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Welcome to the part of the schedule that will define the season

Tonight begins a stretch of 18 consecutive games. How the Giants come out of it will define their 2019.

St Louis Cardinals v San Francisco Giants Photo by Lachlan Cunningham/Getty Images

The Giants kick off a stretch of 18 consecutive games tonight, and if you’re looking for chapters that can define a story, this is it.

Forget the playoffs.

How the team comes out on the other side of this stretch will tell us a great many things beyond how they did in the Wild Card race (spoiler: it will not end well). Bruce Bochy is just nine wins away from 2,000 career wins. Last week, I guessed that win wouldn’t come until after this 18-game stretch. But will it even happen?

The Giants went 5-21 last September. That’s an incredibly low bar to clear, but the past two years of Giants Baseball hasn’t created the sense that they could hurdle it easily. Have the past five months changed the collective thinking on that? I’d like to imagine it did, but at the same time, I think caution is warranted.

Yes, Farhan Zaidi has built depth. The Giants now have a decent outfield and alternative options should those decent dudes go down. Middle infield is a little thin, but there’s not a Chase d’Arnaud in the bunch. Pitching? A little shaky, but Bumgarner and Samardzija have stayed healthy and been productive and there’s a nonzero chance that Johnny Cueto comes in an pitches okay the rest of the way. The bullpen has gone from incredible to good.

But the Giants aren’t remarkably different from when they ran off a 30-17 record starting on June 1st. That included a seven-game winning streak and 17-3 stretch. Over the last month, they’re just 13-16 and back under .500. Last year, the final part of the season came down to: are they a team that hovers around .500 or can they be better?

Turns out, they were much, much worse than a .500 team, and it’s fair to say that the worst month in franchise history came about because of injuries. So, so many injuries. Just... all the injuries. For the second straight season, they’re without Pablo Sandoval in September. The last time they had him for the final set of games, he hit the walk-off that clinched the #2 pick in the draft. This year, they’re without one of their best hitters for the final month.

But that’s what these next 18 games will help determine. Is this still Bruce Bochy and Pablo Sandoval’s team? Does the championship hangover still have influence over the direction of the organization or can the new guys step up one more time to carry the load?

The Giants played 20 games in a row from the middle of June to the beginning of July. Alex Dickerson debuted during this time. Mike Yastrzemski emerged. Kevin Pillar heated up. Here’s one last chance for this group to shine, along with other players who’ve stood out lately: Evan Longoria, Austin Slater, Stephen Vogt, and Donovan Solano. It’s a moment in time when Mauricio Dubon can play without undue pressure. An opportunity for Tyler Rogers to stake a claim to a bullpen spot. For Reyes Moronta to reclaim his as a late-inning reliever. It’s a chance for the new members of the team to bond and really direct their energy towards finishing the season strong.

Here’s the schedule for the next 18 days:

8/29 vs. SD
8/30 vs. SD
8/31 vs. SD
9/1 vs. SD
9/2 @ STL
9/3 @ STL
9/4 @ STL
9/5 @ STL
9/6 @ LAD
9/7 @ LAD
9/8 @ LAD
9/9 vs. PIT
9/10 vs. PIT
9/11 vs. PIT
9/12 vs. PIT
9/13 vs. MIA
9/14 vs. MIA
9/15 vs. MIA

The Giants’ recent disappointment is no match for the Padres’ season-long drag. Yes, the team is much better (they were 50-82 at this point last year), but they have a worse record than the Giants and are just two games better than the Rockies. Losing Fernando Tatis Jr. was a crushing blow to go along with a season-long lack of pitching. It’s a chance for either team to distinguish itself from the other. We’d all like to believe the Giants are closer to contention than the Padres, who continue to lose despite having all the prospects.

The Cardinals would love to be the team to eliminate the Giants from postseason contention — their elimination number is 8 — and they have an outside shot of doing that if they can sweep at home. Ah, but the Giants could really muck things up for St. Louis in the Central Division by not being swept. The Cardinals have just a 2-game lead over the Cubs.

You always want them to beat the Dodgers. The Dodgers might be playing for home field advantage, or they might not even care about winning baseball games once September starts. Not because they don’t need to win anymore games, but because they are so talented that they win games without even trying. The key to that series, I feel, will be the Giants’ Will Smith outperforming the Dodgers’ Will Smith in sort of a Gemini Man situation.

Theoretically, the Giants should do well against the Pirates and Marlins because they have the more talented team. But that final seven-game stretch will be played at Oracle Park, where the Giants can’t win. They’ll have to go 12-5 the rest of the way to avoid a losing home record for the fifth time in Oracle Park history. They’ll get three bad road teams right off the bat.

Maybe you’ve already decided for yourself that 2019 is the Year of Yaz or the Age of Dick, but how the rest of this one goes could very well setup next season and the season after. Buster Posey, Brandon Crawford, and Brandon Belt have nothing to prove and their utility becomes less and less vital with every week. But if they ended strong, it might make their presence on the roster next year feel less like a liability. Coupled with the promise of everything that’s already been accomplished — churning the roster again and again and again and again works! — that would be very encouraging.

But it all starts today. One final gauntlet.