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Sunday, September 18, 2011

When hope refuses to die, it's hard not to believe

Baseball fans are the biggest agnostics. They are very skeptical about things like miracles, about putting too much blind faith in hope.

But, when hope refuses to die, it's hard not to start believing, to start praying to the Baseball Gods.

Yes, the prospects of actually making the playoffs remain remote for the Giants, but their eight-game winning streak has even the surliest cynics laughingly wondering quietly about crazy little scenarios. Inappropriate laughter, after all, is for the crazies.

Especially with the way they're winning. Giants hitters have finally reached a comfort zone. They actually appear to be enjoying their trade, starting with the irrepressible Pablo and his power binge that makes you wonder how close he could have come to an MVP season if not for the 40 games lost to injury.

When the Giants etched their cleansing eight-run fourth inning Sunday -- on a rare four home run frame, evoking the spirits of Willie Mays, Orlando Cepeda, Felipe Alou, Jimmy Davenport and the legendary John Orsino* -- the Arizona Diamondbacks hadn't yet begun play. It might have sent shivers up their spine as they took the field. But the great collapse would have to wait another day. They responded well, defeating the San Diego Padres to avert a sweep and halt a three-game losing streak.

The Diamondbacks' magic number dropped to five games, so even if the Giants win the rest of their games -- which would mean they'd end the season on an unprecedented 17-game winning streak -- the Diamondbacks would only need to win five of their last nine games to earn a share of the West Division title.

There isn't a spotted owl's chance in a Republican administration for that scenario to pan out. The Giants need the Diamondbacks to lose. They cannot hope to overtake the Snakes without a perfect conspiracy, aided and abetted by the Snakes. They have to lose. They have to start panicking. Kirk Gibson's boys will have to show fear and act accordingly.

Unfortunately for the Giants, the Diamondbacks showed resilience Sunday. And, even worse, they have the Pittsburgh Pirate arriving in Phoenix Monday. Giants fans have freshly visceral feelings about how tough the Pirates can be, particularly with nothing to lose -- recall the Pirates coming off a 10-game losing streak to take two of three at AT&T.


But the Pirates seem to have mailed it in at this point. They've just lost three of four to the Dodgers, including a 15-1 debacle Sunday. They've been outscored 28-4 over the last three games. To expect them to put up a fight against the Diamondbacks is really on the outpost of sanity.

And even if you bought into the notion that the Pirates could play the willing role of spoiler, part of the  ridiculous scenario of catching the Diamondbacks would be a three-game sweep over the Diamondbacks' -- in their home park. Although, maybe the Giants could sneak out of there winning two of three.

Ideally, they Giants would cut the Diamondbacks' lead to three games by the time they head into Phoenix on Friday. That would necessitate winning two of three over the Dodgers, while asking the Pirates to defeat the Snakes two of three.

While the Giants take Monday off (they always seem to get a day off right when they have a little momentum, don't they?), Arizona opens against Pittsburgh Monday. Ian Kennedy goes for his 20th win opposite Jeff Karstens, and about the only hope the Giants have in that matchup is if Kennedy freezes up under the double-pressure of trying to get to 20 for the first time and staving off the Giants.

That seems unlikely: Kennedy is a cool customer. But perhaps Daniel Hudson and Wade Miley can slip up.


The same goes for the Giants in the Dodgers series, which begins Tuesday. Though Tim Lincecum is up for the Giants, he's once again got the unenviable task of matching up with the unfathomable Clayton Kershaw in the series opener. Kershaw has simply eaten the Giants for breakfast, snack, lunch, dinner and dessert this year.

The only hope the Giants would seem to have to take Tuesday's series opener is if Kershaw squeezes the ball a bit too tightly as he bids for his 20th win for the first time. It wouldn't be the first time in history that a pitcher sniffing 20 wilted under self-conjured demons. And, it's not insignificant that the werewolf-like Kershaw is going against a different Giants team than he's faced all year, Bam Bam's newly grooving squadron.

(Spoiler alert: The Giants will be fielding their worst lineup: Pablo Sandoval may be held out unless one day off can relieve him of what seems to be chronic pain from the right side of the plate, to be replaced by Mark DeRosa -- a fine backup, but he ain't gonna hit for the cycle for you. Brandon Belt and Brandon Crawford will sit. Orlando Cabrera will likely be in the lineup against the tough lefty as will Justin Christian; the good news is that Brett Pill will be in there for Aubrey Huff, whose butt cheeks continue to tense up in run-scoring chances (and are bruised to boot, courtesy of J.C. Romero). Let's just hope Boss Bochy has the good sense to bring in Crawford for defensive purposes as early as he can in a tight game.)

So, maybe Kershaw, like Kennedy, is too cool a cat to let the goal of 20 freeze him up. So, the Giants would have to win the next two over Dana Eveland and Hiroki Kuroda. Eveland shut out the Giants over seven on Sept. 10, but was hit hard in his last outing (four ER in five IP vs. Pittsburgh). And the Giants roughed up Kuroda the last time they faced him (three ER on eight H in 4.2 IP) on Sept. 11, which kicked off their eight-game roll.

