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Giants

Giants’ success could hinge on their shaky defense

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Pablo Sandoval of the San Francisco Giants. (Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images)

Pablo Sandoval of the San Francisco Giants. (Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images)

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By Scott Miller

LOS ANGELES (CBS SPORTS) – Draw a line straight through from Brian Wilson blasting strike three past Nelson Cruz last November to Tim Lincecum jack-hammering called strike one past Rafael Furcal on Thursday night.

One pitch, and San Francisco wins its first World Series since the Giants moved west in 1958.

Very next pitch, a winter of photographs and memories melts away and the Giant Encore begins — and with a 2-1 thud against Dodgers ace Clayton Kershaw, not with the popping of another cork. The victory laps are done, the hitting into the gaps is just beginning.

Five months of tingly, Pepsodent smiles, and now how much changes?

“They should feel different,” San Francisco manager Bruce Bochy was saying before the game. “They’ve earned all the attention they’ve been getting.

“When you hit the field as world champions, you should feel different. It’s pretty special to go into opening day as world champions.”

Opening day is like Easter in church. Seriously overcrowded, with an overwhelming sense of renewal. Some of the folks, you’ll even see again. Spring phenom Brandon Belt was full of awkward smiles and more tough at-bats (single, gritty walk and a battling whiff). He became the first rookie first baseman to start for a defending world champion in 13 years, since Florida trotted out Ryan Jackson post-firesale in 1998.

Impressive and as non-loopy as Belt is, his presence signifies clear change, however temporary. The magic that was Cody Ross last fall was sitting in a heap in front of his locker here Thursday, seriously bummed that a calf strain ruined his opening day. Three weeks, he figures, until he can play.

But he also remembers how a calf strain nipped at Philadelphia’s Jimmy Rollins for much of 2010. He figures he may phone J-Roll for some advice.

Yes, five months of framed photos and ring fittings, and how much changes?

Talk all you want about San Francisco’s dominant pitching. Ace Tim Lincecum said a few days ago in Arizona that he felt stronger this spring than he has in the past at this time of year, and he pitched like it in Thursday’s opener. Seven innings, no earned runs, hard cheese.

But — and this is where things get tricky — Lincecum left trailing 1-0 because the defense behind him looked like it was trapped in an outtakes video.

Belt might be this year’s Buster Posey. And that would be terrific for the Giants as they defend their crown. But with him at first, the trickle-down effect is not good for San Francisco’s best asset: pitching. The defense, right now, stinks.

“Whether it’s opening day or in the season, these kind of things happen,” said Lincecum, who was burned by an unearned run. “You iron them out.”

Aubrey Huff in right field and Pat Burrell in left is like watching a car rust. Miguel Tejada at shortstop has less range than the Juan Marichal statue outside AT&T Park by McCovey Cove. At 36, he begins a couple of steps behind the starting line and will only lose ground as the schedule unfolds. And paired with Freddy Sanchez at second base, nobody will confuse the Giants’ middle infield with the San Francisco Ballet.

The virus even spread to Posey on Thursday. Picking up a bounced Lincecum pitch in the sixth with the score 0-0, he made a horrible decision to throw to third when Matt Kemp was right near the bag. Pablo Sandoval couldn’t reach the throw, and Kemp came home.

“I just thought, especially with the ball in the dirt, we might have had a chance to catch [Kemp] with his head down,” Posey said. “But it was a bad throw, there’s no way around it.”

Now, this doesn’t mean the Giants are doomed. It’s easy to overemphasize what happens on opening day, and let’s be careful not to do that here. For starters, when Ross returns, Huff and Burrell won’t eat up two-thirds of the outfield.

Tejada, that’s a different story. That one could backfire. Only reason Kemp was on third when Posey threw the ball away was because, two batters prior, Tejada threw wildly to second on a James Loney bouncer that should have forced Kemp at second.

Instead, Kemp sailed on to third as the baseball sailed past Sanchez.

“It’s opening day,” Huff said. “Three errors. Maybe a little bit of nerves.

“We’ll get them out of the way.”

Five months of attaboys and World Series DVD showings, and how much changes?

From Texas to Los Angeles, they sure look like the same old Giants, and in one way that is a very good thing: Lincecum and Co. again are lined up for Best in Show.

But how many runs can they score (they get the benefit of the doubt Thursday, Kershaw is headed toward Cy Young territory), and can they catch the damned ball consistently?

It worked in 2010. But will it play again in 2011?

“Tim threw the ball really well,” Posey said. “I think he got better late in the game.

“That was a tough one. When he throws the ball that well, you’d like to get a couple of runs behind you.”

(Copyright 2011 by CBS San Francisco. All Rights Reserved.)

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