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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.

Sunday, September 4, 2011

Bochy's stubborn reliance on veterans bites him one last time

All you need to know about Giants Manager Bruce Bochy came moments before his team's final collapse.

The Giants were still clinging to the narrowest of playoff hopes by a razor-thin margin, a 1-0 lead in the bottom of the seventh. If they could hold on to defeat the Diamondbacks, they could have taken two of three, crawled back to within five games, and sent Arizona out of San Francisco with just a slight bit of insecurity gnawing at their throat.

The Giants needed an extra run, though, to widen starting pitcher Ryan Vogelsong's margin of error, and it was out there on second base with one out. It would have been a nice psychological lift, to be able to go out to the eighth with a bit more breathing room.

Brandon Belt had just failed to move pinch runner Andres Torres from second when he popped out. You could see Bochy fuming after the missed opportunity. But Bochy still had two shots to get that run in, though the Giants were at the bottom of the order.

Instead of going for broke, however, instead of dipping into the dugout for a little magic -- why did the Giants call up all those youngsters if not to give him a choice in these spots? -- Bochy flinched. He tried to draw water out of a dry well. He stuck with aging and useless veteran Orlando Cabrera and the utterly overmatched Eli Whiteside, they failed to deliver, and the Giants went on to lose, 4-1, ruining their last, best chance at staying in the playoff chase.

Cabrera had been brought over to provide an offensive upgrade over the rookie, Brandon Crawford, but his .222 batting average over more than a month as the Giants' regular shortstop was proof that the move had backfired. Yet, there he was, yet again, in the starting lineup, and there he was in a critical spot.

Sure, he drove one to the edge of the warning track, momentarily jolting the fans out of their seats. But who are we kidding? A warning-track drive was as good as he had. It was a bit pathetic to see Cabrera curse himself after seeing that his drive was nothing more than an easy catch.

Was Cabrera the best Bochy had? Of course not. Bochy could have gone with any number of choices -- from Mark DeRosa, who has been hitting the ball as good as anybody in recent days, to Brett Pill, who'd arrived in S.F. with the most RBI in the Pacific Coast League, so knew something about clutch hits.

And, they had Crawford ready to plug in as a superior defensive replacement.

After Cabrera flied out, Bochy again had the chance to go the bench, and had a compelling reason to do so. Whiteside has been an outright failure at the plate. Overall, he's hitting .205, but since July 16, he has hit at a .152 clip (11-for-72). Poor Eli has been a big zero at the plate, as easy an out as any of the pitchers.

But Bochy stayed with Whiteside.

His explanation was that he didn't want to take out Whiteside in the middle of a great performance by Vogelsong. It was the same faulty logic, borne from Bochy's stubborn catcher's mentality, that had prevented the Giants from pursuing a catcher after Buster Posey went down with his injury: they didn't want to break up the comfort level that the pitchers had built up with Whiteside and Chris Stewart.

Last year, Bochy and general manager Brian Sabean had balked at bringing up Posey on the same premise, only to find that the staff of aces adjusted just fine when Posey was finally brought up to replace Benji Molina.

Bochy's decision was also premised on the notion that he was going to send Vogelsong out for the eighth inning, come hell or high water. It was almost as if he was choosing to reward Vogelsong with loyalty over a cold, calculated move to try for one more run.

By basically conceding the rare scoring opportunity, Bochy, however, left Vogelsong with the unenviable task of throwing one more shutdown inning with no room for margin.

It was a blaring example of Bochy's inability to project, his total reliance on those he knows, as bad as they might be, over those he doesn't know, as good as they could be. It exemplified the lack of creativity that has paralyzed him all season as he held steady with a roster of declining veterans.

Even with two outs and Whiteside due up, Bochy had a few options. He could have put up a pinch hitter and sent Vogelsong into the on-deck circle, forcing Arizona manager Kirk Gibson to choose between walking the pinch hitter to get to Vogelsong or going after the pinch hitter.

Maybe Bochy could have gone with the kids who were so hot in the minors, and who were brought up to inject some life into the moribund offense.

So, why not put up Hector Sanchez as the pinch hitter for Whiteside and Brett Pill in the on-deck circle. That would give Gibson something to think about. Maybe they go right after Sanchez.

I believe Gibson would have walked the pinch hitter, whoever it was, to force Bochy's hand to get Vogelsong out of the game.  Vogelsong, after all, had shown no signs of weakening and would enter the eighth relatively fresh (he'd thrown only 87 pitches at that point).

At that point, Bochy could have reached into his dugout for one last magical stroke -- perhaps DeRosa, who has had some great at bats (and in fact had been promised more playing time only to mysteriously disappear while Bochy stayed with his old reliable, Aubrey Huff).

Even if Gibson had decided to go after the pinch hitter -- say, it was Sanchez -- it would have been an eminently better choice than Whiteside, whose career is surely in jeopardy, especially after his incredible stretch of weak at bats over the past month and a half.

