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Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Stewart's home run a tableau of joy; Huff back on track?

It was really a beautiful scene, a tableau of pure joy, when Chris Stewart made his triumphant return to the dugout after circling the bases with his first major league home run Tuesday night.

There was Guillermo Mota, checking in with Manager Bruce Bochy at the edge of the dugout, raising his index finger as if to make sure he had it right: first home run, right? Bochy, with what looked like a boyish grin, nodded his head, affirming what everyone knew. Mota, raising his long, spidery arms to give Stewart a high-five, and lingering afterward to take in, with a wide smile, the crowd's roaring approval.

And the deep,warm, affectionate embrace inside the dugout that greeted Stewart was special. There wasn't the typical razzing or yucking that accompanies a first home run for most. This was an outpouring of appreciation -- from grizzled veterans and fresh-faced youngsters alike -- from teammates who understood what a comrade in arms had gone through: knocking around for 10 years as a pro just hoping to get a shot at the big leagues, keeping his head down, biding his time on the bench and in the bullpen.

It was a chance for the Giants to circle around a teammate who'd taken some wounding shots from Giants fans and critics. Stewart, 29, one of a tandem forced into regular action after the star catcher, Buster Posey, went down, has been one of the weak links in the lineup, therefore a target of abuse.

But, teammates know how much heart a player leaves on the field, and the emotional display was a vote of confidence, a public endorsement, an affirmation of Stewart as a true teammate.

Stewart wore an ear-to-ear smile, more sheepish than exultant, as he made his way into the dugout, as if he wasn't used to the glare of attention. But, the backup to the backup catcher, who is hitting .223 in 94 at bats this year and .211 in 142 lifetime at bats, has had some key moments for the Giants in his spare playing time.

Who can forget his game-winning 11th inning squeeze bunt against the Padres last month? Just a couple days ago, he had a big run-scoring single off Roy Oswalt to break a scoreless tie, a line drive single on an 0-2 pitch -- a shoulder-high 93-MPH fastball that the veteran thought he could blow by the light-hitting Stewart.

It wasn't a hanger that he hit for the home run: he wheeled around on a 93 MPH fastball that was boring in on his hands.

And, of course, there's been his spirited defensive play. It's no wonder that he's become the personal catcher for Tim Lincecum, who appreciates his pitch-blocking skills.  And what an arm he has! What catlike reactions from such a big guy! His defense has consoled us as we've suffered through his insufficiencies at the plate and wondered aloud if Ramon Hernandez, the Cincinnati Reds' good-hitting catcher, is available.

Stewart's home run brought home the joie de vivre, the deep unity of the Giants that remains despite the troubled patch they've gone through. While some of us have wondered if the acquisition of Carlos Beltran messed with the Giants' team chemistry, they have showed in the few wins they've mustered lately that the true character of the ream remains: the least likely sources strike at the least likely times.


With Beltran down, the Giants were absolutely flat in Monday's 5-0 loss to the Pirates in the series opener. It seems like the team takes a day to get over big blows to their roster before perking back up.

They had more life Tuesday, as they returned the favor in a 6-0 shutout behind the awe-inspiring stuff of 22-year old left hander Madison Bumgarner (7 innings, 0 runs, four hits, one walk, 10 strikeouts) that may start prompting comparisons to another wicked slider-throwing lefty who turned hitters into corkscrews, Steve Carlton.

While Stewart provided the emotional uplift with his home run, and Bumgarner gave another glimpse of his golden arm, Aubrey Huff's three-hit game had more long-term implications for the season. If anybody is needed down the stretch -- with Beltran or without -- it is Huff.

Huff got the Giants on the scoreboard first with his RBI double in the fourth inning, a low line drive that barely cleared the glove of shortstop Ronnie Cedeno but was hit so hard that it skipped to the edge of the warning track before center fielder Andrew McCutcheon got to it.

Huff added a sixth-inning home run to stretch the lead to 3-0 -- another real nice swing on a pitch that has been beguiling him, the change up -- and a single that contributed to the Giants' three run eighth inning. He could have had four hits -- and another RBI -- if his hard-hit bouncer headed up the middle hadn't been deflected by starter James McDonald right to the shortstop.

Huff's over-wrought, wrenching swing has produced as many ground balls to second base as Darrell Evans used to hit foul-ball home runs. Many fans' delight in Huff's red thong antics has long ago been replaced by bitter recrimination over Huff's season-long failures and Bochy's abiding faith in the veteran.

Bochy's reliance on veterans is a source of deep angst among those fans who remain vocal (who knows what the silent majority feel?). And, as Bochy has banished young player after young player back to the minor leagues as he prepares for the pennant drive -- even as the Giants lost nine of 11 -- the frustration has mounted.

But Huff's performance on Tuesday was a reminder of what he could mean to the Giants in final stretch. The skepticism runs deep. He'd vowed to get back on track after his three home run game in St. Louis in early June, and he did for a bit: he hit .291 that month, though hit only one more home run all month. And then he reverted in July with a malodorous month, hitting .229 with one home run and only seven RBI.

