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San Francisco Giants too similar to 2014 squad in Pittsburgh

PITTSBURGH — When Madison Bumgarner tossed a complete game shutout to lead the Giants past the Pirates in the 2014 National League Wildcard Game, four of his teammates in Friday’s starting lineup were on the field with him.

The Giants’ continuity is stunning, impressive and at the moment, a major problem.

Five years after Bumgarner stormed his way through the 2014 postseason and willed the Giants to their third title in five years, several of the Giants regulars are still the same.

Their ability to compete with the best in baseball, as evidenced in a 4-1 defeat to the Pirates, has changed.

Midway through the decade, the Giants made other franchises envious with a surplus of homegrown talent. Bumgarner and catcher Buster Posey were drafted to be stars and they surpassed even the loftiest of expectations, but the Giants’ scouting department surrounded them with other quality assets in Brandon Crawford, Brandon Belt and Joe Panik.

The Giants believed they were positioned to reign supreme through the end of the decade, but have instead met unforeseen obstacles along the way. It’s far too early to tell whether an 8-13 start is a sign the club is destined for its third straight losing season, but the early returns from the team’s homegrown pillars leave plenty to be desired.

In the final year of his contract, Bumgarner has shown signs he’s close to regaining the All-Star form he showcased before suffering a pair of devastating injuries over the last two seasons. In his final five innings against Pittsburgh on Friday, Bumgarner allowed just two hits and no runs.

Unfortunately for the Giants, the left-hander has also struggled with command issues that have triggered big innings. Of the 18 runs he’s given up this year, 12 have come in his three worst innings.

After an 85-minute rain delay pushed the start of Friday’s game back, Bumgarner recorded back-to-back outs in the bottom of the first. Disaster soon struck as the lefty walked Jung-ho Kang, the Pirates’ No. 3 hitter who entered with a .130 batting average.

At the end of the inning, the Giants ace had surrendered four runs on four hits while tallying 38 pitches. In his 2014 Wildcard Game win, Bumgarner allowed five baserunners in nine innings.

Bumgarner’s early performances aren’t the only reason the Giants’ new front office regime might be concerned about the team’s potential to reverse an ugly start. Crawford, Panik and Posey all began the series with sub-.210 batting averages and none have displayed consistent swings in the first month of the year.

The Giants still had eight members of the starting lineup from the 2014 Wildcard Game on their Opening Day roster in 2018, but this year, new president of baseball operations Farhan Zaidi has attempted to put his own mark on the club. Doing so is an exceptional challenge thanks to the long-term contracts the Giants handed out in the final years of Brian Sabean and Bobby Evans’ run atop the front office, and the changes Zaidi has made have yet to produce different results.

After finishing 29th in home runs in each of the last two seasons, the Giants came into the weekend with just 15 homers in their first 20 games, a mark that ranks 26th in baseball. The team’s .602 OPS was the lowest of all 30 teams and more than 140 points under the National League team average.

As the clock ticks, baseball offers fans many ways to evaluate the passing of time. The Pirates’ lineup featured just one holdover from the 2014 Wildcard Game –Starling Marte (who exited with an injury after an eighth inning collision in the outfield)– but their pitching staff featured two players who were both traded by the Giants.

Francisco Liriano, the first reliever to enter for Pittsburgh, was dealt to Minnesota in 2003 in a deal that brought A.J. Pierzynski to San Francisco. Kyle Crick, the second pitcher out of the Pirates’ bullpen, was traded to Pittsburgh in 2018 in the swap that sent Andrew McCutchen to the Giants.

Liriano and Crick built off a strong effort from Pirates starter Jordan Lyles, who limited the Giants to four hits in six scoreless innings. A Posey single off reliever Richard Rodriguez prevented the Pirates from returning the favor and shutting the Giants out at PNC Park on Friday, but the stakes weren’t quite as big as the ones at the end of 2014.

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