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Sunday, April 29, 2012

Anyone still critical of the Melky Cabrera-Jonathan Sanchez deal?

Any more holdouts on the Jonathan Sanchez-Melky Cabrera deal?

If you are one of them, you need to look at yourself in the mirror and ask if it's just that you can't fathom giving Giants' general manager Brian Sabean credit for anything he does right.

Because Sabean was right on this one. Cabrera is the real deal. His 200-plus hit season in 2011 was no aberration. He can hit, and it looks like he thrives on pressure situations. His leadoff double in the Giants' seventh -- the first hit by a non-pitcher off Anthony Bass -- sparked the winning rally in a game that the Giants really needed.

They were on the verge of losing a series to the lowly Padres and sending starter Tim Lincecum to an excruciating defeat at a time when he was just beginning to build up his confidence.

After his leadoff double -- off a rare mistake, a changeup that stayed up -- Cabrera would have to wait through two poor at bats by Pablo Sandoval (shallow pop fly) and Buster Posey (strikeout) before fortunes turned around for the Giants: Nate Schierholtz' infield single made possible by a throw that took the first baseman off the bag by an inch; and then Brandon Belt's inspiring, Will Clark-like heroics, a thing-of-beauty opposite field line drive that split the gap in left-center and drove home two runs in the Giants' 2-1 win.

Lincecum and Santiago Casilla made it all stand up by shutting down the Padres in the tense, spine-tingling eighth and ninth innings, building on a developing theme that the Giants still have the ability to win the close ones.

None of this amounts to a bale of hay if not for Cabrera's two spectacular catches -- on successive, nearly identical, over-the-shoulder, on-the-run plays near the wall -- that saved Lincecum from a potentially damaging fourth inning.

Already down 1-0 and completely stifled by Bass (who kept the Giants off the bases until two outs in the sixth), the Giants could ill afford a Padres rally at that point.

It would have buried the Giants.

For one, they didn't look at all capable of solving Bass, a relatively new guy on the scene who pitched like a veteran with an assortment of 94 MPH fastballs, 82 MPH changeups and drop sliders that had the Giants flailing. Two of them -- Posey and Angel Pagan --were so fooled, they swung out from underneath their helmets. The only hard-hit balls were a Brandon Crawford scorcher to first and Belt's long fly out to the edge of the warning track in left-center.

But, more important, Lincecum was still on tenterhooks. He'd come into the game with an ERA near 9.00, and though he'd won his last start, it was by the narrowest margins. Remember, he was on the verge of being pulled with one out in the fifth in his last start before a spectacular double play (the great back-hand grab and flip by second baseman Manny Burriss and the equally athletic pivot and throw by shortstop Crawford) bailed him out of a bases loaded jam and gave him the bare minimum innings to qualify for a win.

And that was on top of two horrific first starts that had fans going through another round of angst over whether the Freak had lost it.

Lincecum still hasn't discovered his big fastball. He topped 90 MPH only a handful of times Friday. But he threw with guile, using confidence as a weapon, hitting corners with his slider, keeping the Padres off balance with a nice blend of fastballs and change-ups. His mechanics and rhythm, so essential to his success, were there for him.

Still, he had to escape jams in the second and third innings, facing a one-out first and second situation in the second and a one-out bases loaded quandary in the third. Somehow, he limited the Padres to a single run, and though it was heartening to see Lincecum come through relatively unscathed, you still held your breath on every pitch.

Enter Cabrera. In the fourth, with one out, Cameron Maybin, only 3-for-17 against Lincecum lifetime, got ahold of an 88-MPH fastball up and drove one toward the wall in left field. On a full sprint, Cabrera took a perfectly direct route, angling sharply at a 140 degree angle, and caught up to the ball, right arm fully extended aloft as he felt the dirt of the warning track under his feet.

Lincecum raised his right forefinger to the sky in a you-da-man salute, and three pitches later, decided to see if Cabrera was really for real.

Andy Parrino, the Padres talented young left-handed hitting shortstop, hit another long fly ball, almost precisely to the same point, but maybe even further toward the gap and away from Cabrera. No mind, Cabrera got another great jump, and rode out another perfect angle to the ball and again extended full-out at full-gallop to prove that the first play was no fluke.

Lincecum could hardly believe it, his look of utter anxiety melting into a big, relieved smile and shake of the head. He knew he'd dodged a big one and that he was in Cabrera's debt.

He paid it off by retiring nine of the next 10 hitters he faced, keeping the game close into the bottom of the seventh, and then, after his offensive bro's provided two runs, turning in a shutdown eighth on pure emotion and adrenaline.

Only two days earlier, Cabrera's defense played a critical part in the Giants' 6-5 comeback win over the Cincinnati Reds. The Reds had just stretched their lead to 5-3 in the bottom of the seventh inning on a Scott Rolen home run (after grooving Rolen two off-speed pitches for HRs in that series, the Giants should stick with major league fastballs against the aging mistake-hitter next time they face him).

When the next hitter, Drew Stubbs hit that drive to deep left field that glanced off Cabrera's glove against the wall, the Reds appeared poised for the kind of rally that would secure a win -- and sweep. Stubbs, one of the major leagues' fastest ballplayers, took off for third when the ball bounded away from Cabrera. But Cabrera quickly got to the ball and threw a cannon shot to third, easily nailing a stunned Stubbs for the second out of the inning.

Joey Votto's double was like a tree falling in the forest, setting up the dramatics of Angel Pagan's three-run, game-winning home run in the ninth. Though Cabrera went only 1-for-5 in that game, the Giants' clubhouse knew that Cabrera had the biggest assist of the game.

Cabrera may not be that home run threat that some fans wished the Giants had. He doesn't command the national attention accorded mega-watt superstars: he's not imposing physically -- he's list at 6 feet tall but he can't be more than 5-feet-10-inches -- and he's not controversial or overly quotable.

But there's a reason the New York Yankees made him a regular at 21. He has that indefinable quality of quiet confidence, and the athleticism that gets the job done consistently if not spectacularly. He appears to be unwavering in the face of pressure. Starting center field for the Yankees at age 21 is not a bad apprenticeship for a career in a pressure-packed profession.

Sabean got it right in bringing Cabrera here. You don't have to look at Sanchez' early season struggles to know that. Just in case you do, here are the ugly numbers: in four starts, the former Giant lefty has a 6.75 ERA in 17.1 innings. He's failed to pitch beyond the fifth inning. In his last start, Sanchez walked seven in 4.2 innings (does that sound familiar?); in all he's walked 17 in 17.1 innings.

It doesn't look like Sanchez has grown out of his ponderous, spacey ways, if he ever will.

But, in Cabrera, who's a veteran of six years at the ripe age of 27, the Giants have a star in the making.  Sabean needs to complete the deal by extending Cabrera's contract well into the future.


Thursday, April 26, 2012

Huff the victim of a vitriolic fan base?

I've been guilty of deriding Aubrey Huff for all those four-to-threes, the 23-hoppers to second base that filled last year's scorebooks.