But Bochy made the decision easy. Given the choice of Whiteside and an unknown pinch hitter, Gibson decided to go for the easy out and took his chances against Vogelsong.

Vogelsong finally broke in the eighth, leaving that one pitch out over the plate that Ryan Roberts, the 7th place hitter with 17 home runs, could deposit into the left field bleachers, the fatal stab to the Giants' hopes.

I understand it's all moot, and who knows how much a difference it might have made over the long haul. Even if the Giants won, they'd still be five games back of the torrid Diamondbacks. But, hey, you do what you can to stay in the race for as long as possible. And if the Giants had defeated the Diamondbacks to take two out of three, who knows how rattled the Snakes might have gotten heading into Colorado?

Friday, September 2, 2011

Matt Williams' assist to the Giants; Beltran and Ross make up for lost time

Who knew Matt Williams would help out the Giants in a playoff hunt so many years after he'd left his original team?

It was Williams, the Arizona Diamondbacks' third base coach, who put up the brakes to hold Upton at third in the first inning that gave the Giants their first break in Friday night's game, a reprieve from what could have been a disastrous start for Giants starter Matt Cain.

With runners on first and second in the first inning, Miguel Montero ripped a shot into the right field corner, driving home Aaron Hill, with Justin Upton on his heels rounding third. But Williams saw that right fielder Carlos Beltran had come up cleanly and quickly with the ball that rebounded off the wall.

What Williams didn't see was that Beltran had conceded the run, and thrown the ball into second.

Upton never scored, stranded on third when Cain blew a 93 MPH fastball right by Diamondback phenom Paul Goldschmidt for a strikeout, and after a walk to load the bases, got an inning-ending, rally-killing pop fly from Gerrardo Parra.

Cain had averted disaster, minimized the damage, and kept the Giants from falling too far behind early. A two-run deficit early could have been demoralizing, a signal that there was indeed something to this Diamondback juggernaut, the team that had stormed to a six-game lead over the world champions and into AT&T with a nine-game winnings streak.

Then there was Tim Flannery, the Giants' third base coach known for racing his base runners all the way to home plate as he's yelling at them to get in there.

Flannery's decision in the third inning to send Cody Ross home on Jeff Keppinger's two-out double high off the left field wall was the go-for-broke answer to Williams' caution, a perfectly aggressive -- some might call it reckless -- play to signal the Giants were not going down without a fight.

It was a crazy call, really. Ross had barely reached third base when left fielder Parra had already started throwing home. If Parra hits his cutoff man, Ross would have been out at home by 15 feet -- with Beltran, who'd tripled off the right field wall in the first inning, stuck on deck. But the throw was widely off the mark, Ross scored, and Flannery was vindicated.

Moments later, Beltran signaled his true arrival as a Giant with his monster home run to left field -- the first meaningful clutch hit since he'd arrived in San Francisco a month ago. It gave the Giants a 3-1 lead -- a lead they'd never relinquish en route to a 6-2 win-- but more significantly, it announced to the Diamondbacks the Giants were to be contended with.


The story has not yet been told -- there is a full month for that. But, the markings are there: a revitalized roster headlined by veteran Pat Burrell's return, but also by the infusion of youth with the September call-ups announced -- all undergirded by Giants' management's bold decision to cast off the expensive, underperforming and malignant Aaron Rowand and Miguel Tejada.

There can be little doubt that the Giants responded to the newly charged atmosphere -- both in the clubhouse, and in the playoff-intense vibrations of the fans.

Maybe the tension surrounding their awful August had evaporated with the changing of the calendar. But it was interesting that the big performances in the most important game of the year came from two players with a bit of symmetry to their stories.

Ross was last year's waiver wire pickup-turned post-season hero who'd fallen short of expectations in his return season. Beltran, this year's trade deadline pickup who was supposed to take the Giants back to the world series but had been largely an absent presence.

On this night, the night the Giants needed them the most, Ross and Beltran combined for six hits (of the Giants' total of eight hits) in seven at bats: a double, a triple, two home runs  and two singles, three runs scored and five RBI.

Ross had survived the August 31 purge. But it was far from clear what role Bochy would have for him once rosters expanded. But there he was, in the leadoff spot and in center field against left hander Joe Saunders.

He'd hit a sharp grounder his first at bat, then drew what appeared to be an innocuous two-out walk in the third. These are the kinds of at bats the Giants parlayed into rallies so often last year but had gotten away from this year: the notion of keeping an inning alive just to see what the next guy could do. Ross' walk led to a three-run rally, and likely did not go unnoticed in the Giants' dugout.

Ross hit a booming double off the center field wall in the fifth inning that led to the Giants' fourth run when Beltran drove in a run with a single to left. And Ross' home run, a line drive that top-spinned just over the wall in left, was reminiscent of his power display in the playoffs.

