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Must C Clinch: Giants reign in NL West

SAN FRANCISCO -- Giants general manager Brian Sabean approached Marco Scutaro amid the happy hubbub in the Giants clubhouse and shook the second baseman's hand before they exchanged a hug. Sabean said a few congratulatory words to Scutaro, then repeated the hug.

It was that kind of night for the Giants, who clinched the National League West title with Saturday's 8-4 victory over the San Diego Padres. They had so much to cherish from this season -- which they believe is far from over -- that one round of congratulations wasn't enough.

"Every bit of this season was amazing," said right-hander Matt Cain, whose 2012 credentials include a perfect game and an All-Star Game victory.

That's why players grabbed bottles of champagne in each hand, not just one, to douse on each other. That's why they ranged from one end of the clubhouse to the other, thanking each other for a goal accomplished while subtly encouraging each other for the task ahead.

Expecting until recently that they might not capture the division until the final regular-season series Oct. 1-3 at Los Angeles, the Giants instead outdistanced the Dodgers once they leapfrogged past them into first place on Aug. 20. Since then, the Giants lost ground in the standings to the Dodgers on only three separate days.

"There were a couple of times we were tested," Sabean said. "The more we were tested, we just put distance to the field, and that will tell you what kind of character they had."

Asked how the Giants ended the drama with 10 games left, right-hander Sergio Romo said, "It's just a credit to everybody being unselfish. Everybody wants to be the difference every day and it's very fun and exciting to see these guys attempt to be the difference every day."

"I think it just goes to show you that you never can tell what's going to happen in baseball," catcher Buster Posey said.

It might be easy to overlook that the Giants secured their eighth NL West crown since divisional play began in 1969 by winning the first six games of a 10-game homestand at AT&T Park. Manager Bruce Bochy, however, was extremely aware of this fact.

"We came here and answered some questions with the struggles we had here at home," Bochy said. "We won this thing. We didn't back into it."

And though the champagne disappeared rapidly, the clubhouse scene wasn't a wild one. Music blared only intermittently. Players' families congregated as if they were at a Sunday picnic. This was a collective deep breath for the postseason effort that awaits.

Comparing this celebration to the ones he and his teammates experienced in 2010 en route to baseball's biggest prize, left-hander Madison Bumgarner said, "We didn't know what it was going to take to win the World Series. It worked out that way. We know we have a long road ahead of us right now. We're excited, but we know at the same time we have a long way to go."

The Giants advanced to the NL Division Series and will face either Cincinnati or Washington in a best-of-five showdown beginning Oct. 6. But nobody in San Francisco's clubhouse was thinking much about that.

"It doesn't really matter who we play," shortstop Brandon Crawford said. Asked if playing the season's final week and a half under relatively little pressure would soften the Giants' attitude as they approach the postseason, Crawford replied, "I don't think it's a problem for us. We're a competitive team."

Posey seconded that sentiment.

"We've got some fighters," he said. "The buzzword on the bench was, 'Fight.'"

The game that won the West was essentially a celebration, too, since it featured many of the elements that made the Giants winners.

Their refreshed offense generated scoring in five separate innings. Posey and Hunter Pence launched first-inning sacrifice flies, reflecting San Francisco's increased efficiency with situational hitting. Brandon Belt, whose second-half surge helped boost the Giants, doubled and scored in the second inning and homered in the eighth. Scutaro continued his remarkable productivity by lining a two-out, two-run single in the fourth inning. He added a RBI single in the sixth. "Patiently aggressive" was how an admiring Posey described Scutaro's hitting style.

For five innings, Bumgarner (16-10) provided the pitching that has kept the Giants among the league's elite since 2009. The 23-year-old limited San Diego to one run on three hits but departed after surrendering Yonder Alonso's two-run homer in the sixth inning. Bumgarner still became the first Giants left-hander to win 16 games since Kirk Rueter did so in 1998. San Francisco's bullpen performed its usual shutdown act, surrendering just one run and two hits in 3 1/3 innings.

Defense entered the spotlight in the fourth inning when third baseman Pablo Sandoval raced to the field-level seats near the Giants' bullpen and tumbled over the railing -- while nonchalantly blowing a gum bubble, of course -- as he snared Yonder Alonso's popup. Unharmed, Sandoval righted himself and was rewarded in the dugout after the inning ended with a hug from Bumgarner.

Once Romo recorded the final out at 9:04 p.m. PT by inducing pinch-hitter Mark Kotsay's fly to center fielder Angel Pagan, the fun began quickly. Giants players and coaches converged in the middle of the field, donning commemorative T-shirts and caps that suddenly materialized. After cavorting with each other for a few minutes, the Giants repeated a scene from their division-clinching win in the 2010 regular-season finale here by participating in a victory lap around the warning track, slapping palms with joyous fans.

"Tiring," Cain said, describing the jog. "But it's something that's definitely well worth it."

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