LOS ANGELES--The absurdity of the National League wild-card race can be summed up in one sentence, which was not applicable as recently as a week ago: The San Francisco Giants are in it.
Yes, the Giants. They have surged into contention through a combination of an extended winning stretch and the general mediocrity of the senior circuit. Heading into Saturday's games, the Giants did not have more victories than defeats. They stood at .500, which in the NL meant they were only two games behind the Philadelphia Phillies and St. Louis Cardinals for the second entry into the wild-card game.
The rise of the Giants provides an unexpected wrinkle for a playoff situation that did not appear to be accepting new applicants. By winning 14 of their last 16 games before Saturday, the Giants had complicated the playoff race and the trade market before the July 31 deadline.
About two weeks ago, the picture looked clear. Farhan Zaidi, the former Dodgers general manager now at the helm as San Francisco's president of baseball operations, would trade starting pitcher Madison Bumgarner and closer Will Smith before August. Bumgarner, the 2014 World Series most valuable player, offered a postseason pedigree unmatched by any other player available. Smith, a left-handed All-Star who has struck out six times as many batters as he has walked this season, might be the best reliever on the market. The Dodgers, certainly, would be one of several teams making inquiries.
The Giants still retain several members of their championship core from 2010, 2012 and 2014. Manager Bruce Bochy has announced he will retire after this season. The players and the fan base sound uninterested in a fire sale. Bumgarner made his point clear after pitching in a victory over the New York Mets on Friday.
"I'm trying to win games for the Giants, and we're trying to get into the postseason," Bumgarner said. "And we're making a push. We're coming."
He added: "If we manage to keep this going and sneak in, I don't think anybody will want to match up with us."
That bravado might sound silly, but it was the same internal logic that carried San Francisco to its three titles this decade. It certainly plays better in the NL than the American League. If the season had ended Friday, the Cleveland Indians (16 games above .500) and the Oakland Athletics (14 games above .500) would meet in the AL wild-card game. The NL features a bunch of teams much closer to the waterline.
The Giants, by most objective standards, should not be considered a good team. They had given up 36 more runs than they had scored before Saturday, and their Pythagorean win-loss record, which estimates how a team should perform based on run differential, was eight games below .500.