I've been frustrated by his inability to recapture the swing that was so critical to the Giants' 2010 World Series triumph. And I've criticized Boss Bochy for sticking with the veteran long past Huff's expiration date.

But I always hoped he would do well. Maybe his off-season Pilates workouts would translate to a more physically ready Huff this year. Maybe knowing that he had competition this spring would kick him into gear. He seemed to have responded, at least in Spring Training.

When the bell rung, however, we were treated with another round of weak ground outs complemented only by ineffectual popouts in clutch situations. It appeared that, indeed, Huff was heading to that good night.

The straight ahead stare and clenched jawbones were signs of a man defeated. His lapse at second base in New York last weekend -- failing to cover the base on what should have been an easy double play -- captured it all: though he had never played the position, he should have known that the first thing to do is to cover the bag. But he froze.

Afterward, it was painful to see him standing out there with no place to hide. (Blame for that play, by the way, should have been squarely shouldered by Bochy, who should never have put Huff in that spot).

Huff had previously shown signs that he'd been troubled by the pressures he was facing.

When Barry Zito turned in his improbable shutout in his '12 debut, Huff said, "It's no secret he gets buried by fans and the media, everything like that, so ... for all the haters out there, that's for them."

It was an astounding comment that gave insight into Huff's own inner turmoil. It was as if he was answering his own critics.

Perhaps Aubrey Huff has been harboring dark thoughts about Giants fans, but if so, he had a reason. They have been merciless.

They've arrived at the point of hysteria when it comes to Zito (though they've been temporarily muzzled by Zito's astounding run of decent outings), and Giants' fans have been nearly as rabid about Huff (particularly over the issue of giving Brandon Belt regular playing time).

Some fans have questioned Huff's desire and his dedication, as if just because he landed a nice, fat contract, he all of the sudden decided he didn't care what he put on the back of his baseball card. That's from fans who have never played and who believe that money drives ballplayers.

Compounding Huff's troubles with fans is the proliferation of blogs and social media outlets, on top of a more discerning and ever-present talk show culture.

Criticism is louder, gets amplified and goes viral. In my younger days, the only time a Giant would hear criticism would be from the boos in the stands, and maybe from callers to KNBR, which had a three-hour talk-show slot for sports. Now, KNBR is an all-sports station, and Huff has no doubt gone to bed with some of that vitriol ringing in his ears.

It seems to me that Giants fans have become increasingly critical, especially since after the 2010 World Series. I've detected something of an entitlement mentality that used to be associated strictly with East Coast fans. Success is supposed to breed more success. Unfortunately, success also breeds greed.

We don't know if the anxiety disorder Huff's been diagnosed with is connected to the pressures he's facing from his failures on the field. It could be the divorce he's going through. Or a combination of both, and other unknown factors.

But at this point, we should all take a step back and consider what pressures professional athletes go through. Yes, they're paid obscene sums, but that doesn't take away from their humanity.

Professional ballplayers are exceptional people with the ability to withstand more pressure than any of us can imagine. But, they also have frailties.

If anything, Huff's anxiety shows that he cares -- cares about what people think of him, cares about producing, cares about the impact that his failures have had on his teammates.

Remember, Huff was one of the good guys in that championship clubhouse in 2010. His clubhouse presence was the stuff of legend. He's the kind of guy I'd loved to have had as a teammate. The wise-cracker with a big heart.

When he comes back to the field, I hope fans give him a warm welcome, let him know that we care about him.

Friday, April 6, 2012

Bochy missed chance to exploit bench depth; yanked Lincecum too late

You can't get too upset about Opening Day losses -- it is one of 162 games, after all.

But I've got just a couple nits to pick that are leftover irritants from some of last year's frustrations: Bruce Bochy's late hook of Tim Lincecum and his decision to stay with Aubrey Huff late in the game against a left-handed reliever.

Lincecum had done well to recover from early struggles, putting up four scoreless innings after allowing three runs on a pair of home runs in the first inning.

But the stringy, long-haired Freak found himself in immediate danger in the bottom of the sixth. He left a changeup out over the plate for Justin Upton, who promptly led off with a double. Miguel Montero then just missed a home run with a fly ball that right fielder Melky Cabrera caught at the fence.

Two real good swings off of some fat pitches, with Lincecum approaching his 90th pitch on Opening Day after an underwhelming spring training? Should've been hookville right there.

Bochy stuck with his ace, however, and Lincecum appeared to justify the move, getting Jason Kubel to nub a weak chopper out in front of the plate for what should have been the second out. Buster Posey, perhaps showing a touch of rust in his first regular-season game since his horrendous season-ending injury last May, reached out and swiped at the ball a bit casually rather than grabbing it firmly. The ball popped out of his glove, and Posey had to hurry his throw to first, just a touch late.

Bochy raced out to argue the call, though replays showed Kubel appeared to beat the throw, barely. No sooner had Bochy returned the dugout, however, that Lincecum teed up yet a third fat pitch -- this one to Ryan Roberts, who slammed it off the left field wall for a two-run double and a 5-3 lead.

Was Bochy of sound mind after his heated display on the call at first? If he hadn't had that distraction, might he have given some thought about yanking Lincecum? There was plenty evidence suggesting Timmy Boy was done.

I'm all for toughing things out with my starting pitcher. But on Opening Day, you proceed with a little more caution with your starters, who aren't at peak strength -- not by a long shot. Lincecum in particular has shown this spring that he isn't yet up to snuff. How many times had he thrown 95 pitches in spring training? And yet Bochy let him make that 95th pitch, with the game on the line.


Now, down 5-3 in the top of the seventh, the Giants had a chance to close the deficit with two runners on, though two were out. Arizona Manager Kirk Gibson got the the matchup he wanted, bringing in left handed reliever Joe Paterson to face Huff.

Huff did OK against lefties last year: his .270 batting average was 35 points better than he hit against righties. But Paterson is a specialist who is especially difficult to hit for lefties (they hit .201 against him, while righties hit .255 against him). Huff's sample against Paterson was small, but ineffective: 0-for-3.

Huff had figured nicely in the Giants' sixth, leading off with a base hit on an 0-2 changeup off last year's 21-game winner, Ian Kennedy, eventually scoring the tying run, at 3-3.

Against the side-winding lefty Paterson, Huff hung in there admirably, fouling off some tough pitches, but inevitably grounded out weakly to end the threat.

SF Chron's Henry Schulman tweeted afterward that Bochy "is not going to yank a veteran starter in his first AB against a lefty in first game for young PH."

I tweeted -- before the at bat -- that this was an opportune time to bring in someone like Brett Pill. KNBR's Marty Lurie replied to me: "Great point. In the 1st gm let Huff hit ... in 3 wks you absolutely consider the RH option... what about HSanchez? If he's here use him."

