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Saturday, April 9, 2011

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.

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