Beltran's swing was pure art form all night, from both sides of the plate. He nearly hit one out the other way in his first at bat, a blast off the right field wall for a triple in the first. He was stranded on third that inning, so decided to drive himself home the next time with his two-run shot in the third.

It was a majestic blast, precisely what Giants fans had envisioned when he was brought in as the putative savior. As he rounded the bases with his athletic, Barry Bonds-like stride, he carried with him the aching hope that the Giants could creep back into this race.

With five games still separating the Giants and Diamondbacks, San Francisco is going to need much more from Beltran and Ross. And the new kids. And it wouldn't hurt if Matt Williams did another favor or two for his old boys, too.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Final thoughts on the inelegant departure of Aaron Rowand

It was stunning to learn the exalted sense of self Aaron Rowand had for himself. For all the failure, all the signs of regression, all those cringe-worthy swings that produced weak pop ups and jam-job ground balls, Rowand believed he got a raw deal from the Giants.

Up to the moment that he was designated for assignment Wednesday, Rowand was agitating for more playing time. And when he learned that the Giants were finally severing ties despite the $12 million left on his contract, Rowand defiantly proclaimed he would catch on to a contending team.

I don't know if it's arrogance or denial that describes Rowand's mindset.

Here I'd thought that Boss Bochy had gone to extreme lengths to get Rowand in the lineup as much as he did, trying to squeeze whatever value he could out of that big investment his bosses had made in Rowand. Rowand should have been grateful for the playing time he did get.

I think the one thing that distinguished Rowand was the dread that fans would get when he hit a home run. It meant that he'd be stuck in the lineup for another three weeks. And just when he'd gone long enough to finally convince even the generous Bochy that he should be benched, Rowand would hit another home run. It was an endless cycle of mulligans.

So, I'd wrongly and naively assumed that Rowand was aware that his skills were in decline. I'd foolishly hoped that out of respect to the game, decency to the fans who have paid so much to watch him play, and perhaps even personal embarrassment, that he would retire.

He could have walked away with dignity and earned a legacy: he would forsake millions of dollars that he knew he didn't deserve. He would be the one ballplayer who gave back to the fans by not stealing them blind.

Well, that wasn't going to happen. Instead, Rowand had become a cancer in the Giants' clubhouse, complaining out loud about playing time. Did he not see his career-ending numbers piling up day after day -- you know, the ones that don't lie? He was 4-for-his-last-38, dropping to .233. But his negatives were in the tank long before the month of August rolled around. Since his nice start in April, when he hit .295, Rowand had settled into a full-service slump: he hit .211, with a .233 on base percentage and .309 slugging -- numbers that don't get you back in the lineup!

Granted, there were so many others with equally abysmal numbers. But this wasn't a trend that started just this year.

Here's how bad he was this year: As awful as he was last year -- remember, he was so useless, he'd been shoved to the back of the dugout while the rest of his team went on to win the World Series -- he was almost identically horrendous statistically this year.

Let me provide some numbers that will show you that it wasn't a momentary blip in an otherwise rosy scenario.

Last year, he hit .230 in 331 at bats. This year, he hit .233 in 331 at bats. He had one more hit this year (77) than last year, and 10 more doubles (22 to 12). But his home run power, already largely sapped, became almost nil: From 11 HRs, he dipped to four. His ability to draw a walk, already highly suspect, got even worse, dropping from 16 walks all last year to 10 this year (his on base percentage actually dropping from .281 to .274). He drove in 13 fewer runs than his paltry total of 34 last year.

But his decline went beyond the numbers.

Did he not watch video to see the horrid swing of his (never mind the obscene batting stance) that could not get around on a good fastball or guage a curve or change-up?

Perhaps the punishing dimensions of AT&T could be blamed for the drop in his power numbers. Well, he hit two home runs on the road and two at home; over the last three years combined, they were comparably bad: he hit 17 home runs at home and 22 on the road.

Those are numbers that a real power hitter achieves in a single year -- not over three years. And remember, the Giants brought Rowand into San Francisco as a middle of the order, power hitting outfielder.

Baseball is a humbling game, they say. But for all the humiliation, Rowand took his DFA with umbrage and pride, outraged at the idea that he wasn't up to snuff.

He had the audacity to suggest he expects to be picked up by a contending team. I would be surprised to see any team take him, even if they don't have to pay him a dime. Maybe then he'll get the message that he is through.

Monday, August 29, 2011

Out call at second an ill omen for fading Giants

It was a harbinger for the fate that awaits the Giants.

Mark DeRosa's scorching line drive just inside the right field foul line invited dreams of glory, but instead ended in a heap of disillusionment.

DeRosa had come through with the kind of hit the Giants have searched vainly for over the last month: a two out, two-strike run-scoring, game-tying hit in late innings. The Giants had just fallen behind, 3-2, to the Astros in the top of the 10th, and were staring in the face of a devastating loss.