Why not? Bochy already made it clear that Huff will be a mostly six-inning player, to be subbed out defensively in latter innings. Why shouldn't that principle apply to tough hitting situations, especially when you have guys like Pill and Hector Sanchez who are on the roster for the express purpose of adding offense -- not to mention provide the electricity that only talented youth can bring?

We saw this far too often last year: Bochy putting too much stock in Huff and other veterans. And though Huff had a nice spring training (he did last year, too, hitting six home runs), Bochy's mandate should not be to worry about Huff's confidence or sense of place in the lineup. Huff should be well aware that he is just one moveable piece among many.

So, in his first opportunity to show off what promises to be an exciting, young, quick and energetic team, Bochy failed to exploit one of his assets. He turned his back on the bench depth he just got finished piecing together.

And, his decision to keep Lincecum in the game was the first judgment call of the year that backfired on Bochy, not a promising sign after a year full of missteps from management.

It's only Game 1. But, that's what Opening Day is all about, right? Create a spark, set a tone, go bold out of the chute. It's not too late to return to first principles in Game 2.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Guest blog: Just enough will work for Giants' offense

Josh Friedman, investing editor for Bloomberg News, former LA Timesman, lifelong friend and a Giants fan for the last 40-plus years, offers his take on the Giants' off-season maneuvers:

Just enough is all it took for the Giants to snag a World Series two years ago: just enough hitting to back their stellar pitching and defense.

Last year's team sputtered out of contention with support, as it were, of the National League's worst offense. Those castoffs and misfits weren't so cute when production fell to an average of 3.5 runs a game -- a stat inflated by a few atypical outbursts -- from 4.3 in 2010. 

General Manager Brian Sabean, sticking to a budget, tweaked the roster with a series of thrifty, unspectacular moves.

Has he done his part to lift the club back into the thick of the race? Maybe it's the inevitable offseason optimism talking, but the view here is that he has.

The team, whose pitching looks as good as ever, almost can't help but improve at hitting: Injuries to catcher Buster Posey, second baseman Freddy Sanchez and third baseman Pablo Sandoval were a major reason the 2011 run drought. Mean reversion makes it unlikely the injury bug will strike as brutally in 2012.

Budding star Posey's return will deliver the biggest lift, considering Eli Whiteside's sub-Mendoza line struggles last season.

Corner infield appears promising as well. Sandoval says he's seeing better with new contact lenses and is committed to a new fitness regime. The 25-year-old may be on the cusp of a big-time breakout season.
Who's on first? Who knows, but whoever wins the job won't need to be Willie McCovey to rake better than last year's combo: the regressing Aubrey Huff and the often-overmatched Brandon Belt, who are both back in the mix.

Brett Pill flashed talent in 50 at-bats and should get a chance to compete this spring. Huff's plunge in production was scary, with slugging and on-base percentages near career lows. The 34-year-old could man first or roam the outfield, but at this point he'll have to earn regular playing time.

Belt, who mashed in the minors before struggling to adjust at the majors, is sure to get another chance. After a strong performance in Latin American winter ball the 23-year-old may be ready to seize the first-base job for keeps, assuming he too isn't shifted to the outfield.

Middle infield, if we're being honest, is the one area that looks as anemic as it was last year. Sanchez is good for .290 batting when healthy, a step up from Keppinger, Burriss et al. But Brandon Crawford, the likely shortstop for his defense, is a downgrade offensively even from Orlando Cabrera.

After losing Carlos Beltran, Cody Ross and Pat Burrell to free agency, Sabean remade the outfield by trading for Melky Cabrera and Angel Pagan, who both figure to start. Returning Nate Schierholtz is also in the hunt.

This outfield can overachieve like the 2010 bunch. Pagan, the probable leadoff hitter, brings speed and adequate pinging to a team that will need every base it can get. His manager said he wilted last year under the New York glare as Beltran's replacement, so the hope is he can perk up in cushier confines.

Cabrera, coming off a career year and only 27, is a threat to repeat topping 100 runs scored and a lock to add a little pop to the top part of the lineup. Schierholtz, the likeliest right fielder, is the same age and also returning from his best season, though he lacks Cabrera's upside. He is what he is: a .270 guy sans power, and the club can get by with him or one of the other options.

Life would be easier for Sabean and the fans if ownership adopted the Angels/Yankees approach of cutting checks and letting the free-agent acquisitions fill in the amounts. In the real world, just enough is good enough.

Friday, October 21, 2011

Wily Washington outmaneuvers LaRussa

The morality play was all set. Once again, the cerebral, wily Tony LaRussa had outwitted the emotional, dimly-lit Ron Washington in Game Two of the World Series.

Poor Washington. In over his head, again, isn't he? Even "Wash" declared he couldn't match "a wit" with the masterful LaRussa, whose every strategic move is lauded as if they were mapped out on Mt. Olympus.

There was Washington, pulling his starter, Colby Lewis, who'd thrown a brilliant game and would still be locked in a 0-0 duel with Cardinals' pitcher Jaime Garcia headed into the eighth but for first baseman Michael Young's inability to grab Nick Punto's two-hopper to his backhand side (albeit it was a hard-hit top-spinner hit to a drawn-in Young) that sent David Freese to third with two outs.

Here they were again: at the bottom of the order, the pitchers spot due up. LaRussa called on Allen Craig to pinch hit for Garcia. And almost inevitably, Washington bounced out of the dugout to bring Alexi Ogando, the same man who'd served up the game-winning opposite field two-strike base hit to Craig a night earlier.

That was the confrontation that set baseball writers sniggering under their breath: LaRussa had outwitted Washington, he had the Midas touch, pushed all the right buttons, didn't he?

But wasn't it just a matter of a pitcher unable to execute his pitches?

Ogando had thrown two blistering fastballs by Craig in that Game One matchup, the latter up the ladder, chest high, which Allen could not catch up to. But then the tall right-hander tried to get pretty, tried to finish him off with some paint on the outside corner, knee high. The rule is, however, it is much easier to catch up to a good fastball low than one that's up.

Indeed, Craig did get around on Ogando's 98 MPH fastball in Game One, at least enough to scorch it into right field to drive home the winning run. And, amazingly, that's what Craig did in Game Two in the bottom of the seventh inning in that scoreless tie, when Ogando completely missed his target, set for up and in, and laid one in right where Craig could get his bat on it, out over the plate. Craig guided a soft-liner just over the head of second baseman Ian Kinsler, giving the Cardinals a dramatic 1-0 lead, and cameras instantly flashed to LaRussa, the maestro who could do no wrong.

And there was Washington, "hanging his head," as play-by-play man Joe Buck intoned, the picture of a man who just couldn't get it right.

Washington is a lovable creature, a manager whom Buck and his lifetime broadcast partner, Tim McCarver, have described as a player's manager, a guy who gets out of the way and lets his players play the game.

Implicit is the suggestion that Washington doesn't have to push too many buttons, not with a team laden with such offensive depth. His contribution to the game is as a cheerleader -- witness how he runs in place, his arms pumping in concert with the baserunner rounding the bases, his yells of encouragement the most vocal in his dugout.

