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Sunday, July 24, 2011

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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. 


9 comments:

  1. I think your writing isn't that great, your comments on Extra Baggs are unfounded, and that last comment about somehow SF Giants fans being anti-African American, that's ridiculous. He was showboating a little too much after making a great catch. As a baseball player, you ignore the heckling, you don't respond to it. He was acting unprofessional. Has nothing to do with the fact that he's black.

    This whole entry makes me believe you really don't know much....

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  2. Hey, Brandollars, i knew I'd draw out people who'd be extra sensitive out there. If you think there's nothing racial about the fan reaction, you're wearing blinders. Your comments show you haven't been reading me. But thanks for giving a look. If you look back at my pieces, you'll find I know more about baseball than you think. But, if not, you don't have to show up here anymore, big guy.

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  3. Nice job Steve. Fired me up to the point I decided to blow-off my honey-dos for my own craven thoughts on the matter.

    I am probably a lot more opinionated about this than you possibly.

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  4. thanks, Ernie. Did you write a piece on Morgan?

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  5. I read it, Ernie. I thought you were right on in describing how Little League takes the soul out of the game for kids. I missed out on playing in Little League -- my mom wouldn't let us play because a) too expensive for a poor household of seven kids b) she worried we'd get injured (reminding us always of Sandy Koufax's disfigured arm that led to premature retirement).

    So, we just played our hearts out at the playground for our entire childhood. I got one year of Pony League, and then willed myself into a high school career, playing on some pretty competitive Berkeley High teams (six guys got drafted from my junior and senior years). I always felt I played with a disadvantage because I didn't play organized baseball but I think the way we did it deepened my love for the game.

    I finally ended it in my freshman year at San Francisco State, though a person I think you're familiar with, John Goelz, gave me one last compliment. In an intra-squad game in fall ball, in my last official at bat, on an 0-2 pitch, I hit a shot the other way to deep right field that was unfortunately run down for a long fly out. "Hey, nice two-strike hitting," Goelz said. (I actually played one last season of over-30 ball, hitting a grand slam before finally "retiring" at 32).

    Later, in my first column as a sports writer at SFSU, I wrote a blistering column blasting the athletic department for bypassing Goelz in hiring a replacement for departing Orrin Freeman. I always liked the guy; am thrilled to see he is still coaching.

    anyway, I agree that these guys play for the love of it, and add a spice to the game that should be welcome.

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  6. Small world department Steve. The grownups have taken over all the parks and fields. Where 2 generations ago, there would be dozens and dozens of pick up games of stickball, pitch to yourself, pitch to your own guy, close right field, phantom runners and any other rules that were made up as we went along to make things more even. Kids picking their own teams and scheduling and umpiring their own games.

    There is no street ball or pick up games where kids can police themselves anymore -- the adults have taken over all the fields whether its for official little-league or beer league softball.

    Kids manage quite well most of the time without ninny-nanny-nagging parents helicoptering around them like so many stage mothers. Its why so many kids gravitate to hoops. There are a million backboards and baskets around and the grown ups haven't much interest in taking those over.

    Goelz is doing quite well, and the story of your last ab as a freshman at SF State is so insightful. He's still the same. And he's a huge Giant's fan.

    Funny how things work out. Knowing John, he no doubt will remember that time very well.

    John ended up at Sonoma State as one of the most successful coaches in the country (he's more proud of the 100 alumni that are currently coaches and teachers than he is of anything else about his progra) And of course Orrin Freeman is a front office honcho with the Marlins as special assistant to the GM Mike Hill.

    There was a couple of pretty compelling stories that came out of SSU this year.

    I'm going to email you John's cell number. I guarantee he would love to hear from you. One of the favorite parts of the job for him is hearing from guys from the old days. He is one of the most special guys in the whole world, except he doesn't think so.

    Great read Steve.

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