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Thursday, April 28, 2011

A carnival-like inning leads to Giants' four-run 'outburst'

The Giants' four-run "outburst" in the third inning Thursday was a beautiful display of the wackiness that can erupt in a baseball game, but more important, just the tonic for the slumbering S.F. bats.

Remember, the Giants entered Thursday's series finale with Pittsburgh in a teamwide offensive funk, hitting .200 (with a miserable .267 on base percentage) over their previous six games. So, anything -- anything! -- that resembled motion on the basepaths was welcome.

It all started with a leadoff single by Mike Fontenot, who came into the game 0-for-17 against right handers and was in the lineup only because Miguel Tejada has acted so hospitable/deferential/mystified toward N.L. pitching.

Then everything pure and dignified about the game capsized: With Fontenot on the move on a hit and run play, catcher Eli Whiteside hit a pop up near first base -- what could have been a keystone cops double play, a perfect backfire for a team out of sync. But in his haste to grab the easy pop up and flip to first, Pirates first baseman Lyle Overbay, usually sure handed, plain flat-out, unmistakably and inexplicably dropped it. A Genuine Little League flub. Almost as if he was hexed.

Whiteside, with new life, still fell behind in the count, at 1-and-2, but was then grazed with a pitch -- eliciting about the most incredulous look from Pittsburgh starter Jeff Karsten, as if to say it offended his sense of propriety. But rules are rules and it counted as a hit by pitch, even though it didn't hurt. That put runners at first and second with no outs (when it could have just as easily been two outs and no one on), setting the Giants up nicely in a bunt situation for Barry Zito's estimable fill-in, Ryan Vogelsong.

Vogelsong bunted hard, but Overbay got to it just a little slowly, so when he decided to get the lead runner at third, he threw a gift nicely wrapped (a free runner, loading the bases).

The Pirates were finally looking like the loveably inept cellar dweller the last two generations of baseball fans have come to know.

Even more so after Karstens threw a hanging curve on a 1-2 count to Aaron Rowand, which he ripped just fair down the line for a two-run double -- the first time in the series the Giants came through with runners in scoring position.

The Three Rivers clown act wasn't over yet.

After new call-up Manny (.344 in Triple A but Banjo hitter in the Bigs) Burriss popped out for the first out, Pirates manager Clint Hurdle elected to walk Aubrey Huff, he of the .215 batting average, to load the bases for the Giants' best hitter Pablo Sandoval. If you could read lips, you saw Huff exclaim "what?" before looking over to the Pirates dugout with a "ya gotta be kidding me" glare.

The strategy nearly worked, though, when Karstens elicited a ground ball to the left side. It would have been a double play last year, but Sandoval 2.0, svelte and energized, narrowly beat the relay, which meant that a run scored and the inning remained alive.

The final indignity came when, with Rowand on third and Sandoval on first, Bochy sent Sandoval with Pat Burrell at bat. Ryan Doumat, who has the second bushiest beard in the league but the worst throwing arm of all catchers, butchered a throw into center field, giving the Giants their final run of the inning as Rowand was credited with a steal of home.

Just for good measure, the Giants' final score came on another Pittsburgh blooper: on a pickoff attempt in the seventh inning, Karsten's throw bounced off Nate Schierholz' helmet, ricocheting into the stands, moving him, if not elegently, firmly, into scoring position. And Rowand, the Giants' newly-ensconsed clutch hitter who's making it awful tough on his critics to maintain their composure, once again jumped on a hanging curve for an RBI hit.


It would be interesting to hear from Bochy on what he'd do if Andres Torres returned to the roster tomorrow. Would he stick Torres straight into the lineup, and if so, would that mean a return to the bench for Rowand? Or would somebody else -- Burrell or Cody Ross -- be the odd man out?

He doesn't have to make that decision now, and it could be that Rowand reverts to form with another 4-for-29 dry spell that makes the decision for him. But if Rowand continues to play Big Boy (especially while others continue their Mission Impossible: Lost Bats performances) in the lineup, Bochy will have to find another whipping boy.

My sense is that Rowand will only continue to thrive if pitchers continue to hang curves, as Karsten did for both his hits Thursday, and feed fat mistakes down the middle. He still jams himself with good fastballs in tight and, to compound the problem, can't lay off them. But, his critics, myself included, have to concede that he has made the most of the opportunities given him and has stated his case well in bidding for his old job.

And remember, one reason the Giants felt OK about holding onto Rowand, despite the extravagant contract, is that they were unsure whether Torres could repeat his 2010 performance.


Vogelsong's delightful outing -- eight strikeouts in 5 2/3 innings in his first start in seven years -- is creating a buzz over the possibility that he could replace Barry Zito in the rotation, or at least allow the Giants to stretch out Zito's stay on the disabled list.

Fanciful thinking. They can only do that to a point, after which the potential for a player grievance enters the picture and the MLB Players Association starts aheming loudly.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Haircut fails to lift Huff, rest of lineup out of deep funk

Maybe it wasn't the hair.

Aubrey Huff went back to last year's military-style cut to try to change his luck at the plate, and got a base hit in his first at bat Wednesday night. But the next three at bats, he popped out, grounded out, and then lined out to center field.

He's now 3-for-his last 24, dropping to .218 from a "high" of .261. Tough to win when your No. 3 hitter is throwing up a lot of blanks. But at least he's making solid contact with the water cooler.

The Giants' first baseman is hardly the only hitter in a cold spell. Collectively, they're hitting .200 (39-for-195) as they've lost five of the last six games, scoring 13 runs in that time. By the swings of the Giants' bats Wednesday, you'd have thought the Pirates' starting pitcher, James McDonald, was a skilled and accomplished veteran and not a journeyman owner of a 10.13 ERA (now 7.66, courtesy of the Giants).

Shortstop Miguel Tejada's sorry showing began long before the team funk. He's now mired in a 3-for-31 skid, capped by a game-ending double play groundout in the Giants' abysmal 2-0 loss Wednesday to the Pittsburgh Pirates. Tejada is now sitting squarely on the Mendoza Line (That's .200 for those who don't remember the weak-hitting Mario Mendoza from the '70s).

Tejada sometimes appears as if he can't hit the ball out of the infield, as if he's playing his true age and without the friendly boosters that, during his prime, lifted what would have been warning track fly balls into the bleachers. Now, he will take a much-needed respite (how about a few days off?), giving way to  Mike Fontenot, who has been terrible as a pinch-hitter (and is 0-for-17 against righties), but has had a couple big days when he actually got to play a full game (he doubled and homered in one start and tripled and walked twice in the other).

Even Freddie Sanchez, who's hitting a solid .283, is in his own funk, getting only three hits in his last 22 at bats, dropping from a peak of .329. So, he's on the bench tonight, too. Manny Burriss, getting a call-up from Fresno while Mark DeRosa chills on the disabled list, gets the nod at second tonight. The Giants are hoping he injects some life into the offense, having burned up Triple A with a .344 batting average and league-leading 15 stolen bases.

Boss Bochy may as well start Darren Ford in center field. The chaos he creates on the basepaths is precisely what the somnolent Giants need now. His chutzpah Tuesday night, scoring on a ground ball to second with the infield in, is about the only thing the Giants have been able to hang their hats on over the last six games.

Besides, Aaron Rowand has dropped into his own funk, now 4-for-his-last-29, dropping to .278 after reaching the rarified .364 air in mid-April.

Even Buster Posey, the Kid Who Cannot Fail, has taken a 1-for-16 slide, dropping down to .258. His bat is dragging, but it's hard to take him out when everyone else is smelling up the joint.

(update: looks like Rowand is in, Posey is out for the day. Looks like a bad tradeoff, but it's important to get a catcher a game off the day after a night game.)

All is not lost. There were signs that Cody Ross might be finding a groove, finally collecting a pair of hits Wednesday, nicely stroked line drive base hits just over Pirate second baseman Neil Walker. Before that, he had gone 3-for-20 right off the disabled list, raising the question of whether he should have remained in Arizona for a few more games to work on his timing.

Pat Burrell has emerged from a deep slump, which had him going 5-for-32, though four of his hits were home runs; since then, he's gone 12-for-33 (.364). He's sacrificed power, hitting only one HR in that span. But that may be the right approach: the Giants need to keep the line moving, and Burrell's base hits and walks do that (and they will lead to more power as his swing straightens out).

(It's a little puzzling to see that the Merc's Andrew Baggerly questioned Burrell making the lineup today, calling him the new Klesko. Of all people to single out, Burrell is the one Giant who's having halfway decent at bats!)

And Pablo Sandoval, who leads the Giants with a .329 average, has returned to a semi-hot bat, going 5-for-11 in the last three games after dipping to a 9-for-40 (.225) spell.

Monday, April 25, 2011

Giants hope to feast on Bucs' three journeyman starters

The Giants, seeking an offensive revival to shake their four-game losing blahs, may get just the tonic in their three-game series against the Pittsburgh Pirates, which starts today.

They're facing the back end of the Pirates' rotation, missing former Giant Kevin Correa, who's had a good start (3-2, 3.48), and Paul Maholm, the crafty left hander who had a nice outing Monday against the Washington Nationals.

Instead, they'll be facing a trio of journeyman hurlers: Charlie Morton, a 27-year old right hander, James McDonald, the 26-year old ex-Dodger, and Jeff Karstens, a 28-year old righthander.

Morton, who came up to the big leagues in 2008 with the Atlanta Braves, has a lifetime record of 13-30 with a 5.72 ERA and has fared poorly against Giants' hitters. In 46 at bats against Giants, he's given up 16 hits (a .348 average) -- four home runs among them (to Pat Burrell, Aubrey Huff, Aaron Rowand and Eli Whiteside).

This year, though, the 6-foot-5, 230-pound starter seems to have put things together. He's 2-1 with a 3.33 ERA, including a complete-game five-hitter in a 6-1 win over Cincinnati.

Morton does have control issues -- walking 15 in 27 innings, and lefties slap him around a bit (.364, with a .512 on base). If you take away his one bad start, though, in which he gave up six runs on 10 hits in five innings vs. Florida, Morton has exceptional numbers: 4 earned runs in 22 IP, for a 1.63 ERA (against Cincinatti, Colorado and St. Louis -- three teams with potent offenses).

He'll be up against Matt Cain tonight.

In Game Two Wednesday, James McDonald takes on Madison Bumgarner, a reprise of a matchup between the two last July 19 while McDonald was still with Los Angeles. In that game, Bumgarner got the win, and McDonald took an early exit: he gave up four runs on nine hits in five innings, including a home run by Nate Schierholz.