And then the Pirates, behind Craig Morton and Ross Ohlendorf, would have to defeat Daniel Hudson and Wade Miley. Morton has actually been pretty good this year, if unlucky. He's 9-10 with a 3.81 ERA, and over the last month-plus, he's had a 3.28 ERA in 49.1 IP. He held the Cardinals to three ER in 7 IP in his last start, a tough-luck loss.

Ohlendorf won his first game of the year in his last start, holding the Dodgers to two ER and four hits over seven IP. So, they're in a position to help the Giants.

Hudson, however, appears on top of his game: he's had a 1.57 ERA in three September starts and a 2.40 ERA dating back to the beginning of August. The rookie Miley is a little more vulnerable, having given up nine ER on 19 hits and 10 walks over his last 18 IP (4.50) as he gets his first taste of a big league pennant race.


Back to that three-game sweep that the Giants would need in Arizona. Here are the scheduled matchups:

Game 1: A rookie matchup of Josh Collmenter vs. Eric Surkamp.

Game 2: Lefty Joe Saunders vs. Matt Cain.

Game 3: A matchup a Cy Young candidate and a former Cy Young: Kennedy vs. Lincecum.

But as one reader, Giant Pita, recommended, there is an alternative:

Bochy could move Surkamp into the Dodgers series and Madison Bumgarner into the Arizona series, like so:

Vs. LA
Game 1: Lincecum vs. Kershaw
Game 2: Vogelsong vs. Eveland
Game 3: Surkamp vs. Kuroda

Vs. Ariz
Game 1: Bumgarner vs. Collmenter
Game 2: Cain vs. Saunders
Game 3: Lincecum vs. Kennedy

Vs. Colo
Game 1: Vogelsong vs. Jhoulys Chacin
Game 2: Surkamp vs. Aaron Cook
Game 3: Bumgarner vs. Alex White

If the Giants are somehow still in it in the final series, Sept. 26-28, it's hard to know who holds the edge between the Diamondbacks and Giants. Arizona would be up against the Dodgers with Hudson, Miley and Collmenter going against Eveland, Kuroda and Ted Lilly. And the Giants would be licking their chops over facing the forgettable Rockies.


But, maybe all the angst and calculations over Arizona is moot. Maybe, instead, the Giants should pin their hopes on overtaking the Atlanta Braves.

The Braves, after all, have lost six of nine, nine of 14, and 11 of 18 overall in September. They've lost five games in the Wild Card standings to the Giants in September, and are hearing footsteps from two teams: the Cardinals, who are now within 3.5 games of the Braves in the WC, and the Giants, now four games back.

The Braves travel to take on the streaky Florida Marlins (who've had a four-game winning streak and a four-game losing streak in a 9-9 September); a frisky Washington (just off a recent five-game winning streak, the Nationals have won the last seven of 10) before flying home for a season-closing three-game stand with the indomitable Philadelphia.


It's a parlor game for the fanciful. Now, let's see how it all plays out.


*For those poor souls who tried to shake loose some memory of Orsino, the fifth wheel of the Giants' 1961 home run parade that Aug. 23 afternoon, it's understandable that you couldn't:

He was a 23-year old catcher, barely a month in the big leagues when he stamped his name in history. It was one of only four home runs he'd hit as a Giant in 131 at bats before being dealt to the Baltimore Orioles in 1963, when he had his one big season: 19 home runs, 56 RBI and a .272 batting average.

He would go on to hit 40 home runs in a seven-year career, on top of the 111 he hit in the minors (he had three 20-plus home run seasons in the Giants' farm system).

Before Orsino was dealt to the Orioles, he appeared in one game in the 1962 World Series, hitting into a double play grounder in his only at bat.

The New Jersey native is 73, and you have to wonder whether he held out any hope that his name would ever enter into the baseball conversation so many years after he'd faded from the memory of Giants fans.


  1. "So, maybe Kerston, like Kennedy, is too cool a cat to let the goal of 20 freeze him up."

    "Kerston"? Is that a nickname, or did your brain just do a freeze-up? ;-/

    I think the "odds" are why I'm not interested in Brad Pitt's new movie. Baseball ISN'T All About the Numbers.

    It's the intangibles. I rationally know that a Giants' 9th inning has nothing to do w/ my baseball cap...yet I turn it inside-out anyway.

    Just win, Giants . . . and let the Universe/Baseball Gods sort the rest out.

    "Don't Stop Believin'!"

  2. thanks, JCF: brain lock! I made the fix.

    Hey, I gotta brag here: this morning I woke up and one of my first thoughts was that Pablo Sandoval was going to go yard. I told my wife, I've got the feeling he's going to hit two HRs today. Maybe just one, but I'm thinking two.

    It was the first prediction I made all year, and it was a gut call. My wife then asked, so, what do you think, can the Giants do this?

    I said, I can't just answer something like that on demand. It has to come to me.

  3. Nice post Dude - appreciate you laying out all the match-ups/possibilities. I agree w/you, unless the Snakes collapse, we have a better chance against the Braves/Cards.

