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Saturday, August 27, 2011

Giants, on tenterhooks, keep hope alive

It is quite remarkable how precarious the Giants' season is as they head into the final month. Every game, they teeter between disaster and triumph. From one game to the next, the fate of the Giants takes wild swings: From debilitating losses that spell impending doom to breathtaking victories that keep hope alive.

Friday night, you didn't know which way the Giants would go. They came thisclose to falling four games behind the once-again surging Diamondbacks before hanging by a thread for a 2-1 win over the Astros.

The standard formula applied: great pitching -- by starter Madison Bumgarner and relievers Ramon Ramirez and Santiago Casilla -- and a single swing of the bat. Once again, the Astros, owner of the worst record in baseball, played the cruel, devilish role of spoiler, playing a carefree brand of baseball that had the Giants peering into the abyss inning after scoreless inning.

That the Giants are on tenterhooks is no revelation. This is who they are. They would in all likelihood be a sub-.500 team if not for their pitching. So, it shouldn't be a surprise when a hapless J.A. Happ, who arrived in San Francisco with an ERA over 6.00, would stifle them, holding them scoreless through four before the Giants broke through for their only two runs in the fifth.

Well, the Giants' two-run fifth inning barely qualifies for breaking through. It took an error and a one-out walk to start things before Jeff Keppinger provided the key hit that lifted the Giants.

Isn't it ironic that Keppinger, the former Astro who escaped the doldrums of last place by going to the Giants two months ago, finds his old teammates having more fun than his new teammates, who are scratching and clawing to remain relevant in the playoff hunt?

Perhaps it was fitting, then, that it was the refugee from the last place team who came through with the most determined at bat for the Giants. After falling behind quickly, 0-and-2, Keppinger worked the count to 2-and-2, fouling off four two-strike pitches. On the ninth pitch, the scrappy second baseman split the gap with a line drive to the wall in left center field, scoring both runs.

Keppinger, who barely cracks a smile, can hit. His defense has been exposed as drab and limited compared to the energetic and sparkling play of Freddy Sanchez. But Keppinger's offense is comparable to Sanchez'. For that, general manager Brian Sabean should be credited.

Sabean's magical moves from last year continue to pay dividends, too.

Ramirez entered at the critical moment of the game: A run was in, and the Astros were threatening for more with runners at first and third with one out in the seventh inning. Bumgarner left with a 2-1 lead, but the tough-luck kid (he of the 7-12 mark despite a respectable 3.68 ERA coming into the game) needed some help if he were to hold on.

Pinch hitter Jason Michaels was pulled back for left hander Brian Bogusevic, the kid who'd done some damage against the Giants in the Houston series. Bogusevic took the count full, but Ramirez, showing the fearlessness of a veteran who's been through big moments, got him on an 88 MPH slider -- the pitch of his that acts almost as a screwball and fades away from a lefty.

That was the biggest strikeout of the season up this moment, given the circumstances.

Ramirez then closed it out by inducing the fleet Jordan Shafer to bounce out to end the inning, and Bumgarner's lead was intact.

Ramirez would put up a strong eighth inning with a pair of strikeouts -- using that un-hittable slider of his -- and hand the ball to Casilla, who is acting as if the closer role was meant for him.

Watching him go right after the Astros in the ninth -- closing it out on 11 pitches -- makes you wonder if the Giants might want to lay out some long-range plans for him.


It may have been a coincidence, but with Aubrey Huff in the dugout, the Giants showed some life on defense that has been lacking of late.

Huff's replacement, Mark DeRosa, made one spectacular play that staved off a disaster: a pickup of a tough in-between hop on a throw by Miguel Tejada, that saved at least one run, probably two, and maybe more. With runners and first and second and two outs, Jason Bourgeois hit a hard hit groundball to third, Tejada threw low, and DeRosa, who wasn't looking all that comfortable at first earlier in the game, made the money play.

Later, he conceded it was a lucky play, but hey, luck is the residue of being in the game for so many years, and overcoming a series of debilitating injuries, right?

Other good, solid plays:

An around-the-horn double play in the second inning, Keppinger's quick turn just nabbing the not-slow Matt Downs;

Orlando Cabrera, ranging into the hole and throwing off balance a la Derek Jeter to take away what would have been a leadoff hit in the third inning. The way that third inning unfolded afterward, the play became even more pivotal;

Chris Stewart gunning Carlos Lee on a botched hit-and-run in the fourth inning, the play more impressive than might appear, given Lee's slow speed. Lee actually had a great jump, and only a quick release and accurate throw got him;

Miguel Tejada, pouncing on a sacrifice bunt attempt in the fifth inning, forcing Clint Barmes at second. The ball actually hit off Tejada's glove, but Tejada snatched the ball quickly to get the throw over in time;

Tejada, in the seventh, made a nice ranging play in the hole with runners at second and third; inexplicably, after he did a full 360, he started to go home where he had no shot. He held up, then made a quick throw to first just in time to nab Barmes -- his good arm bailing him out of what could have been a huge blunder.


Huff may be showing signs of age, or at least of being worn down by a long difficult season, so it was good to see Boss Bochy gave him "a day," whether to rest him or to bench him (the distinction is that he is assured a return to the lineup as soon as he's refreshed in the former and isn't in the latter).

His negative energy has carried over into the field, affecting the attitude of his teammates, I believe. Hence, the Giants appeared revived with a new set of infielders out there Friday.

Still, Huff had a role to play on the bench. During the Giants' only rally, you could see him and Pat Burrell standing on either side of Bochy, chatting away. Bochy was holding a bat and smiling, as if they'd put him up to it.

And as soon as Keppinger came through with his two-run double, Huff and Burrell fist-bumped each other as if they'd predicted the big hit and nudged Bochy, who had a big smile. Whatever they were up to, it worked.

(It turns out, as reported in the SF Chronicle, that Huff indeed put the bat in Bochy's hands, a rally bat that served its purpose. Maybe Bochy should hold onto a bat more often).

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