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Monday, May 30, 2011

Bumgarner's special streak; a rare, satisfying 5-run rally

Madison Bumgarner's streak of seven straight "quality starts" goes way beyond the minimalist implications of that phrase: he's been dang good. I mean, real, darn good. Could go so far as to say damn special.

Here are his numbers over his last seven starts, dating back to his last April outing:

IP: 46.2
H: 39
ER: 9
HR: 0
BB: 10
SO: 32
ERA: 2.12
WHIP: 1.08
W-L: 2-3

He hasn't given up a home run since his second start, on April 17. He's lowered his ERA from 7.79 to 3.66. Those are the numbers of a guy on a serious roll, elite numbers of a dominant pitcher. If he keeps it up, he may have to be included in conversations surrounding who Boss Bochy picks for his All-Star staff.

In fact, I'm going to place his name in the hat right now. He should make it to the All-Star game, especially since his manager can do the picking.

What's special about Bumgarner is that he is so unflappable. He's 21 going on 32. He appears to be gaining better control of his emotions and done a good job of looking past the early blemishes that could have overwhelmed a less steady person: the six-game losing streak, the lack of offensive support, the awful umpiring that he's had to pitch through, the questions looming over his head: is Bumgarner snake bitten? Is his youth catching up to him after experiencing so much early success during the Giants' World Series run?

He did go through patches when he appeared to succumb to the pressures of adversity: he'd allow one rough inning to be his undoing, and couldn't find a way out of the onslaught.

In some of those cases, he was the victim of bleeders and bloopers; in others, he was squeezed by stingy umpires. So, it was a bit unfair to say he was pitching poorly. But now, he appears to have learned how to contain the damage.

Monday, for example, the Cardinals jumped on him for two runs in the third inning -- the door opening after two outs when a line drive foul ball was called fair for an RBI double by Allen Craig, followed by an RBI single for Albert Pujols, who moved up to second when Cody Ross' throw banged off of catcher Eli Whiteside's glove. The wheels could have come off completely with the N.L.s top hitter, the dangerous Matt Holiday, due up. But Bumgarner bore down to keep that go-ahead run on the bases by inducing an inning-ending groundout.


The Giants had erupted for five runs in an inning only once before this year, on April 18, in their 8-1 win over Colorado. Runs have come at such a premium that all expectations for major rallies have been become a luxurious afterthought, like bygone days of expensive dinner outings for families now watching their budgets.

A successful rally for the Giants has been more along the lines of their one-run third inning. They got a booming leadoff double from Bumgarner, the pitcher, but with so much history of failed situational hitting, Bochy ordered a bunt from leadoff man, Andres Torres, moving Bumgarner to third. But, as the No. 2 hitter, Miguel Tejada fell behind in the count, 0-and-2, it was easy to second guess a) the Torres bunt and b) why the heck, of all days, Bochy decided to put Tejada in the two-hole.

But, lo, Tejada bounced one up the middle through a pulled-in defense for the rare RBI hit, and a great sigh of relief (or was it just the exhalation of pent-up exasperation?) went up through the Giants Universe.

Still, it was just a single run, and they'd have to settle for that when the middle of the order -- No. 3 hitter Freddie Sanchez and cleanup man Aubrey Huff (who went 0-for-9 together Monday) went down without a peep.

So, when they put together a five-run third, it was like an early 4th of July celebration.

They cobbled together all the elements of a nice rally: a leadoff walk from Cody Ross (who should be credited with loosening the spirits of the Giants when he launched his second-inning home run; remember, they came into St. Louis after two straight dispiriting losses to Milwaukee, which seemed to show they hadn't yet gotten over the shock of losing Buster Posey); an unexpected double down the line from Aaron Rowand (who continues to contribute with timely hits, though he has yet to earn the full faith of fans that he can actually be counted on); a tie-breaking RBI single from the kid, Brandon Crawford, a stolen base, and then a walk to Bumgarner, who's reputation as a masher is getting into his counterparts' heads now.

Could they really cash in? Could the Giants be expected to open this game up with a big hit? Could they just please stay away from the double play; maybe catch a break with Torres' speed? As I say, expectations have been low for the Giants, and when you've been disappointed so often, you can only ask for the pain to be minimized.

When Torres' fly ball arched its way through the sunny skies of St. Louis, even he didn't seem to expect it to go out. A sacrifice fly ball would be nice, as good as it usually gets for the 2011 Giants.

So, when that thing actually soared into the stands, it might have taken a moment to understand the moment. And then you saw Torres almost passing Bumgarner on the basepaths, he'd been so out of practice (well, he'd never done this sort of thing in the major leagues, so Andres could be excused). But, wouldn't that have been the apt blunder: a grand slam-turned out.

But, Bumgarner slowed him down, Torres waited his turn on the basepaths, and the Giants had the satisfaction of a real rally -- and a nice, important victory.

Sunday, May 29, 2011

Two-strike hits the bane of Cain

So much for the infusion of youth. Adding Manny Burriss, Brandon Crawford, Brandon Belt and Chris Stewart to Sunday's lineup did little more than accentuate the desperate straits the Giants are in, while the rest of the depleted offense continued its lifeless sleepwalk through the season.

Going up against tough right hander Yovani Gallardo on Sunday was no picnic, but Giants hitters had the added challenge of a home plate umpire, Mike Winters, who added six inches to the plate on the outside corner -- which Gallardo exploited all day.