McDonald has been effective against the Giants in relief: 9 1/3 IP, two earned runs. But Giants hitters on the current roster have hit him for a .364 average (12-for-33) with two home runs (Schierholz and Mark DeRosa).

This year, McDonald, a 6-foot-4 right hander,  is 0-2 with a 10.13 ERA, giving up 25 hits and 21 earned runs in only 18 innings. In his last start, he gave up eight runs in three innings to the Florida Marlins, yielding a grand slam home run to center fielder Scott Cousins (the first of the USF alum's big league career) and a three run home run to light-hitting catcher Brett Hayes.

McDonald seems to have something of a leash after turning in a solid 11 starts last year with Pittsburgh after being acquired from the Dodgers. He had a 3.52 ERA in 64 innings, striking out 61.

In Game Three on Thursday, in a matchup of true journeyman pitchers, Karstens will be making his third start of the year against Ryan Vogelsong, a 33-year old traveling man with a 10-22 record and 5.77 lifetime ERA, making his first MLB start of the year (he made 33 starts for the Pirates between 2001-06 after being acquired from the Giants in the trade that brought Jason Schmidt to S.F. in '01).

Karstens, who came up with the Yankees in 2006, has a lifetime mark of 14-27 with a 5.02 ERA.

Giants hitters are 9-for-33 (.273) against him lifetime with one home run (Huff, in his only at bat against Karstens).

Karstens is 2-0 with a 3.94 ERA this year, though one of his victories came in a one-inning vulture relief outing. In 16 innings, he's given up 17 hits and six walks for a total of seven earned runs. His first start was shaky, blowing a 4-0 lead, giving up five earned runs on eight hits before getting yanked after 4 1/3 innings.

But he settled down in his second start, against the Washington Nationals: six innings, six hits, one walk and two earned runs.

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Mapping out Lincecum's dreadful day

The start to Tim Lincecum's outing Saturday signaled that he was in for a rough one: for the first time in his career, he started out a game by walking the first two hitters.

Not even during his abysmal August last year did he start so erratically.

But it wasn't his overly-amped up beginning that did in Timmy, who seemed to revert to his Nationally Televised Game nervousness that he had vanquished during the Giants' World Series run. He actually got through the rough first inning, thanks to a thwarted stolen base attempt and a double play ground ball.

It was his inability to put away hitters who should have been easily disposed of; and his hittable offerings on 0-and-2 counts, twice giving up hits with that advantage. Yes, he was wild outside of the strike zone, walking a career high six. But, just as problematically, he was wild inside the strike zone.

And it happened while he had some of his best stuff going. He had a blistering fastball that touched 96 MPH, and hovered between 93 and 94 for much of the game. And he wasn't without his signature devastating split finger fastball/changeup, alongside an effective slider.

But too often, his pitch choice was puzzling -- perhaps a reflection on his batterymate, Eli Whiteside,  filling in for Buster Posey, who was taking a much-needed day off. Whether he was giving way too much credit to the Braves or was simply off, the results were desultory: five runs, six hits and six walks in 6 1/3 innings -- to a team hitting .228 and with the N.L.'s worst on base percentage, .290, when they entered this series (It's still the worst, though it's increased to .296 with nine walks through the first two games of the series).

Lincecum's troubles began in the top of the third when he gave up a one-out single to No. 8 hitter, Nate McLouth (a .243 hitter coming in). It came on a 1-2 fastball over the plate. Strange that he didn't go after him with his split finger, or at least something that wasn't so hittable.

Lincecum was all over the place in walking his counterpart, Tim Hudson, who was only trying to bunt McLouth over. That walk, more than anything else Saturday, showed that Lincecum's delivery -- a complex calibration of mechanical whirrings that needs to go just right -- wasn't quite locked in.

That set up Martin Prado's RBI single on a payoff pitch. He shut off further damage by freezing Jason Heyward on a 95 MPH on the corner and eliciting a weak grounder by rookie first baseman Freddie Freeman, but it was a frustrating run to allow.

In the fifth, Lincecum again let the bottom of the order set up another run. With one out, he walked McLouth on five pitches. Hudson sacrificed the center fielder over for the second out and Lincecum quickly got ahead of Prado, 0-and-2, on a curve for a called strike and a split finger that was chopped foul.

But for reasons that none of our fine Bay Area beat reporters got into in their game write-ups, he chose to go with another two-strike fastball, and Prado drove it through the hole for an RBI single and a 2-1 lead.

Eric Karros, the big-haired color man for Fox, said: "I'm a little surprised he didn't go at him with an off-speed pitch." And, later, Karros added: "he just hasn't been his pinpoint self."

Still, Lincecum showed signs of brilliance throughout. In the second, he retired the side in order, striking out Dan Uggla on a beautiful split finger changeup and Eric Hinske on a 2-2 95 MPH fastball down the middle, catching him guessing wrong. In the sixth, he retired the side in order, striking out Brian McCann on a fastball up and away, got Uggla to ground softly to shortstop (after touching 96 MPH), and striking out Hinske on a 2-ball-2-strike split, his sixth and final strikeout.

In the seventh, however, he made another 0-2 mistake. He got ahead of Alex Gonzalez (hitting .220) on a fastball called and a fastball fouled. Then he left a soft split finger up and middle-in, hanging lazily in Gonzalez' limited hitting zone for a leadoff double.

After making that mistake twice all season, Lincecum gave up two hits on 0-and-2 in a span of four innings. Clearly not his day.

But he compounded Gonzalez' hit by walking McLouth -- again. On four pitches. To set up Hudson for a crucial sacrifice that would lead to two gigantic insurance runs, especially given the Giants' currently impotent offense.

Still, with runners on second and third, Lincecum got a break -- at least it seemed so -- when Gonzalez broke for the plate on a grounder to second baseman Freddie Sanchez, who was playing in. A good throw would have nailed him for a second out. But it shorthopped Whiteside, who made a sweeping tag without the ball. Had he simply picked the ball up, he could have had the out because Gonzalez had slid past the plate without touching it.

Lincecum's day was over one batter later, when he walked Heyward to load the bases, setting up McCann's two-run single off of lefty Javier Lopez, to effectively put the game away.

A concern: Lincecum's strike-to-ball ratio has diminished in every game this year: 63.8 percent strikes in his first game, 60.9 percent in his second, 57.1 percent in his third, and 56.3 percent in his fourth game.

He's never been a real high strike-to-ball ratio guy -- he goes deep in counts in his attempt at deception.

Still, in contrast, his three top performances during the post-season last year, he threw 63 percent strikes in his 14-strikeout gem against the Braves; 67 percent against the Rangers in the World Series clincher and 70 percent against the Phillies in a 4-2 loss (in which he gave up two earned runs in seven innings but was tagged with the loss).

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Burrell, Tejada not alone in struggles

You think Pat Burrell (.208) and Miguel Tejada (.203) are having bad starts that might call into question whether their time in the Big Leagues is winding down?

They have a lot of company.

Check out this list of veteran stars looking like age is catching up to them (with their age in parenthesis):

Jason Varitek (39), .043
Juan Rivera (32), .103
Ivan Rodriguez (39), .156
Jorge Posada (39), .160
Chone Figgins (33), .169
Vernon Wells (32), .176
Adam Dunn (31), .178
Magglio Ordonez (37), .182
Carlos Pena (32), .188
Jim Thome (40), .191
Miguel Tejada (36), .203
Derek Lee (35), .208
Tori Hunter (35), .208
Pat Burrell (34), .208
Raul Ibanez (38), .209
Scott Rolen (36), .217
Derek Jeter (36), .219
Juan Uribe (32), .221 (after going 3-for-4 Wednesday)

And here's a list of relatively young stars who have failed to live up to their billing:

Brett Gardner, .128
Carl Crawford, .145
Austin Jackson, .157 (he hit .293 in his rookie year last year)
James Loney, .181
Jacoby Ellsbury, .186
Mark Reynolds, .186
Jason Heyward, .188
Kelly Johnson, .189
Luke Scott, .190
Ryan Ludwick, .190 (including going 5-for-8 in a Wednesday doubleheader)
Dan Uggla, .194
Ian Kinsler, .200
Josh Willingham, .200
Mark Reynolds, .200
Nick Markakis, .215
Sin-Shoo Choo, .203
Jason Werth, .208
Justin Morneau, .208
B.J. Upton, .210
Omar Infante, .214 (remember he hit .321 last year)
Kevin Youkilis, .214
Hanley Ramirez, .222
David Wright, .229

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Injuries underscore the need for depth

Pablo Sandoval's injury before Wednesday's game was far more unsettling than the Giants' ugly 10-2 loss to the Rockies.

Sandoval, who apparently injured his right tricep muscle making a throw Tuesday night, sat out Wednesday's game, but is expected back by Friday when the Giants open their shortest homestand of the year -- three games -- against the Atlanta Braves.

He says he can't swing from the right side without pain; fortunately, the Braves don't have any left-handed starters slated to start in the upcoming series. But, the question is whether this injury might linger deeper into the season, and whether it might start to affect his left-handed swing at some point (also, since his strong throwing arm is such a big part of his defensive game, whether it could prevent him from playing regularly at third base). 

Sandoval's turnabout so far has given the Giants hope that he could return to his 2009 form and become a true middle-of-the-lineup threat. He's tied with Pat Burrell for the team lead in HRs with five and with Aubrey Huff in RBI with 13, is hitting .328, and, don't look now, has a .400 on base percentage.

The Giants won a World Series basically without Pablo as a force in the lineup last year, but an injured Pablo would be crippling to their chances this year.

His injury raises the question of whether the Giants have the depth to overcome the nicks, bruises and ligament strains of a long season. They've already had to test their depth with the handful of injuries they've already weathered.

It's a mixed bag:

***Mark DeRosa stepped in for Sandoval Wednesday and went 0-for-2. He's gone 6-for-16 so far (.375), but he's been plagued by his own nagging pains, lingering after-effects of wrist surgery, the kind that don't go completely away at his age (36). There's no telling whether DeRosa could step in for a long spell if Sandoval were to go down for an extended period.

And, though DeRosa can be a useful utility player, in no way can he replace the promise of a newly honed, maturing Pablo Sandoval.

***Cody Ross's calf injury before the regular season opened the door for Brandon Belt, who played himself onto the Big League roster with a nice spring training. But Belt was soon exposed as overwhelmed by tough major league pitching, and his departure to Fresno on the heels of such a weak performance (.192 batting average, 1 HR in 52 at bats) has to make some wonder how long it will be before he returns to San Francisco.

To play Belt, the Giants had to move Aubrey Huff to right field, exposing themselves again -- this time to lumbering, awkward defensive play. Huff, who played above expectations as an emergency outfielder last year, simply wasn't given the time to prepare for the shift this year: the Giants didn't send him to the outfield until very late in spring training, hoping to avoid media speculation over their ultimate decision on Belt. That proved costly for Huff.

