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Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Pirates' pitcher had perfect foils: Sanchez and overeager SF hitters

Jeff Karstens was in a real funk. The Pittsburgh Pirates starting pitcher had given up nine runs to the lowly, punchless San Diego Padres in his last start. He was riding a personal four-game losing streak.

Did he tweak his mechanics to cure his ailments? Dig deep into his soul? Promise his next baby to a troll in the woods?

Nah, he had the Giants on tap.

That is, the undisciplined, uninspired, overmatched version of the Giants at the plate, the one that flails at 69 MPH curve balls, goes after pitches in the dirt, generally freezes up in a time of need.

And he had a wonderful partner in crime, Jonathan Sanchez. Oh, Sanchez was just what Karstens needed to bolster his own confidence. Sanchez was wild. He was unstable. He was hittable. The troubled left-hander even walked Karstens to start an inning, sparking a three-run rally.

Was Karstens just a good pitcher shutting down a good offense? After all, Karstens has had a pretty good season (despite his bad run, Karstens' ERA was 3.11 coming into the game). The problem is, the Giants have now built a long dossier on weak performances against too many marginal pitchers, so it's really hard to say how good Karstens was.

As it is becoming all too clear, the Giants have a roster of hitters who give way too much credit to  opposing pitchers. There are times when, I swear, it looks like Giants hitters swing at a pitcher's pitch because they are expected, almost determined, to follow the opponents' scouting report. There are times when I wonder if they know their own history against pitchers, and if they do, if they do anything to correct their weakness.


Two at bats in Wednesday's game personified the aggravating approach Giants hitters too often take and is at the core of their struggles this year: Jeff Keppinger's, in the bottom of the fifth, with runners and second and third, and Pablo Sandoval's, immediately following Keppinger's.

The Pirates had built a 5-2 lead -- Sanchez was long gone -- but the Giants still had an opportunity to get right back in the game.

Keppinger knew that Karstens had severe ownage on him. Coming into the game, he'd had only four hits in 21 at bats in their history as Central Division rivals.

Keppinger had struck out swinging on a curve in the first inning and struck out looking in the third inning, frozen stiff on a fastball down the middle, leaving a runner stranded at second. In that third inning at bat, Keppinger was obviously looking for a curve, having been set up by a couple slow, tantalizing breaking pitches that he could do little more than chop foul.

But, if Keppinger couldn't hit Karstens' curve, why would he wait for it, as he did in the third inning, only to be fooled by a fastball down the middle? If you're guessing, why not guess on a pitch you can hit?

In the fifth, Karstens got Keppinger to go after another couple curves, fouling them weakly. This time, Karstens did come back with another curve, this one so far outside and low, it might've nicked a left-handed hitter in the toe.

But Keppinger swung, almost as if obliged, his third strikeout of the game. More important, it blew a big opportunity to get the Giants back in the game. A ground ball would have brought home a run, and it was almost automatic for a contact hitter like Keppinger to drive that run home.

I understand hitting. I understand that if you don't see the ball out of a certain pitcher's hand, you will have a tough time hitting the pitch. Just ask Ryan Howard and Chase Utley how it feels to hit against Tim Lincecum. But if you play intelligent baseball, you try to avoid being sucked into your weakness and your opponent's strength.

Sandoval also fell into Karstens' trap in the fifth, just after Keppinger's strikeout. With runners still on second and third, it appeared that Karstens might want to pitch around Sandoval, or at least try to get him to chase, with first base open. He threw way wide on the first pitch, an easy take.

But on the second pitch, an ankle-high changeup, Sandoval chased it and grounded meekly to second to end the threat. It was a case of Pablo being way too aggressive -- a pattern he has returned to after a strong stretch of disciplined at bats.

I'm not arguing that Sandoval has to eliminate his aggressiveness. That's what makes him Pablo. But if he had played that at bat smart, Pablo would have understood what Karstens was doing: trying to get him to hit his pitch.

But Pablo also seemed to be trying to take on the RBI burden, as if he didn't trust the next guy. Problem is, the next hitter, Aubrey Huff, has been picking up his game of late. Huff had hit .347 over the last 13 games, and had doubled sharply into the corner earlier in the game.

