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Sunday, August 28, 2011

Broken down veteran helps keep Giants in the hunt

On a night of a stellar big league debut by a kid called up from Double A ball, it was a broken down, yet savvy, veteran who stepped into the breach to keep the Giants in the hunt.

Mark DeRosa, the $12 million bust with the busted wrist, wrote his own chapter in the pennant race to which the Giants are barely clinging. He scored the winning run in the Giants' 2-1 walkoff 10-inning win over the Astros Friday, keeping the Giants within reach of the relentless Arizona Diamondbacks.

But it was how DeRosa got in the position to score on Jeff Keppinger's game-winning base hit that tells the story.

He'd only just entered the game as part of a 10th-inning double-switch that Bruce Bochy made to enable reliever Jeremy Affeldt's to stay in past the top of the 10th if needed. He was stuck into the lineup in the ninth spot so he could hit second in the bottom of the 10th. 

It wasn't necessarily an afterthought to put DeRosa in, but the primary rationale was to ensure Bochy got some mileage out of Affeldt in a game that might go deep into extra innings.

And, so, when DeRosa got a base hit with one out in the bottom of the 10th, it felt like a bonus. It was a piece of work from a veteran, an inside-out swing on a 94 MPH fastball, that he lined into center field, made all the more impressive when, two pitches earlier, he could not catch up a similar fastball by the hard-throwing Fernando Rodriguez.

DeRosa, who has been watching the frustratingly stagnant offense as he's bided his time on the bench both as an injured bystander and, more recently, as the 25th man on the roster, was not content to stand idly by, hoping the next guy would move him along.

On a 1-0 pitch to Mike Fontenot, DeRosa took off. Initially, it looked like a hit and run, with Fontenot swinging wildly at a pitch away from the plate and in the dirt as if he was trying to protect the runner. But in the retelling of the story later, DeRosa said that first base coach Roberto Kelly whispered in his ear very suggestively that Rodriguez was getting to the plate slowly. DeRosa took the suggestion to heart, and took off in a straight steal.

It was a crazy proposition, given that his last stolen base came two years ago. DeRosa has slowed with age. You've seen him lumbering to first on weak ground balls. But apparently, when he gets a wild hair up his nose, DeRosa can still put on a sprint.

He got a great jump, and was fortunate that the pitch, a changeup, dived hard into the dirt. Catcher Humberto Quintero scooped it and his throw was on the money. But it was a whisker late, and DeRosa put on a sly slide, aiming to the outer edge of the bag, which forced second baseman Jose Altuve to apply a sweep tag just late.

All the intricate elements of that play had to work just so for DeRosa's great caper to come off, and they did. Not only was it an emotional lift -- who among the Giants in the dugout did not feel a welling up of pride in DeRosa's gutsy move? -- it put a win within reach.

Fontenot came within five feet of getting the the game-winner with a line drive that landed just foul down the left field line, before striking out. So, it was left up to Keppinger, the former Astro who continues to provide the irony of the series: the refugee from the last place team, lifting his new team as it scratches and crawls to fend off the would-be spoilers.

So, there was Keppinger, putting together another tough at bat, taking the count to 2-and-2, before driving a shoulder-high fastball barely over the leaping diminutive second baseman Altuve, into right field. Had Keppinger still been playing second for the Astros, he would have caught it. But that's alternative universe stuff.

In right field was the strong armed Brian Bogusevic, who unleashed a bullet from a pulled in position. But there was DeRosa, streaking around third. Just as he showed surprising speed on his stolen base, DeRosa's race home was no slog.

This was the run of a man dogged by the injustices of fate, a man spurred by the notion that he could finally have a hand in a victory, but not just any victory: one that might add up to a pennant.

It wasn't simply desire nipping at his heels. It was the hunger of a man who'd been denied the chance for so long to feast alongside his teammates on the succulent fruits of championship ball.

At first glance, it looked like DeRosa had missed third base. For the longest time, I watched to see if the Astros would ruin the ensuing celebration by appealing at third. But a replay showed that he indeed tagged the base, but cut the corner so finely that you needed a super slo-mo to prove it. It was the corner-cutting move of a veteran using whatever edge he could get to make it home.

He burst into the plate just as the throw arrived. As DeRosa thrust his foot onto home plate, the throw skipped by Quintero. He shot his left arm up in the air in triumph, and in a single motion, leaped high into an ecstatic and emphatic high-five with on-deck hitter Carlos Beltran -- a violent collision between the right hands of two guys with highly vulnerable right wrists.

As the Giants streamed onto the field with their 11th walkoff win of the year, most raced toward second to mob Keppinger. But some veered over to DeRosa first: injured reliever Brian Wilson, who ran over to DeRosa to give shake his hand ever so meaningfully, and Cody Ross, who patted him on the back as they raced together to the Keppinger dog-pile.

Keppinger was the obvious hero. Rookie Eric Surkamp had given the Giants a much needed boost with six innings of gutsy, composed pitching. But DeRosa provided an ageless lesson: that you can't give up on the 25th player on the roster, even a guy whom most thought had seen his last glories long before he arrived in San Francisco.


A fringe benefit of DeRosa thrusting himself into the center of attention is getting to hear from him. He's an obviously smart man who speaks beyond cliches, his baseball knowledge clear.

He is also humble. He took the first crack at answering his critics by apologizing for not living up to his two-year $12 million contract.

"It's been two years of doing nothing -- I just want to help a little bit," he said after the game. "I know I'm not giving fans what they bargained for. It is what it is. But I just want to grind it out the rest of the way."

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