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Struggling Giants need pitching staff to repeat magic of 2010

The Giants were six games out of first place in the NL West last Aug. 18. Their comeback from that deficit gives them confidence that they can sprint to the finish again. But that confidence may be a false one. This team is far worse offensively than the 2010 version that won the division on the last day of the season en route to the World Series title. Yes, San Francisco is vulnerable to blowing the NL West to the Arizona Diamondbacks, a team that lost 97 games last year but which now leads the Giants by one game.

"I watched them get shut down by Jeff Karstens," said one scout, referring to the Pirates righthander who walked none and struck out nine Wednesday against the Giants, the first time Karstens had a game like that in 71 career starts. "Guys who saved them last year, like [Aubrey] Huff, [Pat] Burrell and [Andres] Torres, can't hit now. But the guy they really miss is [Buster] Posey. It's a completely different team without him. He was a legit middle of the order guy who hit great pitching. He would get it done against the best relievers."

Eli Whiteside, a career backup, is wearing down as Posey's replacement at catcher. San Francisco has scored three runs or less in 15 of its past 20 games and have scored the fewest runs in the majors and have the second-worst OPS in the NL. That lack of offense, combined with a below-average defense, has put tremendous pressure on the pitching staff. The staff, which has the second-best starters' ERA in the majors, did post a remarkable 2.83 ERA last year in the team's 25-16 end-of-season run. It might have to be even better this year.

Now would be a good time for the Giants to perk up. Before they meet Arizona again on Sept. 2, they play 15 of their next 18 against the Marlins, Astros, Padres and Cubs -- four of the six worst teams in the league.

While the Atlanta Braves added an important bat at the trade deadline in Michael Bourn, it turns out they've lost one as well. Rightfielder Jason Heyward, the NL Rookie of the Year runnerup from last season, has played so poorly that he has yielded some playing time to red-hot rookie Jose Constanza (.413 average), who has started 12 straight games since his call-up to the majors, five of the last eight in Heyward's customary rightfield spot.

Heyward did have shoulder issues earlier this season, but, now healthy, his bat has gone ice cold. Heyward is hitting .191 since the All-Star break. What happened? Word has spread among scouts that Heyward has a hard time getting to inside fastballs, a weakness the Giants exposed in the Division Series last year. Heyward is hitting .137 against power pitchers this year, down from .273 last year.

The Braves also want Heyward to use more of the field when he hits. He has only nine opposite-field hits this year, down from 20 last year. And give Constanza credit -- the 27-year-old who licks his bat after foul balls has seized every bit of his opportunity.

Heyward still presents Atlanta with the potential of a big bat added to their lineup if he comes around -- something out of the Dan Uggla school of comebacks. If the Braves can get healthy and get Heyward on track, they represent the best threat to keeping the Phillies out of the World Series. In the coming weeks they expect catcher Brian McCann to return, as well as reliever Peter Moylan and starting pitchers Jair Jurrjens and Tommy Hanson, who looks to be the key to any playoff run by Atlanta.

Hanson places tremendous strain on his shoulder with his awkward pause in his throwing motion, and the strain has begun to show. If he doesn't get well -- Atlanta expects he'll miss just one turn -- the Braves' best option for a number two playoff starter might be Brandon Beachy, a tough competitor with strikeout stuff. And if Hanson has any more shoulder issues, don't be surprised to see 20-year-old Julio Teheran back in the bigs.

No position in baseball has had more turnover this year than second base, where Johnny Giovatella in Kansas City followed Jason Kipnis in Cleveland, who followed a host of others in breaking in at second base. There are now nine 25-and-under second basemen starting at second base-- many of whom were converted from another position.

Dustin Ackley of Seattle may turn out to be the best of this generation of second basemen, but don't overlook Danny Espinosa. The Nationals second baseman is three home runs away from becoming only the fifth second baseman (minimum: 100 games) to hit 20 home runs at age 24 or younger. The others: Carlos Baerga (1992-93), Jim Lefebvre (1966), Bobby Doerr (1940) and Joe Gordon (1938-39).

Here is the 25-and-under crowd at second:

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