Sandoval should have carried a larger awareness into that batter's box. He should have understood what Karstens was doing, and accepted a walk, if that's all Karstens was willing to give. He should have had trust in the next guy.

That has been a significant reason for the Giants' offensive troubles: too many players have gone down swinging for the fences rather than simply doing what they can to move the line, get on base, allow the pressure to build on opposing pitcher.

That at bat showed that, though Sandoval has been a rare glimmer of hope over these last weeks, he still has some distance to go before he can be considered a mature, intelligent ballplayer.


Sanchez' performance was disappointing on so many levels. For one, it gave the Pirates a series victory, sending the Giants packing with a just concluded 3-7 homestand. This is the same Pirates team that had just been swept by the Padres, a team that arrived in San Francisco on a 10-game losing streak.

That doesn't all go on Sanchez, though he provided two of the losses at home, giving the Giants a fresh reason to panic.

Sanchez appears to have returned to the rotation with less command on his pitches, and in an even more fragile state of mind than he had before his phantom elbow injury. By the time he floated his hanging split finger to Andrew McCutchen for that monstrous two-run blast in the third inning, Sanchez was so far out of the game mentally -- completely disemboweled by the unforgiving strike zone of Alfonzo Marquez -- that he appeared in a daze as he served it up to the Pirates' all-star center fielder.

If anything, Sanchez has regressed rather than progressed in the psychological side of the game, and that affects the physical. His lack of control reflects a scattered frame of mind. It has been thus for Sanchez for a while, and it is surprising that the Giants put him back on the field before he had tamed that inner beast.

Did the Giants hurry Sanchez back too soon, desperate to replace the bombing Barry Zito? Do they have any options to turn to? After all the talk of the Giants' needs on offense, will they be combing the waiver wires for a pitcher now?


And now they travel to the hot, steamy southeast, into the true dog days of August. This will be the Giants' gut check, a test of wills. While it would be nice to magically leap forward into September, and the soft schedule that it contains, the Giants won't get off that easy.

Though they've got the last-placed Florida Marlins, currently on a six-game losing streak, starting on Friday, it's hard to put faith in such positive harbingers after seeing what the downtrodden Pirates did to the Giants in their own ballpark.

And then, they've got the hot Atlanta Braves for four games, and they will be eager to show the world champions how much they've improved since the Giants dispatched them in the NL division series.

Carlos Beltran is iffy for Friday's series opener with the Florida Marlins, so here's hoping that Nate Schierholtz is healed up. They're going to need a full complement of players, but mostly, they'll need to find their mojo to stand up to the heat of August.

Maybe finding themselves looking up at the newly-christened first-place Arizona Diamondbacks will snap them to attention.


  1. I don't think you can trust either Zito or Sanchez. They are both mental wrecks. We need to call someone fresh and hungry up to give it a go. We need someone who is trying to join a staff, not one desperately trying to hang on.

  2. And make sure it's a right hander. Lefties are more often than not (MadBum being an exception) head cases.

  3. Wow, that was an interesting - and provocative - comment: that lefties are more often than not (MadBum being an exception) head cases. Hmmm. I'll have to ask my ambidextrous college roomie, who had all kinds of theories about lefties.

    Separately, I just heard a Bochy quote on the ratteo that Belt was sent down because something in his swing needed to be fixed. Whatever it might be, I'm hoping for soonest resolution. I wouldn't even mind seeing Brandon in left for the stretch run. Bats need apply.

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  5. Crow's Nest. The LH conundrum is one faced by RH pitchers in Australia. Coriolis effect.

    I have some other thoughts on the upcoming road trip. They could go 3-7 or 6-4 and I would be surprised at neither.

  6. My theory about Huff (and be warned that I have nothing to back this up) is that he just let it go during the offseason. He rested on his laurels. He is very out of shape. Should an everyday player get so winded running around the bases? Of course, he doesn't hit enough to get the exercise during games. I also believe that his swing went south during the offseason - something like Pablo losing his hitting stroke when he gained so much weight in 2010.
    So I'll be real surprised if Aubrey "finds it" before the season ends. Ross has more of a chance, but my goodness, what is HE waiting for?