With Belt gone, Huff returns to first, and the Giants have a starting outfield of Ross, Aaron Rowand and Pat Burrell.

***Rowand has provided depth from the bench with pleasantly surprising offense in place of Andres Torres, who's on the disabled list with an Achilles injury. When Torres returns, it will be interesting to see how Boss Bochy handles center field. My guess is that he'll play the hot hand.

***Brian Wilson's side injury was seen as potentially the most devastating loss at the start of the season. But the Giants bullpen was not tested in his absence: in their 1-4 start, the Giants had little reason for a closer. Still, you could see some worrisome effects of moving relievers out of their comfort zone: no one appeared ready to assume the closer role, a frightening proposition if Wilson were to relapse.

***The slow starts of Burrell and shortstop Miguel Tejada may give the Giants more pause than any injury they've had to deal with. Burrell has stepped off the Interstate (he's now barely above the Mendoza line, hitting .208). But his swing should be setting off alarms: usually a patient hitter who draws a lot of walks, he has been going after neck-high fastballs and ankle-low sliders -- and not catching up to them -- a sign that he is trying to speed up his bat. That's what aging players do.

Burrell struck out three more times in four at bats Wednesday, giving him a team-high 21 strikeouts -- eight more than the next worse on the Giants. He has the worst strikeout ratio among N.L. regulars, striking out 40 percent of the time.

The only real option the Giants have after Burrell is Nate Schierholz, whose inconsistent bat has kept him in a reserve role after being slated to be the Giants starting right fielder just a year ago. His three-hit day Tuesday, including a 467-foot home run, gave a glimpse of the promise the Giants have always felt Schierholz has held. But he has shown too often that he reverts to that vulnerability on the slider low and in that has been the death knell for many a left-handed hitter.

The Giants have fewer options at shortstop. Now hitless in his last 15 at bats, Miguel Tejada is hitting .203 with one home run. Mike Fontenot turned in a brilliant diving play to rob Troy Tulowitzki in Game 2 of the Rockies series and had a triple and two walks in four plate appearances but was back out of the lineup with a lefty on the mound in Game 3. In his only other start, at second, Fontenot had a double and home run in three at bats. Bochy may give more looks to Fontenot against righties, though he is not a long-term answer at shortstop.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

The Giants have that swagger of a champion

So, this is what a World Champion swagger looks like.

Five home runs in two games for the San Francisco Giants, all by different guys. Two three-run blasts (Pat Burrell and Pablo Sandoval). One third-deck shot measured at 467 feet (Nate Schierholz), one oppo taco shot (Freddie Sanchez) and a lazer beam into the second deck (Aubrey Huff, against a 96-MPH fastball from a lefty, no less).

Nine first inning runs -- five in the first game, four in the second -- both opening frames punctuated by three-run blasts that essentially ended the games right then and there.

What a start to what could have been a tricky 19-game stretch, in which the Giants have to play 16 on the road. They've won five of the first six on the road. They've won both road series already, with a chance of a sweep today (though lefty Jorge DeLaRosa is a rough assignment).

And they've made the Colorado Rockies look like imposters. The Rockies were supposed to be the threat to the Giants' throne in the N.L. West. They owned the best record in baseball coming into the series, averaging six runs a game coming into this series.

But maybe it shouldn't have been that surprising. It was the Rockies' first taste of quality big league pitching in 2011 after feasting on the likes of the Pittsburgh Pirates and Chicago Cubs. And the Rockies aren't the first team to wilt under the glow of a World Championship opponent.

With Giants pitchers Tim Lincecum and Jonathan Sanchez playing Can You Top This, the Rockies have to feel besieged in their own park knowing that Matt Cain is all in for today.

It's been a true statement series for the Giants, and they've done it with stunning clarity. What must go through the minds of a team watching the world champions so brazenly come into their kitchen and raid their refrigerator?


The Giants' offense is emphatically better than last year's. And they're doing some of their best work  down in the count: In the first inning Tuesday, Freddie Sanchez and Buster Posey both had base hits with two strikes, and Sandoval had two strikes on him when he homered.

With Cody Ross back on the roster today, the Giants lineup is deep against lefty DeLaRosa: Aaron Rowand in CF, Freddie Sanchez, 2B, Buster Posey moves to the No. 3 hole, with Ross slipping into the cleanup spot; Burrell hitting fifth, Miguel Tejada back in the lineup hitting sixth, Mark DeRosa hitting seventh at first base, and Sandoval, still yet to prove himself against lefties, hitting eighth.

The pitching looks as good, maybe better. Exhibit A: They kept the Rockies 2-through-6 hitters hitless in 19 at bats Tuesday and have allowed only 7 hits in 59 at bats (a .119 batting average for those keeping score) in the first two games. Their sluggers, Troy Tulowitzki and Carlos Gonzales, have gone quietly in the night, a combined 1-for-14.

The only question mark is their defense. But with Huff moving to first base and Cody Ross taking his place in the lineup as the regular right fielder, their defense should stabilize a bit.

There was a question over what to do if Rowand was out for any length of time after getting hit by a pitch. Would Ross be able to take over in center field straight off the disabled list? If he did, Schierholz would play right field and Burrell in left. If not, the Giants would be stuck with rookie Darren Ford in center field, with Ross in right. That's still a good defensive setup, but a dropoff offensively.

If Rowand checks out healthy, Ford will be a good player to have off the bench. He can shore up the defense late and he adds speed off the bench. It's pretty clear that he will remain on the roster while Brandon Belt gets the ticket to Fresno. Belt has looked overwhelmed; it's amazing how a loss of confidence can slow down the bat by just enough to go from prospect to suspect. He needs to see if he can find that 2010 swing that made him the organization's darling. Remember he had only a handful of games at the AAA level last year, so he has a lot to prove yet.


The acquisition of that new third baseman? Amazing. They got him for free! He goes by the same name of the guy who played there last year, Pablo Sandoval, and he even goes by the same nickname, Panda.  The new Pablo has beaten last year's scouting reports: he's laying back on off-speed stuff and nailing it (his last two HRs, in Arizona and Colorado, were on changeups), and he's laying off pitches that are out of the strike zone.

And his defense has been stellar, spectacular at times. And what a gun he has.


A year ago almost to the day Tuesday, Rowand was beaned by Dodger starter Vicente Padilla, a fastball to the face knocking him out for weeks and halting a nice start to the season. He was hitting .304 at the time, but did not recover after that, losing his job and ending the season as an afterthought on the Giants' postseason roster.

Fast forward to Tuesday, and Rowand is once again off to a nice start, hitting .327, assuming the starting role in place of injured Andres Torres. He's asserted himself back into the picture, even forcing the Giants to rethink what his long-term role will be. It could be that he winds up reclaiming his starting job in center field if he continues his hot bat.

Yet, another errant fastball intruded on his fast start. The Giants don't know how long he'll be out after taking an Ubaldo Jimimez fastball to the forearm, forcing him out of the game. The injury is not nearly as  ominous as the one that broke facial bones, but only time will tell if the halt to his early season momentum has long-term ramifications.

Monday, April 18, 2011

Lincecum wins match of wits with Tulowitzki

Tim Lincecum's most impressive moment in his gem Monday night came a batter after he'd yielded his first hit with one out in the seventh to the Rockies' Carlos Gonzales.

Troy Tulowitzki, who leads the majors with seven home runs and is considered one of the best right-handed hitters in the National League right now, stood in, hoping to create some Mile-High magic. After losing the no-hitter, maybe Lincecum would lose some focus and the Rockies could start creeping back into the game.

In a park like Coors Field, an eight-run deficit is less lopsided than it appears, especially for a Rockies team that has authored the best record in the N.L. behind a clutch offense led by Tulowitzki.

But this confrontation between a two-time Cy Young and a future MVP -- two of the game's greats at the peak of their game -- was compelling on its own.

Lincecum has mastered Tulowitzki, holding him to a .188 batting average (6-for-32 coming into the game), though Tulowitzki hit his only home run against Lincecum just last year.

Lincecum started off with a 95 MPH fastball that Tulowitzki swung late on and fouled into the right field stands. After that, it was a strict diet of split finger fastballs: five straight. But the star shortstop was able to draw out a full count, fouling off a couple and laying off three.

Tulowitzki had to be looking for another sharp diving, dipping specialty pitch. In his previous at bat, in the fifth, Lincecum struck him out swinging on 2-2 count on a split finger away. This time, it was knee-high paint with cheese -- a 95 MPH dart that locked him up as if it was the first time he'd seen a major league fastball. A called third strike that made Tulowitzki, the $158 million man, look like a chump.

It was pure art camouflaged as brute force. He didn't blow Tulowitzki away so much as he won a match of wits.

So, Tulowitzki is now 6-for-35 against Lincecum, a .171 batting average.

Hey, it's not all on Miguel Tejada

The Miguel Tejada signing was a puzzle from the beginning: aging ex-star whose power dropoff coincided with the discovery that he'd been taking steroids. But it wasn't his bat that had most worried. It was his range at shortstop.

Saturday night, he provided more fodder for his worriers/haters, dropping a perfectly thrown peg by Buster Posey on a two-out eighth inning steal attempt by Xavier Nady. It should have been the third out. Instead, it led to a run, extra innings and a 6-5 12-inning loss to the Arizona Diamondbacks.

It looked like Tejada was simply eaten up by Posey's throw. It was a bullet, and Tejada's reflexes were slow on it. The SF Chron's Henry Schulman described it as Tejada trying to make a tag before he caught it. That's a misread.

He simply put the glove out and misjudged the flight of the throw. Posey's throws have have similarly eaten up Freddie Sanchez at second and Pablo Sandoval at third. He's got such life on his arm that it's hard for even veteran major leaguers to get a handle.

Tejada made another error in the ninth, on an easy two hopper that just popped out of his glove. Though it did not lead to a run, it was more evidence in the case of the People vs. Tejada.

But the rub is this: Tejada has actually been playing a solid shortstop. He's made all the routine plays and a few difficult ones. He's still got a great arm.

The real problem is his hitting. After taking an 0-for-5 collar, Tejada is hitting .241, with only 1 HR and 6 RBI. He's in a 4-for-25 funk (.160). Granted, he has hit some bullets without reward: he probably leads the team in Atom Balls (balls hit right at 'em). But until he starts to heat it up with the bat, the glare of scrutiny will continue to shine on his defense.


Sanchez has been so steady at second, and has had so many big moments with the Giants with the bat, that his fielding lapse in the eighth slipped under the radar/got a pass from the peanut gallery.

