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LAA@SF: Lincecum tosses five innings of two-run ball

It'll be the reigning champion against the dethroned when the D-backs begin their defense of the National League West title against the Giants on Friday, and most expect these to be two of the teams to take the 2012 quest for the crown down to the wire.

The team that wants to reclaim that title has a profound respect for the team that's holding it, so the Giants go into the opening series at Chase Field with a definite understanding of who's holding the flag and who has to wrest it away.

"To start with them, that is going to create some interest, really, for both clubs," said Giants manager Bruce Bochy, who knows a thing or two about the NL West, having managed in the division since 1995, first with the Padres and now with the Giants. "We think we're a better club, an improved club, and they are, too. They had a great year last year.

"We're looking forward to getting the season started, and the fact we're playing them, we know we have to turn it up a notch. We had our struggles against their pitching last year. Let's hope we have a little more success this time around."

For the Giants to say a pitching staff did well against them is saying something, indeed. The Giants rode their pitching to the 2010 World Series title, and they have almost all of the members of that staff intact heading into 2012 -- including Matt Cain, signed to a $112.5 million contract extension earlier this week.

The Giants' pitching conversation really begins with two-time NL Cy Young Award winner Tim Lincecum, but the flip side is Arizona's pitching prowess, which begins with 21-game winner Ian Kennedy, who helps anchor a strong rotation that pushed the D-backs into a five-game NL Division Series playoff run last year. Together, they make for one of the best Opening Day pitching matchups around.

With a bullpen that now rivals the Giants' top-notch corps, the D-backs put Kennedy atop a rotation that includes co-ace Daniel Hudson, and added former Bay Area pitching star Trevor Cahill in a trade with the A's in the offseason.

In five starts vs. the Giants last year, Kennedy was 3-0 with a 1.22 ERA. In a 21-4 season, he didn't get the win in his first Opening Day start, instead registering one of his eight no-decisions in a 7-6 D-backs victory over the Rockies. He allowed four runs (three earned) in six innings in that assignment.

"Last year, I wasn't like overamped up, it went away after the first inning. It was there and then it kind of goes away," he said. "I feel like this year, it's going to be the same thing where there's going to be adrenaline, especially since it's going to be at home against the Giants. I can't say it's going to be any easier."

It sure won't be if he's sharing the mound with Lincecum, who is making his fourth Opening Day start. That said, Lincecum went 0-3 with a 4.32 ERA in his four starts against the D-backs last season, and he remembers the Sept. 23 game last year when Arizona celebrated the NL West title by beating the Giants.

"I'm sure a lot of people are itching to get back out there against them and start the battle over," Lincecum said. "Hopefully, it'll be in our favor this time."

Giants: Trying to be more offensive
Some of the Giants' final roster moves showed just how much they're trying to improve the depth of their offense, which ranked last in the Majors in runs scored a year ago.

One sign is that they went to great lengths -- trading Chris Stewart to the Yankees and sending Eli Whiteside to the Minors -- to get 22-year-old catcher Hector Sanchez on the Opening Day roster. He'll be the backup to Buster Posey to start the season after elevating from Class A ball last year to prominence in the Giants' plans.

"He's done a good job. He's earned this," Bochy said of Sanchez, who hit .383 with four homers while working with all the pitchers this spring.

More evidence that the Giants want to have a little more offensive depth is how they kept Brett Pill on the roster as a bench player, giving the team an added boost in reserve from the right side of the plate.

• As the season begins, it's apparent Aubrey Huff will be the primary left fielder for the Giants. The domino effect of that, with newcomers Melky Cabrera in right and Angel Cabrera in center, is that Nate Schierholtz will begin the season looking for playing time.

"I talked to Nate, and he knows this is how we're starting out," Bochy said.

D-backs: Bullpen making late adjustments
With Takashi Saito's calf injury late in Spring Training, the D-backs made some alterations to their original plans and wound up holding on to Wade Miley as a long reliever to take Saito's spot, at least until the veteran reliever is eligible to return from the disabled list April 15.

"Right now your starters aren't stretched out as much, so you tend to rely more on your bullpen," Arizona manager Kirk Gibson said. "I would rather do that than push the [starters] early in the season."

• After a 2011 season in which he hit career highs with 39 doubles, 31 homers and 88 RBIs, 24-year-old right fielder Justin Upton knows there's room for improvement heading into 2012.

"I think as well as I hit last year, I wasn't as consistent as I could have been," Upton said. "I still hit those long slumps. I think being a good hitter is about being able to get out of those a little quicker and still producing when you're not feeling great. That's something that comes with time and being able to take a step back and play the game."

Worth noting
• The two teams have been in the NL West together since the D-backs entered the league in 1998, but this is the first time the D-backs have opened a season against the Giants.

• Entering their 15th season, this will mark the ninth time in franchise history the D-backs have opened at home.

• Overall, the Giants hold a 137-103 advantage over the D-backs, but the two teams split their 18 meetings in 2011.

• Pitching matchups for the remainder of the series: Lefty Madison Bumgarner will meet Arizona's Hudson on Saturday, and Cain will take on right-hander Josh Collmenter in the Sunday finale. Comments