But the biggest disappointment was Matt Cain's performance. Even if you allow that he was nicked by dunkers and seeing-eye base hits in the Brewers' two-run first inning, Cain looked pedestrian, making poor pitches in bad locations when it counted.

And he could not put the Brewers away when he had count leverage. He gave up six two-strike base hits, meaning that a) his location was bad and b) he didn't have the stuff to put them away. Particularly galling was the two-out, two-strike base hit he gave up to No. 8 hitter Yuniesko Betancourt that opened the way to the two-run sixth inning rally that put the game away.

In the first inning, Cain had Nyjer Morgan  in a 1-2 hole before giving up a single on a full count fastball. He also gave up an infield single to Ryan Braun after going ahead 1-and-2. Those hits contributed to the Brewers early 2-0 start.

In the third inning, Cain had Braun down 0-and-2 before he gave up a single on a 1-2 count. Braun stole second, and Prince Fielder, after falling behind 0-and-2, raked a line drive RBI single up the middle on a slider that was low but hung out over the plate. Cain gave up a two-strike single to Casey McGhee before getting out of the third down 3-0.

He shut the Brewers down effectively in the fourth and fifth innings in a game effort to keep the game within reach. And in the sixth, Cain got the first two outs and jumped to an 0-and-2 advantage on Betancourt. He tried to put him away with a slider low and away, but it once again hung up just enough and Betancourt stung it for a hit.

It was a Cardinal sin in a couple ways. First, the free- swinging Betancourt, a .222 hitter, is vulnerable on breaking stuff away, but he lay it in the strike zone -- too good a pitch with two strikes. Second, Cain didn't even make an attempt at exploiting Winters' wide strike zone. Where was the fastball six inches away?

Sure, the Giants were effectively dead by then, a team that looked thoroughly incapable of overcoming a 3-0 deficit. But they overcame a 3-1 deficit Friday on Crawford's grand slam, so holding the Brewers was essential.

Instead, Cain gave up a bloop single to Gallardo, and then missed his target on Rickie Weeks -- trying to get in on his hands, he threw a fastball that drifted over the plate -- and he paid for it with a two-run, two-out double.

The last thing the Giants can afford is for the pitching to start slumping. They have been forced to pitch with no margin for error, and have performed largely within that margin. Unfortunately, mistakes are magnified by the weak and moribund offense.


As the Giants Universe has searched for meaning out of Buster Posey's season-ending injury, many have focused on finding a suitable replacement for Posey behind the plate. But, as Giants General Manager Brian Sabean has noted, there aren't too many available catchers who would do much better than Eli Whiteside, who is being given the chance to fill in.

The other, more viable option, is to try to find a position player who could add some spark to the lineup.  Marty Lurie, the KNBR sports phone talk show host, suggested outfielder Carlos Beltran, who is in his last year of his contract with the Mets and appears to be recovered from knee ailments that slowed him down over the last two years.

That would mean a complete rethinking of the Giants outfield, which may be what's needed. Sunday's outfield alignment of Nate Schierholz, Andres Torres and Brandon Belt could be what Bruce Bochy wants to ride for a few days to see if the combination can amount to anything. Belt had a pair of promising swings with a long fly ball to left field and an opposite field soft line drive single to left. That's what the Giants want to see from him, so if he can continue with that approach they may have some patience.

Though Schierholz has provided dazzle with dramatic hits and defensive plays, he still is at just .255. Cody Ross' streakiness is a bit maddening. Pat Burrell's power drought -- now at 84 at bats -- has become a weight around the Giants neck. Aaron Rowand is getting less and less playing time. Even Andres Torres, considered the one steady presence both offensively and defensively, is hitting just .250.

So, there's an argument for adding some muscle to the outfield.

As for the newest cleanup hitter, Aubrey Huff's 4-6-3 double play ground ball in the 9th was a perfect example of how dead the middle of the order is. The Giants were just starting to kick something up in the ninth -- nothing to get too excited about, but runners on first and second on a pair of hits, with no outs. And Huff comes up with the real buzz kill with a roll-over twin-killer.


Another example of the modern manager's indifference to one of the standards of pitching prowess, the shutout: Ron Roenicke's decision to pull Gallardo after eight innings. He was dominant and breezed through eight innings with a 6-0 lead, and had thrown only 109 pitches. Why not allow him that shot for a shutout?

The obsession with pitch count protection once again raises its ugly head.


When Mike Krukow mentions rock fights, does anyone have any idea that he's literally talking rock fights? He was talking about Santiago Casilla's younger brother, a pitcher in the Giants organization, who throws maybe even harder than the Giants pitcher.

"So, you didn't want to get into a rock fight with them," Krukow said.

We had them in the late '60s and early '70s in Berkeley. You might be standing on one end of a lot with a bunch of your friends and suddenly a rock would explode at your feet. You'd look up and there was another gaggle of kids across the field, and it was on: you'd throw rocks back. You'd rarely get hit; you'd see 'em coming and you'd dodge them, as they would your throws. But it was scary, dangerous and thrilling enough for an 8-year old kid.

Friday, May 27, 2011

Cousins' slide was the dirtiest I've seen -- worse than Rose on Fosse

The conventional wisdom is hardening fast: the brutal shoulder-first slide by Scott Cousins into Buster Posey that shook the foundation of Giants baseball may have been old-school hardball, but it was a clean, legitimate hit.

