Total Pageviews

Sunday, July 31, 2011

A tinge of buyer's remorse; team chemistry tested with new additions

Maybe the Giants should have just phoned in a forfeit Sunday against the Reds. It would have been the same result (9-0) , and they could have gotten home earlier to decompress from a draining, fruitless weekend in Cincinnati.

You hate to think that the clubhouse chemistry has gone out of whack, but the immediate effects of the Giants' big acquisition, Carlos Beltran, certainly coincided with a disjointed performance against a Reds team that was on its back after a four-game sweep at the hands of the middling New York Mets.

Of course, even a Ruthian or Bondsian weekend from Beltran may not have been enough for the Giants, at least in the final two games of the series, when they were outscored 16-2.

Beltran had several opportunities to put the Giants on top in Friday night's 13-inning 4-3 loss; Saturday, a big hit could have drawn the Giants closer at several points in their 7-2 loss, but by the end of Sunday's 9-0 loss, his seventh-inning single to right was consequential only in the fact that he would not be coming home in an 0-for-12 slide.

As it is, Beltran will return to San Francisco as a Giant for the first time Monday in a 2-for-17 funk since his trade. Before he was brought over from New York, Beltran had already been mired in a 4-for-18 slide, so he may be in the midst of a verifiable slump (6-for-35 in his last 10 games, dropping from .293 to .278).

He seemed pretty vulnerable to slow stuff away and curves down and in, and come to think of it, he never quite got around on the rare fastball they threw him. And, the Reds' Dusty Baker had a particularly sadistic habit of bringing in tough lefties to turn him over to his weaker right side whenever he needed a big out.

Don't worry, though! The Giants brought in reinforcements! Orlando Cabrera! Who is having exactly the same kind of offensive season as their other aging, declining shortstop. And meanwhile, the Giants let center fielder Michael Bourn (.303, a major league leading 39 stolen bases) get away to the Braves.

And the Arizona Diamondbacks dealt for Jason Marquis, who just kills the Giants, in time for a head-to-head three-game series just as they drew to within two. Marquis, who is slated to start against the Giants on Wednesday, threw a five-hit shutout against the Giants in April. Recently, he's stunk up the joint (26 1/3 IP, 32 H 16 ER 13 BB for a 5.46 ERA), but he has used AT&T, his favorite ballpark to pitch in, to get out of funks before.

This should be a time of fervent anticipation and high expectations as we head into the final third of the season.

Instead, the swirl of changes on the Giants and around the league has only brought about apprehension, confusion, and maybe a tinge of buyer's remorse. If the Giants could have chosen between the 34-year old Beltran, who is on his way out at the end of the season anyway, and the Astros' Hunter Pence -- younger by six years, hitting .306, and under contract for the next two years -- wouldn't the smart money have been on Pence?

The Phillies, who rebounded from their series loss to the Giants with a three-game sweep of the Pittsburgh Pirates, landed Pence for a pitching prospect who was lower on Baseball America's list of top prospects (by six slots). Could the Giants have nabbed Pence for Zack Wheeler? Did they blink first, relinquishing the best moves to the Phillies and Braves?

Bourn would have been a dynamic addition: he would have given the Giants a bona fide leadoff hitter, a game-changer both on offense and defense. The Braves gave up a middling outfielder, Jordan Schafer (.240, with 15 stolen bases) and three minor league pitchers, but none are off-the-chart prospects. In fact, they held onto their top four pitching prospects.

Could the Giants have offered center fielder Thomas Neal, hitting .295 at AAA Fresno, and maybe a pitcher or two from their system for Bourn -- even after they had landed Beltran? Did General Manager Brian Sabean work that angle hard enough?

I can't imagine he is satisfied with his current leadoff situation. They are left with the antithesis of a leadoff hitter in Aaron Rowand (.293 on base, two stolen bases) pairing with a confused and overwhelmed Andres Torres. Too often already, Beltran came up in the Reds series with two outs or leading off an inning -- because the bottom two or three slots in the lineup are combining with the leadoff slot to create a vast desert of opportunities.

Instead, they got Cabrera to add "stability" at shortstop and bring in post-season experience, though that's been worth only a .228 batting average (34-for-149). If you take what he's done since his first post-season performance in 2004, he's hit .188 (17-for-90) since.

And now that they've got their big "slugger" in the middle of the lineup -- remember, Beltran has only 15 home runs, and AT&T isn't going to exactly beef up his numbers -- the Giants will see whether high expectations for him will mess with their psyche.

Without Beltran, they had to find a way to win, often relying on the least expected ways to win, from the least expected sources: think Chris Stewart's squeeze bunt, or Nate Schierholtz' half-dozen two-strike, two-out game-changing base hits.

With Beltran, will they find themselves putting too many expectations on him to come through for them? And if he doesn't, how much air does that take out of the offense?


There should be little doubt that Zito has made his last start for the Giants, unless he's needed in an absolute emergency.

Whatever he did to turn himself around for those first three starts after his long rehab stint, Zito has returned to form: a fastball that hovers around 84 MPH, a changeup that may get up there six or eight miles slower (ideally, you want a difference of 10 MPH) and hangs out over the plate, and a curve that has been rendered moot by his inability to command the first two.

The only good thing you could say about his performance Sunday was that he didn't give up a three-run home run.

But now that he is presumably going to the bullpen, what role will he play? As KNBR's Marty Lurie asked during the 13-inning Friday night affair, who would we rather have go long in an extra inning game: Zito or Guillermo Mota, who has become quite effective in long roles? Could you imagine Zito holding the Reds down for two and two-thirds innings, as Mota did?

Perhaps they can just use him for mop up relief, to spare Mota, who has done that job, too. But, work would be rare indeed if you could just hold Zito out for mop up duties. Whatever role he plays, he's taking up a roster space that could otherwise be used for a utility guy off the bench.

It appears an unsolvable problem, given the magnitude of Zito's contract. No one will take him. The Giants will only use him in an emergency. And they're doomed to suffer the consequences of his batting practice sessions.

Here's hoping that the Giants employ the phantom injury again, send Zito back to the disabled list, and hope they can stretch it out until the September call-ups. Or maybe, in a daydream I had as I watched him struggle Sunday and as one of my readers, Ernie Nackord, suggested, Zito will finally come to his senses and understand that his career is kaput, that he is holding on too long, and call it quits.

He may feel that he is obligated to pitch out the remainder of his contract. The worst of it is that he may feel he needs to continue pitching so he can collect his paycheck. Could he work out a settlement? Too far fetched, I'm sure. It doesn't hurt to dream, and contemplate all options.

Friday, July 29, 2011

Edgy Giants retain edge over complacent Phils

When Ryan Howard loped casually after Michael Martinez' errant throw that bounced into foul territory behind first base Thursday night, allowing Giants catcher Chris Stewart to score all the way from first, it all became clear again why the Giants beat the Phillies in the playoffs last year.

And why the Giants retain an edge on purportedly the best team in the major leagues.

Yes, they do have the best record in the majors. But, against the Giants, at least, the Phillies have the look of a team that believes it is still owed, still entitled to, the respect of a World Champion two years after the fact.

They couldn't stomach the notion that the Giants were the better team last year, that they actually beat them to take the Phillies' place as the reigning National League and World champions. Howard epitomized the disbelief in his refusal to accept the final call in Game 6, a third strike painted over the outside edge of the plate by Brian Wilson.

Replays clearly show that the pitch was spot on and home plate umpire Tom Hallion's emphatic call -- the upwart thrust of his right arm so apt, so in tune with the moment -- was justified. By no means was this Eric Gregg and Livan Hernandez, circa 1997.

And here was Howard on Thursday night, jogging after the errant throw, coolness rather than urgency in his stride. One run had already scored from third, and third base coach Tim Flannery, picking up on the vibe, waved Stewart home. Howard's throw arrived just a bit late, and the hustle play earned the Giants a gigantic lead by their standards, 4-0, which they never relinquished en route to a 4-1 win.

Now that the Giants just beat them two out of three in their home park, in front of their 179th straight sellout crowd -- breaking the Phils' streak of nine straight series victories -- now, are they convinced that the Giants are for real?


The Phillies' fans booed lustily at Carlos Beltran as he strode to the plate in the first inning, scorned wooers left at the altar, indignant that he'd been shipped to a team beneath their regard, plucked out of the Big Apple right out from beneath their noses and handed to the team that torments them.

The Phillies apparently were unwilling to do what the Giants did: part with their top pitching prospect, Jarred Cosart, who ranks 45th among Baseball America's top prospects, six notches below Zack Wheeler.

But the Giants reminded the Phillies of their greatest need: an offense that can solve the team they expect to face again in the playoffs.

