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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.

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