So, the storyline was set, the narrative writ large. La Russa, the Hall of Fame lock, the personification of corporate indomitability, the man with a law degree, would dispatch the clownish, less educated, shall we say, Washington. The St. Louis Cardinals were a mere three outs of taking a two-games-to-none lead over the Texas Rangers, and all La Russa needed to do was push one more button.

But there was Ian Kinsler, hitting a ball on the end of his bat for a looping single off closer Jason Motte, past the outgoing shortstop Rafael Furcal and in front of the onrushing left fielder, Matt Holliday, who'd been directed by La Russa to play deep to avoid extra base hits getting by them.

La Russa, often cited for his willingness to go against custom, had been burned by playing by the book.

Then, without any warning from Buck or McCarver -- both have strong ties to the Cardinals, so Buck, who does radio play-by-play for the Cardinals, might have given us a heads up that Motte has a slow delivery to the mound, and that Kinsler, who stole more than 30 bases in the regular season, might try to exploit that, except that there was no way because the golden armed Yadier Molina was ready to gun him down -- Kinsler was taking off for second in an attempted grand theft.

It was a power play, one borne of pure wile and courage. The play came from the dugout. Indeed, Ron Washington, the outwitted, the subtly mocked, had pulled one over LaRussa. He'd had his second man, Elvis Andrus, show bunt on the first pitch, a perfect fastball that he took down the middle. La Russa was baited and hooked: he was looking for the traditional play, the sacrifice bunt to put the potential tying run in scoring position.

And then, LaRussa was reeled in: Andrus showed bunt on the second pitch, but this time, Kinsler had taken off from first with a great jump and a burst of speed. Andrus, still holding out the pretense of bunting, held his bat out in front of the plate but let the pitch go for strike two. Who knows if Andrus' decoy hindered Molina, but the whole art of deception is to catch your opponent off guard, even if by a mere fraction of a second.

And there was Kinsler exploding into second base with a head first dive, just in under the tag of second baseman Nick Punto. Safe by a fraction of an inch!

Indeed, Washington's bunt ruse had caught the Cardinals off guard. It was a brazen play, a show of utter moxie, that Washington would send a base runner down by a run in the ninth inning.

If Kinsler had been thrown out, Washington would have been criticized for reckless strategy; a play borne of desperation, rooted in his ill-fated decision to allow Ugando to pitch to Allen again.

But it worked because Washington had messed with convention, took a chance, played fearless baseball. Maybe even allowed LaRussa to think he had the thing under control.

The Rangers would have to come through with clutch performances to finish off the thrust. Andrus would have to come up big with his biggest two-strike single of his young career; he'd have to be the guy who took the extra base when Cardinals' first baseman Albert Pujols missed a cutoff throw; and then, after La Russa pulled Motte to bring in 40-year old lefty Arthur Rhodes, Josh Hamilton would get a nice, fat, hanging slider that he would drive to right field, getting the ultimate productive out: bringing home the tying run, and moving Andrus to third. After yet another LaRussa move to bring in a right hander, Lance Lynn, Michael Young would do the solid work of working the count full and then driving the ball into the outfield for the decisive sacrifice fly.

But, it was the wily Washington who set it all up. And LaRussa was the one who looked confounded.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Some thoughts on the Giants' disappointing end

And, so the final chapter of 2011 is done. The disappointments were deep, the sense of letdown immense, given the expectations for the returning world champions.

Though the Giants' failure to reach the playoffs was understandable given their devastating injuries, there still is a sense that the Giants could have been among the elite teams represented in the fall. Just look at the Braves' collapse in the wild card race. There are a couple dozen games that the Giants could have won, but for a a missed scoring opportunity here or there. If the Giants had just pulled out four games that they should have won, they could have been in the post-season mix.

Still, despite all the troubles for the Giants, it took them until game 158 to be eliminated, a reflection on the residual 2010 World Series magic that hung around the team until the fateful late July series with the Cincinnati Reds.

Whether that is a point to be celebrated or lamented could depend on the hour of the day, how many drinks are under your belt, whether it's a sunny day or not. I fear that in the gloom of winter, when the skies are grey and the basketball season refuses to die, the Giants' 2011 season will be looked upon with sadness and disillusionment.

It didn't have to end this way. But at least the Giants collapsed in the quiet of August, rather than the dusk of fall, when history could have handed down the same harsh judgment that the Red Sox and Braves must now suffer for eternity.


Over the next few days, I'll be sharing some thoughts on the Giants, looking back and ahead.


Nice closing moments

  • Ryan Vogelsong and Madison Bumgarner codifying their fruitful and eye-opening seasons with unassailable performances in games 160 and 161:

Vogelsong's beautiful sequence against Mark Ellis captured his style: jamming him with three straight fastballs on his hands, then throwing a dart on the outside corner, knee high, to freeze Ellis on a called strike.

All you have to do is to look at the numbers Vogelsong put up prior to 2011, follow his career itinerary, to understand the heights he reached this year. His story was a testament to desire, determination and an ability to harness all that he'd learned through a tortuous journey. Every pitch he threw had the focus of a man who'd faced baseball mortality.

He's heard the whispers that his season was a fluke, a one-shot wonder, so he will have more to prove next year. The question, though, is whether he can retain his edge even as he's established himself as a starter.

Bumgarner's lasting image in his final game: burying 93 MPH fastballs on the hands of Rockies' hitters, then putting them away with snappy backfoot sliders. His season was defined by mental and physical toughness, most memorably exemplified in his rebound after giving up eight runs and nine hits in one third of an inning to the Minnesota Twins, with a seven-inning 11-strikeout performance against the Cleveland Indians. Tuesday he showed that toughness in the second inning when he struck out the side to escape a first-and-third jam with no outs.

There was some poetic justice that Bumgarner got the win to be able to finish the season at .500, tying Tim Lincecum for the team lead in wins at 13, a reward for sticking to it. Bumgarner proved beyond a doubt that he has the mental makeup to go along with the physical to have a long, illustrious career.
  • The kids, playing with abandon in the final days, as Boss Bochy finally unleashes them:
Conor Gillaspie with his wonderful round trip (in the literal sense) Tuesday for his first big league home run, an inside-the-park job that included a wipeout as he rounded third base, ending with a head first slide at the plate, a look of pure exhaustion and maybe a little perplexion (like, how did I get here?).

Even though it was his first big league home run (ruled so because he'd already rounded third when the relay got muffed), Gillaspie didn't crack a smile, and only slightly so, until after Brett Pill ribbed him a bit in the dugout; a rookie has to keep his cool in front of veterans eager to playfully embarrass the youngsters. Still, Gillaspie has that unflappable look of a player who is not easily impressed. He showed it with his sweet swing that has impressed even Bochy, who'd relegated him mostly to watching duties since his Sept. 1 recall.

There were the two Brandons giving a glimpse of what Giants fans can hope for next year: a majestic home run into the Bay by Belt, and Crawford's scorching line drive off the right field wall for a triple.