After the Giants' 2-1 win Wednesday on the shoulders of Matt Cain's brilliant seven-inning outing, a Philadelphia sportswriter deftly observed that it "reinforced a lesson the Phillies learned last October: Everything can be rendered meaningless if they do not find a way to hit San Francisco pitching when it counts."

And after the Giants' 4-1 win Thursday behind Tim Lincecum, who apparently got extra motivation to pitch after being heckled earlier in the series by fans, mocking him for the illness that kept him from pitching in the first two games, another writer opined: "If anything, the Giants held a mirror up the Phillies and showed them their most glaring blemish -- the need for another productive bat, preferably from the right side." asked readers to weigh in. Are the Giants better than the Phillies? Some still clung to the idea that the Giants are doing it on a wing and prayer:

"Honestly, I have no idea how the Giants are any good. Don't get me wrong, their pitching is unbelievable (but the Phillies and Braves are just as good). Their lineup is what completely baffles me. They are so bad and yet they come through with clutch hit after clutch hit. I'm still in shock that they won the World Series last year. I thought the Rangers would destroy them. I guess they are legit, but I still can't believe my eyes." -- Penfold18.

For others, the truth is slowly dawning on them:

"Our aces will need to throw shutouts because our lineup against their best starters appears overmatched. We look nursing home old at the plate. ... The Phils could wind up with the best record in baseball, win the East; however, the Giants are clearly the better at the little things. Plain and simple, San Francisco is better." -- Fan74.

Another had a straightforward strategy on how to dispose of the Giants in the post-season:

"Gotta root for the Braves to knock the Giants out of the NLDS. That's our only hope." -- Jeff1818


Lincecum's mastery over Chase Utley was pure sport, an utter phenomenon to behold.

Three times Utley came up with runners in scoring position -- in the first, third and fifth innings -- and each time, Lincecum overmatched him with his exotic assortment of offerings. The look on Utley's face was pure bafflement every time he walked dejectedly away from the plate.

Utley had a chance to strike first in the bottom of the first with a runner on third with one out -- he didn't even need a hit; just a ground ball to the middle infield would have sufficed -- but on a 2-2 fastball up, he could only muster a pop up to short. Lincecum took care of that first-inning threat by striking out Howard on a beautiful slider.

In the third, the Phils, down 1-0 on Pablo Sandoval's home run, mounted a one-out threat when pitcher Kyle Kendrick slapped a single to right and Jimmy Rollins drew a walk. Lincecum got a break when Michael Martinez' drive to deep center was flagged down by Andres Torres.

There was Utley again in a spot to deliver. But he immediately found himself in a two-strike hole on a pair of devastating split finger changeups, the first right down the middle till it dove eight inches out of sight; the second a nastier version that sank into the dirt but induced a swing.

Then Lincecum proved genius when he threw a 91 MPH fastball belt high right by a shocked and frozen Utley for a called third strike to end the threat. Utley, who entered the series having hit .313 dating back to June 3, looked awed at the pure cunning of a fastball down the middle.

Finally, in the fifth, Lincecum wobbled a bit with a pair of walks, and up came Utley with two outs. He fell behind Utley 3-and-1, but in a reprise of the third inning sequence he got him again: a belt-high splitter that jolted downward for a swing-through strike, and then a nasty payoff splitter that ate dirt -- it bounced at least six inches in front of the plate, for crissakes! Utley, utterly confounded, couldn't lay off on a pitch that would otherwise have loaded the bases, and there went that threat.

Utley, one of the most accomplished hitting second basemen in the history of the game -- he has a lifetime batting average of .293 with 184 home runs in the middle of a career that may take him to the Hall of Fame -- is now 2-for-23 against Lincecum, an .087 mark.


It was rather satisfying to see the Giants win without an offensive contribution from Beltran in his debut.

Beltran went 0-for-4, appearing at the mercy of Kyle Kendrick's change up with a pair of strikeouts. He never had a chance to show his run-producing assets, hitting each time with the bases empty. Three times, he led off an inning to no avail.

But, no matter. The players surrounding him in the lineup appeared at ease -- the intended effect of a new offensive shot in the arm, right?

Pablo Sandoval had his leadoff off-field home run down the left field line in the second to give the Giants an early lead; and Aubrey Huff and Nate Schierholtz paired up for a nice two-out rally in the fourth: Huff with a blast off the right field wall for a double -- now wouldn't that be something if he responds to his new role as a supporting cast member?

And Schierholtz came through in yet another two-strike, two-out spot. He'd fought through eight pitches, breaking his bat on two successive pitches at one point, before stroking a payoff slider down the middle just over the glove of a leaping Utley.

"He has become a specialist in two-strike situations," said TV color man Mike Krukow. "That might be my favorite two-strike at bat of his."

And in their two-run seventh -- the one with Howard acting miffed that he had to run down an errant throw -- the only hit of the inning came on a beautifully executed one-out hit and run single barely through the hole on the right side of the infield by Stewart, the Giants No. 8 hitter and backup to the backup hitting .206. Schierholtz raced around to third, setting up the Phillies' defensive implosion.

It came on pinch hitter Aaron Rowand's grounder to Martinez' back hand. It's not clear that he could have gotten a double play, and he was playing back, so a run would have scored (a puzzlement: why hadn't Charlie Manuel drawn the infield in, down 2-0 late in the game? Was it hubris? Thinking that a third run was no big deal, even in the late innings against the best relief corps in the National League?).

But Martinez booted it, then threw wildly over the 6-foot-5 inch Howard, the ball bounding toward the restraining wall beyond the dugout. At the point that Martinez uncorked his throw, Stewart was just arriving at second base. But Flannery, seeing Howard's indifferent retrieval, brought the catcher scurrying around third and toward home as if on a run-scoring single, and as if the game was on the line.

That run captured the soul of the Giants: an edgy, slightly insecure, often underachieving team that savors the opportunities when they appear, seizes the openings, slight as they may be. There is no self-satisfaction on this team. No sense of entitlement.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

The price to become a true power: a deal with the devil

So, this is what a deal with the devil looks like. A true Faustian Bargain, where Joe Hardy goes to Washington D.C. to steal a championship from the Damn Yankees.

Sending off what could be a centerpiece to the Giants future -- golden-armed Zack Wheeler -- for what is likely to be a two-month-plus rental, Carlos Beltran, unquestionably qualifies as a deal with the devil.

Is this the price the Giants have to pay to become a true national power? It's the age old conundrum that has puzzled baseball executives through the ages: If you have a chance to win it all now, what are you willing to sacrifice?

Detroit Tiger fans still lament the deal that brought Doyle Alexander from the Atlanta Braves in an attempt to go all the way in 1987, but fell short when they lost to the Toronto Blue Jays in the playoffs.Fans were left to witness from afar John Smoltz' Hall of Fame career unfold over the next 21 years, clinging only to the memory of their 1984 World title.

It is certainly a departure for general manager Brian Sabean, typically covetous of the home grown talent that he has cultivated so well over the past dozen years: risking the future for the promise of instantaneous success.

And it's a departure from the cost-conscious, bargain hunting method with which he put together his band of misfits of last year.

Nothing's guaranteed in baseball, but right now it is a bold, brash pivot for the Giants into terrain traditionally occupied strictly by powerhouse franchises like the Yankees, Red Sox and Phillies: a splashy trade-deadline move to secure a strong position heading into the final months of a season.

It was painfully obvious that they were desperate to solidify their offense for potential rematch showdowns with much more heavily equipped Atlanta and Philadelphia in the post-season.

If Beltran helps lead the Giants into the post-season, though, that won't be enough: they probably could have done that without him.

It's what he does in October that will determine his historical place in Giants' lore.

It could come down to a half dozen crucial at bats that Beltran takes in the post-season to determine how good a deal this was. If he ultimately carries the Giants to another World Series title, any success that Wheeler has down the line can be explained away.

If the Giants fall short, however, fans will be watching Wheeler's progress through more than jaded lenses.

For now, the Bay Area is abuzz with anticipation. The idea of having a legitimate power and RBI threat to complement the dominant pitching staff has been what fans have cried for virtually all season -- at least since Buster Posey's season-ending injury.

Sabean should have secured his place as among the best general managers in the game with last year's World Championship, but remains still unloved by his own fan base. Maybe this move will finally elevate him into the kind of status that the Pat Gillicks and Dallas Greens of the game won from their fans.

Maybe the national media will finally take the Giants more seriously now that the West Coast boys have added the biggest bat on the market, dipping right into the Big Apple to add a centerpiece marquee player to the middle of their lineup.

