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Senior Baseball Columnist

Bumgarner's dominance proves race between Giants, Dodgers hinges on pitching

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Madison Bumgarner and the S.F. starting rotation rank fourth in the NL with a 3.66 ERA. The Dodgers are second. (AP)  
Madison Bumgarner and the S.F. starting rotation rank fourth in the NL with a 3.66 ERA. The Dodgers are second. (AP)  

LOS ANGELES -- With pitching like Madison Bumgarner delivered in the opener of a crucial series here Monday night, the Giants will survive without website engineer Melky Cabrera.

"You know what, we've moved on," San Francisco manager Bruce Bochy was saying Monday afternoon when, inevitably, the first question out of the gate, again, was about the synthetic Melk-man. "You've got to deal with the ups and downs during a season."

Don't the Giants know it. Tuesday night, they'll hand the ball to wobbly Tim Lincecum. And if he continues going like he has (6-12, 5.45), then the Giants will not survive without the past-his-expiration-date Melk-man.

Notice a pattern?

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You hear so much about how the Giants struggle to score runs, how they need to find bats, have to invent ways to move runners (as Marco Scutaro did in bunting Angel Pagan to third after his leadoff double against Clayton Kershaw, positioning the Giants to score the first run Monday).

True, their offense isn't exactly overstocked with rippers.

But that's not the point, and anybody who thinks it is looking in the wrong direction.

It's all about pitching for the Giants, still, always was, always will be. Pre-Melky and post-Melky.

Here's the deal as the Giants edged back into first place, half-a-game ahead of the Dodgers, with Monday's 2-1 win:

When Bumgarner threw the first pitch of what would be a masterful evening, the Giants ranked sixth in the National League with a 3.69 ERA. The Dodgers were able to move ahead of them and into first place a day earlier because their pitchers rank second in the NL with a 3.34 ERA.

Starting rotations?

The Dodgers (3.40) ranked second in the NL, the Giants (3.66) fourth.

Bullpen?

The Dodgers (3.20) ranked fourth in the NL, the Giants (3.77) eighth.

No question, the Dodgers are a different team post-July 31 with Shane Victorino and Hanley Ramirez in the lineup. But what's made them an especially different team is Chad Billingsley finally becoming the pitcher the Dodgers have envisioned he could become since, oh, 2008.

Billingsley is 6-0 with a 1.30 ERA in six starts since the All-Star break, whiffing 27, walking eight and surrendering only one home run in 41 2/3 innings.

Pitching has been San Francisco's heartbeat for the past several seasons, but the Dodgers are beating the Giants at their own game this summer.

That's why Bumgarner's eight shutout innings were far more important than whatever Internet Engine Cabrera was studying(!) Monday night. And it's why Lincecum might become the single-most important man in determining this NL West race.

No question, the Giants will continue looking to upgrade over Gregor Blanco in left. General manager Brian Sabean caught lightning in a bottle one August, in 2010, with the Cody Ross waiver claim. Maybe someone can convince Cubs' left fielder Alfonso Soriano to waive his no-trade clause and accept a trade to the Bay Area. Maybe Jeff Francouer can be had from Kansas City. Maybe Gary Brown, the scourge of Double-A pitching in the Giants' organization, can make the jump by September.

Maybe. But with Buster Posey healthy and scorching hot, and with Pablo Sandoval back in the lineup, the death of the Giants' offense, as Mark Twain might say were he around today to blog on one of Melky's sites, has been greatly exaggerated.

Though he took an 0 for 4 with three punchouts against Kershaw in the series opener, Posey is batting .410 since the All-Star break with nine homers and 34 RBI in 33 games.

"I couldn't be happier with the way things have gone," Posey said of his comeback from the shattered ankle in May, 2011. "I think if you asked the training staff whether they thought I'd have as many at-bats as I do, they would have said no.

"I don't think anybody would have thought it."

Though he didn't get a hit Monday, he called a beautiful game for Bumgarner and nailed two larcenous Dodgers attempting to steal.

It was terrific theater, the kind of hot August night that only deepens the anticipation of September.

"Sometimes, I guess you better pitch better if you want to win," Bumgarner memorably said of matching up against Kershaw, and did he ever. Just 23, and with one World Series start already on his resume, the Giants' lefty (14-7, 2.83) is having a marvelous season.

He's whiffed an NL-high 61 hitters since the All-Star break, and his 123 pitches on Monday were just one short of a career high. When Hanley Ramirez crushed a homer against reliever Sergio Romo with two out in the ninth to shave the Giants' lead to 2-1, it was a mere annoyance, rather than crushing, because Bumgarner was so dominant.

"When you have pitching, you're OK," Tim Flannery, San Francisco's third-base coach, said. "When you don't, then everyone sees when you don't get that three-run homer or when you don't get that big hit.

"Pitching masks a lot of things."

Over what now is a final, 40-game sprint to the finish line, from the Giants' perspective, it would be really great if it would mask Melky's Facebook status (currently: Inactive).

"No question," Bochy said. "I said that a couple of weeks ago. Anytime you're in the race, it will be up to how well you throw the ball.

"It's going to be up to our starters and our bullpen. No question about it."

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