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03/17/11 12:03 PM ET

Giants a big hit in the desert

Champions enjoying attention as they prepare to defend title

PHOENIX -- The black and orange and S.F. caps are everywhere up and down Scottsdale's Old Town and the Biltmore Fashion Park center -- even up Pima Road to the casino that helped fund the new Salt River Fields at Talking Stick for the D-backs and Rockies, a complex that makes Arizona State University seem like P.S. 49 in Winslow.

"Winning the World Series obviously helps," says Giants owner Bill Neukom. "But it seems as if there's a national Giants audience that has even surprised us. Everywhere we go this winter and now this spring, there are Giants fans. We drew record numbers for our winter fest."

Five of their first 11 road games this spring were sellouts.

"It sounds as if they're our home games," says manager Bruce Bochy.

The only team in either Florida or Arizona that has drawn more than the 90,554 that the Giants have are the D-backs in their new 22nd-century ballpark -- oh, would the Athletics die for this in San Jose -- and some of that comes from the two sellouts the D-backs got in their two home games against San Francisco.

Florida thrives on the Yankees and the Red Sox as the state's two national attractions. For years in Arizona, it has been the Cubs in Mesa's Ho Ho Kam Park and Cubbie Nation piling into other teams' ballparks. When the Cubs open their new Cactus Wrigley uberpark in two years, they will bring in even more revenue. But now, San Francisco -- the fifth-largest market -- has become not only the ruling force in the Bay Area, but one of the sport's national teams.

They drew more than three million fans last year, despite trailing the Padres heading into September. Going backward from 2009 to 2006, they drew 2.8 million, 2.9 million, 3.2 million and 3.1 million. Part of the current phenomenon can be traced to the fact that this is a very likable team.

Tim Lincecum is this generation's Mark Fidrych, only better. Buster Posey was a cult figure even before he came up to the Majors -- a person who brings new meaning to likable. Brian Wilson is a late-show fave, and face. Who couldn't love Madison Bumgarner? No. 1, he gave his fiancée a steer for her engagement present; No. 2, he likened his World Series shutout to pitching in the North Carolina high school tournament; and No. 3, he can be one of the best left-handers in the game.

This, of course, has led to the "They're not Barry Bonds' Giants" theories for their popularity. However, this franchise wouldn't be what it is if not for Bonds. And, more important, if Peter Magowan hadn't signed Bonds, Pac Bell never would have been built sans public funding. Thus, we would be deprived of the best ballpark in America, not to mention Cha Cha Bowls.

Of course, when they went to Glendale and beat the White Sox on Wednesday, it also made the Giants 16-5 this spring.

"It's almost scary how well we're playing," says Pat Burrell. "We all know that spring records don't mean a lot, but players didn't sit back and enjoy the offseason ride."

"There's a sense that everyone here wants to prove that we weren't a fluke," says Mark DeRosa.

The players knew that on the morning of Aug. 31 they were five games back of the Padres. Yes, San Diego stopped hitting, but the Giants closed out the season 20-10 to win the National League West -- which had the best record outside its division of any but the American League East -- and then went through Atlanta, Philadelphia and Texas with an 11-4 run that ended in a World Series title.

"We all know the core of this team is the pitching," says Bochy.

It starts with Lincecum, who had one five-start stretch in August when he was out of sync. However, substitute his five postseason starts for those five in August and he was 20-6 with a 2.78 ERA and 278 strikeouts over 223 2/3 innings.

Then there's the reliable Matt Cain, who in the past three years has averaged 33 starts and 219 innings; he has minor tendinitis this spring, but he let it out in his last start and was outstanding. Bochy thinks Bumgarner can be a star.

And, no, Barry Zito isn't being released and is actually throwing much better than the 1-8 showing he had in his final 11 starts that got him left off the postseason roster. Bochy points to his 19 quality starts, and teammates point to the fact that he's never hurt, averaging 33 starts and 190 innings over the past three years.

"It's ridiculous that someone would suggest he came in out of shape," says Zito's former general manager, Billy Beane of the A's. "Few players take better care of themselves."

Zito has been closely monitoring the health of his father, and anyone who knows the 32-year-old realizes how important family has been in his life and career.

"I actually feel really good, and think I can go back to what I did at the beginning of last season [6-1, 2.25 ERA]," says Zito. "I need to be consistent with my command, my pitches, but I feel as if I can and will do that."

"Barry has to get ahead of hitters more consistently and maybe not try to be so stubborn trying to force his fastball in on right-handed hitters," says Bochy. "But I see some very good signs this spring."

Bochy has long been one of the best, if not the best, managers in utilizing a bullpen, especially the crew in front of Wilson. (Remember, GM Brian Sabean got Javier Lopez at last year's Trade Deadline. Lopez limited lefties to a .338 OPS, then retired 17 of the 19 batters he faced in the postseason.)

This winter, Sabean replaced shortstop Edgar Renteria with Miguel Tejada. Out of the farm system comes left-handed-hitting first baseman Brandon Belt, who at three Minor League levels had a 1.075 OPS last season. Belt homered Wednesday, and while he may open the season at Triple-A Fresno, he gives Bochy the option of eventually moving Aubrey Huff to the outfield. DeRosa finally has a healthy wrist. And, oh yes, Kung Fu Panda Pablo Sandoval looks like he ran a half-dozen marathons this winter, which offers the promise of being closer to the .330/.943 OPS numbers he put up in 2009 compared to .268/.732 last year, as well as -- at least -- some additional range at third after a season in which the ball crept through the left side of the infield.

Nothing has been won amidst the Giants hysteria in Scottsdale. The Rockies are going to be very good again, and with Troy Tulowitzki and Carlos Gonzalez on a mission, they could very well be in the playoffs. The Dodgers have a renewed vigor with manager Don Mattingly, but there are depth issues, not to mention ownership concerns.

If, as many believe, the NL Central belongs to the Reds, and the Giants, Rockies, Braves and Phillies are as good as they appear, then one out of the San Francisco/Colorado/Philadelphia/Atlanta quartet won't make the playoffs.

But if Lincecum, Cain, Bumgarner, Zito and Jonathan Sanchez can stay healthy enough to start 145 games and Wilson doesn't ask for a leave of absence to try to stabilize Charlie Sheen, then the Giants will be right back in the spotlight -- this time with a huge audience they own.

We counted 16 Lincecum shirts at the Biltmore on Wednesday afternoon. And Lincecum's size does not fit all.

Peter Gammons is a columnist for MLB.com and an analyst for MLB Network. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.