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Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Are we seeing the slow demise of the Giants?

This may be the slow demise of the Giants, or it could be a mere blip, a phase that they'll get over.

But after losing their fifth game in a row, it was not the Giants who looked like the reigning World Champions Tuesday night. They didn't even look like the first place team.

It was the upstart Arizona Diamondbacks with the energy, the resilience, the timely hitting, the dazzling defense, the luck and pluck, and yes, the dominating pitching that defines a winning club.

The Giants? They had the look of a has-been team playing out the string: Desultory, sagging, aging, luckless.

Let's take a look at the desultory. The Giants had just taken a 1-0 lead in the bottom of the fourth on a Pablo Sandoval RBI double to the gap in left center field, following base hits by Jeff Keppinger and Carlos Beltran. The newly acquired missing pieces to the puzzle had finally combined efforts to start a rally, and Sandoval had cashed in, or at least made a withdrawal on the account.

With runners and second and third and the infield playing back, all No. 5 hitter Aubrey Huff needed to do was to hit a ground ball anywhere to get another run in. But, it would have been nice to get that big hit, the one that puts a stamp on the game, rebuffs the audacious challenger.

All season long, the Giants have waited patiently for Huff to get untracked, to recapture the spirit of 2010 that made him one of the most beloved members of the squad of misfits and castoffs.

Here's what I wrote July 14:

Huff was instrumental in lifting the Giants into believing they could make a run last year -- and was unquestionably the heart of that team, red thong and all. He was one of my favorites, and I still have hope that he will straighten out his swing, starting with an opposite field stroke. I'd sacrifice home run power if he were to simply focus on driving in runs with alley-to-alley extra base power. 
But, it appears that when the burdens and pressures of championship ball were right before him, he has wilted. His slide last year coincided with the Giants' earnest run for the title, and continues to this day as the team plays under the glare of national scrutiny.
It has almost been a year to the date since Huff began his slide on Aug. 5 last year. Since then, he has hit .242 (141 hits in 582 at bats) with 16 home runs and 70 RBI.

And last night, when the Giants needed the big hit -- in the midst of a four-game losing streak, with the Diamondbacks clambering to catch them in the standings, in a moment that could have consecrated the newly enhanced lineup -- Huff shriveled before our eyes.

His doom was foretold on the 2-1 pitch. It was a change up that faded low and away, what would have been ball three, putting Huff in a good hitter's count. But because he is having trouble keeping up with major league fastballs, Huff must start his swing earlier.

And so, when the 84 MPH change of pace came, he could not avoid swinging, could not hold up, and now the count was 2-and-2. From there, Huff was in a pure defensive mode, and two pitches later, he grounded meekly back to starting pitcher Daniel Hudson, who was able to hold the runners and get his out.

Huff couldn't even produce a rollover ground out to second base that he has done so much to sear into our consciousness all season.

Still, the Giants had their best two-out clutch hitter to fall back on, right? Nate Schierholtz, who had pushed his way into the starting lineup with his string of unlikely, dramatic hits, his stroke so graceful that you wondered if he could finally blossom into the star that his athleticism promised.

Schierholtz, though, looks tired, as if the rigors of every day play just isn't his thing. He entered the game mired in a 4-for-30 slump, and even the dire need in front of him could not speed up his bat against Hudson's 95 MPH offerings. On four pitches, he was gone, Nate headed for an 0-for-4 night with three strikeouts, and the Giants' spirits ebbed as low as could be.


As if on cue, the one big mistake that Tim Lincecum made all night, came in the very next frame, the top of the fifth.

With a runner on, Lincecum fell behind the hulking rookie, Paul Goldschmidt, two balls and one strike, and tried to muscle a 94 MPH fastball by him. Either he didn't know the kid's wheelhouse, or missed his target -- I think it was the latter; it looked as though Chris Stewart had to reach back to get the pitch. But it was a big swing, an unmistakably impressive introduction to the two-time Cy Young award winner.

Under most scenarios, a 2-1 deficit in the fifth should be seen as nothing more than a challenge to fight and scrape back. But the Giants appeared stunned and panicked. As if they now had their backs against the wall, and had been hoping that Lincecum could hold up a 1-0 lead.

It is a snake-bit team, a team dreading the fall of the next shoe.


That shoe fell in the bottom of the sixth, when, with Keppinger on base with a walk, Beltran hit a drive toward the corner in right field. It was a rocket on a low arc, but Justin Upton made like Superman and Baryshnikov, flying, almost ballet-like, both legs suspended several feet above ground as if running through the air -- and catching it while still soaring and just before crashing softly into the fence.

Upton, the rising star, the center of this Arizona team, had snuffed out the bid by the aging veteran to whom the Giants have turned their hopes. Upton would later put an exclamation point on his performance with a two-run home run off of reliever Ramon Ramirez to put the game away, 4-1, in the eighth inning.

But, maybe it was superfluous. Maybe the Giants' spirit had already been killed.


The Giants are at risk of entering what could be a fatal part of their season. With a four-game series against the Phillies next, who will be motivated to avenge last-week's series loss at home, the Giants can ill afford a loss today.

If they don't watch it, if they don't somehow muster some ill-defined something -- is it confidence? Is it concentration? Determination? -- they could be staring at the kind of losing streak from which it will be hard to recover.

But they have to face Jason Marquis, who is having a rough season but can always be counted on to be tough on the Giants.

So, it will be interesting to see if Boss Bochy can do anything to shake up his lineup. I expect Brandon Belt to be in today, either for Huff at first base or Schierholtz in left field.

If he were truly open-minded and daring, Bochy would drop both Sandoval and Beltran in the order. Here's why. They cannot continue to be table setters for the fifth- and sixth-place hitters; they cannot rely on Huff and Schierholtz to drive them in.

How about taking the pressure off Huff and Schierholtz (or whoever is in the 5 and 6 hole) and hitting them in front of Sandoval and Beltran, who would use their run-producing skills to bring the Giants back to life.


  1. Heh. You used innovative, open-minded and daring in the same paragraph.

    I fear his strongest suits; stability, quiet and calm demeanor, superior character value, consistent decision making process, pitching staff management, delegation of coaching duties to coaches and personnel loyalty have a flip side.

    Aubrey Huff nee Vinnie Castilla.

  2. Bitter truth here. S.F. is missing probably two formerly good bats -- Huff's and Shierholtz'. Sheirholtz will come back after a little rest. Can't say the same for Aubrey. Aubrey needs at least a week off. Unfortunately, Belt cannot be expected to just find his timing in a day or two, with all his recent bench time, so he'll likely do also hit poorly for a few days, and then what would Bochy do? By then, the team may find itself five games out. Tough situation.

  3. Thank God they won today! Who would have figured, at the beginning of the season, Vogelsong being the savior of this team?? Cy Young candidate?

  4. Indeed, Paul. I'll be posting shortly!