanco struggling in his place, the Giants have no leadoff hitter, and whatever lineup combinations Bochy has tried have not produced much of anything.

Hicks, meanwhile, struggled mightily and was yanked from the lineup in favor of minor league call-up Joe Panik, who himself has not impressed thus far.

Bochy spoke about the adjustments he made Thursday, which included moving Pence to the leadoff spot:

“We’ve shaken things up with lineups and more than anything, you have to keep believing and stay positive, and hopefully we all kick ourselves in the tail here. Part of it is getting mad and doing something about it.”

With a lackadaisical offense comes more pressure on pitching. The Giants’ pitching — typically their strength, winning them two World Series in three years — is faltering now.

Bumgarner, after such a strong beginning to the year, has allowed four or more earned runs in three of his last four starts. Matt Cain looks nothing like the Matt Cain of old, as evidenced by his 1-6 record and 4.38 ERA.

Tim Lincecum and Ryan Vogelsong have shown flashes of their brilliance, but are too sporadic to be depended upon. The only consistent starter has been Tim Hudson with a 2.90 ERA.

The bullpen is not doing so hot either. The Giants have no bona fide closer after Sergio Romo blew three of his last five save chances and raised his ERA above 5.00.

Sure, the Giants still sport the third-best bullpen ERA in the NL, but the lack of a closer shifts roles around in the pen, and, much like tinkering with the starting lineup, it’s difficult to find an adjustment that works.

But help is on the way. Belt will be back Friday after recovering from a broken thumb. Pagan will continue his rehab after receiving an epidural injection in his back on Thursday. Scutaro is currently rehabbing in the minors and should get a call up sometime this season.

Bochy said Scutaro will be a welcome addition:

“His experience will help the other guys. He’s a papa guy in this club house, I think the guys would like to have him around too.”

Scutaro won’t win the division for the Giants, but perhaps his re-emergence will be one of many gradual steps that will culminate in the team rekindling some of the swagger that they had on June 8, when they owned baseball’s best record.

There are a myriad of angles by which the Giants’ first half of the season can be dissected. They have seemingly lost every facet of their game that made them successful early on, and now they find themselves in a dogfight with the Dodgers in the division.

Bochy sure knows that, and he acknowledges that although Giants have a long road ahead, they will prevail:

“It’s hard for everybody. I know we will come out of it. It’s just taking a lot longer than we thought. Our margin of error isn’t there anymore. We have to play good baseball.”