    If The Freak can only beat Opie this time, take it from there.

    p.s. love the Johnny Orsino trivia - to paraphrase the "inimitable" Tito, he went to the Orioles so he could still wear orange and black - haw!

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  5. A valiant effort Steve. As of this writing on Fri afternoon the 23rd, the Giants are six games out with six to play. They would have to sweep Arizona to avoid them partying in their face when they clinch. The ultimate humiliation. And I have no stomach for that scene whatsoever. None.

    And If I am Tim Lincecum or Matt Cain, I am sticking pins in my Brian Sabean doll as fast as I can pick them up. For it has been Sabean that has cost Lincecum a Cy Young. And it has cost both he and Cain multiple chances at 20 wins.

    Do you realize when Matt Cain made his debut? Thats right. When he was 19 in 2005. The season that started the worst offensive run in the history of the San Francisco Giants. He's signed through 2012 and Lincecum is under control through 2013, and eligible for arbitration after this season. Now how pre-disposed do you think he is going to be to a home-town discount when the tool responsible for depressing his numbers is still manhandling things like Captain Queeg searching fruitlessly for his strawberries.

    Matt Cain has started over 200 games for the Giants and has a losing record for his career. When your team (starting in 2005) ranks 29th, 24th, 29th, 29th, 26th, 17th, 29th in runs scored you have to be a monster to get even close to 68 wins and 72 losses during that 6+ year period.

    Either one of these guys can go to a team with some hitting, reap millions, take some pressure off their arms, and maybe last long enough to cash in twice during their careers and have a shot at the Hall of Fame. Lord knows their stuff has been good enough.

    I think it is a travesty that the affectation-centric Neukom, alone should bear the brunt of the Giants failures with the Board. While he is the guy who extended Sabean and Bochy not once, but twice, Sabean has yet to be taken to the woodshed and held accountable for the gigantic mess the Giants are in contrasted with where they should be with any semblance of competency. Any one his three underlings in Evans to Tidrow to Barr would have done substantially better, if you only look at the pitchers and hitters they have drafted, signed, and developed, compared to Sabean's acquisitions on the open market.

    Clearly Sabean's failings in the veteran acquisition market indicate that he has worn out his welcome with other GMs other than as somebody to pawn their garbage upon. Organizations and GMs have changed since he was able to pry guys like Jeff Kent and Jason Schmidt and Ellis Burks away from unwary Front Offices. Those stooges are out of work now.

    His time has passed as did Tom Hallers, Al Rosen's, Bob Quinn's, Jack Hiatt's and Felipe Alou's, Peter Magowan's and now Bill Neukom's.

    With even a 40th percentile offense, the Giants could have breezed through this division. Thats how rancid the results of Sabean's machinations have been. My rationale for this rant is here.

    It is one thing when your competition beats you. Its yet quite another and another and another and another when the same guy in the front office beats you with his incompetent, stubborn and unbending ways, year in and year out. People. One playoff appearance since 2003, the last of Baker's players were gone the following year. One. With Lincecum and Cain anchoring your staff.

    If this guy was in my business, he would have had his errors and omissions liability coverage canceled by now, and he would have the Department of Labor and the IRS all over his hide for breach of fiduciary responsibilities.

    As Alex Smith has already gotten two coaches fired, Sabean has gotten two Managing General Partners fired.

    It is up to Baer to fix this or he is just as culpable, if not more so, than his predecessors.

  6. SH - haven't seen you in awhile on baggs blog - I appreciate your insight and hope you do a season wrap before you hang up the blog keys for the season ! MLB has some interesting cinderellas this year so the post-season should be very entertaining. 2010 was a season for the ages in San Fran and I think we all kind of forgot that you don't get 2 of those in life. The next run will have different stories and actors - maybe different writers and readers too! I do hope you and baggs will be back for the 2012 campaign...thanks again !

  7. E - what a solid assessment ! I especially like this....

    "Matt Cain has started over 200 games for the Giants and has a losing record for his career. When your team (starting in 2005) ranks 29th, 24th, 29th, 29th, 26th, 17th, 29th in runs scored you have to be a monster to get even close to 68 wins and 72 losses during that 6+ year period." and would hope you also post to extrabaggs - it is so telling that the offense is not just a THIS year problem BUT a 7 year AND COUNTING problem - the only constant is Sabean himself!

  8. Thanks for the nice words goodsam, here and baggs joint.

    Like Joe Posnanski, every time I read something of Steve's, I go spinning off like a top pursuing some idea that he pops into my head, or in most cases, causing me to question pre-conceived notions. Thats what a really good journalist can do. Pretty powerful stuff really.

    Which is what this particular post of Steve's did. When I first wrote this piece about a month ago, I thought it might turn out to be an incomplete sentence, and that more would develop; and it did. But not the way I thought.

    The past few weeks have been nothing if not sad and disappointing for Giants fans. Until the anticipation of probably the most heart-rending story about a Giants pitcher since Dave Dravecky made his comeback against Cincinnati in Aug 1989, throwing 8 innings in a 3-1 win at the Stick.

    Glad you enjoyed it GSam. Hope others do too.