And, they did it right under the nose of the Philadelphia Phillies, who made their own bid for Beltran, and who will have to pitch to him Thursday night in the rubber match of the series (against the Phillies' starter Kyle Kendrick, Beltran has a .316 history -- 6-for-19 with one home run).

The Phillies' Roy Halladay is probably wishing the Phillies made a stronger push for Beltran: the Giants' new right fielder has a long history of success against him, hitting .333, with 14 hits in 42 at bats, two HRs and 10 RBI.

Watch for that key matchup in the upcoming four-game series in early August in San Francisco, and of course, if they indeed face each other in the post season.


The ripple effects of the trade were more like aftershocks.

Beltran is starting in right field, moving Nate Schierholtz over to left in what may turn out to be a brutal competition for playing time among Nate, Cody Ross, Aaron Rowand and Andres Torres.

We'll see whether Beltran is cut out for the vast depths of right field; perhaps after having to roam so much ground on his 34-year old well traveled knees, he'll put in a request for a transfer to left. Taking Schierholtz out of right field appears to be a downgrade on defense.

Early rumors had the Giants releasing Pat Burrell and sending Brandon Belt back to Fresno.

That is now thoroughly discredited. Burrell is on the disabled list until Saturday, and could not be released until then. The Giants announced this morning that they released second baseman Bill Hall to make room on the 40 man roster. They will likely perhaps send Burrell to Fresno for a rehab stint before deciding what to do with him.

Belt remains on the roster, and Emmanuel Burriss gets the demotion, probably the most natural move to make. Burriss was a backup to the backups, and even then he wasn't the most steady on defense and provided little on offense -- though he had some clutch hits to become a strand, thin though it was, in the mosaic the Giants are weaving.

A Belt demotion would have taken some of the glow off the Beltran deal, so the Giants tamped those rumors down fairly quickly.

Fans want to see Belt supplant Huff; a large and loud contingent certainly believe that Boss Bochy has wrongly limited Belt's opportunities as Huff continued to flail at the plate. Belt's dramatic return just a week ago -- it seems so long ago -- hitting a home run and game-winning double against the Dodgers, was rewarded with a spot on the bench, an outrage to many.

The Giants appear to want to give Huff some more time to buck up, hoping that with less pressure to be the Big Guy he can relax and settle into a more secondary role. It will be interesting to see how long they go with him if he continues his relentless drive for the record number of grounders to second, but Bochy and Sabean seem convinced that Huff can return to form, even though the numbers show that Huff's troubles began last August -- when the heat was on.

Even Pablo Sandoval can stand a little support: he's gone 2 for his last 19 in the last six games, dropping from .315 to .298, and has gone without an extra base hit in the last seven games.

A word on Burrell as he awaits his fate: He would be missed. He was a critical component to last year's run to the World Series, provided a great veteran presence in the dugout and clubhouse. The swagger he brought to the team gave them a bravado they hadn't previously had. He was like John Wayne riding a horse across the Montana ridge as he rounded the bases on each of his majestic home runs.

But it's been clear that he has had no place on the Giants this season; he's lost some bat speed, and the magic -- the power, the clutch hits -- he provided last year just hasn't been there.

Losing Burrell would be more upsetting to the team's chemistry if he is on the active roster. So, it may be that the Giants ease him out of the picture at some point before he could return to the active roster.

In offloading Wheeler, a question remains: do they have anything else they'd be willing to deal from their farm system in another deal that brings a catcher over? Short of prized outfielder Gary Brown?


Matt Cain's shutdown job against the Phillies should not be overlooked by the news of the day. He was absolutely stifling in a much-needed outing after the Giants' abysmal performance Tuesday.

Phillies Manager Charlie Manuel, quoted in the Philadelphia Inquirer, had an interesting take on the difference between the Matt Cain who'd never defeated the Phillies in a regular season game and Wednesday night's version:
"He was very aggressive. He threw more fastballs than I thought he'd throw, but he also had good command... He's changed his arm angle. It used to be higher. He dropped it kind of like three-quarters, and the ball gets harder to see."
Here are the big moments in Cain's crisp performance (7 IP, 1 R, 0 ER, 4 H BB 1 SO 1) in Wednesday's 2-1 win:

-- In a two-out threat in the bottom of the second -- on a single to left by Raul Ibanez and a walk to Domonic Brown on an eight-pitch at bat -- Cain fell behind No. 8 hitter Carlos Ruiz two-and-oh. Just when it looked like he was pitching around the dangerous Ruiz with pitcher Cole Hamels on deck, Cain slipped a tantalizing curve in, getting Ruiz to ground out harmlessly.

-- He retired Chase Utley, who has owned him in the past (7-for-15 with three HR, seven RBI), on an easy fly out after giving up a two-out double to Michael Martinez in the third inning.

-- Yet another jam, with a runner on second and two outs in the bottom of the fourth, Brown put up another tough eight-pitch battle to draw the count full. On the payoff pitch, Cain blew high heat right by by the young slugger, a 92 MPH fastball up that he couldn't resist.

-- He treated the meat of the order, Utley and Howard, to his whole repertoire in the bottom of the sixth.  Cain had Utley off balance with a slider on the outside corner, a belt high curve and a changeup for a groundout to second base. Cain fell behind Howard 3-and-1 before unleashing a 94 MPH fastball -- his best of the night -- that Howard fouled weakly, and then an 89 MPH cut fastball that got in on the handle and induced a weak grounder to first to end the inning.

-- In the seventh, Cain's attempt to catch a short pop fly -- he's more aggressive on pop flies than any other pitcher on the Giants' staff -- led to the only run against him. But, after giving up an RBI single to Brown -- off a bad hop at first base -- Cain closed the threat down by getting Ruiz to go after another curve to ground neatly into an inning ending double play.


It was difficult to watch the Brian Wilson-Ryan Howard faceoff in the ninth inning without thinking of the clinching strikeout in the NLCS. I still am amazed that Howard and Phillies fans contend that final pitch, a cutter over the corner, was not a strike. It was clearly over the outside edge.

On this night, Howard took the count full, with Wilson working the inner and outer edges of the strike zone before finally retiring him on an easy fly ball to left. And, yes, it was on a cut fastball.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Who is this Vance Worley kid, anyway?

Who is this Vance Worley kid, the Philadelphia Phillies' starting pitcher opposite Tim Lincecum tonight?

For one, he's a dirtbag. Well, Dirtbag, which is the unofficial nickname for Long Beach State University's baseball team, the 49ers. For another, he's got a mohawk to rival the Giants' Brian Wilson, and he wears glasses that give him an intellectual look to go along with his linebacker body frame (6-foot-2, 235 pounds).

A third round draft pick of the Phillies in 2008, Worley is a Northern California kid: a 2005 graduate of McClatchy High in Sacramento, named that year by Baseball America as Northern California's top pitching prospect. He was drafted by the Phillies in the 20th round that year but opted for Long Beach State.

After making his major league debut with five appearances late last year (1-1, 1.38 ERA), Worley has burst upon the scene this year virtually out of nowhere to post a 6-1 mark and 2.01 ERA.

Worley was up and down earlier this year between AAA LeHigh Valley and Philadelphia, sent down for a third time after a disastrous start in late May against the New York Mets when he gave up 12 hits, eight runs, five earned, in just three innings. At the time, Phillies Manager Charlie Manuel said he needed consistent work, and wasn't getting it up in Philadelphia.

Manuel sent him down with the message that he would be back. "We'll see you shortly," Worley recalled Manuel telling him, according to the Philadelphia Inquirer. "You're a part of this team. You'll be back."

Worley, who turns 24 in September, took it in stride.

"There's things I need to work on anyway," Worley told the Inquirer. "It's been a work in progress. I'm fine with it. I know what I need to do. I'll be back in a start or two."

Three weeks later, he was back, and apparently, he worked out whatever kinks he had. He wound up replacing Roy Oswalt in the rotation. Oswalt went on the disabled list in late June after a disastrous month (1-4, 5.81 ERA).

Worley's been a revelation since then. He's gone 4-0 in six starts with a 0.94 ERA (4 earned runs in 38.1 IP, giving up only 21 hits with 16 walks and 29 strikeouts), defeating the Cubs, Marlins, Mets (twice) and Red Sox.

Worley's name has been raised in trade talks centering around the Houston Astros' Hunter Pence, though Manuel came out yesterday to insist his young starter wasn't going anywhere.

Fans appear to be riding the crest of Worley's success with some trepidation. He's described as not having great stuff with any of his pitches, but has had good command. Here's what one fan wrote this week about him in the Broad Street Journal, a Phillies fan blog:

"None of his pitches are spectacular, but they are all solid and he seems to be willing to throw all of them in any given count. His lack of a top tier pitch made scouts overlook him as a top of the rotation guy. Can he sustain this control? I don’t think so, but it will be fun to find out. I have a feeling Rube may sell high on him. I would trade him for Pence if given the opportunity."
Before his start against the Red Sox, Worley sent someone to get fellow Sacramento Valley (Woodland) ballplayer Dustin Pedroia's autograph on a ball, but the second baseman declined.

