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Tuesday, August 23, 2011

'Tis the season of spoilers

There's this supposedly all-knowing statistic that beat writers are using of late that, at best is meaningless and at worst means almost the reverse of what they pose it to be: how many games left that a team has against losing teams.

If a playoff contender has a bunch of games against losing teams, it is said to have a "soft" schedule and therefore should expect smooth sailing into the post season, or is in a better position than an opponent who might have a "tougher" schedule.

In the case of the Western Division pennant race, it appears to be a wash: the Giants are headed into the final 34 games, 28 of which are against losing teams. The Arizona Diamondbacks have 29 of their last 35 games against losing teams. The only six games they have against winning teams are against each other.

The conventional wisdom is that the two teams will have to take care of business when they face each other.

But that settled knowledge flies in the face of the time-honored tradition of spoilers, the often significant role that losing teams play in a pennant race.

They are loose. They have nothing to lose. They are gunning to topple the big guys, to find meaning in otherwise meaningless seasons. The losing teams look for ways to elevate their game in the closing weeks of the season, to get their own slice of a pennant race.

So, they take it out on the guys who are still aiming for the big prize. Their sole goal is to spoil the well-laid out plans of the winners.

And, in the reverse, the playoff contender is playing under the burdens of winning. Some respond better than others to the vicissitudes of a pennant race. Others crack under the expectations, and are especially vulnerable to the almost mocking light-heartedness of spoilers.

The Giants narrowly escaped the ultimate nightmare spoiler scenario by salvaging one of three games against the Houston Astros. There they were, the team with the worst record in baseball, ready to be swept, on paper.

But the Astros rose up with the energy of a team infused with new blood, a roster full of youngsters out to prove themselves, who hadn't been in the league long enough to know how bad they were supposed to be. And who better to do it against than the world champions?

The Diamondbacks, fresh off of a sweep by the Atlanta Braves and in the midst of a five-game losing streak, entered Washington, D.C. Monday night as the better team on paper than the lowly Nationals. But they proceeded to lose the opener of the series, 4-1, falling under the spell of Ross Detwiler, he of the lifetime 3-12 record.

The Diamondbacks, losers of six in a row, now know the feeling of being the hunted. They had a chance to break open a wide lead as the Giants suffered through their worst spell of the season, but now cling to a one-game lead with all the insecurities and doubts that come with not knowing whether they have what it takes.

The Nationals know they don't have what it takes, so there is no guesswork for them. They can simply play carefree baseball, the most dangerous commodity down the stretch.


Some spoilers have more incentive than others.

The San Diego Padres would love nothing more than to turn the tables on the Giants after getting turned away from the playoffs by the Giants on the last day of the season last year.

The circumstances are different: the Giants, who had chased the Padres all year, overtook them to get into the post season last year. This year, the Padres are hopelessly out of contention, a spoiler by definition.

The Giants have beaten the Padres in six of 10 games so far. But, the two teams have been on opposite trajectories of late. The Giants have lost 16 of 23 since July 29, and the Padres have won 12 of 18 since Aug. 3, including a just-concluded four-game sweep over the morose Florida Marlins, winning the finale on a walkoff RBI single by Will Venable.

The Padres are playing like a team unburdened, with a revived offense led by former Giants farmhand Jesus Guzman, who is hitting .363 (41-for-113) since the All-Star break as the Padres' regular first baseman. Fleet outfielder Cameron Maybin is starting to play like the star he was envisioned to be for so long, hitting .307 (47-for-153) since the All-Star break, stealing 20 of his 32 bases since then.

Power hitter Kyle Blanks, who took two dozen at bats to get his sea legs under him after being called up in late July, is hitting .367 (22-for-60) with five home runs and 16 RBI in August. Venable is hitting .327 in August (18-for-55) as he's revived the top of the lineup.

Of course, none of that was against the likes of Matt Cain or Tim Lincecum, who they will face Tuesday and Wednesday. The Padres were feasting on the pitching staffs of the Pittsburgh Pirates, Cincinnati Reds, New York Mets and Florida Marlins.