Everyone anguishing over Cousins' crushing blow is just being whimpery over the demise of their chosen Golden Boy, critics say. If he'd gone around the plate and been tagged out, Cousins would have been lambasted for failing to do everything he could to score. Even Cousins himself has said there was nothing wrong with his slide, saying "It is part of the game, but it’s a hard-nosed part of the game."


I've watched the replay of that collision a dozen times, and am convinced it was one of the dirtiest slides I've seen in my 40-plus years of watching baseball. Worse than Pete Rose on Ray Fosse, by far.

Posey stood a good four feet in front of the plate, nearer to the first base line than the third base line. He was not blocking the plate but rather going out for Nate Schierholz' one-hop throw from shallow right field.

Old pros have whispered quietly and without attribution that Posey could have avoided the injury if he'd positioned himself better: he should have put his body right over the left front corner of the plate, with his legs planted firmly, in a crouch. If he'd done that, Cousins may have thought twice about sliding shoulder first because a catcher positioned solidly is like a brick wall.

But he wasn't, which made the Cousins slide all that much more a cheap shot. He knew Posey was in a bad position, and he took the opening to exploit it. Of course I believe him when he says he wasn't trying to injure Posey; that he was only trying to do what he could to score.

But, if you look at his route, and what he had to do to get there, there can be only one unassailable conclusion: he went out of his way to do his damage. Cousins had to redirect his path so that he cut out of the baseline in front of the plate to get to Posey. A straight path from third base on a sacrifice fly would have been a slide right into home plate; a hook slide around the back of the plate would have been a good eight feet from where Posey was when he caught the ball.

Rose's collision with Fosse was much more legitimate: Fosse was three feet up the third base line, squared up against the onrushing Rose. Rose had no other path to the plate but to barrel through the catcher.

The Cousins slide was all about a .158-hitting 26-year old journeyman trying to contribute to his team, looking for some glory where there hasn't been much and throwing a little bit of muscle and bravado out there for his compadres' approval.

Whether baseball should adopt new rules on home plate collisions is irrelevant. Keep the rules the same, allow the base runner license to maim, so that baseball can hold onto at least a semblance of the game's tradition of danger and contact. That's fine. But Scott Cousins' slide does not have to be accepted as legitimate.

It was a cheap shot, a Jack Tatum blow that should be scorned and derided. It should not be categorized as "hard-nosed" or "old school" but callous, violent and outrageous. Calling the slide legitimate gives it too much credit and provides Cousins with cover he doesn't deserve.

Posey himself called Cousins' shoulder-first slide "unnecessary" and that he'd consciously left him a lane to slide into.

That's putting it mildly, and Posey is being a gentleman in his phrasing. I notice that Cousins has left two messages to Posey, both of which went unreturned. I hope Posey ignores him for good.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Giants' Notebook: 'Old School' Lincecum eats up A's


  • Tim Lincecum apparently takes pride in the the Bay Area rivalry: Three of his eight career complete games and two of his five lifetime shutouts have been against the Oakland A's.
  • Lincecum has given up only three earned runs in his last 42 innings against the A's, an 0.64 ERA, with a 5-0 mark in that time.
  • Lincecum's 133 pitches Saturday were not a career high: he'd thrown 138 pitches in a shutout over San Diego on Sept. 13, 2008. Since then, he'd thrown 120 pitches or more 10 times. In this day of  pitch count protection, Lincecum got the greatest compliment from Boss Bochy, who called him  "old school."
Still, he needs to throw 150 pitches or more to qualify as truly old school. See Juan Marichal vs. Warren Spahn, 16 inning classic, 1963. Marichal threw more than 200 pitches because he wasn't going to be outdone by the 42-year old future Hall of Famer, who threw 276 pitches that game.
  • In the meantime, A's Manager Bob Geren had a strange explanation of why he took Brett Anderson out after only five innings in a 1-0 game. He said he was "done" after 91 pitches. I guess that means he'd run out of gas. But the guy is a horse at 6-foot-4, 235 pounds, and he was pitching in cool San Francisco weather. No follow up questions, guys in the press box? Like, was Anderson fighting a flu? Or, did he have a bad night sleep? Why was he "done" after 91 pitches?
Anderson has been fairly resilient (by modern standards), averaging 105 pitches in nine starts. Only twice had he not reached 100 pitches, and those were in poor outings.

Maybe it was that Brett Anderson couldn't stand the heat against the Giants' ace. I don't know. If I'm a professional pitcher and I'm going up against the best, I don't beg out after five innings and 91 pitches. Or, I don't let my manager baby me.

Geren faced some heat for lifting Trevor Cahill for a pinch hitter in a 1-1 tie in the sixth of Friday night's game. But that was a little more understandable: the A's had the go-ahead run at third with two outs, and only a brilliant, diving stop and throw from second baseman Freddie Sanchez on Conor Jackson's hard hit grounder up the middle kept the A's from taking the lead and thwarted Geren's move.

But that's different than babying a pitcher.

