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Monday, March 28, 2011

Huff's swing as good as his new look

Aubrey Huff's new look -- a full head of slick-backed hair -- gives his buddy Pat Burrell a run for the money in movie star looks. But his swing Monday night was a thing of beauty. After looking awkward at best, uncomfortable at worst, against lefty Brett Anderson's steady diet of curve balls, Huff jumped on a fastball that Anderson tried to sneak by him and sent it toward the Bay, stopped only by a beer-sloshing fan.

Here's how color man Mike Krukow described his swing:

He's a rare hitter: he's a tall hitter with a flat swing. When he catches a high fastball and backspins it, it goes a long way.

Play-by-play great Jon Miller was a bit quick in calling it a splash hit, saying, "that one's going to get wet," when it was actually smothered by a fan. Krukow was quick with the wit:

And it did get wet. A guy spilled his beer on it. ... You say how'd it get wet? It got wet in the beer.

 Huff's home run, his sixth of the spring to go along with a team-high 17 RBI and a .350 batting average, proved to be the game winner. If you're wondering why Anderson tried to sneak that fastball by him, go back to his first AB, when Anderson got Huff to pop out on a fastball down the middle on a 3-1 count. Huff was just waiting for him to try it again.

And it capped a night of key hits from the middle of the order. Burrell had a two-out RBI double that put the Giants ahead of the A's momentarily, 3-1. And Buster Posey drove in the Giants' first run with an RBI groundout.

Burrell's double to the right-center field gap was good to see. He's been going the other way all spring, showing that he's locked in, staying back and using the big parts of the field. That kind of swing can get a lot of Rib Eyes.

Matt Cain showed good command early, hitting his spots with his fastball, showing a nice breaking ball and effective change. He did look like he tired a bit early, though, and was out after 5 1/3 innings and 88 pitches.

Miguel Tejada hit a bullet to center field, a line shot to second and a scorcher to third in his first three at bats (before popping out in his final AB) with nothing to show for it but the knowledge that he's heading into the regular season squaring it up.

Will the Giants bring back those black jerseys with orange lettering and piping? It's a good look; had an intimidating feel.

Good to see Andres Torres with a pair of solid ABs against lefty Anderson: a line single to left and a hard hit fly out (sandwiching a couple strikeouts). Still, jury's out on whether he can regain his '09 form as a right handed hitter.

Scary moment: Pablo Sandoval just missed getting hit in the face by inches, turning his back shoulder into the pitch just in time. It didn't help viewers that Sportsnet Center's Amy Gutierrez was interviewing Eric Byrnes the entire sequence.

Sergio Romo's appearance as the closer in place of injured Brian Wilson -- one scary beard replaces another -- kicked off the rumors, or the closer controversy, over who Boss Bochy would use. I wouldn't be surprised to see others fill the role, depending on the circumstance.

Romo got the save on a nice over-the-shoulder catch by Sandoval, who sprinted a long way up the left field line into foul territory, a ball he would not have caught last year. It came after he made a terrible throw to first on an easy grounder, saved nicely by Brandon Belt on a difficult in-between hop.

Belt didn't look great at the plate, but that's a tough assignment: fighting off big lefty curve balls in his first night in San Francisco. We'll see if the nerves calm down some tonight as DH in Oakland.

Interesting thoughts from the 'casters:

Krukow said that Freddie Sanchez, who's hitting only .250 in the spring, prepares for the season by taking a lot of pitches. He wants to get his strike zone down.

Duane Kuiper said infielders were happy to be out of Arizona, with the hard clay infields under the hot sun. "It's impossible to get into a groove in Arizona."

Burrell's four-pitch walk in the second inning was a "big AB," Krukow said, because a two-out walk not only "keeps the line moving" but it "messes with the mind of a pitcher."

Cain showing no "ill effects" of elbow injury he sustained early in spring, Krukow said.

After a pair of "duck snorts" -- little flares that fall just out of reach of infielders and onrushing outfielders -- dropped in for the A's, Kuiper said, "I had 951 of those bad boys."

Krukow describing Anderson's knuckle curve grip: "It forces your hand to stay high, and you get good hand action similar to hammering a nail. If you throw a slider or a curve, your grip will get lazy and you get a rolling curve. If you spike or knuckle a curve, it gives you better hand position."

Kuiper, on whether you can sit on a curve ball. "You can go up looking, but if it's a good curve, you're still not gong to hit it well."