"He wouldn't give me one until I met him," Worley told the Associated Press. "Then I threw one up and in on him so I probably won't get it now."

Worley got Pedroia's attention when he threw a high-and-tight fastball in the first inning before striking him out. He went on to win, 2-1, in what the East Coast media was hyping as a preview to the World Series.

“He had great mound presence, and we were all very impressed,” Pedroia said. “It’s really good for a kid that young to have a presence like that on the mound. He’s going to be a good one.”

David Ortiz took an 0-for-4 that night, striking out and flying out twice against the rookie.

“Did that guy just come up or something? Man, because he looked pretty good to me,” Ortiz said of Worley. “He had decent stuff, and it really looks like he’s been around for a long time.

“They’ve got four big starters here, right? Well, he looked like one of them out there tonight. He really looked comfortable. It’s obvious that he’s listening to those big starters over there. It’s rubbing off on him.”

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Old School Bumgarner was masterful

Madison Bumgarner pitches as if he is from another generation, a throwback country hard-baller who hails from a simpler time with few distractions other than a stray thought of roping steer.

He pitches with the wisdom of a veteran and the desire of a lunch-pail blue collar worker scrapping out a living, a guy who relies as much on guile and deception as his strong arm.

The rhythm of his pace, steady, consistent and in concert with the strike zone, has something soulful to it. It's as if he's communing with the game's greats -- like Juan Marichal, Bob Gibson, Steve Carlton, Warren Spahn -- when he toys with the unhittable regions of the strike zone.

It is intriguing to watch the big left-hander, who is still a week shy of 22 years old, pour through opposing hitters as if they never seen such a thing as a major league fastball with movement.

Bumgarner, who betrays no emotion on the mound, conceals his face behind his glove as he peers into the plate for a sign. All you can see are his eyes, steely, cold, blue, remorseless, peering over the glove. 

As he winds up, he kicks his right leg almost up to his throat. But it isn't until almost at the point when he brings his foot to the ground that he begins to take the ball out of his glove.

By then, he is almost fully torqued to throw the ball, his arm fully stretched behind him, and then across his body, the ball comes from seemingly nowhere, as his fully stretched out 6-foot-5-inch, 225-pound frame thrusts menacingly toward the plate.

And his offerings come along a wide spectrum. They explode as a 92 MPH fastball riding up and away from a right hander, or dart as an 88 MPH cut fastball that sweeps with such movement in on the hands of right handers or away from left-hander that they seem to disappear under their hands or under the barrel of their bats.

There's also that hard, downward biting slider that dives into the dirt toward a hitters' back foot. And the slow curve that comes from a foot outside and settles, through the back door, on the outside corner.

On Sunday, Bumgarner, who conceals everything to do with his disposition, revealed his full arsenal to stifle a pretty decent hitting Milwaukee Brewers team.

His dominance was marred only by Ryan Braun's first inning home run (off a not-badly located fastball down and away). He scattered eight hits total, including a leadoff double to opposing pitcher Yovani Gallardo in the top of the third inning.

How he responded to that double, already down, 1-0, was a perfect example of just how tough he's become in responding to adversity.

After Corey Hart moved Gallardo up to third on a sacrifice bunt, Bumgarner put away No. 2 hitter Josh Wilson on three pitches, the punchout on a fastball that rode up and away.

That set up a classic confrontation with Braun, only two innings removed from his home run on a  fastball low and outside that he yanked over the center field wall. Bumgarner attacked Braun with a perfectly placed 91 MPH fastball on the inside corner, followed by a good, hard 88 MPH fastball that cut in on his hands, which Braun swung right through.

Braun then worked the count full by taking three close pitches: a 92 MPH fastball in, just off the plate; an 87 MPH backdoor slider that missed the outside corner by maybe "half a ball," as TV color man Mike Krukow put it; and another slider just in. They were all tantalizing and it took a pro like Braun to lay off.

But Braun stood no chance against the next pitch, a slow, arcing curve that came by way of the first base coaches box and settled on the outside corner. Braun swung, but futilely, a strikeout that stranded Gallardo on third. But, more importantly, it sent a message into the Brewer dugout that Bumgarner was not to be trifled with.

Then again, he's been proving that since suffering through one of the worst innings in the history of the game -- eight runs on nine hits in one-third of an inning against the Twins. Since that unforgettable June 21 night, Bumgarner has had a 2.88 ERA in six starts (11 earned runs in 34 1/3 innings), walking a minuscule three while striking out 37 (that's a better than 12-to-1 ratio, folks). He hasn't walked anybody since July 6, a streak that is now 22 2/3 innings.

You want competitive? Or determined? How about Bumgarner responding to Gallardo's double with one of his own in the bottom of the third, a blast over the center fielder's head, two bounces to the wall? And, when Jeff Keppinger came through with a two-out single to left field (on a really tough curve ball away), third base coach Tim Flannery did not hesitate sending Bumgarner around third (providing what KNBR's talk guy Mychael Urban cleverly called a "police escort" all the way home). Bumgarner showed good speed, for a big guy, and a great slide just ahead of a tag, and the score was tied, 1-1.

The game would essentially be settled the next inning when the Giants parlayed a pop up to third lost in the sun, a hit and run single and a sacrifice fly into the decisive run. Bumgarner would need one memorable defensive play --  Keppinger diving to his left on a sharply hit grounder, quickly firing to second to start a dazzling 4-6-3 inning ending double play in the sixth.

He carved up the bottom of the order in the seventh, striking out two and getting a weak grounder back to him. And Bumgarner made it through two outs in the eighth, having yielded a single to Corey Hart before Boss Bochy put a close to his performance with Braun looming.

I would have liked to see one more matchup between the two. But Bochy felt Braun, who added a sharply hit infield single off Bumgarner in the sixth, might have had the advantage at that point.

"The two previous guys hit it pretty good, and Braun had seen him three times already," Bochy said.

So, he brought in Sergio Romo, who amazingly got away with two hanging sliders, the latter inducing a weak ground ball from Braun, who was so far out in front of the pitch, he cued it to the mound.

Another 1-2-3 ninth inning from Brian Wilson (it took him all of 15 pitches, a "disappointment" after the remarkable five-pitch ninth of a day before), and Bumgarner's performance was consecrated with a win, just his sixth this year and 13th in his budding career.

Sunday notebook: Losses, irascible Morgan sharpens SF's focus

If it was a playoff atmosphere at AT&T Saturday night, it was probably because Giants fans were ornery and an air of slight desperation hung heavily like San Francisco fog.

Two straight losses and the irascible behavior of Milwaukee Brewers center fielder Tony Plush, er, Nyjer Morgan, seemed to sharpen the minds of the Giants, who evened the series one-all with a 4-2 win Saturday.

The Brewers' largess on the base paths didn't hurt, either.

They had Ryan Vogelsong back on his heels in the top of the fourth inning: Ryan Braun had homered on the first pitch, a curve that hung fat, and then a one-out Rickie Weeks double and a Casey McGehee single into left field put them in the position to go big.

The ball was hit sharply, but Weeks raced around third. Cody Ross got to it quickly, however, and threw a bullet -- not unlike the one he threw Friday night that catcher Eli Whiteside could not handle. This time, Chris Stewart stepped back to take it on a hop and lunged forward, just swiping Weeks on his jersey before he could reach home plate for the second out of the inning.

Replays showed home plate umpire Sam Holbrook got the call right.

McGehee moved up to second, and later advanced to third on Yunieski Betancourt's cue-shot infield single that shortstop Mike Fontenot could not handle.

With No. 8 hitter George Kotteras, a .207 hitter, up, the Brewers tried to push a run across through sleight of hand: on a 2-2 pitch, Betancourt broke for second. Stewart, whose catlike quickness belies his 6-foot-four-inch, 208-pound frame, faked a throw to second with such conviction that McGehee broke for home. Stewart ran him down like a cop who'd set a speed trap, emphatically ending the inning. The Brewers got only the one run from Braun's home run, giving away not only two potential runs but two outs in an inning that could have doomed Vogelsong.

 And the Giants made it hurt with a nice two-run rally (see below) in the bottom of the fourth.

But three's a charm, so the Brewers would give away one more base runner, in the very next inning. They'd tied the game up, 2-2, after two outs: Corey Hart tripled into the right field gap, and Morgan, in a gritty at bat, came back from an 0-2 hole and doubled to the opposite field, exasperating Giants' fans who'd hoped to ridicule him at every turn after he'd riled up the crowd Friday night with his fungoo antics (a word on that below).