It was right after the Nady "stolen base": a Miguel Montero grounder to the right side that should have ended the inning. Sanchez had to range wide to his left, but it was playable -- he's made much more difficult plays, let's just say. But instead of rounding on it and squaring up to field it, Sanchez went into a semi-skid and lost track of it as he tried to glove it.

In his zeal to stop any groundball from getting into the outfield, Sanchez flubbed a fairly ordinary play. That was just as costly as Tejada's muff, because it kept the line moving.


Manager Bruce Bochy had a quandary in that fateful 8th inning: Does he bring in right handed reliever Sergio Romo to face rightie Ryan Roberts with runners on 1st and 3rd with two outs? Left handed journeyman slugger Juan Miranda loomed on deck to hit for pitcher David Hernandez. But Bochy, worried that Arizona Manager Kirk Gibson would bring in Miranda early to face Romo, stayed with southpaw Jeremy Affeldt.

The book on Affeldt is that he's actually better against righties than lefties. From 2007-2009, he held righties to lower batting averages than lefties. Last year, they were even, but evenly bad: both righties and lefties hit .290 against him.

This year, it looks like righties are catching up to him. They're hitting .400 against him (6-for-15). Worse, his work in clutch spots is alarming: He's given up four hits in seven at bats with runners in scoring position with two outs (a .571 average).

Bochy seems gun shy over using Romo vs. lefties, probably because of his slow start (he's given up two hits in four at bats to lefties). But, though he's demonstrably more effective against righties, he isn't bad against lefties. Last year, righties hit .185 against Romo, but lefties only hit .241 against him.

The question: was Miranda really all that threatening a presence to keep Romo from coming in? Miranda, a 6-foot 220-pound Cuban, had hit a three-run pinch hit HR April 13 against the St. Louis Cardinals' Bryan Augenstein.

But I'd venture to say it was highly doubtful Gibson would have hit Miranda for Roberts.

Roberts is one of the hottest Diamondbacks' hitters and he has no preference for who he punishes with the bat. He was hitting .333 against righties (6-for-18) and .333 vs. lefties (4-for-12). And he was four-for-six with runners in scoring position.

Roberts had some history with Romo, 2-for-5 with a double; not exactly ownage, but enough to make Bochy hesitate. And Affeldt had retired Roberts in both previous matchups.

But Romo has been deadly so far, his frisbee curve and newly developed changeup looking like money. And Affeldt is looking like he's moving further and further away from his 2009 form.

I would have gone with Romo.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Two strikes? Two outs? Getting into jams no problem for Giants

Your starting pitcher goes down with an injury in the second inning. You hit into five double plays and have another baserunner wiped out on a pickoff.

And you win?

That's sick, but that's the Giants.

And after the game, closer Brian Wilson was riffing on his beard.

"I don't own a trimmer. I might have tapered the sides at one point, but let's be honest here. It's just doing what it wants and it just does what it wants. It's about all I can say."

How low can it go, he was asked, as if even thinking about talking about his perfect ninth innings is so retro.

"It'll probably become a problem if it gets below my cleats -- it might get caught. But it's tan and it's fierce."

The beard storyline is a meme from last year -- fear the beard! -- but has its own twist (how low can it go?). And just as Wilson has added a new devastating pitch, a two-seam fastball that dives in on right handed hitters, the Giants are well into creating a whole new story line, mixing up a new batch of team chemicals rather than dipping into last year's concoction.

Happily, they are beyond the ceremonies celebrating the World Series and focusing on the task at hand. It got a little worrisome in the first week; seemed like they were patting themselves on the back a bit too hard.

No longer are the Giants savoring last year's triumphs. But the essence of last year's champions remains deeply embedded in the soul of this year's Giants. They falter. They exasperate. But they scrap and claw, they find a way.


The Giants find promise where others might see peril.

Guillermo Mota's performance in the Giants' 5-3 win Saturday night over the Arizona Diamondbacks -- 4 1/3 innings, one earned run, three hits, no walks and four strikeouts -- was the ultimate ad lib job. It was the 37-year old reliever's longest stint of his career, and erased the image of a battered and hobbled Barry Zito, who looked like he was not long for the night, injury or no.

If it wasn't battered and hobbled, the Giants offense certainly was ineffectual, grounding into double plays in the second, third, fourth, fifth and sixth innings.

But there's something about a team that sees two strikes or two outs as a gift, an opportunity to cherish.


After falling behind the count, 0-and-2,  to start off the game, Aaron Rowand battled back with a double. He was still on base with two outs and two strikes to cleanup hitter Buster Posey, a situation that demands failure 85 percent of the time.

That is no exaggeration. With runners in scoring position and two outs, San Francisco hit .212 and their opponents hit .215 last year. With 1-ball-2 strike counts, which is what Posey faced, the Giants hit .177 and their opponents hit .139. With two outs and a one-two count, the odds are even worse.

That is how improbable Posey's two-run home run was in the first inning.

Mark DeRosa's rally-starting single in the seventh was no less important. It came with two outs and no one, when the odds of scoring are at the lowest. To boot, the seventh appeared to be another demoralizing inning in the making after a leadoff single by Pat Burrell was wasted when pinch runner Darren Ford got picked off first for the first out and Pablo Sandoval grounded out. This, after the Giants had grounded into double play ground balls in the previous five innings.

But DeRosa, operating on the premise that he's in a high-profile audition for more playing time, laced a single into left field -- his second hit of the day. Not bad work for a guy who's had a hard time nudging his name onto the lineup card.

Pinch hitter Brandon Belt followed with a nicely placed bouncer through the hole into right field, sending DeRosa to third. And Aaron Rowand, who'd had three straight hits off starter Joe Saunders, walked for the first time this season to load the bases.

All with two outs.

An inning earlier, Freddie Sanchez had tied the game, 3-3, by doubling home Rowand, who started that rally with a hard hit single on, yes, two strikes (a full count) (Yes, a double play choked off that threat, weaving even more frustration into the game's tapestry).

Now, the fourth hitter in a row to face a two-out challenge, Sanchez didn't wait around for two strikes against reliever Sam Demel. He redirected a biting, major league slider down and away into the 5 1/2 hole for a clutch two-run single for what turned out to be the game-winner.

This business of hitting in pressure spots won't be without rough patches for the Giants. Two outs and two strikes remain the most difficult challenges for hitters. It is intrinsically a defensive spot to be in, where hitters have to shorten up and protect, and pitchers can prey on hitters' anxieties.

It is also the nature of the Giants to get themselves into jams. But is also in their World Series DNA to come through with the unexpected and unlikely.

The lineup I'd run out there vs. Joe Saunders

Bruce Bochy has just handed me the lineup card and asked me to fill it out.

Here it is:

DeRosa LF
Sanchez 2B
Huff 1B
Posey C
Sandoval 3B
Tejada SS
Rowand CF
Schierholz RF

Bench: Burrell, Belt, Fontenot, Whiteside, Ford

Available bullpen: Mota, Runzler, Romo, Affeldt, Lopez, Wilson
Useable only in desperation: Ramirez

Why pull Cain so quickly? And other thoughts ...

It's early, and Manager Bruce Bochy has a lot of slack as the next skipper for the National League All-Star team. But he continues to raise questions with some of his moves, even as the Giants won the sixth of their last eight games with a 5-2 win over the Arizona Diamondbacks.

Bochy's most recent puzzling move was keeping Barry Zito in three batters too long as he let a close one with the St. Louis Cardinals slip away. Friday night, he yanked Matt Cain too early, at the first sign of trouble Friday night, with no outs in the seventh after the first two hitters reached. Cain had just reached 102 pitches, hardly a pitch-count to worry about for the Giants' co-ace and confirmed "horse."

Cain had given up a bloop single to Stephen Drew just inside the right field line (which Huff couldn't catch up to because he was bunching the gap in right center) and hit Melvin Mora with a fastball up and in, the way they'd been pitching to him all night.

Granted, Cain had some elbow issues at the start of spring training, but he has shown no ill effects, and still looked like he had the stuff to finish out the seventh. With left hander Jeremy Affeldt warmed up and lefty-hitting catcher Montero up, though, Bochy opted for the matchup, and got what he wanted with a strikeout.

Things got squirrely when Affeldt walked pinch-hitter Xavier Nady to load the bases, but Ramon Ramirez turned in the shutdown performance of the night by inducing a sacrifice fly ball by Willie Bloomquist on a full count, and then, after a wild pitch sent runners to second and third, striking out the woeful-looking Kelly Johnson.

Ramirez turned in a full inning in the eighth for a total of an inning and two-thirds. Excellent work, but it effectively limits how he'll be used in the next day or so. Same goes for Javier Lopez, who was stretched for 20 pitches in the ninth before yielding to closer Brian Wilson for the last out.

It all turned out fine, as the Giants won 5-2, but going so early to his bullpen puts an added burden onto a relief core that will likely be pressed into significant service time today: Barry Zito goes against a pretty hot-hitting team. And if Bochy has to dig deep in Game 2 of the Giants' extended road schedule (they've just begun a stretch of 16 of their next 19 games on the road), where does that leave them for the rest of the trip?


Shortstop Miguel Tejada has provided a steady presence with flashes of defensive brilliance that few could have predicted.

His play on the high hopper that he had to wait on was a pure veteran move: he knew how much time he had and knew how much mustard he had to put on his hot dog, just nailing Drew to end the sixth (complemented by Brandon Belt's scoop).

On Wednesday night against the Dodgers, Buster Posey was rightly lauded for picking off Tony Gwynn from second base, after making a spectacular one-handed grab of a wild one-hop pitch. But it was Tejada's snap throw to third -- again with extra mustard -- that made the play.

Posey ran Gwynn back towards second, but threw a tick too quickly to Tejada covering second, allowing Gwynn to scamper toward third -- a Cardinal Sin in rundown philosophy. You want to force a runner back to the lesser base before throwing and prevent the runner from getting a shot at the next base. Tejada's lightning quick return throw to third was just in time and right on target for the out, helping secure another thread to the growing legend of Buster Posey.

Tejada's been picking up some key hits, too, a bonus at the bottom of the order, turning on a 93 MPH fastball in on his hands to scorch a double down the left field line to score a run, and launching a ground-rule double to right center field in the ninth.


With Pat Burrell struggling, it might be the right time to adjust the lineup: move Tejada into the sixth spot, Burrell to No. 7 and Belt into the No. 8 slot. Or, if you don't want to add too much complexity to the rookie's job, keep Belt in the 7 hole, sit Burrell and go with Nate Schierholz in the 8-hole (with Huff to left field).

