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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."

1 comment:

  1. I was at the game. I'm glad Bumgarder held his composure after betting rocked a bit in the 3rd inning. Belt's game was great, a true joy to watch after the frustrations we've had with Huff. Torres hot and cold streak continues. Over the past 7 games he's gone: 1-4, 1-6, 3-4, 1-2, 2-6, 0-4, 2-4. I'm liking Fontenot's bat, it's not awesome but he's good for a consistent hit or two a game. I hadn't realized how cold Cody Ross's bat has become. He gets so much hype and has made some plays and crucial hits but his last 8 games of hitting: 0-1, 1-1, 0-4, 1-3, 0-3, 0-3, 1-4, 2-4, 0-3