After his double, Morgan (a Bay Area native; born in San Francisco, attended Tamalpais High School in Mill Valley, where my mother graduated in 1954) called for time, raising his hands in the air triumphantly, pumping his fist and nodding rhythmically as fans chanted his name. But in the next moment, Morgan committed a Cardinal sin that gave Giants fans their satisfaction.

With Braun at the plate, Morgan tried to advance on a pitch in the dirt that stayed in front of Stewart. The Giants' catcher, who is quickly earning a reputation as one of the strongest and quickest arms in the league, threw a strike to third, where Pablo Sandoval laid a tag on Morgan's fingers just before he could reach the bag.

Morgan was already in scoring position with one of their top RBI men at the plate. But, perhaps in an attempt to stick it to the crowd one more time, and showcase his dynamism on the base paths, he would make a mad dash into the final out at third.

It was the last we heard of the Brewers' offense. And unfortunately, the cameras did not give a glimpse of how Giants fans treated him as he took the field in the next inning.


Nate Schierholtz seems to do his most dramatic work with two strikes, shortening up his swing, going the other way.

He's third in the National League, hitting .267 (behind Jose Reyes and Aaron Miles) in that situation.

Nate the Great of Late appears calmest under the most stressful situations, and that comes through with the beautifully smooth stroke of his, a controlled swing that goes through the strike zone on a level plane that few players can achieve consistently.

Schierholtz' two-run bases loaded double in the bottom of the fourth -- the key hit of the game for the Giants -- came on the first pitch from left-hander Randy Wolf. But, he approached that pitch in the same way he's approached his two-strike swings.

Here's how TV color man Mike Krukow described it: "He was thinking opposite field the whole time. And it was like a two-strike swing, not getting too greedy."

He lashed it down the left field line, good for two-runs, the first real sign of life in the series, giving the Giants a 2-1 lead.

I've lost count on the number of key hits Schierholtz has provided, but suffice to say, he is for real and a true revelation. It's coming to the point where you can't wait to see his at bats.


The Giants exploited the Brewers' weak fundamentals for their other two runs: The go-ahead run came when, with runners at first and third in the bottom of the fifth inning, Aubrey Huff lifted a shallow fly ball lifted to left field. Braun got to it but caught it flat footed and running away from the plate, rather than setting himself up to throw it on the run. Aaron Rowand, who started the rally with a clean single to lead off the fifth, scored easily.

And they added an insurance run in the bottom of the eighth when Andres Torres hit what looked like a sure double play grounder to shortstop. It was hit hard, no doubt. But Betancourt, who has been criticized for his shoddy infield play, let it skip by him for an RBI single.


There was some disgruntlement among the Giants' chattering class over Boss Bochy's decision to hit Schierholtz in the seventh slot in the lineup. But Bochy may have struck upon a nice game plan to stretch out the lineup at least one more batter than he's had most of the year.

By hitting Mike Fontenot second and Jeff Keppinger fifth, it gives the Giants some real depth toward the lower part of the lineup. Ross and Schierhholtz in the sixth and seventh spot provide some legitimate pop toward the lower part of the lineup that has been so lacking.

Even if the Giants get outside help for the middle of the order -- say Carlos Beltran in left field -- they'll still need strength at the No. 7 slot. But getting a Beltran does not solve the biggest problem on the Giants: the last third of the lineup.

It's tough to say whether the Giants plan to stick with Brandon Crawford at shortstop; that probably depends on whether they get a catcher with some pop, like Cincinnati's Ramon Hernandez. That would enable the Giants to drop Crawford to the No. 8 slot. But they can't continue to give away outs in the bottom third of the lineup.


Other than Ryan Braun's solo home run off Vogelsong -- he was laying in the weeds for a first-pitch curve -- Giants pitching carved up the middle of the order, doing a particular job on cleanup hitter Prince Fielder.

Vogelsong got Fielder to ground out to second on a 2-2 curve in the second inning, jammed him on a grounder to first in the fourth; Santiago Casilla struck him out on a beautiful 78 MPH curve in the sixth; and Javier Lopez took care of him on four pitches in the eighth with the Giants holding onto a 3-2 lead: a curve on the inside corner, another curve right over the plate, a wasted curve, and then another from down under for a swinging strike three.

Just before Lopez' mastery over Fielder, Sergio Romo won a dramatic battle with Braun, also representing the tying run in the eighth. Romo drew ahead of Braun with two quick strikes, both surprising fastballs: one on the corner, and another right by Braun. But Braun stretched the count full, fouled off one slider, and then was caught looking at a 91 MPH fastball that hit the outer edge of the black.

"Yep, pretty close to being a strike," Duane Kuiper quipped.


You could say Brian Wilson had the cleanest inning of his career -- because he did. Never has he closed out a game with a complete inning on five pitches as he did Saturday night. Not once.

Sixteen times in his career, he has thrown a full inning on under 10 pitches, the previous lowest being six pitches on May 30, 2008. That was in a non-save situation.

It was strange to see the Brewers go down so quickly, given their uncanny patience on some real borderline pitches that Vogelsong barely missed on throughout his start, if only because home plate umpire Sam Holbrook seemed to have a prejudice against knee high strikes.

But against Wilson, apparently, the game plan was to go aggressive. Again, strange, given Wilson's reputation for creating his own drama, particularly of late with his nibbling approach.

But there was Ricky Weeks going after the first pitch with a fly out to right; Casey McGehee taking 93 MPH paint on the corner before hitting a two hopper to second; and Yunesco Betancourt, taking an 88 MPH cutter on the inside corner before grounding out to shortstop to end the game.

Wilson was in and out of there as if he had a party to get to (in the handshake line, you could hear Pat Burrell tell Brian, "let's partay!").

It is indeed a rare occurrence: San Diego Padres closer Heath Bell, who's been pitching since 2004, has completed an inning in five pitches once, but never as a closer. Felix Rodriguez, now the Brewers' setup man, has done it three times in his nine-years as a closer, twice closing games on four pitches.

The absolute gold standard for relief efficiency is Mariano Rivera. He has completed a full-inning save on five pitches or less seven times since 2002, once closing out an inning with the ultimate: three pitches.


On the Morgan antics, I believe many Giants fans overreacted. Morgan, a high-strung ballplayer who mixes it up with fans and, on occasion, with opponents, had just made a brilliant, running catch, then gestured boldly with what many took for flipping the bird. 

He obviously was responding to what fans were doing in the bleachers. Who knows how nasty they were getting? Racial comments come to mind. As he came off the field, he continued pointing at fans, with boos raining down on him. Fans spent all night Tweeting their outrage and lighting up the phone lines on KNBR on the subject.

There seemed to be a whiff of racial condescension, a 'how dare you act up in our house,' a raw reaction to black flamboyance. It didn't feel right, in a game that is losing its black ballplayers and black fan base, in a ballpark where black fans are few and far between, whose fans root for a team that spent much of this season and last without a single American black ballplayer on its roster.

This game should have room for colorful, offbeat characters, who, yes, can incite outrage but also back it up with exciting baseball. 

Friday, July 22, 2011

Everything you wanted to know about the Brewers but were afraid to ask

It will be a decidedly different Brewers team that the Giants play host to beginning Friday than the one that beat them in two of three in Milwaukee in late May.

For one, the Brewers play a much worse a brand of baseball on the road. They are 20-33 away from home this year, compared to a 33-14 home record. Only three teams have a worse road mark, and they're all in last place. The Brewers are in a virtual tie for first place in the central division with the Pirates (one percentage point behind).

Nearly one third (10) of their road losses have been shutouts, including their 4-0 loss to the Arizona Diamondbacks Thursday.

That is a shocking tally. Especially when measured against the number of shutouts at home. Zero. They are truly the 2011 version of the Colorado Rockies.

This has been a particularly grueling trip for the Brewers. It's the last leg of an 11-game trip, and they've been shut out three times already, though they've split the first eight.


Aside from their home-road schism, the Brewers may not have the wheels to run roughshod over the Giants as they did in the last series. Remember the ease with which Ryan Braun took off on the Giants' pitching staff, stealing one base in each game? He won't likely be exploiting the Giants' inability to hold runners this time around: he's recovering from a hamstring/calf issue, and hasn't stolen a base since June 29.

It doesn't appear to have affected his swing, however. Braun hit home runs in two straight games against Arizona earlier this week.

Remember the fleet Carlos Gomez racing around the bases on what was charitably ruled an inside-the-park home run? (I revisited Cody Ross' reaction to the official scoring on that play: "I went down to get it and I whiffed and it got by me. Error.")

