The fifth starter, lefthander Kirk Rueter, wants to demonstrate to the Montreal Expos, who traded him to the Giants in the middle of last season, that they missed the boat too. Rueter has been working with pitching coach Dick Pole to find a comfortable rhythm. "With Montreal, the> were always trying to get me to work more slowly," Rueter says. "If I wanted to throw curves, they said, 'Well, don't get beat with it.' I was more worried about how I looked than how I pitched. Here they say, 'Throw the curve anytime you want to. Work as fast as you want.' "
The Giants are fortunate to have three pitching coaches. The official one is the 46-year-old Pole, who has counseled Rueter so well. The unofficial ones are the 61-year-old Perranoski and the 35-year-old Gardner. Perranoski has been making a study of pitching for nearly half a century. He stays out of Pole's way but makes discreet observations from time to time. Gardner is the oldest player on the roster. He is wise enough to know he'd be "a third or fourth starter on another team" but secure enough to recognize and encourage young talent. "There's a guy," Gardner says, pointing across the clubhouse in the direction of Estes, "who can be a real ace for this team very soon."
Estes, who through Sunday had a record of 4-1, was a first-round draft pick by Seattle in 1991, but after four years, all of which Estes spent in the minors, the Mariners grew weary of his petulance and dealt him to San Francisco. In his minor league days, Estes acknowledges, he was not mature enough to handle an umpire's wavering strike zone or a teammate's fielding blunders. The trade was a wake-up call, a signal to grow up. "When you're traded, you lose that sense of security," Estes says. "There are a lot of hard-throwing lefties who never make it. I realized that if I didn't start producing, I wouldn't be around very long."
There are other happy stories on the Giants' staff. Fernandez, the former Cuban Olympic star, defected in July 1995, leaving his family behind. His world was suddenly upside down. He had to deal with a new language, new weather, new food. His family was incommunicado, spied upon by the Cuban government and embroiled in a living hell. Late last August, Fernandez's plan to get his wife, daughter, stepson, brother and mother out of Cuba and to the U.S., on a secret, middle-of-the-night flight and at a cost estimated to have been $50,000, was realized. Only three weeks earlier, Fernandez, well into his first season with San Francisco, was struggling with a 4-12 record and a 5.56 earned run average. His pitching has been exemplary ever since.
Fernandez, who at week's end was 3-2 with a 2.95 ERA, has received help from the bullpen, as have all the other starters. Through Sunday, Doug Henry, a journeyman righthanded reliever, had faced lefthanded hitters 21 times, giving up only one hit. Southpaw Jim Poole had allowed a mere two earned runs in 13 appearances. Beck already had amassed 11 saves.
Who knows? The Giants may be an unlikely but bona fide team. Of course, they could be vastly improved—play better than .500 baseball—and still finish last in their division, given the strength of the Dodgers, the Padres and the Rockies. So far San Francisco has accomplished what it has with anemic hitting. At week's end the Giants were batting .236 and had hit just 19 home runs. Bonds looked as if he was just starting to find his stroke; for the year he had only four homers, 13 runs batted in and a .262 batting average. Snow's numbers were still wintry too: no homers, seven RBIs, .237.
On Sunday morning life was stirring early in the Giants' clubhouse, the way it does on serious teams. The clock had not yet chimed eight times, and there was Beck, at the CD player, going country. Coaches were walking the floor in stocking feet. Before long, Baker arrived. "You don't worry about a bump on the road in this game," he said. "If you do, then what happens when you hit a pothole?"
That afternoon his club went out and defeated the Reds 2-1. The Giants were 18-10. It was an important win; three straight losses to Cincinnati would have been a pothole. For San Francisco, 134 games remained. Before the season is over, there will be bumps, there will be potholes. And maybe even a major surprise, too.