And here comes DeRosa, the man who'd come off the bench to help preserve the Giants' pennant hopes a day earlier with the dash and dare of a savvy veteran. He'd led off a rally with a single, stolen second in a bold stroke, and raced home with the winning run.

On this day, DeRosa, again a late-game double-switch replacement, came to the plate with Andres Torres on second. Torres, who'd just returned to the roster on Sunday after a stint on the disabled list more to repair his wounded psyche than any real physical malady, had appeared just as overwhelmed all day as he had all season, popping out weakly, striking out en route to an 0-for-4 day. But, in the 10th, the Torres that Giants' fans had come to adore, re-emerged with a line drive single up the middle, and a quick-strike theft of second.

DeRosa took the count to two balls and two strikes before he laced the line drive inside the bag at first and up the right field line -- another bold stroke from the broken-wristed veteran! Torres scored easily from second with the tying run, and DeRosa headed for second in an inspired effort to get into scoring position with Carlos Beltran poised to hit.

DeRosa slid in under the tag as shortstop Angel Sanchez had to lunge at him after taking a throw wide of the bag. But DeRosa slid past the bag, momentarily losing touch with it, and had to reach back to reconnect with it.

He raised his left arm to dodge the tag, and appeared to get to the bag maybe a fraction of a second before Sanchez jammed his glove under DeRosa's arm pit. It could have gone either way to the naked eye, and on close review, DeRosa might have been safe.

But it was not meant to be.

As rookie umpire Dan Bellino punched the air with his emphatic out call, it was almost with disdain, a cold, dispassionate denouement from a novice arbitrator of the game.

Not only was the umpire, a 32-year old law school graduate and former high school catcher, snuffing out the Giants' last best hope in the game, it became all too clear that the baseball Gods were denying the Giants, too, revoking their status as world champions, turning them away at the Gates of the Pennant Chase.

It was as if an avalanche of lost opportunities had come careening down from the mountainside and landed at the center of the diamond, a declaration of punishment for past sins. If only the Giants had paid homage to the hundreds upon hundreds of gifts offered them over the year. They had wasted their fortune all too often, and for this, they must pay.

Their 4-3 loss and series split against the Astros, the last place team in the Central Division with the worst record in baseball, was emblematic of the tough luck Giants, now four games behind the unrelenting Arizona Diamondbacks.

Magic is an ethereal quality, particularly so in baseball. Either ya got it or ya don't. If they had fate on their side, the Giants may have been blessed with a safe call, and Carlos Beltran's ensuing looping single that dropped ever so eloquently into the soft patch in right center field would have been the game-winner that sent the Giants into a reverie with thoughts that perhaps fortune was headed their way.

Instead, it was a final flare snuffed out two batters later when the rookie, Brandon Belt, after a stolen base and intentional walk to Pablo Sandoval, crumbled before the pressures of a pennant race by striking out, looking at a curve -- a pitch that will be his downfall if he doesn't learn to hit it. The question must be asked: Did Beltran overreach with his stolen base? Should he have remained on first to give Sandoval a chance to hit? Perhaps the Astros would have pitched around Sandoval anyway.

It is the plight of the team that has failed to seize the occasion: so many questions, so many what-if propositions.

-- Having just taken the lead, 2-1, in the bottom of the seventh, Matt Cain, who'd pitched so brilliantly, was unable to respond with a shutdown inning. His troubles began when Jimmy Parades hit a line drive just off the tip of shortstop Orlando Cabrera's glove. Would Brandon Crawford have caught it?

But, Cain's difficulty to put hitters away with two strikes is what truly cost him in the eighth inning. With one out, he had a ball and two strikes on catcher Carlos Corporan -- the .190-hitting catcher who stung the Giants with a big hit in Houston last week. But Cain hit Corporan on the thigh with the next pitch, moving the go-ahead run into scoring position.

Granted, Corporan made no attempt to get out of the way, and should have been reeled back into the batter's box by home plate umpire Larry Vanover. But Cain let that pitch get away from him, perhaps a sign that he was losing his command.

But Cain struck out the next hitter, Jason Bourgeois, his stuff still dominant, convincing Boss Bochy to keep him in.

Fleet left-handed outfielder Jordan Schafer, who'd hit a big home run in the first game of this four-game series, had scorched a line drive off Cain in his previous at bat. And he put up a tough battle in the eighth, fouling off three two-strike fastballs in taking the count full. Cain had relentlessly aimed at the outside corner to try to put him away with explosive 93 MPH fastballs -- all spoiled by the pesky Schafer.

It is unjust to fault a pitcher who has registered yet another unrewarded masterpiece. It is unjust to lay the blame on a pitcher who cannot afford a single mistake if only because his hitting brethren are so stingy in their support. Yes, they finally had given him a lead -- a 2-1 lead heading into the eighth -- and perhaps he should have felt fortunate to get that much.

But Cain faltered in a time of need.