Gomez won't be around to torment the Giants on the basepaths: he broke his collarbone on a dazzling game-saving catch two days ago in Arizona.

Gomez' injury is a bigger loss than it may appear. He's the backup center fielder hitting only .220, but he hits lefties ok (.266) and has been a real threat on the basepaths: 15 stolen bases in 16 attempts. And he's been a star on defense.

"Carlos has got the defense and the base stealing," Brewers Manager Ron Roenicke told the Milwaukee Sentinel. "He saves us a lot of games on defense. It's a big loss."

He'll be replaced by Brett Carroll, a 28-year old journeyman outfielder with a .205 lifetime batting average and five home runs in 172 at bats. But he's shown pop in AAA with 15 HR, though he's hit only .222 in July. He'll start Sunday against Madison Bumgarner.


The Brewers have reshuffled their lineup since last we saw them: They swapped Rickie Weeks and Corey Hart, Weeks going to the fifth spot to provide protection to Prince Fielder, Hart to the leadoff spot. Hart made a startling confession to Roenicke about his troubles hitting fifth: "I told him it gets in my head and I have a hard time with it," he told the Sentinel.

Apparently, it's gotten into his head as a leadoff hitter, too. He's gone 4-for-24 (.167) since assuming that role, though he's hit two HR, walked four times and scored five runs in five games.

Weeks has adjusted OK in his role as Fielder's protection: he's gone 7-for-25 with two HRs.

It's been Fielder who's been most messed up since the lineup shuffle. He's gone 2-for-22, both singles, with no RBI, dropping from .302 to .288. Maybe Hart, who was hitting .266 in the No. 5 spot, was more of a security blanket than he knew.


The Brewers, concerned about an infield that stopped hitting, had inquired about Jeff Keppinger before the Astros shipped him to the Giants. Instead they'll have to hope that Casey McGehee comes out of a season-long funk (.228, 5 HR, 38 RBI in 341 ABs), made all the more miserable by his shaky (13 errors) defense at third base.

McGehee may be coming out of it: he's gone 7-for-22 in his last five games, and hit a pinch-hit game-winning three-run home run on July 6.


The Giants will miss the former Cy Young winner Zack Grienke again, which on the surface is unfortunate. He's had his worst season since 2005, when he went 5-17 with a 5.80 ERA.

His record is nice: 7-4, and most of his numbers don't appear to far out of line from what he's done in the past: his 1.24 WHIP (walks and hits per inning) is on par with his lifetime 1.26 WHIP. In 84.1 IP, Grienke has 111 strikeouts and only 18 walks. But apparently, he gives up the big hit because he has a 4.84 ERA. He gives up almost two home runs for every nine innings (14 HRs total).

Still, he seems to have started to put things together in his three starts, including his outing Thursday night: He's given up only four ER in 19 IP (1.89 ERA) to drop his overall ERA from 5.66 to 4.84.

Instead, they'll face the same trio they saw in Milwaukee: Shaun Marcum, Randy Wolf and Yovani Gallardo.

Marcum actually pitches better on the road (2.38 ERA vs. 4.35). But he's gotten progressively worse. Just look at his ERA in April (2.21), May (3.44), June (4.03) and July (4.76).

Boss Bochy undoubtedly knows that Marcum is vulnerable to left handed hitters (.285) while dominant against righties (.161). So, the quandary is what he does at second base? Keppinger has just arrived to provide a needed bat, but might should sit this one out and let the left-hander Mike Fontenot go at it.

Bochy doesn't have any history to go on: Neither Keppinger nor Fontenot have faced Marcum, who just moved over to the National League this year. So, though Keppinger is itching to get his first start with his new team, it might be best to go with the book on this one.

Wolf has had a solid season (6-7, 3.58 ERA in 125 IP), and thwarted the Giants in his only start against them this year, allowing only three hits and one earned run in 7.1 IP. He got a no-decision in the game that ended on Jonathan Lucroy's pinch hit squeeze bunt.

Wolf will face Ryan Vogelsong in Game 2 Saturday.

Yovani Gallardo, the Brewers' winningest pitcher (11-6, 3.93 ERA) is up against Bumgarner on Sunday. Gallardo, always tough on the Giants, shut them out over eight four-hit innings in a 6-0 win in May.

Since then, he's had more good starts (six) than bad (three), splitting eight decisions. His numbers are consistent with his team's: he has a 3.23 ERA at home, 4.69 away.

In the last three years, Gallardo is 3-1 vs. the Giants (27 IP, 2.30 ERA, allowed only a .210 batting average against). But, his history is also that he tires toward the dog days of the season: his lifetime mark in July is 3-5, 4.07, and in August, 4-5, 6.49.


One thing to look out for: Lucroy, the Brewers' catcher, apparently has a hitch in his throw on dropped strikeouts. And it cost him earlier in the week against the Colorado Rockies.

He waited too long to throw to first as Dexter Fowler ran to first on a dropped strikeout, then threw it into the path of Fowler. First baseman Fielder could not catch the throw, and a run scored from third.

"He's cutting it a little close," Roenicke told the Sentinal. "I talked to him about it yesterday and I have before. He doesn't feel comfortable just getting the ball like an infielder and just throwing it. He feels comfortable getting distance to get the angle, get his footbwork right and then throw it.

"The problem is that balls are getting there at the same time as the runners and it's not giving Prince much of a window to see it and catch it. It makes me a little nervous as long as he waits."

Roenicke, who sounds like a nice, intelligent guy, once roamed the Candlestick Park outfield on one of the worst teams in Giants history, the 1985 team that lost 100 games.

If you don't remember him as a Giant, you're forgiven. He hit .256 in 65 games (133 ABs) with three HR and 13 RBI. Amazingly, he had more walks (35) than hits (34), for a .408 on base percentage, clearly an under-appreciated stat at the time.

He was a teammate with the Giants' current TV booth mates, Duane Kuiper, who arrived toward the end of the season in time to get three hits in five at bats, and Mike Krukow. He rode pine with the likes of Joel Youngblood, Rob Deer and Dan Driessen, and saw the dawning of the Roger Craig era, Mr. Humm Baby replacing poor old Jim Davenport over the final 18 games.

Roenicke, part of the flotsam that was jettisoned to make way for the Humm Baby era, went on to finish up an eight-year career in 1988, finishing as a lifetime .238 hitter.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Wally Pipp jokes are flying

Wouldn't it be just like Aubrey Huff to wisecrack under his breath to Pat Burrell standing next to him, "well, there goes my job" as the blast off Brandon Belt's bat soared into the seats in right field?

And, he had to be seriously channeling Wall Pipp when Belt's line drive landed inside the left field foul line for the decisive two-run blow that sent the Giants to a 5-3 win over the Dodgers Tuesday night.

Huff is going to need his special brand of humor to get through what looks like the beginning of the changing of the guard, regardless of what Boss Bochy said about Huff still being his regular first baseman.

In his post-game comments, Bochy acknowledged the obvious. "Yeah, the Wally Pipp jokes are probably flying around the clubhouse right now," he said with a playful smile.

It was a bit stunning to read SF Chron beat writer Henry Schulman tweeting "It's been nice knowing ya, Aubrey." Kinda like Walter Cronkite turning against the Vietnam War. But that's how powerful Belt's return was.

Granted, it's one game and we've seen the brilliant light of Brandon Belt burn out quickly before. But the intense glare, the authority of his swing: we're looking at a more fully developed ballplayer, a kid who's been through adversity, a phenom whose time has arrived.

There will be trying times ahead for Belt -- like tonight, when he has to face All-Star left hander Clayton Kershaw.

But Tuesday night, the approach he took -- never mind the results -- was a revelation on its own, a harbinger of good things to come.

Remember, before he hit that home run, Belt was down in the count 0-and-2. He was facing the Dodgers' own rookie phenom Rubbie de la Rosa, the flame-throwing 21-year old Dominican who reached 100 MPH on a couple pitches. But Belt was not intimidated, even in falling behind: he fouled off a 95 MPH fastball and fouled off a 96 MPH fastball before spitting on a changeup.

de la Rosa then pitched to the scouting report, tried to get a 95 MPH fastball by the tall, rangy Belt in on his hands -- that's been his weakness; it's the weakness of all tall, rangy rookies -- but the Dodger rookie needed to get it above his hands. Instead it was just below the, ah, er, belt.

Belt recognized, pulled in his hands, opened his hips and let loose those long, sinewy arms, and what a magnificent swing: Ted Williams-like! Darryl Strawberry-like!