While fans remained stuck on that July performance, Huff began to show signs of life toward the end of the month, and over his last 13 games, he has hit .347 (14-for-40) with a .409 on base percentage.

If he keeps it up, maybe he'll make fans forget Brandon Belt -- for now.



  1. Count me amongst the "run out of patience" crowd Steve. The game has reverted back to the young man's game in toto it seems. Whereas six years ago, (an MLB generation) in 2005, guys in their mid to late 30s could still pound the ball like an unwanted step-child, changes in strike zones, the ball, and dope testing seem to have turned back these older guys like Huff, Rowand, Zito, Tejada, Cabrera, Burrell and even Torres.

    If the season was meaningless, I could understand Bochy letting his vets enjoy their final hurrahs in the August and September sunshine, but this season is not meaningless.

    The Giants are lucky that everybody in their division is horrible. Instead of taking advantage of that and developing Belt and Crawford and using the speed of a Burris and Ford, he seems to want to put lineups out there that play down to the level of the scruffier teams. Afraid to risk.

    I love Boch in so many ways when it comes to managing a pitching staff. He is almost god-like. And frankly, I think that is the one area of game management that matters the most.

    But his burning and seemingly blind (in the absence of logical objective explanations) devotion to Huff, Rowand, Torres, Tejada, Cabrera et al is something that Towers had a problem with in San Diego and is why he was shown the door.

    I get it. I probably get it more than most fans because of my background. But at some point, for the good of the team you have to let go of these guys.

    As I wrote in my little blurb yesterday: "Guys making $400,000 grand a year run out of patience with a guy making 50 times that when his m.o is to take his team out of the game every 5th day by the 4th inning."

    There is just too much over-the-hillness not being balanced out by younger guys like Crawford, Burris and Belt. These 3 need MLB experience now if they are to contribute to October baseball. Wasting time on Huff Rowand and some of the others is just that. A waste.

    And Bochy should know by now, that time is a precious commodity, not to be wasted on the undeserving.

  2. Nothing back on track. Yesterday was just an abberation. Sanchez gets pounded. Giants give up lots of runs and score very little as the punchless offense resumes. What a dreary August this is. Can't wait for September!

  3. E "Joe," you must have realized that except for Cabrera (or perhaps incl. him because he cost a prospect) all the guys you named are making big dollars. You are assuming that Bochy has the last word on who plays, but I'll bet you he gets a little support from the brass something on the order of 'Well, Boch, if you think that Aubrey will eventually snap out of it and have a year like last, go ahead and play him over Belt, because he isn't proven yet, is he? Same with Crawford. We know you like him, but gosh, maybe he WOULD benefit from hitting AAA stuff.'

    Stupid salaries are the elephant in the room. Does anyone think that Huff would have walked away from a World Champ team for a few million less? I believe that the Giants brass has a special room where they can get a collective heat-on right before they go to contract. How else do you explain Zito, Rowand, Huff, Tehada etc.

    Now I am in agreement about Belt. I've said here and elsewhere that the Giants have clearly mishandled their best prospect, and if Huff doesn't prove that the last few days are a snap-to for him, they will be mighty embarrassed that they didn't give Brandon Belt a solid chance up here if come September, the race is still really close, or heaven forbid, S.F. is out of it.
    I'm not upset about Crawford. His average was tanking beyond defensive capabilities. I do hope the Giants bring up Gary Brown when the roster expands, to give him a peek at things. They might find out what they've been missing at leadoff.

  4. E, I didn't know that Bochy had that same over-reliance on veterans in San Diego.

    Yeah, I wonder if Bochy is operating under the old steroid-era premise. Over all those years, Bochy saw veterans replenish their stock (with mother's little helper), and maybe he's hoping for the same without putting it together that it's a different steroid-less era.

    But, I do believe that his devotion to Huff is something different than his continual reliance on the others. With Huff, he sees something in his swing (bat speed?) that convinces him he still has it. Huff has admitted that he's been overwhelmed by all the stuff that young, live-armed pitchers bring.

    The others: Bochy's dealing with the hand he's been dealt. They're on the payroll, they can't shed the big contracts, so he has to make do. I think he's actually used Rowand in situations where he can succeed: against lefties. The problem is when he's forced to put him in against righties.

    Tejada, Cabrera: that's on Sabean. Zito: they're being very creative in keeping him out of sight. I just hope they aren't convinced to go back to him after the Sanchez debacles.

    I agree that they went as long as they could with Crawford. His hitting just was not progressing. Good to see he's succeeding in Fresno, but that doesn't persuade me that he's ready. I do absolutely miss his glove, as I miss F. Sanchez' glove.

    Bill: The Giants can't just let the rest of August slip by! If they get to August five or six games back, a whole lot of good will the soft schedule be.