After nailing his location on the succession of fastballs away, Cain let one leak over the middle, and the unforgiving fates would not let this pass unpunished. Schafer ripped it into right field for the game-tying single and the lead the Giants had scratched and clawed for in the seventh -- centered around a rare clutch RBI hit by the ever-fading Aubrey Huff -- had vanished.

At that moment, eyes turned to Javier Lopez, warmed and ready in the bullpen. Should he have been in there? 

It's not clear: Though Astros Manager Brad Mills had already burned right-handed hitting outfielder Bourgeois, he still had veteran right-handed hitter Jason Michaels on the bench. He likely would have brought him in to face Lopez, who has been extremely vulnerable to right handed hitters (recall recent clutch hits off Lopez by the Atlanta Braves' Martin Prado and Brooks Conrad).

But Michaels was a .196 hitter, for crying out loud, and has hit lefties this year at only a .218 clip. Maybe Lopez could have handled this right handed hitter.

As it turned out, left hander Jeremy Affeldt had a shot at Michaels in the 10th, with a runner at second and one out. Affeldt got ahead of Michaels 0-and-2. And then, he committed a sin that has plagued Giants pitchers this year: he grooved a hittable pitch on a count that major leaguers are so vulnerable on. It was a curve down but not down enough, and Michaels slammed it against the wall for a run-scoring double.

It gave the Astros a temporary 3-2 lead. DeRosa's dramatic single would tie it up in the bottom of the 10th. Might that have been the winning hit, if Affeldt -- so good all year long, as has been the rest of the bullpen -- had buried his 0-2 pitch in the dirt?

Instead, the Giants had to roll out a worn out Ramon Ramirez in the 11th. His unbelievable slider wasn't so unbelievable on this day, giving up a booming double to diminutive (all of 5-foot-3!) Jose Altuve and the game-winning RBI single to former Giants Matt Downs on consecutive flat, hanging sliders.

All the Giants had for an answer was an Aaron Rowand pinch-hit three-pitch strikeout and a Mike Fontenot groundout with the potential tying run at second.

Having only Rowand available in that spot was the Baseball Gods' way of sticking it to the Giants.

Sunday, August 28, 2011

Broken down veteran helps keep Giants in the hunt

On a night of a stellar big league debut by a kid called up from Double A ball, it was a broken down, yet savvy, veteran who stepped into the breach to keep the Giants in the hunt.

Mark DeRosa, the $12 million bust with the busted wrist, wrote his own chapter in the pennant race to which the Giants are barely clinging. He scored the winning run in the Giants' 2-1 walkoff 10-inning win over the Astros Friday, keeping the Giants within reach of the relentless Arizona Diamondbacks.

But it was how DeRosa got in the position to score on Jeff Keppinger's game-winning base hit that tells the story.

He'd only just entered the game as part of a 10th-inning double-switch that Bruce Bochy made to enable reliever Jeremy Affeldt's to stay in past the top of the 10th if needed. He was stuck into the lineup in the ninth spot so he could hit second in the bottom of the 10th. 

It wasn't necessarily an afterthought to put DeRosa in, but the primary rationale was to ensure Bochy got some mileage out of Affeldt in a game that might go deep into extra innings.

And, so, when DeRosa got a base hit with one out in the bottom of the 10th, it felt like a bonus. It was a piece of work from a veteran, an inside-out swing on a 94 MPH fastball, that he lined into center field, made all the more impressive when, two pitches earlier, he could not catch up a similar fastball by the hard-throwing Fernando Rodriguez.

DeRosa, who has been watching the frustratingly stagnant offense as he's bided his time on the bench both as an injured bystander and, more recently, as the 25th man on the roster, was not content to stand idly by, hoping the next guy would move him along.

On a 1-0 pitch to Mike Fontenot, DeRosa took off. Initially, it looked like a hit and run, with Fontenot swinging wildly at a pitch away from the plate and in the dirt as if he was trying to protect the runner. But in the retelling of the story later, DeRosa said that first base coach Roberto Kelly whispered in his ear very suggestively that Rodriguez was getting to the plate slowly. DeRosa took the suggestion to heart, and took off in a straight steal.

It was a crazy proposition, given that his last stolen base came two years ago. DeRosa has slowed with age. You've seen him lumbering to first on weak ground balls. But apparently, when he gets a wild hair up his nose, DeRosa can still put on a sprint.

He got a great jump, and was fortunate that the pitch, a changeup, dived hard into the dirt. Catcher Humberto Quintero scooped it and his throw was on the money. But it was a whisker late, and DeRosa put on a sly slide, aiming to the outer edge of the bag, which forced second baseman Jose Altuve to apply a sweep tag just late.

All the intricate elements of that play had to work just so for DeRosa's great caper to come off, and they did. Not only was it an emotional lift -- who among the Giants in the dugout did not feel a welling up of pride in DeRosa's gutsy move? -- it put a win within reach.

Fontenot came within five feet of getting the the game-winner with a line drive that landed just foul down the left field line, before striking out. So, it was left up to Keppinger, the former Astro who continues to provide the irony of the series: the refugee from the last place team, lifting his new team as it scratches and crawls to fend off the would-be spoilers.