  • The Giants have gone 11-3 since falling to 15-16, and have won eight in a row at home (after being swept at home by the Atlanta Braves last month).
  • At this time last year, the Giants were in the midst of being swept by the A's, scoring only one run in three games, and stood at 22-21 on May 23. So, for all those folks (me included!) who have reached for the panic button during times of Giants' stress, there is comfort in remembering that last year had its deep valleys en route to the mountain top.
  • The Giants have reeled off two four-game winning streaks and one six-game winning streak already this year. Their longest losing streak has been four games. Last year, the Giants' longest winning streak was five games, though they strung together nine (9) four-game winning streaks. And their longest losing streak was seven games, from June 26-July 2, when they fell to 40-39.
  • Speaking of defense: the clutch defensive plays by Sanchez and Nate Schierholz were just as thrilling as any game-winning hit, and should remind fans of the multi-dimensional appeal of the game.
Schierholz' acrobatic, fearless diving catch of a slicing line drive off the bat of pesky Jamie Carroll with the bases loaded to save Thursday's 3-1 win over the Los Angeles Dodger -- I sure do hope closer Brian Wilson bought him dinner that night -- was a true Olympian moment: it took sheer focus and concentration, but also an ability to suspend thought: a pure physical moment that could not allow hesitance or fear of failure to enter into the calculus.

It also took a last second adjustment: as he took flight and was already parallel to the ground, the ball took off to his left, slicing further away from him toward the right field line. He made the adjustment in mid-flight, reaching out to grab the liner. Any misgiving, any second thought on Schierholz' part would have resulted in a disaster. The ball would have sailed past him, and all three runners would have easily scored for a Dodger win.

All the talk would have been about whether Brian Wilson had truly recovered from his ankle tweak from the night before; perhaps speculation would have begun on whether he had lost a few miles off his fastball (which he has, but few have made mention).

But, Schierholz' catch also served to illustrate what could be the marketability of defense at a time when folks have been fretting over the low scoring and anemic offenses around the major leagues. What a premium on scoring has meant is a return to tight, tense contests in which every play, every pitch is worth watching because one big play, one big error, or one big hit can mean the difference.

That can make for exhausting, dread-filled, frustrating, but also fulfilling and triumphant viewing for your typical fan.

It does require a greater attention span and a better understanding of the game. That may mean the casual fan will have to buck up and give a little more to the game than fealty to the more muscular and obvious points of the game. And that's why there are rumblings among baseball wise guys (even the inestimable Marty Lurie, one of the finest caretakers of the game with his deep appreciation for history and the game's finer points) to beef up the offensive side of the game with such remedies as lowering the mound, livening up the ball, or shrinking the strike zone.

But the fact is that pitchers have had to adjust to find ways to thwart hitters (with better conditioning, more pitch varieties, better fastballs), who are still bulked up and have the best tools available to them than any generation (video, sophisticated charting, statistical analysis for matchups, etc). So, why shouldn't the hitters have adjust to the pitchers without having to lean on artificial support?

I find it unsettling and bizarre that after finally emerging from the dark shadow of steroids and human growth hormones (though I suspect the world of PEDs is still very much thriving) associated with the era of skewed power and phony statistics that there would be a clamor for something to be done to throw the balance back to the hitters.

I'm of the firm belief that things will balance out on their own. For one thing, the weather, which has been pretty harsh through the early months, will start to warm up soon, and you'll see bats perk up. Did you notice the number of double-digit runs scored this weekend? On Friday, three teams scored in double digits, including the Nationals, who scored 17 runs, and the Red Sox, who scored 15 runs.

On Friday, the overall average score as 7-3, and all teams combined hit a solid .262, 12 points above the major league average coming into the game. On Saturday, the anemic offense returned: teams hit .244, with an average score of 5-2.

But we'll see if the weather heats up the bats today. Not that I'm rooting for the hitters. Just to keep the reformers at bay.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Isn't Ross' home run trot as stylish as they come?

When Lance Cormier threw two straight slow curves -- one for a strike, another for a ball -- to Cody Ross in the ninth inning Wednesday night, I thought to myself: throw him another. He'll be waiting.

That's why I was surprised to hear Ross say he wasn't looking for another curve, that he was looking for a cutter. But he identified the curve early and reacted.

And boy did he react. The thing is that it was the kind of pitch, a slow curve inside, that most pull sharply but foul. But Ross put on a perfect swing to keep it fair: he pulled his arms in just a bit and gave it an almost inside-out swing with an upper-cut yank.

Not only was it a perfect swing, but it was antidote to the miseries that have befallen the Giants on this road trip. It was the big blow the Giants have been searching for all season.

Oh, they've had their dramatic moments, pulled out a lot of tight ones. But a game decided on a late home run has not been a part of the Giants' arsenal. Three-run shots have come all too rare, let alone in a key moment that simultaneously erases a bullpen meltdown and catapults them to victory. Even in their three-run fourth inning, the rally that gave them a 4-0 lead, the Giants had to scratch and claw: four singles, a walk and a sacrifice fly.

And isn't Ross' home run trot about as stylish as they come? He has toned it down since last year, when he would raise his arms, leap and skip -- remember his bat throw after hitting a HR off Matt Cain? Still, there's that little fling of the bat, the look of sheer malevolence (is it disdain?) directed toward the flight of the ball but meant for the pitcher, the nod and fist pump to teammates in the first-base dugout, and the triumphant, graceful stride around the bases punctuated by muscular high fives at the plate.

Ross' athletic triumphs are easy to celebrate because he has the look of Everyman, with his round, almost cherubic face, his medium stature, his bald pate. He also speaks in media-friendly, thoughtful ways. But don't mistake him for ordinary. Ross is a true athlete with speed, a strong throwing arm, a good glove and power. He can beat you in many ways. Remember, he stole second ahead of Miguel Tejada's RBI single that gave the Giants a 5-2 lead in the eighth.

