Familiar faces have Giants in first place in star-studded NL West

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First-place Giants being fueled by trio of familiar faces originally appeared on NBC Sports Bayarea

SAN FRANCISCO -- The Giants pulled away down the stretch Saturday, but into the eighth inning, they were still locked in a close game with the San Diego Padres. Gabe Kapler managed that way, bringing his best reliever -- Tyler Rogers -- in with a four-run lead, and then having Caleb Baragar warm up as Rogers struggled with his command. 

That's been the way it has gone through eight meetings with the Padres this season. The Giants won 7-1 on Saturday, but four of the previous seven games were decided by one run, including the opener of this series. 

When teams are that evenly matched, any edge can make the difference, and right now the Giants have one that nobody could have seen coming at the beginning of the season. Their franchise stars are outplaying the big names on the other side, and it's directly responsible for a 20-13 start that has the Giants atop the NL West by 2 1/2 games. 

Buster Posey didn't play Saturday, but for the second time in five games, both Brandons went deep. Both have seven homers, one behind Posey for the team lead. The three longtime Giants have 22 combined homers on the season, and when you throw in Evan Longoria, you're at 26. Fernando Tatis Jr., Manny Machado, Eric Hosmer and Wil Myers -- the closest comparisons on the other side in talent and fame -- have combined for 20.

It's something nobody around the game saw coming, not when the Padres were being picked to end the Dodgers' reign in the National League and Tatis was being splashed across video game covers and national talk shows. But at least on the second weekend of May, it's the Giants' core that controls the West. 

"I think they're physically prepared for this," manager Gabe Kapler said. "And I think that oftentimes in these situations we can kind of give credit to a lot of folks, but it's really theirs. They prepared for the season, they're grinding in the cage, they're putting together good game plans, they're making adjustments. They're savvy, experienced, veteran players. They understand there's going to be ups and downs in the season and they can't let one at-bat spill over into another, and that's why you see these big moments."

The biggest one Saturday came in the second inning, when Crawford blasted a Joe Musgrove cutter into the arcade to give the Giants a 3-0 lead. He has two homers and four RBI in 13 at-bats against the Padres this year. On the other side, the Giants have held Tatis to a solo homer and two singles in 20 at-bats. When you throw in their defense, it's not a stretch to say the Giants have thus far had a slight edge at shortstop in eight games where every shift one way or the other matters.

"You almost take it for granted that he's so good out there, but I think you realize it when he's not on the field, what you're missing," Belt said of Crawford. "Me getting to see it every day, it's been pretty awesome. I think right now he's at the top of his game. It's just that much more fun to watch."

Crawford has three homers in his last five games, the result, he said, of a small tweak that simplified his swing. He feels like he has a more direct path to the ball right now.

"Whatever is thrown I feel like I have a chance to hit it," Crawford said. "I'm able to look over the middle and react to pitches right now. I don't feel like I have to cheat at all. It's a pretty good feeling."

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With their veterans leading the way and Kevin Gausman pitching like an ace every five days, the Giants have the look of a team nobody would want to see in a big game. Gausman faced the Padres for the third time and shut them down for the third time, allowing just one run over six innings. He picked up his third win of the season as the Giants joined the Cardinals as the only NL teams at 20. 

They may no longer be the favorites, or the ones getting all the national attention, but right now the Giants are making this a true three-team race in the NL West, and they're doing it behind guys who have been here before. They're 5-3 against the Padres and their longtime stars should all be back out there Sunday, looking for what would be an eye-opening sweep. 

"Whenever you're playing a team like (the Padres) that you know is going to be in it all the way until the end, you want to win as many games as possible," Belt said. "It would be huge for us to come out here and get another win tomorrow, but I think people are realizing that we have a pretty good ballclub and we're here to stay."

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