So, there was Keppinger, putting together another tough at bat, taking the count to 2-and-2, before driving a shoulder-high fastball barely over the leaping diminutive second baseman Altuve, into right field. Had Keppinger still been playing second for the Astros, he would have caught it. But that's alternative universe stuff.

In right field was the strong armed Brian Bogusevic, who unleashed a bullet from a pulled in position. But there was DeRosa, streaking around third. Just as he showed surprising speed on his stolen base, DeRosa's race home was no slog.

This was the run of a man dogged by the injustices of fate, a man spurred by the notion that he could finally have a hand in a victory, but not just any victory: one that might add up to a pennant.

It wasn't simply desire nipping at his heels. It was the hunger of a man who'd been denied the chance for so long to feast alongside his teammates on the succulent fruits of championship ball.

At first glance, it looked like DeRosa had missed third base. For the longest time, I watched to see if the Astros would ruin the ensuing celebration by appealing at third. But a replay showed that he indeed tagged the base, but cut the corner so finely that you needed a super slo-mo to prove it. It was the corner-cutting move of a veteran using whatever edge he could get to make it home.

He burst into the plate just as the throw arrived. As DeRosa thrust his foot onto home plate, the throw skipped by Quintero. He shot his left arm up in the air in triumph, and in a single motion, leaped high into an ecstatic and emphatic high-five with on-deck hitter Carlos Beltran -- a violent collision between the right hands of two guys with highly vulnerable right wrists.

As the Giants streamed onto the field with their 11th walkoff win of the year, most raced toward second to mob Keppinger. But some veered over to DeRosa first: injured reliever Brian Wilson, who ran over to DeRosa to give shake his hand ever so meaningfully, and Cody Ross, who patted him on the back as they raced together to the Keppinger dog-pile.

Keppinger was the obvious hero. Rookie Eric Surkamp had given the Giants a much needed boost with six innings of gutsy, composed pitching. But DeRosa provided an ageless lesson: that you can't give up on the 25th player on the roster, even a guy whom most thought had seen his last glories long before he arrived in San Francisco.


A fringe benefit of DeRosa thrusting himself into the center of attention is getting to hear from him. He's an obviously smart man who speaks beyond cliches, his baseball knowledge clear.

He is also humble. He took the first crack at answering his critics by apologizing for not living up to his two-year $12 million contract.

"It's been two years of doing nothing -- I just want to help a little bit," he said after the game. "I know I'm not giving fans what they bargained for. It is what it is. But I just want to grind it out the rest of the way."

Saturday, August 27, 2011

Giants, on tenterhooks, keep hope alive

It is quite remarkable how precarious the Giants' season is as they head into the final month. Every game, they teeter between disaster and triumph. From one game to the next, the fate of the Giants takes wild swings: From debilitating losses that spell impending doom to breathtaking victories that keep hope alive.

Friday night, you didn't know which way the Giants would go. They came thisclose to falling four games behind the once-again surging Diamondbacks before hanging by a thread for a 2-1 win over the Astros.

The standard formula applied: great pitching -- by starter Madison Bumgarner and relievers Ramon Ramirez and Santiago Casilla -- and a single swing of the bat. Once again, the Astros, owner of the worst record in baseball, played the cruel, devilish role of spoiler, playing a carefree brand of baseball that had the Giants peering into the abyss inning after scoreless inning.

That the Giants are on tenterhooks is no revelation. This is who they are. They would in all likelihood be a sub-.500 team if not for their pitching. So, it shouldn't be a surprise when a hapless J.A. Happ, who arrived in San Francisco with an ERA over 6.00, would stifle them, holding them scoreless through four before the Giants broke through for their only two runs in the fifth.

Well, the Giants' two-run fifth inning barely qualifies for breaking through. It took an error and a one-out walk to start things before Jeff Keppinger provided the key hit that lifted the Giants.

Isn't it ironic that Keppinger, the former Astro who escaped the doldrums of last place by going to the Giants two months ago, finds his old teammates having more fun than his new teammates, who are scratching and clawing to remain relevant in the playoff hunt?

Perhaps it was fitting, then, that it was the refugee from the last place team who came through with the most determined at bat for the Giants. After falling behind quickly, 0-and-2, Keppinger worked the count to 2-and-2, fouling off four two-strike pitches. On the ninth pitch, the scrappy second baseman split the gap with a line drive to the wall in left center field, scoring both runs.

Keppinger, who barely cracks a smile, can hit. His defense has been exposed as drab and limited compared to the energetic and sparkling play of Freddy Sanchez. But Keppinger's offense is comparable to Sanchez'. For that, general manager Brian Sabean should be credited.

Sabean's magical moves from last year continue to pay dividends, too.