What a jolt. What a storybook return to the Big Leagues. I mean, a soft single to left field would have sufficed to warm Giants fans, who've pined for his return for weeks as Huff continued his season-long game of pepper with the second basemen of the N.L.

If the home run was storybook, his dramatic swing in the seventh inning was pure Hollywood.

The whole inning unfolded as if it was meant to be that Belt would stride to the plate, all Garry Cooper, to rid the town of the scourge besetting it.

Dodger manager Don Mattingly had it all laid out: With three left-handed hitters and a couple switch hitters whose weak side was against lefties due up, he'd bring in left-hander Hong-Chih Kuo. The Dodger lefty was a curse against lefties: last year, he gave up six hits -- and only one extra base hit, a double -- in 63 at bats, holding lefties to a .095 batting average.

It was a bit surprising to see Bochy allow Andres Torres to hit against Kuo. He was hitting .107 against lefties (3-for-28), with Aaron Rowand (.333 vs. lefties) ready to go. Torres made Bochy look like the genius, doubling off the left field wall to start the inning.

That enabled Bochy to neutralize Kuo's advantage over lefty hitter Mike Fontenot by ordering a bunt. Fontenot got it down and moved Torres up. To the cascade of boos, Kuo intentionally walked Pablo Sandoval so he could get to lefty Nate Schierholtz.

When Bochy brought in Emannual Burriss to pinch run for Sandoval, I thought it was a case of Bochy overmanaging: wanting to push it with the running game, he would compromise himself by taking his best hitter out of the game. Turned out, Pablo's quadricep was acting up.

But it turned fortuitous. Burriss stole second on the first pitch -- actually getting picked off but making it in to second because Kuo's pickoff throw was a bit off, and first baseman James Loney's pivot to second was way off.

When Kuo did what he does naturally to Schierholtz -- he struck him out on a slider in the dirt -- that enabled him to use the open base to walk right handed hitter Cody Ross to load the bases. I mean, who wouldn't, with a rookie left handed hitter coming up?

Kuo wanted to get ahead of him with a quick strike, but Belt was laying in the weeds with an ambush.

"I didn't want to get late in the count and see off-speed pitches," Belt said after the game.

So, he lashed out at the first pitch he saw, a fastball away, and drove it to the opposite field just inside the foul line. It was another aspect of his beautiful swing, perhaps the one we will associate with him, letting a pitch get deep and taking it the other way.

The Kid had come through twice -- once to show he was back, and again to carry his teammates on his back.


It's not often that a game pivots on a single play. A whole sequence of events usually adds up to a win. But once in a while, you ask yourself what would have happened if a single play hadn't happened.

The Dodgers had gotten to Madison Bumgarner in the third, scoring three runs with signs of more to come. Rafael Furcal, who had just singled home two runs, raced around to third on Juan Rivera's flare single to right.

When the strong-armed Schierholtz came up throwing, Rivera took a wide turn around first, expecting Schierholtz' throw to go all the way to third. But Schierholtz' throw was on a perfect line to the cutoff man, Brandon Crawford, who indeed cut off the throw and fired to first behind Rivera to get him.

It was a play of such precision, and made only by Schierholtz' adherence to the highest fundamentals of the game: playing catch, hitting the cutoff man, giving your defense another option. And it took a quick release and another precise throw from Crawford to nail Rivera for the second out of the inning.

Instead of facing the dangerous Matt Kemp with runners at first and third and one out, Bumgarner had the simpler task -- by no means a cinch -- of a runner on third with two outs. He got a weak ground out to end the threat.

That would be the first of 16 Bumgarner straight would go on to retire. He would strike out Kemp twice, tying up the slugger with sliders all night.

He got great defense: a running shoe-string catch by Cody Ross on a looping fly ball from Tony Gwynn Jr. to end the fifth, another brilliant diving stop by Sandoval, robbing Aaron Miles of a hit leading off the seventh, and Torres' running over-the-shoulder catch of a line drive hit directly over his head by Jamie Carroll (who'd beaten the Giants' shallow defense the night before: they need to move outfielders back on his next at bat!).

But Bumgarner was mostly in control, throwing first-pitch strikes to 22 of 28 batters, hitting his spots almost on every pitch after that third inning. If this is scratching the surface of a talent that will mature, the Giants could have a Hall of Famer on their hands. Think Steve Carlton.

He could have gone nine. I did not like the idea of Brian Wilson risking such an effort. But, though still without his best stuff, he got through a scoreless ninth, keeping intact the amazing story line that is the Giants.


What a seminal day. The Old Guard gets pushed aside for the New Guard. Miguel Tejada goes on the disabled list, though against his wishes (he probably must be wondering if he's going the Bill Hall route); Huff grabs some pine, Belt is called up.

And the Giants make a pretty significant trade for a proven second baseman, Jeff Keppinger, who brings a good offensive resume: he hits for high average, gets on base, gets the ball in play, striking out fewer times than he's walked in his seven years in the big leagues. We'll see how his defense is.


A Mike Krukow line that always gets me to laugh: "I want him on my dodge ball team," referring to anybody who miraculously gets out of the way of a high and tight pitch or sharp foul ball in the dugout.

After Schierholtz' two out, two-strike single in the third inning, Krukow said Schierholtz has a "two-strike defense that almost becomes impregnable. If there's a better hitter in the game with two strikes on him, I want to see him."

On Sandoval's RBI single, a nicely stroked single up the middle on a fastball away, to tie the game, 3-3, in the fifth: "He is so dialed. I love it when he uses the middle of the field."

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Pablo channeled the Babe, Tony Gwynn and Brooks Robinson in one night

Cody Ross made a confession of sorts after the Giants' 5-0 win over the Dodgers: he's been pull happy, i.e., he'd forgotten how to use the entire field at AT&T.

"Sometimes I feel like the only time I can get a home run is to left field and it gets into your head and you forget your approach," he said in a post-game interview with Jon Miller and Mike Krukow.

It's kind of disconcerting to hear that a major leaguer is trying to hit a home run. You know the best of them say they don't think about home runs: they just come if you've got the power and you put on a good swing.

Ross wasn't thinking home run in his sixth inning at bat with runners on first and third. "I was just trying to get a fly ball deep enough to score a run. For some reason this year, I haven't been able to get it done. In the past, it's been pretty automatic, getting that run in from third."

On this night, Ross got it done. And he did it with a nice inside out swing that split the gap in right center field for a two-run double -- the biggest blow of the game, the kind of drive that's been so lacking: the one hit that provides "separation," as Krukow puts it, opening up a small lead for a nice cushion.

Ross' drive, which went into triples alley, increased the Giants' lead from 2-0 to 4-0. That is golden for the Giants, who are 36-5 when they score four runs. I can't remember a 4-0 lead that the Giants have relinquished after the seventh inning.

I imagine Ross didn't push it for a triple because he has to watch his freshly recovered quadricep; no mind, he soon scored on a rare Brandon Crawford RBI hit, which capped a four-run sixth.

Often, the Giants mount rallies on the sloppiness of the other team, some fluke play, or what Krukow refers to as their fabled "ground attack": dinks, bunts, little rollers, wild pitches, balks, etc. Monday night, it was an Old World sticking: Well, it started when Mike Fontenot beat out an infield single. But, then there was Pablo Sandoval, running the count full (and showing beautiful discipline in shrugging off some tough, tempting pitches) before singling through the hole on the right side. With Fontenot on the move, the Giants had first and third for their hottest hitter, Nate Schierholtz.

Schierholtz had doubled in the first inning, his ball caroming off the wall so hard that Sandoval, running all the way with two outs, couldn't score. In this at bat, his approach was to take what the pitcher gave him. It was a good pitch, was low and away, but he drove it hard up the middle -- even his ground balls have such force behind them -- and past a diving Aaron Miles at second base for a 2-0 lead.

After Aubrey Huff struck out, (at least he stayed out of his obligatory rollover grounder, which would have been a rally killing double play), Ross did his magic, and Crawford added on with a nice base hit up the middle, only his second hit in his previous 22 at bats.


Crawford was only in there because of the injury to Miguel Tejada, who showed every bit of his age and lack of range when he booted a fairly easy backhander and then pulled an abdominal muscle in the same play in the top of the third. It was a rather undignified departure, as fans cheered Crawford's entry even before Tejada had gotten into the dugout.

Crawford's entry into the game proved critical. He was the keystone to one of the two biggest plays of the game, the pivot man on the first of two stunning double plays that killed the spirit of the Dodgers.

In the top of the fourth in a still scoreless tie, the Dodgers got a pair of two-strike one-out singles to put runners at first and third. When Ryan Vogelsong momentarily juggled James Loney's soft short-hop liner back to the mound, I thought he should have gone home for the out because there was no way he would get a double play.