Why put Schierholz in against lefty starter Joe Saunders, you ask? Schierholz hits lefties better than any Giant. He has a lifetime .364 batting average against lefties (51-for-144). It's a no-brainer.

After Burrell went 0-for-3 with a walk Friday, Burrell is hitting .167. He's 6-for-36 on the year with 15 strikeouts. He's searching: he's chasing fastballs up and changeups down, and missing pitches he used to launch. His slump will make Bochy's decision easier when Cody Ross returns for the Colorado Rockies series: It looks like an outfield of Ross in RF, Aaron Rowand in CF and Aubrey Huff in LF.


Rowand took a fat 0-for-5, striking out three times against Dan Hudson. He wasn't alone -- Hudson had 10 victims. But Rowand looked overpowered by a good fastball, again.

A scary moment in the first brought back bad memories from a year ago: a fastball that just missed his face. It was about this time last year that Vicente Padilla beaned Rowand, who had had a similarly hot start but never recovered.

Friday, April 15, 2011

Notes: Don't forget Fontenot; two costly JSanchez mistakes, etc.

Some notes before the Giants embark on what could be a punishing stretch with the next 16 of 19 games on the road.

  • Mike Fontenot is back on the bench for tonight's game against Arizona, but his performance in the Giants' 4-3 win over the Dodgers Wednesday should not be forgotten.
He was in the lineup only by default, when Mark DeRosa, subbing for an ailing Freddie Sanchez, went down with his own injury. So, what's Fontenot do? He drives in one run with a double into the right field corner in the second inning, scoring fleet-footed Brandon Belt from first. And, in the sixth, after Pablo Sandoval homers to tie the game, 3-3, Fontenot, listed charitably as 5-foot-8, gets his first HR as a Giant for what proved to be the winning run.
  • It took until the first inning of Game 12 before the Giants got their first sacrifice fly.
  • Belt leads the Giants in stolen bases with two. He may not win a footrace with Andres Torres, but he is one of the team's fastest baserunners.
  • Pat Burrell may be playing for his future right now. Yes, he is tied with a handful of sluggers for second in the N.L. with four HRs, but he has only two other hits and is hitting .182 (6-for-33).
Could it be that he becomes the odd man out when Cody Ross returns? The argument for keeping him: great veteran presence in the clubhouse, he is responsible for "moving the line" with his good eye and high on base percentage. And, remember, he was hitting .212 with 2 HR and 13 RBI when the Giants acquired him on May 14, becoming a key power source in their title run. Arguments for jettisoning him: he's a year older, at 35, coming off a post-season .158, including an 0-for-13 World Series.
  • Jonathan Sanchez remains agonizingly inconsistent enough to keep from taking his place among the elite left-handers. Yes, he got the win Wednesday, and he chalked up a so-called quality start (six innings and three earned runs). But he was dominant that night, and, but for two mistakes, should have come out unscathed. 
I don't like to harp on a guy for two measly mistakes, but they were avoidable and seemed to be the result of hubris or laziness. In the top of the fourth inning, Sanchez had given up a two-out first-pitch single to Marcus Thames, but got ahead of Rod Barajas 0-and-2 on a beautiful sequence: an elevated fastball swing through and a split-finger swing through. After wasting a pitch, he had him set up. As Mike Krukow had it:
"Just think. He didn't have that pitch (the split finger) at this time last year. He's really locked in. He's totally changed his entire image as a pitcher. It gives him a third pitch, gives him a third speed, another pitch he could throw on 3-2."
But then he shook off Buster Posey, who was calling for a curve. And he laid a fastball that drifted over the heart of the plate that Barajas mashed for a two-run HR.

"That's one of those pitches that will get talked about when they get back to the dugout," Krukow said, rightly.

Sanchez' next mistake cost him another run. It came in the top of the sixth, with two outs and Thames on first. He'd struck out Juan Uribe and Barajas, his 7th and 8th strikeouts of the night, with No. 8 hitter Aaron Miles due up. Sanchez, pitching carefully to Miles, was aware that he had an escape hatch in pitcher Ted Lilly on deck, so fell behind 3-and-0. He got a strike and then got greedy, grooving a fastball that Miles drilled down the left field line for a triple, scoring even the slow-footed Thames from first for a 3-2 Dodgers lead.

Maybe Sanchez thought Don Mattingly was going to pinch hit for Lilly, and Sanchez preferred going after a No. 8 hitter than, say, Xavier Paul (who?) or Jamie Hoffman (who??). And maybe Miles' hit convinced Mattingly to keep Lilly in for another inning, which worked out for the best when he got lit up for the back-to-back jacks by Sandoval and Fontenot.

Obviously, Sanchez couldn't count on the fortuitous comeback for the Giants.

Here's Jon Miller's take:

"That's not only a mistake in location, but that's a mistake in philosophy."

And Krukow:

"That's game management. If you see a pitcher on deck means you can't make a mistake of location."

Other than that, Sanchez was brilliant, with nine strikeouts on an otherwise sculptured and polished performance. And the Giants won, which makes it easy to forget the blemishes.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Maybe next group hug between L.A. and S.F. won't be as community oriented

Under the unwritten baseball guidelines for settling scores, illogical as they seem to be, Ted Lilly "had" to retaliate for Tim Lincecum's errant fastballs that speared Juan Uribe on two separate occasions.

So, he plunked the Giants' Buster Posey twice in Wednesday night's game, leading to a warning to both teams from home plate umpire Greg Gibson -- and adding hot ember to the rivalry only two days after the two teams had held a group hug on the mound to tell fans to keep things respectful (in light of the senseless beating of a Giants fan).

For the record, Posey should be thankful to the Dodgers that they sent out Lilly to do the deed, his 84 MPH fastball far preferrable to a 95 MPH from, say, lefty Clayton Kershaw.

If Lincecum had hit Uribe just the once, nothing would have come of it, even though Uribe was sidelined for three games. But after a second plunking, the Dodgers had little choice but to return the favor.

On the face of things, Lincecum had little reason to hit Uribe. In the first game, on March 31, Lincecum was in the middle of a pitching duel with Kershaw, a 0-0 tie in the bottom of the sixth, and he was in a bit of a two-out jam: runners on first and second. Hitting Uribe would load the bases, with the powerful Rod Barajas on deck. Maybe he preferred to face Barajas than an ex-teammate he knew had the penchant for big hits. Either way, hitting Uribe led to the first run of the game (Matt Kemp scoring on a bad pickoff attempt by Posey).

At the time, Uribe stared Lincecum down, as if he thought there was intent. Could there have been some? Sure. Lincecum may have wanted to send a message that they were no longer dugout mates, that he despised Uribe for abandoning the Giants and signing up with the hated Dodgers. He could have done that in the second and fourth innings, in earlier Uribe at bats, though Uribe was leading off in both innings.

When Lincecum hit Uribe for a second time, in Tuesday's 5-4 Giants' win, there was little reason to be wantonly wild. The Giants were clinging to a 4-3 lead in the top of the sixth, runners were on first and second, and hitting Uribe would load the bases. Why would Lincecum want to push the tying run to third and put the go-ahead run into scoring position?

Maybe he wanted to face Barajas, who was 0-for-2 against him in the game, though it's doubtful. The Dodger catcher had two hard-hit line drives off of Lincecum in the March 31 game, and has hurt the Giants with the long ball.

Uribe had earlier doubled, exacting a small measure of revenge, but there was little upside to hitting Uribe in this spot. Unless Lincecum knew, that at 115 pitches, he was done and he may as well inflict a little more pain on Uribe on his way out. And maybe Lincecum had supreme confidence that Guillermo Mota could escape the bases loaded jam unscathed (which he did).

And maybe Ted Lilly had just wanted to stay in on Posey's hands and the pitch just got away from him. Twice.

And maybe, when the two renew hostilities on May 18 at Chavez Ravine, the next group hug between Giants and Dodgers won't be as community oriented.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Baseball gods give Belt a little break

Baseball gods must have deemed that Brandon Belt could sink no further Tuesday night.

The rookie first baseman had just flubbed a Little League bouncer that he should have played into an out with a play at home but instead extended the Dodgers' three-run fourth-inning rally by a run and an out.

Just moments earlier, in the bottom of the third inning, Belt struck out into a double play, wasting a leadoff single by Miguel Tejada. Not sure what Bruce Bochy was thinking, other than hoping to stay away from a double play ground ball or trying to force Belt to make contact. But, given the number of swing-throughs for the kid, maybe you do that with less than two strikes.

He had hit a 3-for-31 nadir, and the only way out seemed to be a bus ticket to Fresno.

And, in the fifth, when Belt fell behind 1-and-2 to Chad Billingsley, there was about as little expectation for Belt to come through as there is for the Ball Dude down the left field line to make a diving foul-ball stop.

At least he'd made contact on the first two strikes, fouling them both off. Hey, you take progress where you can take it. And then a thing of magic: A little looper, off the label of the bat, was placed just beyond the reach of shortstop Jamey Carroll and in front of the onrushing left fielder Marcus Thames. I didn't say it was a thing of beauty. But it was beautiful to Belt, who could finally stand on first base, who hadn't so much as sniffed that bag with even a fielder's choice during his sub-.100 slump.

And it wasn't just a single to free the prisonors. It started a rally that would give the Giants a 4-3 lead. Belt was eventually bunted over to second and scored on Aaron Rowand's RBI single. When he returned to the bench, Belt was greeted as if a warrior who'd come in from the cold, though some of the high fives he received appeared to be less congratulatory than, an 'ok, maybe this will get you going.'

The thing about Belt's slump is that for the most part, Belt has looked overmatched by Big League pitching. Not only has he fallen prey to the slider in, but the fastball straight down the middle. He hasn't been in a patch of bad luck; he's just been plain bad.

But, that may have little to do with talent. With every pop out and strikeout, Belt seemed to have lost that sense of belonging that he'd created in spring training. Even Willie Mays, who had his own awful start in 1951, questioned whether he belonged and even begged Leo Durocher to send him back to Minneapolis. It's one thing to go through a slump as a rookie, and quite another to start out your entire major league career in a slump. It's tough to feel like you belong when you haven't had any success at all.

Still, that little single, not much to boast about in terms of pure baseball brawn, may have released the confidence hounds for Belt, who, in his next at bat in the sixth, walked and stole second. To watch him run the bases with his long loping strides reminds you of the potential to be tapped: can you imagine a guy who hits .300, hits for power and has the ability to steal bases?

Ah, the titillations of promise. Belt's next at bat, he grounded out to second. Back to worrying about the next 30 at bats.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Bochy slow on trigger, Zito pays for it

Barry Zito's line was ugly Sunday, particularly the five walks and four earned runs in 5 1/3 innings.  But Zito deserved better.