Up until the bullpen meltdown (in which Brian Wilson's pitching line bears no resemblance to the disaster that unfolded on his watch), Tejada's RBI single was the Giants' biggest blow. It came after the Dodgers had narrowed the Giants lead to 4-2, and folks were wondering if the Giants offense had, once again, turned in early.

He drove in Ross, who had walked and stole second, with a soft, sinking line drive to left field -- the "add on run" that Boss Bochy keeps imploring the boys to be mindful of. Tejada had an earlier RBI single with the bases loaded, and now has five hits in his last 12 at bats. He also had a nice play up the middle on a hard hit grounder by pitcher Clayton Kershaw.

Maybe his critics will give him a break as they watch him emerge from his funk. When he's hitting, he brings a zest and spark to the field that could be infectious.

The win went to the vulture, Wilson, who at 4-1 is the Giants leader in wins, though he allowed two inherited base runners to score and a third from his own ledger.

His confrontation with ex-Giant Juan Uribe was most puzzling. In running the count full, Wilson appeared to dominate Uribe with the fastball, but did Uribe a favor with a 88 MPH cut fastball on the payoff pitch, speeding up Uribe's bat. It was a mistake up, which all Giants fans know Uribe feasts on.

The James Loney RBI single that followed was just as puzzling: what the heck was Aubrey Huff thinking when he let it go by him? It was a slow bounder just to his right, while Sanchez was playing straightaway at second. He couldn't have thought Freddie Sanchez was pulled so far over the right side, or if he did, he sure hadn't looked to confirm it.

But all that was forgotten when Ross circled the bases with that part-cherubic, part-malevolent grin.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Giants recent skid: a blip or sign of serious disarray?

It may be a slight blip, or the Giants' recent skid may be a sign of serious disarray that could send the world champions off the rails.

Three losses in four games in itself is no reason to panic. But the underlying issue that led to the losses -- offensive turpitude -- could be a long-term weakness that could upend any post-season thoughts. The Giants have, for too long, relied on their pitching to pull them through, and continued failure at the plate is starting to create a psychic drag.

The Giants' offense, depressingly inept with a .239 batting average and meager .304 on base percentage, has forced the boys on the hump to pitch with little margin for error, magnifying every errant throw, every missed target, every hanging curve.

When they got their 3-1 lead Tuesday against the Rockies, it was almost as if the Giants' offense believed its job was done. It's as if they believe that a two-run lead in the late innings should by all rights be enough.

Perhaps Tim Lincecum, Matt Cain, et al, have spoiled Aubrey Huff, Buster Posey, et al, and given them a false sense of security by being so damned good for so damn long. Maybe they'll continue to shut down opposing teams at such brilliant rates. But the rare occasion that they falter shouldn't always mean total disaster.

Once in a while, a team's offense should come to the rescue of a pitching staff that falters.

Bottom line: The Giants do not have the look of a championship team. Yes, they've been extraordinary at pulling out the close games, having won 12 of 15 one-run games, one index of a winning team. But the consistent drabness of the Giants' lineup, the lack of vibrancy game after game, may be the more substantive indicator of where they're going.

Either way, we're hearing about a major shakeup on the horizon. Short of acquiring Jose Reyes, however, I'm not sure what the Giants can do in-house that would constitute a breakthrough move. With Freddie Sanchez' knee ailing, they're talking about calling up Manny Burriss to shore up the bench. They would send down Darren Ford, who's been a luxury for the Giants and provided rare electricity on the basepaths but hasn't had enough opportunities to provide the impact that the Giants were hoping from him.

Maybe Brandon Belt is the answer. He's heated it up in Triple A, and might be able to bring a live bat into the funereal proceedings. Then again, he brought a hot bat out of spring training and immediately was overwhelmed by big league pitching, hitting .192 in his first go. If he and Burriss come up, who else goes down? Would they release Mark DeRosa, or ask him to go down to Fresno to find his swing?

They could send him to the bereavement list, a la Melvin Mora (who was put on the list to make room today for the once and future big leaguer Sean Burroughs), to grieve over his lost swing.

Would they dare say Bye-Bye to Tejada and the $6.5 million they're paying him? Now, that would be a shakeup, though I'm not sure it would be a good move. He appears to be getting his swing in order (ok, 3-for-8 with 1 RBI in the last two games is not much to hang your hat on, but ...) , and believe it or not, he's their best shortstop defensively.


Here's how the Giants offense looks compared to the rest of the Major Leagues and National League as they they head into the second quarter of the season with tonight's series-opener with the Los Angeles Dodgers:

.239 BA: 24th in ML; 12th in NL
.304 OBP: 27th in ML; 15th in NL, just ahead of Washington
.369 Slugging: 23rd in ML; 12th in NL
.672 OPS (On Base Plus Slugging): 23rd in ML; 12th in NL
142 runs: 29th in ML; 16th -- dead last! -- in NL
327 Hits: 25th in ML; 13th in NL
505 Total Bases: 25th in ML; 13th in NL
32 HRs: 22nd in ML; 11th in NL
70 2Bs: 14th in ML; 6th in NL
6 3Bs; t-17th in ML; 11th in NL

308 Strikeouts: 9th in ML; 8th in NL
116 Walks: 28th in ML; 14th in NL
23 SBs: 21st in ML; 12th in NL
14 Caught stealin: t-5th in ML; 2nd in NL
62% SBs: 26th in ML; 13th in NL
13 SHs: 18th in ML; 15th in NL (only Philadelphia has fewer)

So, the Giants aren't getting on base by way of the hit or walk, they're not bunting players over, stealing bases, hitting for power: hence, they're not scoring,. They do strike out and get caught stealing.

