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Friday, June 17, 2011

Bochy's strategy is getting bolder; Affeldt & Huff are hot

A perfectly executed hit and run to get the game going in the first inning, a safety squeeze with two strikes in the second inning, and a two-out steal of home on a double-steal rundown in the fifth inning.

And that was just Game 1 of the series against the Arizona Diamondbacks.

How about Cody Ross' steal of third and score on an error when Boss Bochy sent him on a full-count to Eli Whiteside in Game 3 Thursday? Whiteside struck out on a changeup out of the strike zone, and Ross would have been nailed at third, but the throw was wide, Ross kicked the ball accidentally into foul territory, and came around to score.

Who does Bochy think he is? Billy Martin?

In the 80s with the A's, it was Billy Ball. Can we call it Bochy Ball? Or does that sound too much like Italian lawn bowling reserved for grey haired men in green Sans A Belts?

Whatever you want to call it, the Giants have added yet more layers to their growing personality, evolving from last year's Band of Misfits into something that feels like a M.A.S.H. unit, replete with a triage unit.

It is an Ever Changing Moveable Feast, an evolving cast of characters that give the Giants their 2011 imprint. Some emerge from dark shadows to make their mark (think of the scorned backup catcher  Whiteside, who in taking over the beloved Buster Posey's spot, has mostly wilted under the glare, but had that booming RBI triple in Wednesday's 5-2 win), others whom seem to continually shine in clutch spots (think Nate Schierholtz with his countless dramatic hits).

As it's become apparent that the Giants have something magical going -- how else can you explain their continual hold on first place despite the devastating injuries, not to mention their oft-anemic offense? -- Bochy has begun to push more buttons on offense to a) force the issue with an offense still needing to make up for its lack of team power and b) tap into the mystique.

In each of the plays listed above, Bochy was courting disaster but threw caution to the wind. Was he trusting in the fates that seem to be on the Giants' side? Or does he just have confidence that things will work out if he just pushes the envelope? Either way, Bochy seems to have arrived at a comfortable place with his offense.

It's helped that the middle of the order has come to life. In the three-game series vs. the Diamondbacks, the hitters in the 3-4-5-6-7 spots in the lineup hit .339 (19-for-56) scoring 11 of the team's 14 runs with seven RBI and seven walks (for a .413 on base percentage).

Pablo Sandoval's return has definitely lengthened the lineup, having maybe the most positive effect on Aubrey Huff, though he started to show signs of life even before Sandoval returned. Huff is 11-for-25 over the last six games (.440), lifting his batting average 20 points, from .223 to .243. Overall in June, he's hitting .315 (17-for-54).

If he can just regain his power stroke ... Wait. I won't ask. Don't want to mess with a good thing going.


One strategic move by Bochy was interesting to track as Thursday's game unfolded.

It was a double switch that I didn't like at the time but worked out nicely for Bochy:

In the bottom of seventh inning, Bochy brought Jeremy Affeldt in to start the seventh, placing him in the No. 6 slot in the lineup where Nate Schierholtz had just hit. The thinking was to move Affeldt back in the lineup so Bochy wouldn't have to pinch hit for him, and allow him to go with Affeldt for two innings.

But it would mean that one of the Giants' top clutch hitters, Schierholtz, would be on the bench if the game went long.

Bochy could have simply kept Schierholtz in and pinch hit Burrell for Affeldt in the eighth without burning Schierholtz. But Bochy saw a string of left handed hitters that he wanted Affeldt to face in a second inning of work.

After plowing through the seventh, Affeldt began the eighth by getting Stephen Drew to ground out to short (nice backhanded play and strong throw by Brandon Crawford). But then he gave up a double to Justin Upton on a 1-2 pitch, and an intentional walk to Young.

Affeldt did get out of the jam by striking out a pair of lefty sluggers that Diamondbacks Manager Kirk Gibson curiously allowed to hit: Miguel Montero on three beauties: a curve, a sinking fastball and a changeup that broke his swing down badly; and Juan Miranda, on a 1-2 changeup.

So, that worked out nicely.

And in the top of the ninth, Schierholtz' spot in the lineup indeed did come up with runners at first and third with one out, the very situation in which Nate has been great. Instead, it was Burrell, who, after looking overpowered by closer J.J. Putz on a couple 94 MPH fastballs, drove home the tying run with a sacrifice fly to left (his first of the year).

The move paid off in two ways: Affeldt got to pitch two effective innings and Burrell came through with a clutch game-tying RBI. Though I would have liked Nate in there in a close game late, you can't argue with success.

In the end, strategy didn't matter. It was just country hardball: Upton going oppo taco on Santiago Casilla to frustrate Giants' chances at a sweep.


Best line of the night, from Mike Krukow: "is that the rainbow Judy Garland was talking about?" on an Affeldt curve that sent Montero buckling at the knees.


Another example of how good Affeldt is going now: Kelly Johnson, 5-for-8 lifetime against him, struck out on three pitches, a beautiful curve that had him bending away in fear for strike two and a fastball right by him for the big K. Affeldt has the look of 2009 back.

Affeldt has lowered his ERA from 6.00 to 3.81 in the last couple weeks. In that span, he's not allowed a single run in 10 1/3 innings, only six hits and two walks with 12 strikeouts.

Not bad for a former Lugnut.* (see bottom for reference)


Ryan Vogelsong's overall work this season has been inspirational because of his backstory, but it's been impressive by the sheer confidence he takes to the mound for a guy who entered this year with a lifetime ERA in the high 5's. If there's a word that describes him, it's gutsy, reflecting a perseverance that he needed to get back to the major leagues after some real trials.

On Thursday, there were three moments that captured that gutsiness:

--In a 12-pitch duel with Chris Young, Vogelsong kept pounding the fastball -- in, out, in, out, the last five pitches fouled off before finally getting him to fly out easily to center field;

-- in a two-out fifth-inning jam with runners on first and second and a 3-0 count to the dangerous Justin Upton, he went right at Upton, who got the green light and popped out to second on a fastball that had just enough movement to miss Upton's sweet spot;

-- and in the sixth, with a runner on and two outs, he fell behind 3-and-0 to Ryan Roberts. With left-handed hitter Gerrardo Parra on deck, lefty Affeldt in the bullpen, and his pitch count over 110, he knew this would be his last hitter. If he wanted a shot at a win, he needed the out right now.

He got back into the count with a couple strikes and then got Roberts to pop out weakly to close out yet another strong performance.


Affeldt, a former Kansas City Royals farmhand, pitched his A ball in Lansing, Michigan, for the Lugnuts, alongside teammate Carlos Beltran. The team name commemorated the city's auto manufacturing history. In my Lansing days as a political reporter, I got to see Affeldt pitch in those early days -- and even sat next to him one game as he charted pitches behind the plate -- and to say the least, he's come a long way.

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