Great Giants promos: Brian Wilson, in the back seat of a car with Bochy and Burrell, listening in as a driving school teacher berates the poor student for going through a yellow (accusing her of going through a red light): "Why don't we turn down the attitude and turn up the volume?" as he turns the radio up, to the delight of the girl.

Krukow on Eric Byrnes, who's taking over F.P. Santangelo's spot on KNBR as baseball analyst: "You will be entertained and informed." Let's hope he's as solid as F.P. was last year.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Defending a world title won't be easy

We're all still a bit drunk from last year's magic, and I sense a giddiness among the faithful as the Giants prepare to defend their world championship.

Me? I'm wary of being the hunted. I enter this season with a whole lot of trepidation, if only because last year proved that the intangible (luck, timing, momentum and locker-room chemistry) are just as critical as big-name talent and numbers. Who knows how the team chemistry will play out if hubris and overconfidence creep into the clubhouse after an off-season in the glare of celebrity, not to mention bad luck, bad breaks and a tough early schedule? And, who knows if there are other Brooks Conrads out there, waiting to hold down the cloak of Southern hospitality for the Giants? (If he makes the play at second on Buster Posey's hard-hit ground ball that skipped under his glove in the ALDS, do the Giants even go on to play in the NLCS, never mind the World Series?)

What I like, though, as the season opens, is that some key players are healthier than last year, and promise to add special new dimensions to the offense.

Pablo Sandoval's story is well documented: he worked hard over the winter, lost 38 pounds of fat (gained some in muscle), and has shown more agility and better footwork on defense and has found his lively bat, especially from the right side. If he returns to his '09 form, that's a middle-of-the-order presence that could make the Giants an offensive force.

Add to that a healthy Freddie Sanchez, who played all of 2010 in pain with a surgically repaired shoulder, though he still finished as one of the hottest hitters in the major leagues. Remember, he missed the first month. After making his season debut on May 19, Sanchez hit .343 for the first month but by Aug. 11 sank to .255 after a 47-for-216 slide (.224). He'd gotten into a funk of trying to inside-out everything in shooting for the right side, and forgetting about his other strength: using the gaps that made him a doubles machine in Pittsburgh. He got his swing back in time for a great last two months, hitting .367 from Aug. 11 on (79 for 215). He could be that guy all year in 2011. Maybe another batting title in his sights?

Mark DeRosa's return from wrist injury will be key to the Giants' bench. He will provide spells for LF Pat Burrell, 3B Sandoval, and SS Miguel Tejada, a versatile guy with a veteran presence and professional hitting skills. Watch him.

Still worried about Tejada. Slow springs are apparently his m.o., but it's the slow spiral to his career that concerns me. Though, I have to say, if he can produce 15 HR and a .269 average from the 8-hole, I will take that.

Brandon Belt should make the Giants' opening day roster, but likely won't (financial considerations are unfortunately driving this: the Giants want to push back his service time a couple months so they can hold onto him at cheaper rates for an extra year). I'm fine with that from a baseball standpoint. He didn't have much time in Triple A last year, and 20 or 30 games more won't hurt.

But I like that Boss Bochy is still considering him, saying the other day that it would be nice to have a left-handed bat with pop in Cody Ross's absence.

Aaron Rowand might have a couple weeks to show he still belongs, as Ross heals from his calf strain. Remember, last year Rowand started out hot. He was hitting .304 when he took a Vicente Padilla fastball to the eye, including a 14-for-34 run (.389 avg.) in games 3 through 9. If he can replicate that, then that'll alleviate the pressure on Ross to return too quickly.

That assumes an outfield alignment of Pat Burrell in LF, Aaron Rowand in CF and Andres Torres in RF. I'm more comfortable with Torres in CF and Nate Schierholz in RF. Schierholz is recovered from a shoulder injury that hampered him last year, and I believe he is on the cusp of maturing. This would be a good time to let him show it.

On pitching:

The late-spring breakdown of the starting pitching staff is a concern: you like to have these guys enter the season on a roll. Especially this year, when two-thirds of their first 30 games are on the road.

Brian Wilson's tenuous health -- and the question mark that will loom over the closer role if he's absent for any length of time  -- is an example of why teams don't repeat as world champions. Everything has to go right, starting with healthy bodies. If he goes down for any length of time, and other injuries crop up, all that drunken giddiness will start feeling like a hangover.