The threesome were 7-for-10 with five runs scored and five RBI, drawing two walks (that's 9-for-12, a .667 OBP). Add in Brett Pill's 1-for-2, and they were 8-for-12 (.667 avg.).

The day before, Pill once again showed why he needs to be seriously considered as a starter next year with a 2-for-3 day topped off by a sacrifice fly ball to drive in a nice insurance run in the Giants' 3-1 win behind Vogelsong.

Pill ended at a nice, cool .300, driving in nine runs in 50 at bats. That's a 100-RBI pace over a full season, which is what he's done for the last two years at AAA Fresno. He's got nothing more to prove in the minors, and could be a big, energetic bat to put in the middle of the lineup next year.

I thought some of the criticism of Pill -- SF Chron's Ron Kroichick describing his power numbers as "not overwhelming" -- was off base. So, he hit only two home runs in 50 at bats. That translates to 20 over 500, which is nothing to sneeze at, especially in light of the puny production of the 2011 Giants. The key is that he appears to be the real thing in RBI situations, and if he does it with a base hit to left or sacrifice fly, that's good enough for me.


Interesting that Aubrey Huff played the standup guy after the final game, saying a lot of the team's failure was on him. If he'd been half as good as he was last year, the team would  still be playing, he said. Well, Huff has always been forthright and his own best critic. He's a good guy who can recognize his own faults.

Whether that drives him to reassess his approach and turn in a productive winter remains to be seen. A professional would be embarrassed by such a dismal performance as his (12 HR, 59 RBI, .246 average, .307 on base, .370 slugging in 568 plate appearances), and I think Huff does have a professional's pride. But he's guaranteed $11 million next year, so who knows how motivated he is?

One thing I hope is clear in Bochy's mind: he can't give Huff the same length of rope next year. Huff can't be given assurances that it's his job to lose. It must be an open competition, with Pill, Brandon Belt and Huff starting at an even plane.

Depending on how the competition fares, the outfield is an option for one of the three. And, if Huff continues to show signs that he's on the downward spiral, the Giants need to sever ties immediately. They saw how counterproductive it was -- in so many ways -- to keep Aaron Rowand around.


I will be surprised to see Andres Torres, Cody Ross and Pat Burrell back. Of the three, a Ross departure would be the most disappointing. He's still in his most productive years, and could have a takeoff year in 2012.

Ross put too much pressure on himself to duplicate the magic of 2010. He bought into the self-created notion that he's a power hitter; after his home run binge in the post-season, it's not hard to understand. In the past, when he hit 22 and 24 home runs for the Florida Marlins, I would venture to bet he didn't have the same approach he had this year: he went up looking to hit the ball out, rather than letting his stroke do the thinking for him. Perhaps the vast confines of AT&T got to Ross, who became pull happy.

He will have just turned 31 next year, the age when you start figuring it all out. If he understands that AT&T can embrace a gap-to-gap hitter, Ross could be a dynamo. And after Ross sees the market isn't all that keen to reward a guy who hit 14 HRs, .240 with 96 strikeouts in 405 at bats, the Giants might get him to re-up for another year at the discounted rate of, say, $4 million, down from $6.3 million. Ross could prove to be a sleeper roster move.


Torres and Burrell, two fan favorites who will be welcomed back wholeheartedly to player reunion events for years to come, appear done.

Burrell's swing, even before his foot injury, had shown signs of slowing down. And Torres (.221 batting average, .312 on base) proved to be the one-year wonder, a beautiful story of perseverence and pluck that simply petered out. Torres could never master his vulnerabilities this year -- the curve down and in and the fastball up. He appeared overwhelmed in a way that suggests there's little to tap as he heads into his 34th year.


I will have more thoughts on the Giants in coming days.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

When hope refuses to die, it's hard not to believe

Baseball fans are the biggest agnostics. They are very skeptical about things like miracles, about putting too much blind faith in hope.

But, when hope refuses to die, it's hard not to start believing, to start praying to the Baseball Gods.

Yes, the prospects of actually making the playoffs remain remote for the Giants, but their eight-game winning streak has even the surliest cynics laughingly wondering quietly about crazy little scenarios. Inappropriate laughter, after all, is for the crazies.

Especially with the way they're winning. Giants hitters have finally reached a comfort zone. They actually appear to be enjoying their trade, starting with the irrepressible Pablo and his power binge that makes you wonder how close he could have come to an MVP season if not for the 40 games lost to injury.

When the Giants etched their cleansing eight-run fourth inning Sunday -- on a rare four home run frame, evoking the spirits of Willie Mays, Orlando Cepeda, Felipe Alou, Jimmy Davenport and the legendary John Orsino* -- the Arizona Diamondbacks hadn't yet begun play. It might have sent shivers up their spine as they took the field. But the great collapse would have to wait another day. They responded well, defeating the San Diego Padres to avert a sweep and halt a three-game losing streak.

The Diamondbacks' magic number dropped to five games, so even if the Giants win the rest of their games -- which would mean they'd end the season on an unprecedented 17-game winning streak -- the Diamondbacks would only need to win five of their last nine games to earn a share of the West Division title.

There isn't a spotted owl's chance in a Republican administration for that scenario to pan out. The Giants need the Diamondbacks to lose. They cannot hope to overtake the Snakes without a perfect conspiracy, aided and abetted by the Snakes. They have to lose. They have to start panicking. Kirk Gibson's boys will have to show fear and act accordingly.

Unfortunately for the Giants, the Diamondbacks showed resilience Sunday. And, even worse, they have the Pittsburgh Pirate arriving in Phoenix Monday. Giants fans have freshly visceral feelings about how tough the Pirates can be, particularly with nothing to lose -- recall the Pirates coming off a 10-game losing streak to take two of three at AT&T.


But the Pirates seem to have mailed it in at this point. They've just lost three of four to the Dodgers, including a 15-1 debacle Sunday. They've been outscored 28-4 over the last three games. To expect them to put up a fight against the Diamondbacks is really on the outpost of sanity.

And even if you bought into the notion that the Pirates could play the willing role of spoiler, part of the  ridiculous scenario of catching the Diamondbacks would be a three-game sweep over the Diamondbacks' -- in their home park. Although, maybe the Giants could sneak out of there winning two of three.

Ideally, they Giants would cut the Diamondbacks' lead to three games by the time they head into Phoenix on Friday. That would necessitate winning two of three over the Dodgers, while asking the Pirates to defeat the Snakes two of three.

While the Giants take Monday off (they always seem to get a day off right when they have a little momentum, don't they?), Arizona opens against Pittsburgh Monday. Ian Kennedy goes for his 20th win opposite Jeff Karstens, and about the only hope the Giants have in that matchup is if Kennedy freezes up under the double-pressure of trying to get to 20 for the first time and staving off the Giants.

That seems unlikely: Kennedy is a cool customer. But perhaps Daniel Hudson and Wade Miley can slip up.