For one, Bruce Bochy misread things, leaving Zito in too long. And two runs were added to his ledger because Aaron Rowand missed Skip Schumaker's slicing drive into left center in the decisive sixth inning of the Giants' 6-1 loss.

Going into the sixth, Zito had turned in a solid performance, locked in a 1-1 tie with Kyle Lohse. He got some critical outs in dangerous spots: In the third, after the first two Cardinals reached, he got Albert Pujols to ground into a double play and, then with runners at first and third, jammed Allen Craig for an inning ending pop out.

Zito induced an inning-ending double play in the fourth and had a 1-2-3 fifth, doing most of this work without his curve, relying on an effective cut fastball and changeup.

But by the sixth, it was evident, after 80 pitches, Zito was losing his effectiveness. Ironically, that's when he momentarily re-discovered his curve, getting the slumping Pujols to ground out to lead off the inning. He battled Matt Holliday nicely with a beautiful changeup and a nicely located fastball but Holliday worked the count full, and then walked on a fastball that missed badly.

At that point, Zito was at 90 pitches, and he was spent. If you know Zito's history, you know he fades as he gets to around 90 to 100 pitches. So, you get someone ready in the bullpen heading into the inning. But Bochy didn't get Guillermo Mota up until during Allen Craig's at bat.

That meant Zito had to labor through a five-pitch walk to Allen Craig. Now well past his expiration date, Zito remained out there against David Freese, who promptly smoked a changeup down the left field line for a run-scoring double. Even if Bochy hadn't yanked Zito before, nothing should have compelled him to stick with him now. But he did, thinking he'd take advantage of a lefty-on-lefty matchup. Which would have been fine if Zito had anything left.

He didn't. Schumaker jumped on his first pitch, a fastball down the middle, shooting a drive into left center. It was well stroked, but catchable. Rowand got there, but it glanced off the fingers of his glove -- not the tip, but inside the glove, a few inches away from the pocket. If he catches it the damage is limited, and perhaps the game remains 2-1 and the Giants wouldn't have had the uphill climb that a 4-1 deficit poses.

Bochy said Rowand "thought he had it. He just didn't hang onto it. Still the ball was hit hard."

Bochy said he wanted to stick with Zito, partly because he thought he was still effective and partly to try to save the bullpen

"You can always look back when the guy gives up a hit and say, well, I should've taken him out," Bochy said after the game. "But he had been doing a pretty good job in traffic, making pitches when he had to. It was a 1-1 game and I wanted to give him a chance there to get out of it because he's got a knack for doing it.
"But we have been using the pen quite a bit so I was hoping he could find a way to get through that inning. He had that one right hand hitter and the lefty. I knew his count was getting up there a little bit. But that's the way this goes. The pen has been used quite a bit. It's hard to go them these guys in the sixth inning every game. We had an extra inning game. We've had some guys throwing quite a bit." 

In the last week, the Giants played five games and had two days off.

In that time, Mota pitched twice for 4 IP (before Sunday); Ramon Ramirez pitched in four games for 3 2/3 IP; Sergio Romo twice for 2 IP; Brian Wilson twice for 1 1/3 IP; Jeremy Affeldt threw twice for 1 IP; Javier Lopez once for 2 IP; and Dan Runzler twice for 2 IP (Friday and Saturday).

If Bochy had anyone to worry about, it would have been Runzler and Ramirez, who both pitched on Friday and Saturday. As it turned out, he went to Mota for the third time this week and allowed him to go 2 1/3 IP, he brought in Affeldt for an out and put Romo in for an effective ninth.

He could have done precisely that, only three batters earlier.


Brandon Belt wasn't charged with an error on an inconsequential pop fly he dropped in the ninth that was rendered moot when Pujols struck out two pitches later. But the drop was emblematic of the struggles the rookie is going through. After taking an 0-for-4, Belt dropped to .161 (5-for-33), and is in the throes of a 3-for-24 slump (.125).

The question is whether the Giants are willing to ride this out until Cody Ross returns in a couple weeks, and hope he irons out his swing. Or, whether they will decide the buzzsaw that he's fighting isn't doing him any good and send him to Fresno to help him get his swing back under a lighter glare. That would open up an opportunity for Travis Ishikawa to return as the backup first baseman, bring Huff back to his natural position, and force the Giants to work out the outfield mess with a possible callup in the offing, depending on the injured Andres Torres' status.


Mike Fontenot couldn't have had a more frustrating first three at bats. Ten pitches, nine strikes, three strikeouts.


Three Cardinals' regulars -- Colby Rasmus, David Freese and Skip Schumaker -- entered the three-game series with the Giants without RBI on the season. By the end, all three had collected their first RBI: Rasmus on a solo HR Saturday, and Freese (3) and Schumaker (2) on Sunday.


Rowand hit the ball hard three times, but only had one hit, his 9th inning double, to show for it. He went 1-for-4 and is now 1-for-8 as a starter after starting out 6-for-10.


Pablo Sandoval is at .400 after nine games, and has hit safely in all seven games he's started, including three multiple-hit games. He drove in the Giants' only run Sunday on a broken bat line drive single (yes, he still hit it hard despite cracking his bat) in the first. He has also shown patience in the last several games, holding back on pitchers' pitches such as sliders down and in and fastballs up.

Pujols came into San Francisco in a serious funk and left it even worse off.

He was hitting .182 (4-for-22) coming in, and after a 1-for-13 series, he's dropped down to .143 (5-for-35), which fans behind home plate were doing their best to remind him with chants of One-Four-Three! It's his worse start to a season, and it comes as he's looking for a major contract extension. He insists it's typical for him, pointing to the cooler weather, the sharper pitching and the difficulty in adjusting to the travel schedule.

Pujols had a similar April stretch last year, going 5-for-34 in a seven-game spell, but never fell below .275 that month, and finished up with 7 HR, 19 RBI, .345 BA.

Here's how Pujols did in previous Aprils:

2009: 8 HR, 28 RBI, .337 BA (he had a 1-for-10 "slump")
2008: 5 HR, 20 RBI, .365 BA (he had a 2-for-13 spell)
2007: 6 HR, 15 RBI, .250 BA (he hit .160 through April 17 before breaking out of it with a 4-for-11 in San Francisco)
2006: 14 HR, 32 RBI, .346 BA (despite a 3-for-19 stretch)
2005: 6 HR, 19 RBI, .322 BA
2004: 7 HR, 17 RBI, .287 BA (including a 4-for-19 stretch)
2003: 5 HR, 16 RBI, .385 BA
2002: 5 HR, 19 RBI, .295 BA (including a 5-for-25 stretch)
2001: 8 HR, 27 RBI, .370 BA

The numbers show that he indeed has had some history of rough patches in April, but nothing has matched what he's started out with this year.

Unfortunately, the Giants won't face the Cardinals again until May 30 for a four-game series in St. Louis. Undoubtedly, Pujols will have rediscovered his stroke by then.

Saturday, April 9, 2011

A flinch, a drop, and another thrilling finish

Miguel Tejada will continue to face questions over his range at shortstop and his power dropoff, but he has bought himself some early goodwill with key hits in the first week of the season, not the least of which delivered the Giants' 3-2 win Saturday night over the St. Louis Cardinals.

It was ruled a double, a charitable call that fit more easily into the narrative of magical endings than an error would have -- as if an error might somehow diminish the storyline. To be sure, it was a blast that may have cleared the fence in left center on another day. But the swirling winds coming off of McCovey Cove knocked it back, allowing center fielder Colby Rasmus to catch up to it in the gap near the warning track.

Rasmus, though, flinched at the last moment, apparently sensing left fielder Jon Jay closing in on the ball. Instead of running through the ball, Rasmus stuck his glove out basket style and fumbled it in the end zone. That moment's lapse can only otherwise be explained by pixie dust that has been sprinkled over AT&T for the first two games there.

Cardinals beat writer Joseph Strauss could barely conceal his contempt for the scorekeeper's ruling, doing everything he could to avoid describing the game-winner as a hit:

Six strong innings from Jaime Garcia followed by center fielder Colby Rasmus' seventh-inning home run and 2 2/3 innings of scoreless relief weren't enough for the Cardinals Saturday night as Rasmus' two-out, ninth-inning dropped ball on the warning track allowed the San Francisco Giants to steal a 3-2 win at AT&T Park.
Rasmus and left fielder Jon Jay converged on shortstop Miguel Tejada two-strike drive. Rasmus attempted a last-minute basket catch but fumbled the ball as two runs scored.

Equally reluctant was SF Chron's Henry Schulman (whose visage, by the way, is in a large framed print I have on my wall: it's a 1990 Sports Illustrated photo of Jose Canseco being hounded by the press, and there I am, then covering the A's for the Vacaville Reporter, with what looks like an expression of utter dismay, which inspired the headline, "Whaddya Say, Jose?").

With two outs in the ninth inning, the Giants down a run and down to their last strike, Tejada took a swing that won the game
 He hit a long drive to left-center field that popped out of Colby Rasmus' glove as he tried to make a basket catch at the warning track. Two runs scored and the Giants won 3-2, beating the Cardinals after trailing in the ninth for the second straight game.

That's ok. The Giants have been accused of being more charmed than good but they're the ones who raised a World Championship flag on Friday and basked in the glow of ring ceremonies Saturday. Two straight walk-off victories added to a sense of predestination to the weekend of celebrations.

Tejada, who had to watch from the sidelines as his new teammates were presented rings, put on a determined and focused at bat in the bottom of the ninth that befits a man in search of his own brush with championship baseball.

Before his game-winning at bat, he'd contributed to the Giants' only other scoring in the fifth inning, singling sharply into left field ahead of Mark DeRosa's dunk RBI single into right field that fell in front of a late-responding Lance Berkman.

(By the way, what is it with managers going after No. 8 hitters with runners in scoring position with two outs? A day after 8-hole hitter David Freese burned Bruce Bochy with a two-out RBI single ahead of pitcher Jake Westbrook, Tony LaRussa went after DeRosa rather than face starter Matt Cain with two outs and the bases loaded).

Giants' color man Mike Krukow was thinking along the same lines in describing Yadier Molina's visit to the mound. Molina was reminding Garcia that "you do have a base open with the pitcher on deck." That went out the window on the first pitch, which DeRosa stroked so softly into right field.

Back to Tejada's night. He also made a remarkable running, sprawling catch on a pop fly into shallow center field in the top of the fourth -- covering for Andres Torres, who had been rendered immobile a play earlier on a heel injury (more on that in a moment).