But Vogelsong's throw to second was a knee-high strike -- right in line with the great control he showed all night (he threw 75 strikes on 111 pitches, a 67 percent ratio) -- and Crawford, in a brilliant piece of ad libbing, flipped the ball quickly and strongly to first. It was a bit wide, but Huff made a great catch, stretching out at full body length, his foot on the edge of the base for the double play.

A shot of Matt Kemp as he crossed home plate had him looking back toward first in utter disbelief that they'd completed the inning-ending double play.


Sandoval made the sting hurt that much more on the very first pitch of the next inning, when he clobbered a shoulder-high Chad Billingsley fastball deep into the Arcade above the 20-foot wall in right field. The flight of the ball was mouth-gaping, but his swing was spine tingling. It was a blow of such brutal force and commensurate quickness that it felt like a swing through the ages, almost as if he was channeling Babe Ruth, had inherited the swing of home run champions of the past.

But his swing is so adaptive, versatile. Remember, his first inning single was a line drive through the 5 1/2 hole off a not-so-bad curve ball, reminiscent of Tony Gwynn or Rod Carew.

And then, there's his defensive prowess. Sandoval has time and again shown that any thought of planting him at first base is misguided and will hopefully be shelved for a time far off in the making.

Pablo's back handed stab of a Rod Barajas third-inning line drive headed for the corner was one example of how much he has solidified the left side of the infield. It went down as just the second out of what was looking to be an easy inning for Vogelsong. But it proved critical when, after a walk to Billingsley, Tejada booted the next one. Who knows how things would have turned out if Pablo hadn't routinely made that difficult play?

But Pablo's coup de grace came in the top of the sixth, when with runners at first and second no outs, the Giants still clinging to a 1-0 lead, Kemp drilled another shot headed down the line. Pablo interceded by pouncing on the line drive as if a soccer goalie saving the game-winning kick. His ability to react to bullets hit at him really are Superman quality. Try standing out there and you'll see how quick that game is at the hot corner.

Not only did he snare the skidding shot on a short hop, he turned and fired a bullet to second -- does he have a gun, or what? Pablo's feed to second baseman Mike Fontenot was so quick that Kemp was doubled up by more than two steps.

At that point, Pablo was channeling Brooks Robinson.


I mentioned earlier that it's Schierholtz who is the Giants' hottest hitter. Well, it could be debated, given Sandoval's great stretch. But here are the numbers:

Dating back to June 25, Schierholtz was hovering at a middling .248 (though, remember, even if his overall numbers were down, he'd been one of the Giants' top clutch performers). Since then, he's hit .379 (30-for-79) with six doubles, three home runs (for a .569 slugging pct) and 14 RBI.

Sandoval, in that same span, is hitting .348 (31-for-89), though his power numbers are even more impressive: 12 doubles, four home runs (for a .617 slugging pct) and 17 RBI.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

The magic of the unheralded: Would you have it any other way?

Let's say, for argument's sake, Buster Posey had been in the game Sunday.

It's likely he wouldn't have had the brain lock that allowed a strikeout victim to reach first as he was showing the ball in his glove to the umpire, as if that proved he'd caught it.

It is also probably unlikely he would have stolen second in the eighth inning ahead of a game-tying RBI single by Andres Torres.

And it is definitely doubtful Posey would have been called upon to lay down a suicide squeeze in the top of the 11th win one out and a runner on third base.

Let's even say that if Freddy Sanchez was in there at second base, he would have turned that first inning ground ball into a double play rather than kicking it to lead to a first inning run, as Mike Fontenot did.

Maybe Posey would have ended this game a lot earlier with a home run off Mat Latos (curling just inside the right field foul line, let's say), and the Giants would have won in a walk.

I won't go so far as to say Posey wouldn't have made that rifle throw to third on a bunt to start a third to first double play in the bottom of the 11th inning -- remember, he's got a gun. But, there are few catchers with the quickness and arm of Chris Stewart, who did make that play to help bail out the increasingly shaky closer Brian Wilson as the Giants held on for another heart-throttling win, 4-3 over the Padres.

The point is that the resourcefulness of the Giants, the dramatics that they put on display game after game, the gutsy calls, the marginal players who are called upon for big plays, the depths to which they dig to pull out yet another win:

Would you have it any other way?


This wiley version of the Giants, in all its weaknesses and flaws, has been just as thrilling as the Band of Misfits that delivered you that World Championship last year. You might say it has been even more gratifying, given the crushing blows they've withstood, the big-name injuries that could have smashed most other teams' dreams.

For all the talk of bringing in a big bat, you have to wonder if Brian Sabean and Boss Bochy are tempted to just leave well enough alone. Why mess with such an intriguing little thing they've got going here? If they bring in a big bat, do they lose their edge, their esprit de corps? Get a little complacent in waiting for the big blow?


When Eli Whiteside made his gaffe in the bottom of the sixth -- I mean, you just don't argue while the play is still live, especially when you are patently wrong! -- how many of you were cursing his name, demanding a trade RIGHT NOW for a legitimate starting catcher? Especially when the Padres would exploit it with a two-run rally to take a 3-2 lead.

Forget that the prematurely silver headed catcher they call Whitey actually had some big moments lately, raising his average from .164 to .239 since June 8. He's hit .322 since then (19-for-59) with a .412 on base percentage. Who on the market is doing that well? Still, some fans -- and apparently some in the Giants front office -- are clamoring for the fading Pudge Rodriguez.

Whiteside, in his next at bat in the seventh, couldn't provide the dramatics with his bat to make up for the blunder, grounding weakly into a force out at second. But Whiteside took advantage of a brain lapse from Padres starter Mat Latos, who either assumed a catcher wouldn't run on him, or simply put him out of mind as he focused on the hitter. It was an easy steal -- Eli's second in his entire career.

It wouldn't have meant anything, of course, unless Andres Torres -- who has had his own bouts of indecision and misfortune this season, falling well short of the standard he set last year -- came through. Torres had looked overmatched by Latos in his first three at bats, falling prey to Latos' sharp curve in particular. But on this at bat, Latos hung a curve just high enough, and Torres hit a sharp grounder past a diving Orlando Hudson for the game-tying RBI single.


It took another of the Giants unheralded to spark the winning rally: Emmanuel Burriss, who has been relegated to the back bench with the return of Fontenot as the starting second baseman. Burriss entered as a pinch runner in the ninth for Whiteside (I guess the element of surprise was no longer operational) and stole second before being stranded.

But in the 11th, Burriss, he of the .210 batting average, took the count full before lining a one-out single into center field off Chad Qualls. The Giants had been running all day on Padres' catcher Kyle Phillips, and Burriss' easy steal -- on a pitchout, no less -- was the sixth of the day, tying a San Francisco franchise record. The throw nearly decapitated him as he slid into second, but Burriss paid no mind, and, because he slid in feet first -- Class, Are You Paying Attention? -- was able to pop up quickly when the throw went errantly into center field and glide into third base.

The suicide squeeze has to be one of the most difficult tasks in all of baseball; otherwise, you'd see it employed more often with a runner on third with less than two outs. But to do it when everyone in the park -- and outside it, watching, listening, monitoring developments via Twitter, Facebook, ESPN's Game Day, etc -- is looking out for it takes the coolness (madness?) of a Russian Roulette player.

Yet another of the unheralded, the backup to the backup catcher, Chris Stewart, said it himself: he doesn't hit for power, or much at all, so he had to compensate with other skills, like bunting. Funny thing is that in spring training, as Play By Play maestro Jon Miller retold it, Stewart had botched a pair of suicide squeeze plays, leaving Bochy with the impression that he couldn't bunt. Only recently, Stewart bunted for a single, and when Bochy told him he had no idea he could bunt, Stewart said he's always been a good bunter.

All Bochy needed from there was confirmation that Stewart knew the sign.

With a 1-1 count with Burriss on third base, Padres Manager Bud Black ordered a pitchout. Nothing doing. It occurred to me that Black may pitch out a second time. After all, he played for two years under Roger Craig, known to follow his guts on squeeze plays.

Bochy played the odds -- that few managers have the moxie to back up a pitchout with another one. And Black probably convinced himself that he should go after the .190 hitter, with Torres on deck, rather than fall behind with a 3-1 count. Stewart hadn't laid down a squeeze bunt all year -- surely, the Padres' advance scouting had noted that -- though he'd dropped a perfectly executed bunt down only two innings earlier off a tough inside fastball from Heath Bell.

But Black underestimated Bochy's publicly stated position of "needing to be more creative" in the second half to generate offense. Or, maybe he simply felt he was at the mercy of the unheralded, unable to thwart the magic of the backbenchers.