A favorite target of fan anger has been Miguel Tejada, who has hovered around .200 all year with no power. But the list of ugly seasons is as long as the lineup.

Aubrey Huff: 4 HR 20 RBI .229 AVG .292 OBP
Miguel Tejada: 1 HR 11 RBI .206 AVG .235 OBP
Aaron Rowand: 1 HR 9 RBI .250 AVG .303 OBP
Pat Burrell: 5 HR 11 RBI .240 AVG .352 OBP
Cody Ross: 2 HR 7 RBI .246 AVG .316 OBP
Buster Posey: 4 HR 20 RBI .271 AVG .355 OBP
Freddie Sanchez: 2 HR 11 RBI .272 AVG .318 OBP

A special mention for DeRosa: he's hitting .167 in 36 at bats, and has been atrocious since he returned from the disabled list. He's gone 0-for-18 since his return, and dating back to before his DL stint, is 0-for-his-last-22. The Giants made the mistake once with Cody Ross in rushing a player back from injury, and it appears like they should have kept DeRosa down longer, at least to get his timing back.

At least Andres Torres has played inspired baseball since his return from the disabled list, hitting .308 with a .379 OBP in 52 ABs. Nate Schierholz has also shown signs of the stardom many have anticipated, hitting .286 with 3 HR, 11 RBI in 70 AB.

Posey has begun to string some hits together, but as I noted in an earlier blog that suggested he's not fit for cleanup (though who is among the Giants, I wouldn't be able to say), he's not driving in runs and his power has abandoned him. He's had only one RBI on a base hit in the last 18 games, and he hasn't had an extra base hit since April 30.

One example of why they miss Pablo Sandoval: He's been out 16 games and still is tied for the team lead in HRs with five.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Who goes when Zito returns?

As he's establishing himself as a true force in the Giants' rotation, Ryan Vogelsong has inspired a debate raging through Giant Land like a coastal storm: who goes when the injured Barry Zito returns from the disabled list?

It seems inconceivable at this point that Vogelsong would be jettisoned. The Giants are 4-0 in his starts, and outside of his one flawed start in New York, he has brought a sense of stability and order to the end of the Giants' rotation.

There is the thought of demoting Madison Bumgarner, especially if his numbers (0-6) don't improve. But even that talk is discomfiting. Anyone watching the kid lefty pitch knows he has thrown exceptionally well in his last four performances, give or take a couple bad innings (his last outing Friday was beset by a bunch of chintzy bloopers).

Inserting Zito in the rotation would break up a good thing. Worse, it would pull the rotation down. Zito inspires anxiety with every start he makes, every 83 MPH fastball, every flat curve and telegraphed changeup. Hell, he's three weeks away from his next start and he's evoking dread.

The ultimate solution -- outside of eating the remainder of his $126 million contract (put away those dreams of dealing him to another team; it won't happen) -- would be to put Zito into the back of the bullpen, preserve him for mop-up duty, keep him as far away from tight spots as possible.

Unfortunately, that won't happen. The Baseball Code, for one, dictates that a player doesn't lose his spot in the lineup or rotation after an injury (though Wally Pipp could tell you there are exceptions). One could make the case that Zito got injured precisely when patience with him had already worn thin.

For two, the Giants are not willing to lose face on their contract blunder. Management seems determined to search for any value in return for their investment.

My prediction is that when Zito returns -- and remember, he's still about three weeks away -- he will get his spot back in the rotation, and Vogelsong will become the swing man. Two things: by then, Vogelsong could well have plummeted back to earth and the issue will have resolved itself. Or, Zito could come back and be his bad self and make Boss Bochy's decision for him.

Or, Zito could come back a world beater, and Vogelsong would drift back into the obscurity from whence he came.

In his rain-shortened six inning shutout on Saturday, Vogelsong got a number of key outs Saturday but the one that made him -- put him on the map as a guy who just might stick around -- was his strikeout of Alfonzo Soriano in the first inning.

It came with the bases loaded, two outs and the Cubs threatening to put the Giants in a hole early on -- a day after the Cubs' series opening 11-4 win.

It exemplified the stirring exhibition he has put on display in his storybook return to the big leagues.

Vogelsong had just got Marlon Byrd to line out softly to short, just missing on an inning-ending double play on a blown call at second when Miguel Tejada's underhand throw to Freddie Sanchez appeared to arrive just ahead of Starlin Castro.

So, he would have to pitch through an added challenge: Soriano, the Cubs' leading home run hitter with 11. Falling behind 2-and-0 on a pair of curves didn't help matters. Vogelsong got back in the count, though, when Soriano helped him out by fouling off a fastball that was low and outside -- could have been ball three.

His next pitch was a test in the battle. Could he get in on Soriano's hands without damage? He did. A 91 MPH fastball with real good movement, and all Soriano could do was foul it back off the handle. Vogelsong would go back there in a moment.

First, a curve low and away that Soriano fought off with a dribbler to the left side to even the count at 2-and-2. Then a curve low and away that Soriano took, running the count full.

Vogelsong then reached back for his best fastball of the day: a 93 MPH heater with movement that darted in on Soriano's hands, similar to the fourth pitch of the sequence. This time, Soriano missed completely, a swing-through strikeout that symbolized Vogelsong's mental toughness matched only by his pinpoint accuracy.

