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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.

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