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Sunday, May 29, 2011

Two-strike hits the bane of Cain

So much for the infusion of youth. Adding Manny Burriss, Brandon Crawford, Brandon Belt and Chris Stewart to Sunday's lineup did little more than accentuate the desperate straits the Giants are in, while the rest of the depleted offense continued its lifeless sleepwalk through the season.

Going up against tough right hander Yovani Gallardo on Sunday was no picnic, but Giants hitters had the added challenge of a home plate umpire, Mike Winters, who added six inches to the plate on the outside corner -- which Gallardo exploited all day.

But the biggest disappointment was Matt Cain's performance. Even if you allow that he was nicked by dunkers and seeing-eye base hits in the Brewers' two-run first inning, Cain looked pedestrian, making poor pitches in bad locations when it counted.

And he could not put the Brewers away when he had count leverage. He gave up six two-strike base hits, meaning that a) his location was bad and b) he didn't have the stuff to put them away. Particularly galling was the two-out, two-strike base hit he gave up to No. 8 hitter Yuniesko Betancourt that opened the way to the two-run sixth inning rally that put the game away.

In the first inning, Cain had Nyjer Morgan  in a 1-2 hole before giving up a single on a full count fastball. He also gave up an infield single to Ryan Braun after going ahead 1-and-2. Those hits contributed to the Brewers early 2-0 start.

In the third inning, Cain had Braun down 0-and-2 before he gave up a single on a 1-2 count. Braun stole second, and Prince Fielder, after falling behind 0-and-2, raked a line drive RBI single up the middle on a slider that was low but hung out over the plate. Cain gave up a two-strike single to Casey McGhee before getting out of the third down 3-0.

He shut the Brewers down effectively in the fourth and fifth innings in a game effort to keep the game within reach. And in the sixth, Cain got the first two outs and jumped to an 0-and-2 advantage on Betancourt. He tried to put him away with a slider low and away, but it once again hung up just enough and Betancourt stung it for a hit.

It was a Cardinal sin in a couple ways. First, the free- swinging Betancourt, a .222 hitter, is vulnerable on breaking stuff away, but he lay it in the strike zone -- too good a pitch with two strikes. Second, Cain didn't even make an attempt at exploiting Winters' wide strike zone. Where was the fastball six inches away?

Sure, the Giants were effectively dead by then, a team that looked thoroughly incapable of overcoming a 3-0 deficit. But they overcame a 3-1 deficit Friday on Crawford's grand slam, so holding the Brewers was essential.

Instead, Cain gave up a bloop single to Gallardo, and then missed his target on Rickie Weeks -- trying to get in on his hands, he threw a fastball that drifted over the plate -- and he paid for it with a two-run, two-out double.

The last thing the Giants can afford is for the pitching to start slumping. They have been forced to pitch with no margin for error, and have performed largely within that margin. Unfortunately, mistakes are magnified by the weak and moribund offense.

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As the Giants Universe has searched for meaning out of Buster Posey's season-ending injury, many have focused on finding a suitable replacement for Posey behind the plate. But, as Giants General Manager Brian Sabean has noted, there aren't too many available catchers who would do much better than Eli Whiteside, who is being given the chance to fill in.

The other, more viable option, is to try to find a position player who could add some spark to the lineup.  Marty Lurie, the KNBR sports phone talk show host, suggested outfielder Carlos Beltran, who is in his last year of his contract with the Mets and appears to be recovered from knee ailments that slowed him down over the last two years.

That would mean a complete rethinking of the Giants outfield, which may be what's needed. Sunday's outfield alignment of Nate Schierholz, Andres Torres and Brandon Belt could be what Bruce Bochy wants to ride for a few days to see if the combination can amount to anything. Belt had a pair of promising swings with a long fly ball to left field and an opposite field soft line drive single to left. That's what the Giants want to see from him, so if he can continue with that approach they may have some patience.

Though Schierholz has provided dazzle with dramatic hits and defensive plays, he still is at just .255. Cody Ross' streakiness is a bit maddening. Pat Burrell's power drought -- now at 84 at bats -- has become a weight around the Giants neck. Aaron Rowand is getting less and less playing time. Even Andres Torres, considered the one steady presence both offensively and defensively, is hitting just .250.

So, there's an argument for adding some muscle to the outfield.

As for the newest cleanup hitter, Aubrey Huff's 4-6-3 double play ground ball in the 9th was a perfect example of how dead the middle of the order is. The Giants were just starting to kick something up in the ninth -- nothing to get too excited about, but runners on first and second on a pair of hits, with no outs. And Huff comes up with the real buzz kill with a roll-over twin-killer.

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Another example of the modern manager's indifference to one of the standards of pitching prowess, the shutout: Ron Roenicke's decision to pull Gallardo after eight innings. He was dominant and breezed through eight innings with a 6-0 lead, and had thrown only 109 pitches. Why not allow him that shot for a shutout?

The obsession with pitch count protection once again raises its ugly head.

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When Mike Krukow mentions rock fights, does anyone have any idea that he's literally talking rock fights? He was talking about Santiago Casilla's younger brother, a pitcher in the Giants organization, who throws maybe even harder than the Giants pitcher.

"So, you didn't want to get into a rock fight with them," Krukow said.

We had them in the late '60s and early '70s in Berkeley. You might be standing on one end of a lot with a bunch of your friends and suddenly a rock would explode at your feet. You'd look up and there was another gaggle of kids across the field, and it was on: you'd throw rocks back. You'd rarely get hit; you'd see 'em coming and you'd dodge them, as they would your throws. But it was scary, dangerous and thrilling enough for an 8-year old kid.

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