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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.

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