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Baseball

Sept. 18, 2006
Sept. 18, 2006

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Sept. 18, 2006

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He's a Giant

This is an article from the Sept. 18, 2006 issue Original Layout

Look who's back.Barry Bonds is on fire, and it's no accident that his once-dormant team issuddenly in the hunt

The Giants are inthe spotlight again, and for the first time all season it's not just because ofsome new revelation or allegation about Barry Bonds. At long last they'replaying good baseball. Having taken two of three games from thewild-card-leading Padres at home last weekend, San Francisco, which was ninegames below .500 less than a month ago, is squarely back in the postseasonpicture. "I guess you can call us late bloomers," says infielder MarkSweeney. "Every team goes through hot streaks and cold streaks. We neverhad a hot streak."

They have onenow. At week's end the Giants had gone a major-league-best 18--8 since Aug. 14and were one of four teams within 2 1/2 games of the NL's last playoff spot.Players cite a number of factors for the rebound, from the July acquisition of39-year-old reliever Mike Stanton, who has been surprisingly effective as thecloser (3--1, seven saves), to the unexpectedly robust production ofoft-injured second baseman Ray Durham, a former leadoff hitter who is healthyand thriving while batting fifth, with a career-best 23 homers and 86 RBIs.Additionally, the Giants' rotation, which was second in the league with a 4.22ERA, has been bolstered by the recent tear of 21-year-old rookie Matt Cain, whohad allowed just one earned run in 34 innings (0.26 ERA) in his last fivestarts.

The most notableelement in the Giants' turnaround, however, has been the resurgence of Bonds.He has struggled most of the season to regain his power after four kneesurgeries that caused him to miss all but 14 games last year, making his chaseof Hank Aaron's home run record more of a slog. But his two-run shot off thePadres' David Wells in the first inning of the Giants' 5--4 win last Saturdaywas his sixth in nine games and 23rd of the season. Since the start of theGiants' hot streak in mid-August, Bonds has struck out out only four times andincreased his OPS more than 60 points, to .991, not Ryan Howard or AlbertPujols territory, but comparable with those of such MVP candidates as CarlosBeltran and Justin Morneau. "Things are getting better," the42-year-old Bonds said afterward. "My legs are better."

And it's noaccident that the Giants' record is better as well. "We kind of live anddie with Barry," says ace Jason Schmidt. "When he is on, it reallylifts everybody up."

Bonds'simprovement, like that of the Giants, has happened without fanfare. Gone forthe most part are the distractions he brought with him at the beginning of theseason, when he was both the star of an ESPN reality TV show and the focus of agrand jury investigation in the BALCO case that is still ongoing. "Therewere a lot of reporters in the clubhouse then," says Sweeney. "This isour area, where you joke around and have fun and where you really mold yourteam. But we never really had that opportunity at the beginning because ofBarry's thing. There were people in here who wanted to write stories aboutBarry, but we'd get odd questions because they wanted to find out somedifferent things. So we'd go off to other parts of the clubhouse. I think theteam has really come together now because there are fewerdistractions."

ESPN pulled theplug on the reality show after Bonds passed Babe Ruth with his 715th home runon May 28. For the most part the rest of the national media tuned out, too. Nowthe Giants hope they can continue to fly under the radar, right throughSeptember and into the playoffs. "We don't care if other people payattention to us," says backup catcher Todd Greene. "We are just tryingto win games. Now we feel like we are playing the way we should have beenplaying all along. And we still have a chance."

• Daily analysisof the playoff chase at SI.com/baseball.

PHOTOROBERT BECK (BONDS)GOING, GOING ... Still here. A revived Bonds had six homers in one recent nine- game stretch.THREE PHOTOSJOEL AUERBACH-US PRESSWIRE