Ramirez entered at the critical moment of the game: A run was in, and the Astros were threatening for more with runners at first and third with one out in the seventh inning. Bumgarner left with a 2-1 lead, but the tough-luck kid (he of the 7-12 mark despite a respectable 3.68 ERA coming into the game) needed some help if he were to hold on.

Pinch hitter Jason Michaels was pulled back for left hander Brian Bogusevic, the kid who'd done some damage against the Giants in the Houston series. Bogusevic took the count full, but Ramirez, showing the fearlessness of a veteran who's been through big moments, got him on an 88 MPH slider -- the pitch of his that acts almost as a screwball and fades away from a lefty.

That was the biggest strikeout of the season up this moment, given the circumstances.

Ramirez then closed it out by inducing the fleet Jordan Shafer to bounce out to end the inning, and Bumgarner's lead was intact.

Ramirez would put up a strong eighth inning with a pair of strikeouts -- using that un-hittable slider of his -- and hand the ball to Casilla, who is acting as if the closer role was meant for him.

Watching him go right after the Astros in the ninth -- closing it out on 11 pitches -- makes you wonder if the Giants might want to lay out some long-range plans for him.


It may have been a coincidence, but with Aubrey Huff in the dugout, the Giants showed some life on defense that has been lacking of late.

Huff's replacement, Mark DeRosa, made one spectacular play that staved off a disaster: a pickup of a tough in-between hop on a throw by Miguel Tejada, that saved at least one run, probably two, and maybe more. With runners and first and second and two outs, Jason Bourgeois hit a hard hit groundball to third, Tejada threw low, and DeRosa, who wasn't looking all that comfortable at first earlier in the game, made the money play.

Later, he conceded it was a lucky play, but hey, luck is the residue of being in the game for so many years, and overcoming a series of debilitating injuries, right?

Other good, solid plays:

An around-the-horn double play in the second inning, Keppinger's quick turn just nabbing the not-slow Matt Downs;

Orlando Cabrera, ranging into the hole and throwing off balance a la Derek Jeter to take away what would have been a leadoff hit in the third inning. The way that third inning unfolded afterward, the play became even more pivotal;

Chris Stewart gunning Carlos Lee on a botched hit-and-run in the fourth inning, the play more impressive than might appear, given Lee's slow speed. Lee actually had a great jump, and only a quick release and accurate throw got him;

Miguel Tejada, pouncing on a sacrifice bunt attempt in the fifth inning, forcing Clint Barmes at second. The ball actually hit off Tejada's glove, but Tejada snatched the ball quickly to get the throw over in time;

Tejada, in the seventh, made a nice ranging play in the hole with runners at second and third; inexplicably, after he did a full 360, he started to go home where he had no shot. He held up, then made a quick throw to first just in time to nab Barmes -- his good arm bailing him out of what could have been a huge blunder.


Huff may be showing signs of age, or at least of being worn down by a long difficult season, so it was good to see Boss Bochy gave him "a day," whether to rest him or to bench him (the distinction is that he is assured a return to the lineup as soon as he's refreshed in the former and isn't in the latter).

His negative energy has carried over into the field, affecting the attitude of his teammates, I believe. Hence, the Giants appeared revived with a new set of infielders out there Friday.

Still, Huff had a role to play on the bench. During the Giants' only rally, you could see him and Pat Burrell standing on either side of Bochy, chatting away. Bochy was holding a bat and smiling, as if they'd put him up to it.

And as soon as Keppinger came through with his two-run double, Huff and Burrell fist-bumped each other as if they'd predicted the big hit and nudged Bochy, who had a big smile. Whatever they were up to, it worked.

(It turns out, as reported in the SF Chronicle, that Huff indeed put the bat in Bochy's hands, a rally bat that served its purpose. Maybe Bochy should hold onto a bat more often).

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

'Tis the season of spoilers

There's this supposedly all-knowing statistic that beat writers are using of late that, at best is meaningless and at worst means almost the reverse of what they pose it to be: how many games left that a team has against losing teams.

If a playoff contender has a bunch of games against losing teams, it is said to have a "soft" schedule and therefore should expect smooth sailing into the post season, or is in a better position than an opponent who might have a "tougher" schedule.

In the case of the Western Division pennant race, it appears to be a wash: the Giants are headed into the final 34 games, 28 of which are against losing teams. The Arizona Diamondbacks have 29 of their last 35 games against losing teams. The only six games they have against winning teams are against each other.

The conventional wisdom is that the two teams will have to take care of business when they face each other.

But that settled knowledge flies in the face of the time-honored tradition of spoilers, the often significant role that losing teams play in a pennant race.

They are loose. They have nothing to lose. They are gunning to topple the big guys, to find meaning in otherwise meaningless seasons. The losing teams look for ways to elevate their game in the closing weeks of the season, to get their own slice of a pennant race.

So, they take it out on the guys who are still aiming for the big prize. Their sole goal is to spoil the well-laid out plans of the winners.