Lincecum has been as good as anyone in the National League since June 23. His 6-4 record belies how good he's been: a 1.36 ERA in 72.2 innings, allowing only 47 hits and 29 walks (for a WHIP of 1.04) and striking out 81. He conceivably could have won 10 of the 11 starts in that time, but has received only 27 runs in support (2.45 per game). Nine times in those 11 games he allowed zero or one run, but in five gams received zero or one run.

In three starts this year against the Padres, Lincecum is 2-1 with a 2.50 ERA (five earned runs in 18 innings), striking out 13 in his first start.

Cain's stretch of excellence goes almost three weeks further back than Lincecum's. In his last 15 starts, Cain has had a 2.17 ERA (103.1 innings, 25 earned runs, 77 hits and 25 walks for a 0.91 WHIP and 87 strikeouts). In that time, he's 7-5, though he conceivably could have gone 11-4.

In eight of those 15 starts, he received one or two runs; total he's received 42 runs (2.8 per game), those numbers skewed by the lofty seven spot the Giants ran up for him in his last start.

Cain's opponent, Mat Latos, has settled down since the Giants last saw him, giving up only eight earned runs in his last 27 innings (2.67 ERA). He lost in his last start to the New York Mets, the only mistake a three-run home run to David Wright. But in each of his previous three starts, he went seven strong innings.

The second game starter, Tim Stauffer, coming off a couple rough starts (eight home runs and 13 earned runs in 10 innings in starts against the Mets and Reds), responded with a nice start against Florida (7 IP, one run, five hits, and only one home run).

Stauffer has actually done pretty well against the Giants in his career. Last September, in the heat of the pennant race, he threw six shutout innings in a 1-0 win. The year before, in his first ever start, he kept them to four hits and two earned runs over seven innings.

This year has been mixed for Stauffer against the Giants: In just the fourth game of the season, he got knocked around, giving up four runs on eight hits in 4.2 innings. That was a different lineup, though. He gave up a home run to Buster Posey.

In his most recent start, he out-pitched Cain, giving up two earned runs, scattering eight singles in six innings in a 5-3 Padres win.

1 comment:

  1. One of my most prized inalienable rights after the pursuit of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness is my complete and eternal lack of responsibility for anything and everything that takes place on the field or in the front office of the SF Giants. Hence I am free to come and go as I please.

    I am free to pay rapt attention as if the Giants' fate depended upon my actionable observations. I am also just as free and comfortable to leave my seat whenever Aaron Rowand or Orlando Cabrerea or Aubrey Huff come to the plate, or Barry Zito strolls into view.

    Its likely that the Giants are not going to play very well with the collection of walking and crawling wounded and mentally exhausted pitching staff.

    The main thing is they are home now for their longest stint of the season. And there is always something compelling about being home.

    I watched 53 seasons and it was the last one that made the standings-watch worth it all. But if I had watched all those prior years in disappointment with only the final standings as being meaningful or enjoyable or memorable what a waste that would have been.

    One of the most memorable Giants events in memory was the last home game of the 1999 season. And it had little to do with the game itself, a three-hour and fifteen minute tooth extraction. The Giants lost to the Dodgers ugly, 9-4 in front of 61,000 fans.

    What made it memorable was this. It was the last Giants game to be played at Candlestick forever after 40 seasons. At the end of the game they brought out every former Giants player they could find to be recognized by the fans and to celebrate the previous forty-two seasons.

    The last guy out was Mays. And he didn't come out from the dugout like the others. He came out from behind the centerfield wall in his #24 Jersey and cleats and ran all the way to home plate for the digging up homeplate ceremony.

    From there the plate was helicoptered out to PacBell and ceremoniously planted where it rests today. A funeral and a birth in the space of an hour.

    Like they say, there just is no place like home. The picture alone is worth clicking the link.