In the bottom of the ninth, with Buster Posey at second and Pat Burrell on first and two outs, Tejada quickly fell behind Cardinals closer Ryan Franklin 0-and-2 on a fastball on the corner and another that he fouled back.

Tejada, who'd shown great patience in the third in drawing a walk against stellar starter Jaime Garcia, worked the count full. He'd taken two close pitches and fouled off three more -- twice just barely getting a piece of the ball to stay alive. On the ninth pitch, he hit his gapper. Tejada had the pose of a man who thought he hit it out before he realized the ball was going to stay in the park.

And then he had the dance of a man who'd been touched by fortune, leaping giddily into his teammates' arms. That was a leap representing a single step toward his ultimate goal.


Torres' injury could dramatically change the landscape for the Giants. First, it puts Rowand into the starting role Bruce Bochy had tried so hard to avoid. After Rowand's 0-for-4 performance Saturday night as a starter, I'm beginning to think that he thrives playing with a chip on his shoulder and against lowered expectations, but once the burden of hope is placed on him, he shrinks from the challenge.

Either way, it looks like Rowand will be the man in center field for some time. Here's a thought: if Rowand reverts to form for, say, three or four straight games, Bochy should give some consideration to putting Nate Schierholz in center field. He's got good speed and he played some center field in spring training.

But that stopgap solution may become untenable if it stretches into some duration. Rowand and Schierholz are role players for a reason: they've shown little reason to inspire faith as starters and taking at least one of them out of their role as a backup alters the tricky balance of the Giants' roster.

With Cody Ross still at least two weeks away from a return -- he's only now going to start jogging -- the outfield dilemma could become desperate -- just as the Giants are about to embark on a tough road segment of their schedule.

If Brandon Belt continues to fall prey to the slider down and in, it puts more pressure to bring Huff in to play first base, opening two starting spots in the outfield. Starting both Schierholz and Rowand necessarily weakens the bench, but, more important, brings the Giants' lineup down a peg or two. The Giants may have to dip into Fresno for a backup -- possibly Darren Ford, who has started out nicely for the Grizzlies (4-for-13 with a home run and stolen base), but is hardly the answer.

Sorry that steroids continues to intrude on the game, Jayson Stark

A passage from ESPN's Jayson Stark's column today may have been meant as a sarcastic shot at Manny Ramirez for his abrupt retirement from baseball after being tested for performance enhancing drugs. But I've detected a frustration among the elite baseball writers that the steroids story continues to intrude on the game, a general feeling that they just wish the issue would fade away -- rather than a desire to force baseball to make a genuine effort at cleaning up the game.

Here is what he wrote:

Not just one, but two unfortunate infringements of the PED law of the land -- both of them coming at a point in his career when his Hall of Fame ticket had already been punched, had he just been savvy enough to avoid apprehension.
But nope. Couldn't do that. Couldn't dodge the testing strike force. Couldn't even muster up one last flimsy alibi to try to make it look good.

The suggestion is that if Manny had been smart enough, we wouldn't have to deal with the messiness of tainted baseball. That, as long as the Alex Rodriguezes and Miguel Tejadas and Magglio Ordonezes could continue to mask their drug use with non-detectable PEDs, the game is in good shape. Cheat, if you must, but please spare us the work of having to open our eyes to the unseemly side of the game.

Sorry, Jayson, if part of your job is to keep a wary eye on ballplayers, who are finding more sophisticated means to avoid the testing "strike force" every day. Sorry, Jayson, if the Manny story doesn't comport with the narrative that the Steroids Era is over.

Giants' 5-4 win wouldn't be so gratifying if not for the torture

We all know the storybook ending to the Giants' 5-4 home-opening victory over the Cardinals Friday: the dramatics provided by Aaron Rowand with his 12th inning game-winning bases loaded single off the left-center field wall. But, the deliciously circuitous route to the victory is what made it so gratifying.

Let's lay out the many and various components of torture that the Giants can offer their growing fan base on a given night:

Bottom of the second, scoreless tie:

1) Buster Posey walked and Pablo Sandoval slashed a single through the left side for an intriguing start.

Pat Burrell then smashed a drive right back to the box, snared by Cardinals' starter Jake Westbrook. It had the makings of a triple play, if Westbrook had only made a major league throw to second. But his inner Little Leaguer erupted, and he threw wildly into center field, with Posey moving to third.

Though it looked like an RBI single off the bat, the Giants had to be feeling lucky after the Westbrook catch to have runners on first and third. (Posey, by the way, was heads up in making sure he tagged second before moving up to third; Tony LaRussa looked petulant in jogging out to the field to briefly argue the call, as if he assumed Posey wouldn't have been smart enough to tag up).

So, the Giants still had a nice scoring opportunity, until Brandon Belt broke his bat into a 4-6-3 double play, only the first of 17 runners left on base.

2) Bottom of the third:

The Giants scored a pair in the third inning but were left wanting for more. Miguel Tejada led off with a home run on the first pitch he saw at home, a nice return to the Bay Area for the former A's star. Then, Jonathan Sanchez, on a 2 ball 2 strike count laced an opposite field double into the left field corner. After Andres Torres failed to move him over, Freddie Sanchez picked him up with an RBI double inside the right field foul line, a beautiful inside-out swing on a curve away with two strikes -- the kind of hitting that evokes thoughts of another batting title for Freddie.

Aubrey Huff followed with yet another two-strike base hit, a hard hit single to left -- so hard that F. Sanchez had to hold up at third.

But for the second inning in a row, the Giants squandered a first and third opportunity on yet another inning ending double play ground ball -- this time by Buster Posey. Just as TV color man Mike Krukow was extolling the virtues of how Posey's inside-out swing matched Westbrook's sinker-ball style, Posey got greedy on an inside sinker and tried to pull a sinking fastball in on his hands, rolling into an around-the-horn twin-killer.

3) A leadoff drag bunt single by Torres went for naught in the bottom of the fifth. After being sacrificed to second by F. Sanchez (Bochy trying dearly to stay out of a double play), Huff hit a first pitch ground ball to second and Posey's smash to third was snatched up by David Freese to end the inning.

4) Pat Burrell homered in the bottom of the sixth to give the Giants a 3-1 lead -- his fourth hit of the year and third HR, which clattered around the TV camera stand beyond the center field fence, a "big man's home run," as Krukow put it. But they could have had more. With two outs and Brandon Belt on second with a double, Nate Schierholz reached on an error and Torres coaxed a walk to load the bases, knocking Westbrook out. F. Sanchez drew a full count off hard throwing Mitchell Boggs but flew out to end the threat.

As the game wore on, the missed opportunities became more ominous and, more to the point, allowed the Cardinals to remain close, crawling to within a run in the eighth.

But the Giants' blown opportunities would have been even more poignant if the Cardinals hadn't skewered a few of their own.

1) In the top of the first, starter Jonathan Sanchez put the first two runners on via the walk with the dangerous Albert Pujols up. Sanchez put on a clinic, jumping ahead of Pujols on a couple 93 MPH fastballs, and three pitches later, inducing a weak double play groundball on a beautiful split finger. He stranded a runner at second when he blew a high fastball by ex-Cal Bear Allen Craig for the first of seven strikeouts.

Sanchez nearly pitched out of trouble in the second, getting two outs after a leadoff double by Freese (wind blown over the star-crossed Aubrey Huff in right field), but gave up an RBI single to the 8-hole hitter, Tyler Green. Bruce Bochy won't have to face any questions over that questionable call because of the winning outcome, but it was puzzling to see them go after the No. 8 hitter with two outs, a runner in scoring position and the pitcher on deck.

2) In the top of the 8th, the Cardinals drew to within a run on a Pujols two-out RBI single. Pujols stole second in a bizarre play: he took a good five steps before Sergio Romo threw the pitch, hesitated when Posey jumped out of his crouch yelling at Romo to step off, then continued on easily into second when Romo ignored all the signals. For all the wackiness of that play, it didn't amount to anything: Romo struck out Craig on a slow curve to end the inning.

3) In the top of the 11th, the Cardinals had runners at first and second with no outs (on a walk and an error by Javier Lopez), but couldn't cash in. John Jay bunted into a force at third, Ryan Theriot flew out, and with Pujols standing on deck, Lopez struck out Colby Rasmus on a slow curve on yet another key payoff pitch.

Brian Wilson gave up the tying and go-ahead runs in the ninth, all after nailing down the first two outs. But he didn't pitch as bad as his line suggests: after retiring Skip Schumaker and Lance Berkman, Wilson walked Yadier Molina on a full-count cut fastball that just missed the strike zone.

He induced what should have been a game-ending ground ball from UC Davis alum Daniel Descalso, a bounder over the mound and to the right of second base. F. Sanchez appeared positioned to field it, and could have made an easy flip for the force at second ahead of the slow Molina. But Tejada cut in front of Sanchez, only to make an off-balance and late throw to first.

Krukow made the call: "If Tejada goes to the bag and covers, I think they get the force and get Molina. Sanchez was there."

You kinda hope that Sanchez feels comfortable enough to approach Tejada about that, and ask him to stay off his turf.

Instead of Game Over, Wilson had an extended inning -- not the best tonic for a guy recovering from an injury and who's trying to build arm strength from time missed. After hitting John Jay to load the bases, Wilson entered into a twilight zone confrontation, a 12-pitch duel with Ryan Theriot, who fell behind 0-and-2 before working up a full count.

"This is just like old times," said Duane Kuiper.

Theriot fouled off six two-strike pitches, including four payoff pitches.

"This is working its way into the Kaz Matsui situation," Kuiper said, referring to Wilson's epic 15-pitch game-ending battle last year with the ersatz Houston Astros infielder.

Wilson lost this confrontation, though, as Theriot poked a grounder into left field for two runs and a 4-3 lead.

It was almost as all the torment of the first 8 1/2 innings of the home opener was meant to evoke the spirit of their championship season still so fresh in the consciousness of Giants fans. And it only became readily apparent after two were out in the bottom of the ninth inning.

Up came Rowand, the impeached and scorned, the target of unrelenting public vitriol and resentment, cast aside as dead weight and kept on the roster for purely economic reasons (if his status had depended solely on so-called baseball decisions, he would have been long gone, but because of the $26 million left on his contract for the next two years, has remained verboten for other teams).

But Rowand may be slowly crawling back into the hearts of Giants fans. He's kept his head down, avoided any bitterness to show through even as he faced the indignity of assuming a limited role, and has started off the season with a steadier presence at the plate.

His sharp single up the middle off a Ryan Franklin knuckler was nice, a display that showed Rowand was still putting in stolid effort, has remained committed to contributing when given the opportunity. Nothing more, nothing less. But, his base hit took on a more serious tenor when Franklin threw a knuckler to the backstop, sending Rowand to second.

