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Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Burrell's gritty approach to Cubs pitcher captured spirit of Giants

Is there any one thing that defines the Giants as they march through the end of June with such gusto?

Luck and pluck? Dominating pitching? Timely hitting? The Dark Arts?

Let me begin with Pat Burrell.

The slugging outfielder has been relegated to bench duties after deservedly losing his starting role -- perhaps slouching toward retirement -- because he just hasn't provided the power and consistency he showed last year.

But Tuesday in Game 1 of the doubleheader sweep of the Cubs, Burrell provided yet another variation on the multi-layered explanation of who the Giants are.

The story as Boss Bochy told it to radio Hall of Famer Jon Miller is that Burrell lobbied, or "campaigned" (I love political analogies in baseball) to get the start in Game 1 of Tuesday's doubleheader. Even though he was 1-for-15 lifetime against Cubs starter Doug Davis, Burrell was adamant he could solve the left-hander Tuesday.

TV color man Mike Krukow spoke of how unapproachable Burrell was before the game, saying that he is typically the most engaging and friendly person before games but on this occasion, you didn't want to get in his way.

It's not easy to follow through with a promise in baseball. Too many unforeseen events can lay waste to the best plans. But Burrell had a plan and was determined to put it to work.

The Giants had just scored two runs in the first inning off Davis, but Pablo Sandoval had killed a bases loaded no-out buzz by hitting into a double play and Davis was looking as if he'd minimized the damage.  With Aubrey Huff on third, though, Burrell put on a beautiful inside-out swing on a cut fastball riding in on his hands for a clean single to right and a gut-punch RBI.

Those two-out run-scoring base hits -- especially after it looks like you're going to pitch out of a potentially damaging inning -- can prompt a pitcher to "evil thoughts," as Krukow put it.

You could just picture Burrell working on that swing in his hotel mirror the night before -- or maybe up all night with his old pal Huff talking about how to counter the cut fastball that Davis had gotten him out with over the years.

So, punch and judy can work for a big guy. But, Burrell's game is the long ball, and in his next at bat, after the Cubs had tied the game, 3-3, he mixed the brawn with the brain to hit a long three-run home run into the teeth of an unforgiving Wrigley Field wind.

It was a wonderful display of intellect and power. Burrell had fallen behind in the count 0-and-2, though he had good swings. He laid off a curve in the dirt, and did not bite on an 81 MPH fastball that drifted just off the plate on the inside corner, one of those cutters intended to break your bat. Burrell knew what Davis was trying to do, and looked out at him as if to say, "I got you figured out."

Davis thought he should have had the strikeout, and pouted for a moment on the mound. So, he tried the same pitch again, and it might have been in the exact same spot -- probably the same spot that had retired Burrell those 14 times. But Burrell ambushed the pitch. He cleared his hips -- so important for a power hitter, and especially important on a fastball boring in on your hands -- and let loose for a cannon shot into left.

Burrell knew what was coming in both his first two at bats, and did what he wanted to in each case. It was a case of an old pro wanting desperately to be a part of a winning thing, applying some Black Eye under furrowed brows and setting a tone that the rest of the team would follow.


That's the thing about the Giants. The stories of furrowed brows, grim determination abound.

-- Andres Torres, coming back after a two-game benching with a big three-hit night and home run that keyed the third win of their current seven-game streak.

-- Tim Lincecum, just as speculation was growing over whether he'd lost his confidence and was headed into another pitching Black Hole, turning in a 12-strikeout performance with a flurry of roll-off-the-table split-fingers, complemented by 95 MPH fastballs, that dazzled Twins hitters.

-- Madison Bumgarner, coming off his historically awful outing against the Twins -- the last loss before the Giants embarked on their winning streak -- with an endearing performance with 11 strikeouts in seven innings. Endearing because he may have won the hearts and minds of even the critics who were calling for him to step aside for Barry Zito (what silly short-sightedness from those who were willing to forget he'd been so good in his previous 10 starts!).

-- Jeremy Affeldt, who had begun to absorb the venom of some Giants fans, who were even going after him for his Zen-like tweets. He has come back with a vengeance and is pitching as good or better than his peak in 2009. His 5-strikeout job on the ESPN Sunday night game was a wonderful exclamation point to the statement he's making. In my notes I'd written after he'd pitched a quick 1-2-3 eighth inning: Keep him in there!

-- Zito. After all the angst over his return, all the angry calls demanding the Giants in unlimited ways to get rid of the enigmatic lefty, he turns in a steady, veteran-like performance in Game 2 of the doubleheader. He has forced himself back into the picture, complicating the scene, but wonderfully so.

-- Miguel Tejada, counted out so many times, came through with three hits, including his first home run since April 8 -- did you ever think you'd see another home run from him? And how about Brandon Crawford, with his big two-run double against a lefty, just when it appeared he had been lost for good at the plate?

-- Even in Ryan Vogelsong's middling outing in Game 1 Tuesday, he gritted through rough patches. In the bottom of the third, for instance, just after the Giants had taken a 6-3 lead, the first two batters got on by way of a walk and a drag bunt single. With the middle of the order up, the wind blowing out to right field, the game could have gotten out of hand in a Wrigley-style slugfest.

Vogelsong appeared less sure of himself than he has all season, his pinpoint control wavering. Perhaps he had in the back of his mind worries over whether he was pitching to a) keep his place in the rotation, with Zito returning from the disabled list or b) convince Boss Bochy to pick him for the All-Star game.

But when he dropped a beautiful curve to get ahead of the Cubs' young star, Starlin Castro, he regained a little of the magic. He got Castro to ground into a force at second, but still had the big bats due up with runners at first and third.

Talk about good fortune: he hung a curve ball right down the middle that Aramis Ramirez thankfully fouled off. Then, he got an inexplicable strike call, a real gift from home plate umpire Ted Barrett, at Ramirez' ankle. He then laid an 0-2 fastball way too nicely over the plate that Ramirez ripped down the line, but landed just foul.

Vogelsong finally got a pitch where he wanted: a fastball riding high, eye-level, that Ramirez chased, a big strikeout. But he still had to get through the Cubs' hottest power hitter, Carlos Pena, who had hit a two-run home run two-innings earlier and had a league-high 10 HRs in June. "That's a good year for some," said Krukow, to which his partner, Duane Kuiper, owner of one lifetime HR, quipped, "Or maybe a career."

The final 13-7 score is suggestive of a rout, but at this moment, the game was truly in the balance. And when Vogelsong fell behind 3-and-1, the big question was: how in the heck is he going to get out of this one?

We all know what happened: two beautiful changeups in succession, both pitches seemingly evaporating on the way to the plate as Pena swung mightily through them. They were the kinds of pitches you only threw with either reckless abandon or supreme confidence. You had to hope that Pena hadn't outthought Vogelsong after the first one to lay in wait of another.

Baseball is a game of psychology, of reading your opponent's body language. Catcher Chris Stewart -- the journeyman who has thrust himself into the center of this team's persona with timely hits, whip-like throws to gun out runners and an effervescent presence -- apparently was reading the coil on Pena's swing and saw he was geared up for the fastball. He went out to Vogelsong, and has been reported, told him to stick with the changeup.

He did, Pena fell for it, and the lead was preserved, to be padded only two innings later with a five-run outburst.

It is these stories of guts and perseverance, of pluck and luck, that continue to define the Giants.

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