The same goes for the Giants in the Dodgers series, which begins Tuesday. Though Tim Lincecum is up for the Giants, he's once again got the unenviable task of matching up with the unfathomable Clayton Kershaw in the series opener. Kershaw has simply eaten the Giants for breakfast, snack, lunch, dinner and dessert this year.

The only hope the Giants would seem to have to take Tuesday's series opener is if Kershaw squeezes the ball a bit too tightly as he bids for his 20th win for the first time. It wouldn't be the first time in history that a pitcher sniffing 20 wilted under self-conjured demons. And, it's not insignificant that the werewolf-like Kershaw is going against a different Giants team than he's faced all year, Bam Bam's newly grooving squadron.

(Spoiler alert: The Giants will be fielding their worst lineup: Pablo Sandoval may be held out unless one day off can relieve him of what seems to be chronic pain from the right side of the plate, to be replaced by Mark DeRosa -- a fine backup, but he ain't gonna hit for the cycle for you. Brandon Belt and Brandon Crawford will sit. Orlando Cabrera will likely be in the lineup against the tough lefty as will Justin Christian; the good news is that Brett Pill will be in there for Aubrey Huff, whose butt cheeks continue to tense up in run-scoring chances (and are bruised to boot, courtesy of J.C. Romero). Let's just hope Boss Bochy has the good sense to bring in Crawford for defensive purposes as early as he can in a tight game.)

So, maybe Kershaw, like Kennedy, is too cool a cat to let the goal of 20 freeze him up. So, the Giants would have to win the next two over Dana Eveland and Hiroki Kuroda. Eveland shut out the Giants over seven on Sept. 10, but was hit hard in his last outing (four ER in five IP vs. Pittsburgh). And the Giants roughed up Kuroda the last time they faced him (three ER on eight H in 4.2 IP) on Sept. 11, which kicked off their eight-game roll.

And then the Pirates, behind Craig Morton and Ross Ohlendorf, would have to defeat Daniel Hudson and Wade Miley. Morton has actually been pretty good this year, if unlucky. He's 9-10 with a 3.81 ERA, and over the last month-plus, he's had a 3.28 ERA in 49.1 IP. He held the Cardinals to three ER in 7 IP in his last start, a tough-luck loss.

Ohlendorf won his first game of the year in his last start, holding the Dodgers to two ER and four hits over seven IP. So, they're in a position to help the Giants.

Hudson, however, appears on top of his game: he's had a 1.57 ERA in three September starts and a 2.40 ERA dating back to the beginning of August. The rookie Miley is a little more vulnerable, having given up nine ER on 19 hits and 10 walks over his last 18 IP (4.50) as he gets his first taste of a big league pennant race.


Back to that three-game sweep that the Giants would need in Arizona. Here are the scheduled matchups:

Game 1: A rookie matchup of Josh Collmenter vs. Eric Surkamp.

Game 2: Lefty Joe Saunders vs. Matt Cain.

Game 3: A matchup a Cy Young candidate and a former Cy Young: Kennedy vs. Lincecum.

But as one reader, Giant Pita, recommended, there is an alternative:

Bochy could move Surkamp into the Dodgers series and Madison Bumgarner into the Arizona series, like so:

Vs. LA
Game 1: Lincecum vs. Kershaw
Game 2: Vogelsong vs. Eveland
Game 3: Surkamp vs. Kuroda

Vs. Ariz
Game 1: Bumgarner vs. Collmenter
Game 2: Cain vs. Saunders
Game 3: Lincecum vs. Kennedy

Vs. Colo
Game 1: Vogelsong vs. Jhoulys Chacin
Game 2: Surkamp vs. Aaron Cook
Game 3: Bumgarner vs. Alex White

If the Giants are somehow still in it in the final series, Sept. 26-28, it's hard to know who holds the edge between the Diamondbacks and Giants. Arizona would be up against the Dodgers with Hudson, Miley and Collmenter going against Eveland, Kuroda and Ted Lilly. And the Giants would be licking their chops over facing the forgettable Rockies.


But, maybe all the angst and calculations over Arizona is moot. Maybe, instead, the Giants should pin their hopes on overtaking the Atlanta Braves.

The Braves, after all, have lost six of nine, nine of 14, and 11 of 18 overall in September. They've lost five games in the Wild Card standings to the Giants in September, and are hearing footsteps from two teams: the Cardinals, who are now within 3.5 games of the Braves in the WC, and the Giants, now four games back.

The Braves travel to take on the streaky Florida Marlins (who've had a four-game winning streak and a four-game losing streak in a 9-9 September); a frisky Washington (just off a recent five-game winning streak, the Nationals have won the last seven of 10) before flying home for a season-closing three-game stand with the indomitable Philadelphia.


It's a parlor game for the fanciful. Now, let's see how it all plays out.


*For those poor souls who tried to shake loose some memory of Orsino, the fifth wheel of the Giants' 1961 home run parade that Aug. 23 afternoon, it's understandable that you couldn't:

He was a 23-year old catcher, barely a month in the big leagues when he stamped his name in history. It was one of only four home runs he'd hit as a Giant in 131 at bats before being dealt to the Baltimore Orioles in 1963, when he had his one big season: 19 home runs, 56 RBI and a .272 batting average.

He would go on to hit 40 home runs in a seven-year career, on top of the 111 he hit in the minors (he had three 20-plus home run seasons in the Giants' farm system).

Before Orsino was dealt to the Orioles, he appeared in one game in the 1962 World Series, hitting into a double play grounder in his only at bat.

The New Jersey native is 73, and you have to wonder whether he held out any hope that his name would ever enter into the baseball conversation so many years after he'd faded from the memory of Giants fans.

Saturday, September 17, 2011

The math is intimidating but psychology is edging over to Giants' side

Here's the dirty math on the Giants' outside shot at winning a slot in the playoffs:

If the Arizona Diamondbacks or Atlanta Braves split their remaining 10 games, the Giants would have to win their final 10 games (meaning they'd have to finish the season with a 17-game winning streak) just to tie for the West Division or Wild Card lead.

The mathematics are pretty intimidating. But, once you bring in psychology, that's when hope is less irrational.

The Diamondbacks, losers of three in a row and four of six, have watched their lead over the Giants shrink by 4.5 games in just one week. This is the first adversity that they've faced since they overran the Giants in the standings on Aug. 10. It was a fascinating ride to the top as underdogs, but it's a different game when you're on top.

And when you haven't been on top for long and you're hearing footsteps for the first time, you aren't sure how you respond. Insecurity, doubt and self-awareness are your worst enemies. And when the team chasing you wins seven in a row, each blown chance, each missed pitch location begins to magnify.

The Diamondbacks' best hitter, Justin Upton, appears to be feeling the heat. He's gone 2-for-22 in the last six games.

After the Diamondbacks had lost Friday, the Arizona Republic beat writer wrote, "yes, making the playoffs remains a virtual lock for the Diamondbacks." Their lead was still a "robust" six games with 11 to go., he wrote, still pegs their chances at the playoffs at 98.6 percent.

