Total Pageviews

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Who goes when Zito returns?

As he's establishing himself as a true force in the Giants' rotation, Ryan Vogelsong has inspired a debate raging through Giant Land like a coastal storm: who goes when the injured Barry Zito returns from the disabled list?

It seems inconceivable at this point that Vogelsong would be jettisoned. The Giants are 4-0 in his starts, and outside of his one flawed start in New York, he has brought a sense of stability and order to the end of the Giants' rotation.

There is the thought of demoting Madison Bumgarner, especially if his numbers (0-6) don't improve. But even that talk is discomfiting. Anyone watching the kid lefty pitch knows he has thrown exceptionally well in his last four performances, give or take a couple bad innings (his last outing Friday was beset by a bunch of chintzy bloopers).

Inserting Zito in the rotation would break up a good thing. Worse, it would pull the rotation down. Zito inspires anxiety with every start he makes, every 83 MPH fastball, every flat curve and telegraphed changeup. Hell, he's three weeks away from his next start and he's evoking dread.

The ultimate solution -- outside of eating the remainder of his $126 million contract (put away those dreams of dealing him to another team; it won't happen) -- would be to put Zito into the back of the bullpen, preserve him for mop-up duty, keep him as far away from tight spots as possible.

Unfortunately, that won't happen. The Baseball Code, for one, dictates that a player doesn't lose his spot in the lineup or rotation after an injury (though Wally Pipp could tell you there are exceptions). One could make the case that Zito got injured precisely when patience with him had already worn thin.

For two, the Giants are not willing to lose face on their contract blunder. Management seems determined to search for any value in return for their investment.

My prediction is that when Zito returns -- and remember, he's still about three weeks away -- he will get his spot back in the rotation, and Vogelsong will become the swing man. Two things: by then, Vogelsong could well have plummeted back to earth and the issue will have resolved itself. Or, Zito could come back and be his bad self and make Boss Bochy's decision for him.

Or, Zito could come back a world beater, and Vogelsong would drift back into the obscurity from whence he came.

In his rain-shortened six inning shutout on Saturday, Vogelsong got a number of key outs Saturday but the one that made him -- put him on the map as a guy who just might stick around -- was his strikeout of Alfonzo Soriano in the first inning.

It came with the bases loaded, two outs and the Cubs threatening to put the Giants in a hole early on -- a day after the Cubs' series opening 11-4 win.

It exemplified the stirring exhibition he has put on display in his storybook return to the big leagues.

Vogelsong had just got Marlon Byrd to line out softly to short, just missing on an inning-ending double play on a blown call at second when Miguel Tejada's underhand throw to Freddie Sanchez appeared to arrive just ahead of Starlin Castro.

So, he would have to pitch through an added challenge: Soriano, the Cubs' leading home run hitter with 11. Falling behind 2-and-0 on a pair of curves didn't help matters. Vogelsong got back in the count, though, when Soriano helped him out by fouling off a fastball that was low and outside -- could have been ball three.

His next pitch was a test in the battle. Could he get in on Soriano's hands without damage? He did. A 91 MPH fastball with real good movement, and all Soriano could do was foul it back off the handle. Vogelsong would go back there in a moment.

First, a curve low and away that Soriano fought off with a dribbler to the left side to even the count at 2-and-2. Then a curve low and away that Soriano took, running the count full.

Vogelsong then reached back for his best fastball of the day: a 93 MPH heater with movement that darted in on Soriano's hands, similar to the fourth pitch of the sequence. This time, Soriano missed completely, a swing-through strikeout that symbolized Vogelsong's mental toughness matched only by his pinpoint accuracy.

(Apologies to Andrew Baggerly of the Mercury News for upstaging him on this: the beat writer for the Bay Area News Group inexplicably described it as a strikeout on a curve. Go back to the DVR on this one, ExtraBaggs: it was a heater, pure and simple).

(This is the second time in three games that I've had to correct ExtraBaggs: the other day he described Cody Ross' game-winning hit as "dumping" a base hit down the left field line when in fact he'd scorched it. Gotta keep an eye on these glib beat reporters!)

Vogelsong's performance was truly stellar, inducing a pair of double plays -- one on a magnificent short hop pickup by Tejada after he watched a soft-hit grounder with English go under his glove a batter earlier -- to pitch through other potentially game-changing jams (more on Tejada in a moment).

Vogelsong pitched as if the elements -- driving rain, hard winds and near-freezing temperatures -- were nothing compared to the circumstances that the 33-year old journeyman has had to overcome to get where he is.

Banged around the majors, never fulfilling the star tag he'd worn as a high draft pick for the Giants, injured (with a 5.60 lifetime ERA to prove it), resurrecting his arm in Japan, only to land back in his original organization for a look this spring (after brief stops with the Phillies and Angels). He opened eyes, was sent down to Triple A Fresno before getting the call to fill in for Barry Zito. And with each outing, he's made believers of Bochy, et al.

On Saturday, Vogelsong's focus was intense, his determination fixed, his inner drive only obscured by the outward presence of calm he brought to the mound.

Remember the moment because it will fade in the confusing array of decisions on the horizon.


A similar verbal bruhaha is developing over Tejada. Giants fans are up in arms over his continued presence in the lineup. Tejada's two errors Saturday sent many off the ledge, and his three give-away at bats certainly didn't help.

One point: his first error was a tougher play than most can appreciate. It was like a changeup with extra English on it, with a skid to boot. The ball appeared at first to be hit harder than it was. Instead, it was cued off the bat, and spun a bit and then skidded off the wet infield grass. If fans think Tejada can't field an easy ground ball that this one appeared to be -- but wasn't -- they are being guided too easily by their emotions.

His second error is harder to defend. He had it in his glove, it popped out and he was unable to get a handle on it. But however much fans want to aim their frustrations at Tejada, his second error was more a result of harsh conditions -- rain driving in your face, wet grass and uneven dirt, cold that numbs your hands -- than any lack of concentration or desire on Tejada's part.

Tejada has actually played well defensively overall. He has been just short of brilliant at third, and has made some tough plays that have been overlooked because his hitting has been so atrocious. Let's just say that if he was hitting -- even to last year's sub-standard .269 -- his defense would not be getting the scrutiny it's getting.

It looks like Bochy has pulled the trigger on exiling Tejada to the bench in favor of Mike Fontenot -- or at least that's what he'd indicated yesterday. But though Fontenot had spurts of excellence, he is in the midst of his own 0-for-15 funk to land back on the bench, was a bit shaky on defense and is not the long-term answer at shortstop.

Seems as though Bochy had a change of heart today: according to Baggerly, he put out an initial lineup that had Fontenot in and Tejada out; but a second lineup, apparently after seeing that Cubs starter Carlos Zambrano has been tougher on left handed hitters than righties, reinserted Tejada.

Then the game was weathered out, giving Bochy another day to chew on the shortstop cud.

No comments:

Post a Comment