Ann Killion
Wednesday September 23rd, 2009

The San Francisco Giants merry promotional campaign is still airing on local television. "We're in this thing," cry happy fans, anticipating their team's first playoff appearance since 2003.

And mathematically, they still are. For a few more hours.

But it's not going to happen. Not this season.

That doesn't make it a wasted season. The Giants have exhibited the first signs of green life sprouting from the ashes left behind by the great Barry Bonds' bonfire. A little hope finally, following those bleak years (2005-2007), when the Giants sublimated their competitive desire for the pyrotechnics and cash infusion of a dubious home run chase.

The Giants aren't going to win the wild card, but they played meaningful baseball for most of September.

But now they are five back of the Rockies with 11 games to play. An ugly loss to Arizona on Tuesday night appeared to seal a fate that was pretty much decided in the heat of Dodger Stadium last weekend.

On this road trip, the Giants' twin demons of road struggles and impotent offense have been on display. So has been a disturbing late-season development: The Giants vaunted pitching staff hasn't come through when most needed.

But the worst news for the Giants in recent days isn't that they won't win the wild card; that's simply fulfilling preseason prophesies. No, the really bad news was far less predictable. The Giants top young Dominican prospect, Angel Villalona, was arrested over the weekend on murder charges, after a fatal shooting in a bar in the coastal city of La Romana.

Just 19, Villalona was signed by the Giants when he was 16, earning a $2.1 million bonus. He was considered a prime slugging prospect in the system and was penciled in to be the team's first baseman for years to come, just as Buster Posey is slated to be the team's starting catcher for the future. Villalona, who played with the Giants Class A San Jose team before suffering an injury, was due to report to fall instructional league this week. Instead he is being held in a Dominican jail.

Villalona was projected to be one piece of the Giants' new youth movement. For years, during the Bonds era, the Giants traded draft picks for aging veterans. But now they have rebuilt their farm system and their young pitching staff is the heart of the team. Their big two of Matt Cain and Tim Lincecum, have been supplemented by a respectable Barry Zito and a blossoming Jonathan Sanchez.

But in the stretch run, the dominating pitching didn't come through as planned, perhaps the result of too many innings piling up. Cain has won just one game since late July and on Tuesday night in Arizona he only lasted 2 1/3 innings, the shortest outing of his career. Brad Penny, signed to beat the Dodgers in September, had his worst outing as a Giant against his former team on Saturday, reverting to his Red Sox form.

Even the trusty Lincecum may have dashed any hopes for a second consecutive Cy Young on Sunday, wilting in the Los Angeles heat. Lincecum disputes the notion that he struggles with the heat, but his recent outings reflect a pattern: He thrives in the cool weather at AT&T Park but isn't as sharp when the temperature rises on the road.

The Giants are far from a complete team. Their road record has been lousy (33-44), while their winning percentage in China Basin is .649. Their offense has been among the league's worst in recent years: The Giants are last in the league in runs scored, second to last in home runs in baseball and near the bottom in RBIs. It seems like some kind of karmic payback for all those years of riding baseball's hottest bat.

Among their young hitters, Pablo Sandoval (.329 batting average) continues to exceed expectations. Posey got his first big-league at-bats this month. The Giants may now have to shelve expectations for Villalona. And the front office still has plenty of holes to address.

One of general manager Brian Sabean's attempts to correct the offensive problems has backfired, so far. At the trade deadline, the Giants gave up prized pitching prospect Tim Alderson to Pittsburgh for second baseman Freddy Sanchez. But Sanchez, who arrived with a left knee injury, has only played in half of the games since he's been with his new team. On Monday night, he suffered another injury, twisting his left knee. Now the Giants have to decide whether they will go forward with Sanchez' $8.1 million option and the pursuit of a multi-year contract -- something that was assumed until now, given the high price the team paid for him.

The Sanchez injury was just one more blow in a dismal week. But, despite that, this has been a successful season for the Giants. Expected to contend next season, the Giants found themselves ahead of schedule. The team won its 81st game this week, breaking a four-year streak of losing seasons. The Giants kept their fans engaged and hopeful, something that hasn't happened in recent years.

They're not in this thing, not anymore. But they expect to be in the future.

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