"Should the Giants track them down, the Diamondbacks' collapse would rank among the worst in history."

Yes, that's the point. By the way, their chances dipped a bit after Saturday's events, to 96.9 percent.

As Arizona catcher Miguel Montero said after the Diamondbacks lost 3-1 to the last place Padres Saturday, "I think we're trying a little too hard probably."


The opposite is true for the team that has been counted out. They've got nothing to lose. The Giants have all expressed amazement at how, once the pressure of the pennant race was off, they began playing looser, better.

All they had to do was watch how the lowly Houston Astros played so well against them in the midst of the Giants' disastrous month (you know, the one where they went 10-21) to know that's how baseball goes.

So, back to the math. Say the Diamondbacks or Braves, both with 87-65 records, go 2-8 the rest of the way. Then, it's more doable. The Giants would only have to go 7-3 to tie and force a playoff. That's more in keeping with the trend lines.


Here's a question. If the Giants feel like they're back in the pennant race, will Boss Bochy insist on standing by his old horses, Aubrey Huff and Orlando Cabrera, as regulars?

If not, and I hope that would be the last thing he's thinking, would Bochy finally admit to his biggest blunder of the year: sticking with the veterans through the dark month that nearly killed off the Giants' pennant hopes?

All those weeks Giants fans pleaded with management to bring up Brandon Belt, Brett Pill, Brandon Crawford, Hector Sanchez, Eric Surkamp and others to provide a spark that was missing from the big league club.

Bochy and General Manager Brian Sabean knew better. Our highly-paid, experienced guys will return to form, they assured us. The kids aren't ready, they told us with an air of condescension.

Pill, after all, had been dropped off the 40-man roster. He's just a 4A ballplayer, was the whisper. At the age of 27, he'd lost his prospect status. Bringing Pill up might prove them wrong. So, he remained in Fresno, piling up big numbers that they knew wouldn't translate in the big leagues.

Belt had been given his shot at the season's outset and blown it. So, no matter what he did in each of his subsequent call-ups would never be good enough to persuade Bochy to give him a long look. So, for example, when he hit that home run and double to beat the Dodgers after his mid-July call-up, Bochy benched him to send the message that Huff was still the man.

Sure enough, after Pill's second triple of the night Saturday had brought home the two biggest runs of the Giants season, there was Huff called on to pinch hit to try to knock home that run from third. And there he was with another rollover ground out to first base. Only a bad throw, a good jump from third by Pill and a quick slide resulted in the Giants' sixth run.

Who knows? This run they're on may be too late. It may be too much to ask for a complete collapse on the part of the Diamondbacks, and for the Giants to win out the rest of the year. If it is too late, it's because Bochy and Sabean were stuck in a state of paralysis during that horrid period in which they lost 21 of 31 games, stuck in the mindset that young guys are not prepared for the pressures of a pennant race.

But the thing about young guys is they don't know the difference. They're just happy to be up in the Big Leagues. It was the veterans who all season succumbed to the pressures of a pennant drive. And, here  are the kids stepping in: Brandon Belt with a home run in each of the first two games of the Colorado series, then Pill with his two clutch RBI triples to send the Giants to a 6-5 win.

It is almost all in spite of Bochy, who remained reticent to use the kids even after rosters expanded. It took five days before Pill, called up as part of the Aaron Rowand/Miguel Tejada purge, actually got into a game.

After Pill blasted a home run in his first at bat against San Diego, Bochy had to rethink the hulking first baseman. He seems to have settled on a platoon with Pill being relegated to starts against left handers. But with his big hits coming off tough right-handed relievers Saturday -- a two-strike RBI triple in the left-center field gap off Colorado's closer Huston Street and his booming triple high off the right field wall off Matt Belisle -- Bochy may have to reconsider Pill again.

The main point here is that the young guys have shown what Bochy refused to believe: that they could bring an energy, a freshness, an eagerness that can light a spark in a team. They don't have the baggage of failure on the big league level yet. They have everything to prove, everything to gain in an audition.

Last year, as the Giants veterans had everything under control en route to their world title, Bochy had little reason to turn to rookies, and didn't dare put them in in spots that the veterans were already succeeding in.

But this year, Bochy has been forced to turn to the September boys in a time of need. And maybe they'll convince him that youth isn't wasted on the youth.

Friday, September 16, 2011

What if the Giants had played .500 ball instead of dropping 21 of 31?

Imagine if the Giants had played barely passable baseball from July 28 through August 30, say just above .500 ball.

Do you know where they'd be?

Tied in first place. With the Giants' 9-1 win Friday -- their sixth in a row -- and the Diamondbacks' loss, they would be in the midst of a scintillating pennant race heading into the final week and a half.

If they'd just won 16 games and lost 15 in that time span -- nothing totally unreasonable for a defending world championship team that had just captured two of three over the tough Philadelphia Phillies to move to a 61-44 mark -- the Giants would now be sitting on an 87-64 record. Precisely where Arizona is perched.

Instead, they lost 21 of 31, and here they are, clinging to a faint chance, possibly fools' hope, that the Atlanta Braves will collapse down the stretch and provide an opening to the playoffs by way of the wild card.

It didn't have to be. But the Giants' entire offense shrank from the challenge when it counted, their mysterious vanishing act coinciding strangely with the appearance of their savior, Carlos Beltran.

To be sure, Beltran's star qualities have emerged over the last two weeks. He's led the Giants to 10 wins in their last 15 games (going 21-for-54 in that span, a .389 average, with 4 home runs and 10 RBI). There's even talk of re-signing him since he's shown that his legs still appear fresh, and he's appeared more comfortable in the vast confines of AT&T.

It's not clear that he's willing to return, though, as he made it clear he needs to see the Giants make an effort to improve the lineup, particularly at the leadoff spot (hinting that his old Mets' teammate Jose Reyes would be a good fit), as reported by the Mercury News' Andrew Baggarly.

Beltran's comments were a bit curious. He suggested that even with Buster Posey and Freddy Sanchez returning, the Giants' offense remained lacking. He would only rejoin the lineup if it had the perfect cherry on the top, a classic leadoff hitter.

Those comments were revealing. He essentially said he didn't want to be on a team unless he was surrounded by quality hitters. He obviously does not like being the focal point. He does not like the pressure of being the man.

And he played like that when the Giants' season was in the balance.

Let's look back at the critical moment, the point at which it all began to fall apart for the Giants.

I remember the playful, if ever-so-slightly-nervous, reaction to the Beltran's first game with the Giants, when they beat the Phillies despite the new Giants' 0-for-4 debut. Who needs Beltran? we all asked with collective tongue planted in collective cheek.

But, then, as the Giants failed to muster any offense over the next three days in Cincinnati, Beltran going 2-for-13 in that series sweep, a distinct doubt over the wisdom of the trade started to form. Had the deal messed with the Giants' alchemy? Had the Giants, who had relied on pluck and luck all year, subconsciously lost their feistiness? Were they now sitting around, waiting for Mr. Marquee to carry the load, lighten their burdens?