A pitch later, Posey had walked, bringing up the Giants hottest hitter, Pablo Sandoval. Just as Krukow was saying "they're not going to give him anything across the plate, at least for a couple pitches," Sandoval got one in his wheelhouse, a fastball middle-in, which he shot into right field (past Pujols who appeared to be either guarding the line or trying to sneak in behind Posey at first just as the grounder went by him), scoring a triumphant Rowand to tie the game.

But the Giants weren't done with the torment.

5) Still tied, 4-4, the Giants wasted another scoring opportunity in the bottom of the 11th when they failed to cash in on Torres' leadoff double, and a wild pitch that sent him to third base with no outs. Nifty psychological warfare by LaRussa had something to do with that.

LaRussa stacked his infield defense with a fifth fielder, bringing in leftfielder Allen Craig, a former third baseman, to play third. With two outfielders roaming the vast expanses of AT&T, all Sanchez needed was to lift a fly ball. But Sanchez struck out on yet another payoff pitch (I need to count them up), Craig dove to stop Rowand's smash down the third base line, catching Torres in a unique 7-2-5 rundown; and pinch-hitter Mark DeRosa went down looking, stranding Rowand at second.

But the tortuous ways of the Giants were accepted and forgiven -- dare I say embraced -- after Rowand's game-winner in the 12th.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Giants 'free the hostages' with offensive barrage, Lincecum's brilliance

Mike Krukow said it after Brandon Belt got the first of his two hits Wednesday night, though it could have applied to the entire Giants' roster:

"That'll free the hostages right there," said Krukow, the quickest baseball wit in the West.

The Giants' 13-hit parade in Wednesday's 8-4 win was one big jailbreak for a team that had played most of its first week as if it had been kidnaped, bound and gagged. And Tim Lincecum's dominating 13-strikeout two-hit stopper performance over seven innings was the undercover rescue mission that set them free.

Lincecum peaked at 95 miles and hour, though he mostly stayed in the 92-to-93 MPH range, tapering down to 90 MPH toward the end. But it was his artistic blend of curves, split fingers, changeups and sliders that had Padre hitters befuddled all night, reprising memories of his brilliant October. It was the kind of night where fielders had to keep from losing their concentration because Lincecum wouldn't share much of the action.

"You get into a rhythm -- the rhythm of watching," said play-by-play man Duane Kuiper of the mindset of infielders playing behind Lincecum.

Watching Lincecum deceiving Padres hitters was like watching a hypnotist putting a whole theater audience to sleep. Though the 13 strikeouts suggests power, Lincecum is not the power pitcher that he was when he arrived in San Francisco four years ago on Willie Mays' birthday. He certainly uses his fastball to great effect, but it's more as a deterrent to hitters who might try to cheat and sit on one of his off-speed pitches (as they were doing during his month of horrors last August).

He's every bit the thinking man's pitcher that Hall of Famer Greg Maddux was, but with a power arm. Try to guess along with the hitter which arrow he'll pull out of his quiver, and you'll get an idea of how tough it is to face Timothy Leroy.

But it was also a night of exorcising ghosts from the lineup. Buster Posey finally found his stroke, or rather, the two swings that had brought so much glory last year: the power job that produced a two-run HR in the first inning, and his slashing inside-out piece of work that sent a shot into right field for another two runs in the sixth inning.

Though they entered the sixth inning leading 4-1, the four-run rally in the sixth was a breakthrough and revelation for a team that needed both.

Belt had stretched his hitless streak to 13 at bats when he struck out in the second inning ("he's probably gripping it a little bit -- young players do that," Kuiper said). But he'd broken through with his hostage-freeing single in the fourth on a two ball-two strike count, taking advantage of a Tim Stauffer front-door sinker that faded too far back to the heart of the plate.

Leading off the sixth, Belt again had two strikes on him and fouled off two straight two-strike changeups from submariner reliever Pat Neshek before stroking his second hit of the day.

A guy can get a reputation for grinding out two-strike hits like that.

After a four-pitch walk to Miguel Tejada and a Lincecum sacrifice bunt (beautifully laid down the third base line), Torres struck out against lefty Corey Luebke, failing for the second time in two days to drive in a run from third with less than two outs (was anyone thinking Aaron Rowand at this point against the lefty?). To be fair, Torres had a good overall day for a leadoff hitter: he walked twice and doubled in five plate appearances.

The Padres' decision to intentionally walk Sanchez, tho a bit unconventional (not too many No. 2 hitters are walked in front of No. 3 hitters), appeared smart. On a 2-and-2 count, Luebke tied up Huff with a slider away, inducing a weak ground ball that by all rights should have been a rally killer.

Except that Huff's grounder was more like a squibber heading ever so tantalizingly to that no-man's patch between the mound and third base. It was the Karmic answer to those half-dozen squibbers and duck snorts that the Dodgers had parlayed into rallies through the first four games of the year, and maybe even to Huff's embarrassing encounters with dodgy fly balls in right field.

Huff's third hit and third RBI would ultimately prove to be the decisive run, thanks to a late rally by the Padres against a shaky bullpen in the 9th. But, they weren't finished. Posey collected his third hit, that opposite field scorcher, and Pablo Sandoval got his third hit, a liner to right field, making it three straight two-out RBI hits and an 8-1 lead.

A rusty Brian Wilson in a shaky ninth inning put some doubt into the affair before Ramon Ramirez nailed down the final out with his fifth career save. The 8-4 win was a perfect segue into Friday's home opener and ring ceremony, where the Giants can bask in the glow of San Francisco love and plot out their next Great Escape.

Sunday, April 3, 2011

Posey should be dropped from cleanup, etc

Thoughts from Sunday night's game, a 7-5 loss to the Dodgers:

-- It's early, but it may be time to rethink Buster Posey as cleanup hitter for the Giants. He's whiffed on two big opportunities to put a dent in the 2011 season in the opening series with the Dodgers: striking out with the bases loaded in the seventh inning of Game 2 when the Giants were down, 4-3, and grounding out weakly to end the game as the potential tying run in a 7-5 loss.

He had the advantage of a 2-and-0 count against Dodger closer Jonathan Broxton, who'd already given up a home run to Aaron Rowand and a single to Freddy Sanchez. The 300-pound closer grooved a fastball right down the middle, which Posey topped easily to short.

Posey seems jumpy at the plate, as if he's trying to live up to all the expectations of a returning champion/rookie of the year rather than letting his smooth stroke work itself out. He showed a glimpse of his signature inside-out-swing earlier in the game with a two-out RBI single to right field, but in big moments so far, he has looked overwhelmed. He has admitted to early-season jitters. Maybe it's too much to have him in the four-hole, in the same way Pablo Sandoval was asked to take up a leadership role as the No. 3 hitter last year.

-- It's a tough call to know when to take out one of the buffaloes in the Giants' outfield, but Sunday night, Manager Bruce Bochy was probably kicking himself for not pulling the trigger in the bottom of the 7th.

The Dodgers' four-run seventh might have happened anyway, but Aubrey Huff's misplay on a deep but playable fly ball by Marcus Thames that ended up as an RBI triple opened the floodgates. If Nate Schierholz had entered as a defensive replacement in right field, he likely catches it, there are two outs and the Dodgers' hit parade might never materialize.

But Pat Burrell had just hit a home run to tie the game, 3-3, and Bochy was still thinking he needed his big bats in the lineup.

It's part of the conundrum that having Brandon Belt in the lineup poses. If Bochy wants to keep the two big bats, Huff and Burrell, late in a tie or close game, he could bring Huff in to first base with Schierholz going into right. But that creates confusion with Belt: Do the Giants see him as a potent asset in the lineup or not? Or is he just a movable part who isn't valuable enough to keep in the lineup in late innings?

-- That doesn't even touch on the issue of what happens when Cody Ross returns. Belt could be on a short leash: if he winds up slowing down from his spring training pace, it may force the Giants to rethink their decision to start with him on the roster. But if he does enough to stay up, what happens to the outfield configuration? Does Huff move over to left field and Burrell to the bench? Or, if Huff and Burrell are hot, does Ross return to the roster as a reserve?

(It's a tough enough call for the Giants to decide who will have to leave the roster, and it looks more and more than Schierholz is the odd man out.)

-- Belt passed a test in the eighth when Matt Guerrier walked Burrell to load the bases to get to the rookie. The veteran reliever couldn't get Belt to bite on the first three just out of the strike zone. Guerrier got the 3-0 pitch that should have been Ball 4. But Belt did a great job to draw the bases loaded walk, letting a slider down low go by. A marvelous job of patience by the kid, made all the more impressive when veteran Miguel Tejada got himself out on the first pitch by swinging at an ankle high fastball to pop out and end the threat.

"The rookie showed him up," said ESPN's Bobby Valentine, correctly. "It was a ridiculous approach."

-- Another interesting moment: Keeping Sandoval in to face lefty Hong-Chih Kuo with one out and two runners on in the eighth. Sandoval falls behind 1 and 2 before chasing a hard breaking curve in on his hands and above the letters for the punchout. Bochy has told Pablo he is not platooning him, so couldn't very well have pinch hit for him in that spot. But Sandoval will have to come through in those moments and disprove all the evidence from last year that begs for a platoon.

That situation cries out for Mark DeRosa if Sandoval doesn't get cracking soon from the right side.

-- Rowand keeps inserting himself into the picture, with a pinch-hit home run following a two-hit game on Saturday. Not to take anything away from the production, but it should be remembered that Rowand's home run came on an 88-mile per hour slider from Jonathan Broxton, and his two hits came off soft-tossing lefty Ted Lilly. The key is putting Rowand in positions where he can succeed: against middling pitching.

-- When the game was still in the balance, starter Barry Zito came through with a performance that would have been more memorable if the Giants had won.

Zito had just walked two straight with one out in the sixth inning, appearing to have lost the bite off his off-speed stuff. Matt Kemp, who has long tormented Zito (he came into Sunday's game with a .419 lifetime batting average against him in 43 at bats), stepped to the plate. Kemp had already notched a monster home run in the first inning off Zito. Yet, no one in the bullpen was even close to ready.

It looked like Bochy was caught unprepared as Kemp strode to the plate with Guellermo Mota just beginning to warm up. Zito was a man stranded on an island with sharks circling, and fell behind in the count, 3 and 1 to boot. But Zito induced Kemp to fly out to right field on a fastball just above the strike zone. And he got the dangerous Juan Uribe to pop out to get out of the threat.

That nice performance, which capped five straight hitless innings after a shaky first inning, got lost in the ensuing 7th inning collapse. But it should be remembered when all the talk lathers up before his next start.