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Manny's suspension provides a Giant opportunity for San Francisco

SAN FRANCISCO -- Seagulls, in numbers so great you could almost hear Tippi Hedren scream, soared and swooped over AT&T Park, a not uncommon occurrence after Giants games. But this scene straight from Bodega Bay occurred while the Giants were hammering the Washington Nationals in the late innings of an 11-7 win Monday night. The park never before had been so empty for a ball game -- just 23,934 showed, and many of those left as the night grew chilly and the score lopsided. The birds didn't have to wait for what used to be a typically packed house to empty in order to pick from the food scraps. The place, being about half empty, welcomed the winged scavengers with the game in progress.

In addition to the half-eaten hot dogs and dropped garlic fries, the birds picked over the detritus of the end of the Barry Bonds era in San Francisco -- three years of building a win-now team around a player beyond his 40th birthday and a fourth year paying for such risk when he was gone. Only two National League teams were worse than the Giants in those previous four years, the Nationals and Pirates.

The 2004-08 malaise left the Giants with an identity problem, which is to say they have none. Yes, the empty seats are a reflection of the economy, but they also reveal a decided disinterest so far in what the Giants have to sell. Come see us; we don't stink as bad as the Nats and Bucs, is not the stuff of great marketing campaigns.

Who are the Giants? It's a great question, especially in their own backyard. Yes, they have the scintillating Tim Lincecum, but he can pitch only about 16 times at AT&T Park. Otherwise, San Francisco doesn't have a single player to keep a fan from making a run to the concession stand, rest room or, worse, home.

What the Giants do have, however, is an opportunity to reestablish an identity, and they can thank Manny Ramirez's potency problems for that chance. Once Ramirez was suspended for 50 games last Thursday for using a banned substance, a female fertility drug used to boost testosterone, the first-place Los Angeles Dodgers, playing to the greatest home start in 123 years, put the rest of the NL West into play again. In truth, the Diamondbacks, having already fired their manager amid a 75-91 nosedive since last April, Padres, who may as well trade their one valuable pitcher (Jake Peavy) from a woeful staff, and Rockies, who have turned losing into a skill by going 1-8 in one-run games, need the Dodgers to suffer even more attrition.

If Ramirez opened a door for the rest of the NL West, the Giants, who entered Wednesday in second place, three games back of L.A., are the ones best prepared to walk through it -- which is saying something about the division considering that San Francisco is the worst-power-hitting outfit in the entire league.

"I saw a series last weekend in which neither team's first baseman has hit a home run this year," one scout said. "James Loney [of the Dodgers] should hit a few, but I don't know about [Travis] Ishikawa [of the Giants]. Think about that. Two teams with no home runs from first basemen. The Dodgers are pretty good -- not great -- but the division is just awful."

Give the Giants credit. Since Mannywood shut down last week, they have picked up 3½ games on the Dodgers, winning five out of six. Moreover, they have not lost any of their past eight series, winning six and splitting two.

"In some regard things are starting to click for us," left-hander Randy Johnson said after the 298th victory of his career Monday. A win Saturday against Johan Santana and the Mets would have Johnson gunning for No. 300 in Seattle next week.

"It would be great if Griffey is in the lineup," Johnson joked about his former Mariners teammate. (Griffey is 0-for-5 with three strikeouts against the Big Unit.)

What the Giants are doing is not pretty. "We have to grind every day," manager Bruce Bochy said, "and we've been playing pretty well." They have little room for error because their hitting is so poor, with too little ability to strike quickly or come from behind. (Pablo Sandoval, however, delivered Tuesday with a game-winning three-run homer with two outs in the ninth inning to beat Washington 9-7.)

So if the Giants are going to establish an identity, they will have to do so before Ramirez returns July 3, and it will have to be as a team for which nothing comes easy, in which somehow the sum is greater than the parts. The Giants will have to settle for being scrappy as their strategy. On Monday, for example, they scored a season-high 11 runs without hitting the ball out of the ballpark. They have won as many games without a home run (nine) as with one.

It's a dangerous means of contending. San Francisco, for instance, has zero home runs out of the first base, second base and left-field positions. The cleanup hitter, Bengie Molina, has an on-base percentage that is nearly the same as his batting average, having drawn one walk in his 123 times up this year. The left fielder, Fred Lewis, has two RBIs. And they have become the worst team in the league at slugging without a single key position player getting hurt. What you've been watching is the Giants at full strength.

(Somehow, San Francisco's cross-bay cousins, the Athletics, can't hit a lick, either. Maybe they should send free-agent-to-be Matt Holliday across the Bay Bridge and back to the NL so that the area might at least have one team with some pop.)

Over the previous four seasons, the NL West is a combined 125 games worse than .500. The past four division champions took first place with 84, 90, 88 and 82 wins, respectively. When the Dodgers were rolling with Ramirez they threatened to change the dynamic of the division, seemingly raising the bar to a win total in the mid-90s. Such a redefinition, however, may no longer be in play.

The Giants might not have much power at the plate or the gate for the time being, but they do have Lincecum and Matt Cain, and Johnson gunning for the last 300th win in a very, very long time, as well as a sense of purpose borne from knowing that they have to win the hard way. There is no Bonds or anything close to a big-time threat in the middle of the order, which makes their scrappiness a necessity. With little room for error, but with Ramirez providing an opportunity, the Giants just might be establishing an identity in these next two months, if not longer.

"Hopefully," Johnson said, "we'll win enough to win the West."

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