(Apologies to Andrew Baggerly of the Mercury News for upstaging him on this: the beat writer for the Bay Area News Group inexplicably described it as a strikeout on a curve. Go back to the DVR on this one, ExtraBaggs: it was a heater, pure and simple).

(This is the second time in three games that I've had to correct ExtraBaggs: the other day he described Cody Ross' game-winning hit as "dumping" a base hit down the left field line when in fact he'd scorched it. Gotta keep an eye on these glib beat reporters!)

Vogelsong's performance was truly stellar, inducing a pair of double plays -- one on a magnificent short hop pickup by Tejada after he watched a soft-hit grounder with English go under his glove a batter earlier -- to pitch through other potentially game-changing jams (more on Tejada in a moment).

Vogelsong pitched as if the elements -- driving rain, hard winds and near-freezing temperatures -- were nothing compared to the circumstances that the 33-year old journeyman has had to overcome to get where he is.

Banged around the majors, never fulfilling the star tag he'd worn as a high draft pick for the Giants, injured (with a 5.60 lifetime ERA to prove it), resurrecting his arm in Japan, only to land back in his original organization for a look this spring (after brief stops with the Phillies and Angels). He opened eyes, was sent down to Triple A Fresno before getting the call to fill in for Barry Zito. And with each outing, he's made believers of Bochy, et al.

On Saturday, Vogelsong's focus was intense, his determination fixed, his inner drive only obscured by the outward presence of calm he brought to the mound.

Remember the moment because it will fade in the confusing array of decisions on the horizon.


A similar verbal bruhaha is developing over Tejada. Giants fans are up in arms over his continued presence in the lineup. Tejada's two errors Saturday sent many off the ledge, and his three give-away at bats certainly didn't help.

One point: his first error was a tougher play than most can appreciate. It was like a changeup with extra English on it, with a skid to boot. The ball appeared at first to be hit harder than it was. Instead, it was cued off the bat, and spun a bit and then skidded off the wet infield grass. If fans think Tejada can't field an easy ground ball that this one appeared to be -- but wasn't -- they are being guided too easily by their emotions.

His second error is harder to defend. He had it in his glove, it popped out and he was unable to get a handle on it. But however much fans want to aim their frustrations at Tejada, his second error was more a result of harsh conditions -- rain driving in your face, wet grass and uneven dirt, cold that numbs your hands -- than any lack of concentration or desire on Tejada's part.

Tejada has actually played well defensively overall. He has been just short of brilliant at third, and has made some tough plays that have been overlooked because his hitting has been so atrocious. Let's just say that if he was hitting -- even to last year's sub-standard .269 -- his defense would not be getting the scrutiny it's getting.

It looks like Bochy has pulled the trigger on exiling Tejada to the bench in favor of Mike Fontenot -- or at least that's what he'd indicated yesterday. But though Fontenot had spurts of excellence, he is in the midst of his own 0-for-15 funk to land back on the bench, was a bit shaky on defense and is not the long-term answer at shortstop.

Seems as though Bochy had a change of heart today: according to Baggerly, he put out an initial lineup that had Fontenot in and Tejada out; but a second lineup, apparently after seeing that Cubs starter Carlos Zambrano has been tougher on left handed hitters than righties, reinserted Tejada.

Then the game was weathered out, giving Bochy another day to chew on the shortstop cud.

Friday, May 13, 2011

Buster has been a Bust at cleanup

Wins always camouflage a team's weaknesses. The good feeling of that final out washes away the frustrations built up in a game. For the Giants, that's been the continued lackluster offense propped up by stifling pitching.

In 38 games, the Giants have scored 132 runs, a 3.47 average, which is tied for 28th in the major leagues. They're hitting .237; their leading hitter among qualified hitters, for crissakes, is Aaron Rowand, at .260!

In their recent six-game streak, the Giants scored 18 runs -- three a game. And in the nine-game period in which they won eight games, they'd scored 29 -- 3.22 a game. But, remember, they'd gone through a 3-8 dry spell just preceding their streak, scoring 23 runs -- a 2.09 per-game pace.

Oh, our hitless wonders, we all marvel as Brian Wilson crosses his forearms and looks to the skies.

One festering issue that continued to grow even as the Giants built their positive vibes: Buster Posey's production as cleanup hitter. To put it plainly -- and this is hard because he's such a likable fellow and has such great potential -- he is not cutting it.

Now, this isn't a curt or glib position taken on a whim. It's one that I've held for some time.

Earlier this season, I questioned Boss Bochy's decision to hit Posey cleanup, saying this on April 3:
It's early, but it may be time to rethink Buster Posey as cleanup hitter for the Giants. ... Posey seems jumpy at the plate, as if he's trying to live up to all the expectations of a returning champion/rookie of the year rather than letting his smooth stroke work itself out. ... He has admitted to early-season jitters. Maybe it's too much to have him in the four-hole, in the same way Pablo Sandoval was asked to take up a leadership role as the No. 3 hitter last year.

I'm even firmer in my belief six full weeks later, and with too much evidence to ignore. Buster has been a Bust at cleanup.

Bochy appears to be stubbornly clinging to his view that Posey is a natural cleanup hitter. Even as he has tinkered with the rest of the lineup, Bochy's one constant has been Posey in the four-hole. The thinking seems to be that since Posey carried the Giants to a world championship as a cleanup hitter in his rookie season, he is built to carry the mantle in his second year.