The dye was cast. As the Giants carried the slump into a Giants' five-game losing streak after that last win over the Phillies, Beltran went 5-for-21 with one RBI; and as it stretched over the nine-game span, in which the Giants lost eight, Beltran hit a soft .270 (10-for-37) with no home runs and two RBI.

And, over the entire 31-game debacle, the failures of Beltran were central to the Giants' fading hopes. He hit .255 with only one home run and four RBI in 18 games, of which the Giants lost 13 (remember, he missed 13 games with a wrist injury, when the Giants went 5-8).

No one can ever answer the psychology of that question of how much of an impact Beltran's presence, and his slow start, had on the rest of the Giants. But the numbers sure bear it out over the fullness of the Giants' darkest days.

Over that 31 game period in which they won 10 and lost 21, the Giants hit .228 with a .276 on base percentage, scoring only 79 runs (an average of 2.5 runs on 7.6 hits per game).

The culprits aren't surprising:

-- Cody Ross hit .168 (15-for-89) with three home runs and 12 RBI.
-- Aaron Rowand hit .186 (11-for-59) with three doubles and zero RBI.
-- Andres Torres hit .191 (9-for-47) with one RBI.
-- Orlando Cabrera hit .227 (20-for-88) with 11 RBI.
-- Beltran hit .255 (20-for-75) with one home run and four RBI.
-- Aubrey Huff remarkably upped his game, hitting a surprising .257 (26-for-101) with three home runs, seven doubles and seven RBI.

Pablo Sandoval, of course, continued his consistent hitting, at .303 (33-for-109) with five home runs and 13 RBI.

There is more to plumb from this ugly epoch, but suffice it to say, the Giants' season-killing funk reflects on their inability to stand up to the pressures of a pennant race. But it also tells a story of how a thing that ain't broke don't need fixin'.


Since we're playing the game of what if ...

There's no getting back those 40 games Sandoval lost to the hammate bone injury he suffered in May. So, his overall numbers are always going to reflect a partial season that don't justify just what kind of season he had.

But if you extrapolate, that's where you get the full impact.

He's played 106 games, so I just added another third of a season to come to this stat line:

159 games
599 at bats
78 runs
184 hits
37 doubles
3 triples
30 home runs
95 RBI
46 walks
89 strikeouts
.308 average
.352 on base percentage
.531 slugging percentage
.884 on base plus slugging (OPS)

That would have put him in the discussion for MVP.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Everything Bochy touches keeps turning to dust

Maybe the final weeks of the season should be as much of an audition for Boss Bochy for next year as they are for some of his players.

Once again on Wednesday, Bochy made a hash out of things, failing to push the right buttons at critical junctures in the Giants' 3-1 loss to the lowly San Diego Padres.

A sweep of the Padres could have provided just a touch of hope that the Giants could continue to apply pressure on the Diamondbacks, perhaps move to within a much more reachable five games of the NL West leaders. Instead, the late afternoon loss gave the Diamondbacks a lift as they entered their evening game with the Rockies.

Indeed, the Diamondbacks defeated Colorado, and are now back to seven games ahead of the Giants.

Bochy said this week that he's going with his gut on lineup choices, as if to suggest that he would go against the book that had such a hold on him as the Giants fell out of sight in the West Division. But apparently, it's more difficult to let go of that book than he thought.

In recent games, with the playoffs only barely on the distant horizon, Bochy has appeared caught between the imperative to play for the miracle finish and for the future. Sadly, he clung to the belief that the only hope for a miracle lay in some revival of Aubrey Huff, Cody Ross, Orlando Cabrera and Andres Torres.

It never seemed to occur to him that fresh bodies could provide the lift that his veterans couldn't.

Bochy's conundrum was on full display in Wednesday's game:

1) Where was Darren Ford?

With Orlando Cabrera on first and Brett Pill on third in the top of the seventh inning, Bochy sent up Pat Burrell to try to get the tying run home. Burrell hit a shallow fly ball, and there was the 6-foot-3 233 pound first baseman Pill lumbering down the line only to get nailed at the plate on Will Venable's throw.

Had Ford been on third, Venable would have likely rushed his throw trying to nail the speedy base runner, and perhaps the throw would not have been on the money as it was when he didn't have to worry about speed with Pill on third.

Was Bochy locked into a frame of keeping Ford on reserve for a stolen base situation? Well, he got it, and Ford was thrown out on a stolen base attempt that killed the Giants' eighth inning prospects. That shouldn't be a surprise: he's only a 50-50 proposition (5-for-10) in stolen bases.

By the way, Bochy's decision to go with Burrell over Eli Whiteside sure wasn't consistent with the rationale he offered up three days ago when he allowed Whiteside to hit in a similar spot. Then, he said he didn't want to break up the groove his pitcher, Ryan Vogelsong, and Whiteside had going. Apparently, he re-thought that theory Wednesday, breaking up the Cain-Whiteside battery in an attempt to get a run right there.

By the way II: Was Burrell the best he had to offer? The aging and injured outfielder has been basically inactive all summer with his foot injury; he's out of game shape. How about someone who has been productive all summer? How about digging into that dugout and seeing what some of the young guys can do?

Despite Bochy's reluctance to test the kids, they have shown they're game ready when given a chance. You can't get a better demonstration than Brett Pill's wondrous start: two home runs in his first two games.

Instead of Burrell, why not try Conor Gillaspie, the .297 hitter in AAA this year?

2) The next inning, after Ford was thrown out on the base paths, Bochy inexplicably sent up Andres Torres for the kid who'd been called up to replace him. The 31-year old callup, Justin Christian, who'd had a double and scored a run Tuesday, hit a tremendous 400-foot blast that would have been a triple if not for a spectacular catch by Cameron Maybin, and made his own dazzling catch that saved two runs in the fourth inning.

What value was Torres going to add at this point? A pop up confirmed what Bochy should have known.

3) Where was Brandon Crawford?

In the bottom of the eighth, Bochy sent out Cabrera to shortstop, leaving the superior gloveman, Brandon Crawford in the dugout, wasting away. And there was Cabrera dropping an easy pop up that led to a deadly insurance run.

Crawford, when given a chance in his one-game trial Tuesday, showed he was ready, driving in a key run. But it was his unbelievable defensive play that reminded everyone of his true value. It was a line drive that appeared to have skipped by him, except that Crawford used those soft, quick hands to snare it on a hop.

Bochy didn't drop the pop fly, and by all rights should not have to worry that a veteran shortstop will drop an easy pop fly. But, Cabrera has actually mishandled a couple pop flies now and has made five errors in a little more than a month.

It was an easy move to make -- you get your best defense out there in the late innings of a close game, especially when you have plenty of bodies on the bench -- but having reached paralysis by stubbornness, Bochy could only watch helplessly, as if encased in a full body cast of defeatism.