SAN DIEGO -- On May 12, a few hours before he would have surgery on a broken left thumb, Brandon Belt looked around a boisterous clubhouse and said he hoped the lineup wouldn't miss a beat in his absence, that the Giants would be 20 games up in the National League West when he returned to first base.
As Belt's thumb swelled after surgery, so did the Giants' advantage. They were up by 91/2 games at one point, and when Belt was cleared June 10 to start throwing, he watched a team that had a comfortable 71/2 game lead. Belt finally returned Friday, but not to a team with a 20-game lead, or a team that's even in first place anymore. After a demoralizing 2-0 loss to the San Diego Padres, the Giants trail the Los Angeles Dodgers by 1½ games, their largest deficit of the season.
"It's a little different right now," said Belt, who was 0 for 4 in his return. "But honestly, I don't feel like we're really that far off."
Belt is optimistic, even after the third shutout loss in five games and 18th loss in 23 games overall. He sees a group that's one big hit or inning away from breaking through and returning to the form Belt had grown accustomed to before a Paul Maholm pitch sent him to the disabled list. Manager Bruce Bochy hopes his first baseman is right.
"We need a spark," Bochy said. "Right now, we need to clean the sparkplugs. We're missing that."
Bochy sees the lack of fire, and the team leaders do, too. A day after a summit with management that included several veterans -- including Hunter Pence, Buster Posey, Matt Cain and Pablo Sandoval -- the players removed reporters and staff from the clubhouse and held a pregame meeting Friday. The message: Start having fun again.
"It's hard not to treat this as a business, because it is a guy's livelihood and job, but when you go out and have fun and play relaxed, it usually translates to good things," Cain said. "You start moping around, and it can be a long season. We want to go out there and enjoy it."
Bochy said the dugout was noticeably fired up before the game, and then Pence went out and sent Eric Stults' first pitch to the warning track in center, making an out but furthering the resolve. Seven innings later, the Giants looked on in amazement as Stults, one of the worst starters in the game, walked off with a shutout intact. Two Padres relievers closed the deal.
"You just hope somebody can hit a gapper or something to get things flowing," Bochy said. "We're missing that."
The Giants have had meetings. They have changed their closer and leadoff hitter. They have tried doing extra work in the cage and even tried not taking batting practice. Is there another button Bochy can push to get his hitters going?
"If there is, let me know, please. I'm open to suggestions," he said. "But all kidding aside, this is our group. I believe in our group and believe they'll get it going."
The group of hitters became the first to lose to Stults, who entered with a 5.36 ERA, since May 10, the day after Belt got hurt. They saddled Cain (two earned runs over 61/3 innings) with his seventh loss. Bochy and general manager Brian Sabean talk every day, and they have just over three weeks to decide how to attack the trade deadline. Bochy doesn't think changes are needed.
"That's a pretty good club we're throwing out there," he said. "You look at this lineup, and it's a lineup that did a lot of damage. We're not looking for help. We don't believe we need help. We've got the talent."
In an odd twist, Marco Scutaro (lower back strain) might make it back sooner than Pagan. Scutaro has played five rehab games with the Giants' rookie league team, going 2 for 11 with a double and logging 17 innings at second base. The Giants are encouraged by his progress and could bump him up to Triple-A Fresno in the coming days.
Giants (Tim Hudson 7-5) at San Diego (Odrisamer Despaigne 2-0), 4:15 p.m. FOX