And, in the reverse, the playoff contender is playing under the burdens of winning. Some respond better than others to the vicissitudes of a pennant race. Others crack under the expectations, and are especially vulnerable to the almost mocking light-heartedness of spoilers.

The Giants narrowly escaped the ultimate nightmare spoiler scenario by salvaging one of three games against the Houston Astros. There they were, the team with the worst record in baseball, ready to be swept, on paper.

But the Astros rose up with the energy of a team infused with new blood, a roster full of youngsters out to prove themselves, who hadn't been in the league long enough to know how bad they were supposed to be. And who better to do it against than the world champions?

The Diamondbacks, fresh off of a sweep by the Atlanta Braves and in the midst of a five-game losing streak, entered Washington, D.C. Monday night as the better team on paper than the lowly Nationals. But they proceeded to lose the opener of the series, 4-1, falling under the spell of Ross Detwiler, he of the lifetime 3-12 record.

The Diamondbacks, losers of six in a row, now know the feeling of being the hunted. They had a chance to break open a wide lead as the Giants suffered through their worst spell of the season, but now cling to a one-game lead with all the insecurities and doubts that come with not knowing whether they have what it takes.

The Nationals know they don't have what it takes, so there is no guesswork for them. They can simply play carefree baseball, the most dangerous commodity down the stretch.


Some spoilers have more incentive than others.

The San Diego Padres would love nothing more than to turn the tables on the Giants after getting turned away from the playoffs by the Giants on the last day of the season last year.

The circumstances are different: the Giants, who had chased the Padres all year, overtook them to get into the post season last year. This year, the Padres are hopelessly out of contention, a spoiler by definition.

The Giants have beaten the Padres in six of 10 games so far. But, the two teams have been on opposite trajectories of late. The Giants have lost 16 of 23 since July 29, and the Padres have won 12 of 18 since Aug. 3, including a just-concluded four-game sweep over the morose Florida Marlins, winning the finale on a walkoff RBI single by Will Venable.

The Padres are playing like a team unburdened, with a revived offense led by former Giants farmhand Jesus Guzman, who is hitting .363 (41-for-113) since the All-Star break as the Padres' regular first baseman. Fleet outfielder Cameron Maybin is starting to play like the star he was envisioned to be for so long, hitting .307 (47-for-153) since the All-Star break, stealing 20 of his 32 bases since then.

Power hitter Kyle Blanks, who took two dozen at bats to get his sea legs under him after being called up in late July, is hitting .367 (22-for-60) with five home runs and 16 RBI in August. Venable is hitting .327 in August (18-for-55) as he's revived the top of the lineup.

Of course, none of that was against the likes of Matt Cain or Tim Lincecum, who they will face Tuesday and Wednesday. The Padres were feasting on the pitching staffs of the Pittsburgh Pirates, Cincinnati Reds, New York Mets and Florida Marlins.

Lincecum has been as good as anyone in the National League since June 23. His 6-4 record belies how good he's been: a 1.36 ERA in 72.2 innings, allowing only 47 hits and 29 walks (for a WHIP of 1.04) and striking out 81. He conceivably could have won 10 of the 11 starts in that time, but has received only 27 runs in support (2.45 per game). Nine times in those 11 games he allowed zero or one run, but in five gams received zero or one run.

In three starts this year against the Padres, Lincecum is 2-1 with a 2.50 ERA (five earned runs in 18 innings), striking out 13 in his first start.

Cain's stretch of excellence goes almost three weeks further back than Lincecum's. In his last 15 starts, Cain has had a 2.17 ERA (103.1 innings, 25 earned runs, 77 hits and 25 walks for a 0.91 WHIP and 87 strikeouts). In that time, he's 7-5, though he conceivably could have gone 11-4.

In eight of those 15 starts, he received one or two runs; total he's received 42 runs (2.8 per game), those numbers skewed by the lofty seven spot the Giants ran up for him in his last start.

Cain's opponent, Mat Latos, has settled down since the Giants last saw him, giving up only eight earned runs in his last 27 innings (2.67 ERA). He lost in his last start to the New York Mets, the only mistake a three-run home run to David Wright. But in each of his previous three starts, he went seven strong innings.

The second game starter, Tim Stauffer, coming off a couple rough starts (eight home runs and 13 earned runs in 10 innings in starts against the Mets and Reds), responded with a nice start against Florida (7 IP, one run, five hits, and only one home run).

Stauffer has actually done pretty well against the Giants in his career. Last September, in the heat of the pennant race, he threw six shutout innings in a 1-0 win. The year before, in his first ever start, he kept them to four hits and two earned runs over seven innings.

This year has been mixed for Stauffer against the Giants: In just the fourth game of the season, he got knocked around, giving up four runs on eight hits in 4.2 innings. That was a different lineup, though. He gave up a home run to Buster Posey.

In his most recent start, he out-pitched Cain, giving up two earned runs, scattering eight singles in six innings in a 5-3 Padres win.