This is my Friday column.
SAN FRANCISCO — Technically, Giants right fielder Justin Maxwell won Thursday’s game against the Dodgers with an RBI single down the third-base line in the bottom of the 10th. The final score was 3-2.
Technically, Joe Panik won Wednesday’s game with a sacrifice fly in the bottom of the ninth. The final score was 3-2.
Without those hits by Panik and Maxwell, the Giants might have lost this three-game series. Instead, they swept the first-place Dodgers.
But the Giants didn’t win because of their hitting. They won because they got three quality starts in a row — one from Tim Lincecum on Tuesday, one from Madison Bumgarner on Wednesday and one from Ryan Vogelsong on Thursday.
The Giants will go as far as their starting pitching takes them — that’s how the Giants work.
Is their starting pitching good enough to take them to the playoffs this season? Let’s take stock.
Vogelsong gave up two earned runs in 6⅓ innings Thursday afternoon. Each earned run was a solo home run that came with two outs. He made two bad pitches all game.
And he lowered his ERA from 10.45 to 7.71.
Vogelsong wasn’t supposed to be a starter this season. He began the year in the bullpen and became a starter when Jake Peavy injured himself.
And Vogelsong was terrible, as you can tell from his flabby ERA. He needed to pitch well Thursday to keep his spot in the starting rotation, and he knew it.
“Honestly, I feel like I pitch better in these situations where my back is against the wall,” Vogelsong said at his locker after the game. “I feel like I’m back in 2011, when every start I wasn’t quite sure if I was going to get another one after that. I needed to go out and throw the ball well. Maybe this is the pressure I need … Maybe this what I need to get my head out of my butt, so to speak.”
Vogelsong might feel like he’s back in 2011. The reality is he turns 38 in July. Can the Giants rely on him to make 30 starts?
The Giants have to rely on Bumgarner. He is their best pitcher. And as a pitcher, he has been an equestrian this season.
He just might have a future in dressage. Talk about a natural on a horseback. Not so natural on the mound, though. Bumgarner The Pitcher looks shaky this season. His ERA is 4.63, and hitters are batting .295 against him.
This isn’t to say Bumgarner forgot how to pitch or suddenly became a bad pitcher. He is a great pitcher.
Is he also a tired pitcher?
That’s the key question. Bumgarner pitched 270 innings last season including the playoffs. The extra work may have taken a toll on his arm.
He used to throw one of the hardest, sharpest sliders in the Major Leagues — threw it about 88 miles per hour. It was faster than some pitchers’ fastballs.
But not this season. Bumgarner’s slider is traveling just 85 miles per hour and hitters have been crushing it. They’ve been crushing all of his pitches, actually.
Until Wednesday Night. Bumgarner held the Los Angeles Dodgers to two runs in 6⅓ innings. For the first time this season he looked like a pitcher and not a broncobuster.
For the first time since 2011, Lincecum’s ERA after his first three starts is less than 5.63.
Is he back?
Yes and no.
His changeup is back — that’s his signature pitch. It darts sharply into the dirt like a split-finger fast ball. It hasn’t darted this sharply since Lincecum won his second Cy Young award in 2009.
But Lincecum needs more than one good pitch to have a good season. Good hitters recognize his changeup and lay off it — Lincecum rarely throws it for a strike. He needs a pitch he can throw for a strike.
Which brings us to his fastball. Lincecum struggles to throw it harder than 87 miles per hour. It’s almost as slow as Barry Zito’s fastball.
Lincecum threw 93 miles per hour when he won back-to-back Cy Youngs — he was a power pitcher. Now, he’s a finesse pitcher. He can’t blow fastballs by hitters anymore. He has to hit the corners.
Can he hit corners consistently for more than three starts?
Can Hudson make it through the entire season? He turns 40 in July.
Last season, he was a three-month pitcher. Before the All-Star break, his ERA was 2.87. After the All-Star break, it was 4.73. He fell apart, and we understand why. He’s old. We don’t fault him for being old.
The Giants are paying Hudson $12 million this season. That’s a lot of dough for a three-month pitcher, if he even is a three-month pitcher any more. So far, he seems like a one-start pitcher.
He gave up no earned runs during his first start which came against the San Diego Padres. His past two starts, Hudson’s ERA has been 6.00. His fastball is topping out at 87 miles per hour, and he doesn’t have a great off-speed pitch like Lincecum.
Hudson’s career might be finito.
Same goes for Peavy’s career, even though he’s only 33.
Peavy lasted two starts this season. Then he hurt his back, and now he’s on the disabled list. His ERA is off the Richter scale — 9.39.
And he won’t pitch in a game any time soon. Before Thursday’s game, Giants manager Bruce Bochy said he’s going to “slow play” Peavy’s return.
As Bochy said this, Peavy was playing catch next to the Giants’ dugout. Peavy has been playing catch for the past two days. He might no longer have what it takes to be a major league pitcher, but he sure can play catch with the best of them.
If only that were true for Cain.
Before Thursday’s game, I asked Bochy how Cain’s rehab is progressing.
“Still rehabbing,” Bochy said. “He’s not throwing yet.”
Cain can’t even play catch. He hasn’t pitched one inning this season. He strained his right flexor tendon in an exhibition game, and he’s been on the Disabled List since then.
The Giants are paying Cain $20 million to hang around the clubhouse and receive treatment on his forearm. Unless the Giants can trade him — not likely — they’ll have to pay him another $61 million over the next three seasons.
Cain might become the richest rehabber in baseball.
Heston has the second-lowest ERA in the majors — 0.87. He is a 27-year-old rookie who has been in the Giants’ farm system for six years. The not-so-young right-hander throws a 90-mile-an-hour fastball, which makes him a flamethrower compared to most of the Giants’ starting pitchers.
Heston might be the second-best starter on the team next to Bumgarner. Who is the third-best starter, Vogelsong? Lincecum?
They pitched well against the Dodgers in April, but neither is a No. 3 starter in a playoff rotation.
The Giants don’t have a playoff rotation — they have Buckaroo Bumgarner. The rest is uncertain.
Grant Cohn writes sports columns and the “Inside the 49ers” blog for The Press Democrat’s website. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.