But dynamics shift. It may be counterintuitive to say this, but Posey performed last year under fewer expectations: he was a rookie with talent, and they rode it happily all the way. He showed exceptional leadership ability in handling the pitching staff and in coming through with so many big hits. But it was all gravy. Bochy gladly accepted Posey's performance, but he couldn't expect it.

Now, with all that he achieved, Posey has come into his second year under the burden of expectation. And, as we saw with Sandoval -- and many others in their sophomore years -- high hopes have been at the root of many a failure.

I'm afraid that Bochy will continue to write in Posey's name in the four-hole, especially after he collected two hits Friday in the Giants' 11-4 loss and is now 4-for-11 in his last three games.

But both hits Friday were with no one on base. In his two  opportunities with runners on base, Posey went down: striking out in the first inning after Aubrey Huff singled home Andres Torres; and striking out after Huff had doubled home Torres.

Unfortunately, this has been a pattern for a long time. In Posey's last 42 at bats, dating back to April 26, he's had three RBI -- two on ground outs and one on a sacrifice fly. His last RBI on a hit came on April 24, on a two-run home run against Atlanta.

He has been in an 11-for-58 (.189) funk, though he seems to be stringing some hits together recently and has been getting on base frequently: he's been on base 11 times in his last 24 plate appearances (a .458 on base percentage).

But with runners on base, he has simply frozen up -- at least lately. Though he piled up 16 RBI in his first 20 games, over his last 15 games, Posey has stranded 20 runners, and has not produced a single base hit with a runner on base in that time.

In 35 games, Posey has collected RBI in only 11. The leading RBI man in the N.L., Ryan Howard, has 35 RBI and has had RBI in 21 games. To be fair, another cleanup-hitting catcher, Brian McCann, has only one more RBI than Posey (20 to 19), though McCann is hitting .300 with an on base percentage of .370, compared to Posey's .252/.340.

It could be that Posey is feeling the heat of the cleanup role, especially as the rest of the lineup struggles to come through in the clutch. Posey has also had to deal with a series of hard shots behind the plate this year. Foul balls have rung his bell and clanged off unprotected body parts from toe to shoulder; he even took a backswing off the back of his hand.

Posey has been worn down, having caught the second most games among catchers in the major leagues (one game less than McCann), he's been hampered by an inordinate amount of shots taken behind the plate, and he's taken on a pressure-packed load unfair for a second-year player.

Drop Posey down in the lineup, say to No. 6, put a veteran in at cleanup (Huff? Pat Burrell? Cody Ross?), and watch the reigning rookie of the year regain his confidence in a less pressurized role.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Posey's throw largely overlooked in din of Ross' walkoff hit

It was largely overlooked in the din of Cody Ross' game-winning RBI single, but Buster Posey's throw to nail would-be base thief Justin Upton in the top of the ninth was a game-changer in itself.

Upton picked the right pitch to go on Brian Wilson, a hard slider breaking low and away to right handed hitter Chris Young. He got a good jump. His only mistake was picking the wrong guy to run on.

Posey reached across his body, picked the pitch off his shoe tops and in one athletic movement transferred the ball from glove to hand and threw a bullet to Freddie Sanchez to nail Upton by a wide margin. No argument from Upton, just a stunned look, like 'how'd that happen?"

It happened because the Giants have the most athletic and strong-armed catcher since Ivan Rodriguez in his prime. He threw a 92 MPH fastball for a strike to second that Barry Zito only wishes he could do from the mound.

It was the kind of pitch that could easily have thrown off Posey's mechanics: with his body leaning rightward to grab the pitch sailing wide, Posey's throw could have tailed toward right center if he hadn't kept his center of gravity.

Keeping a runner out of scoring position in the ninth inning of a 0-0 game is about as key a play as it gets, made all the more important when Wilson proceeded to walk Young. No telling what kind of rally the Diamondbacks kick into gear with runners at first and second, what kind of torture up Wilson's sleeve.


Wilson, by the way, has become quite the vulture on this homestand. He's won three games by pitching one inning each -- the decisive last innings before the Giants' recent spate of walkoff wins. He's got a long way to go, though, before he can think about the ultimate vulture season: Reliever Elroy Face, in 1959, went 18-1.

Face had already picked up his fourth win by May 10, would go on to 7-0 by the end of May, 12-0 by the end of June, and so on. The pixie (5-foot-6) palmballing Pittsburgh Pirate pitched (alliteration intended) in an era where closers didn't have defined roles and weren't concerned with the all-consuming "save" stat that wouldn't be created until 1968 -- so, would be called on in crucial moments, whether it was the fifth or ninth inning.

In Face's 18 wins, 14 came in stints of two innings or more -- eight of which went three innings or longer. Face was in close games longer, so his chances of winning were actually pretty high. Wilson's three wins are all the more fortuitous: his one inning of shutdown pitching have just happened to directly precede three straight game-winning rallies.


I was puzzled by Mercury News' Andrew Baggerly's description of Cody Ross' game winning hit -- he "dumped" one down the line.

Dumped, to me, suggests that it plopped softly, and therefore was hit weakly. Ross' hit was the furthest thing from being dumped. He turned on a 95 MPH fastball in on his hands and a little above the belt -- perhaps one of the toughest fastballs to hit -- getting the barrel out to meet the pitch squarely, and scorched it down the third base line. It was hit so hard, Diamondback third baseman Melvin Mora barely moved as it flew by him.


Typically, you don't want to tinker with your lineup too much -- it creates a sense of instability among players and announces that you don't have great confidence in the guys you have in the lineup.

But in Bruce Bochy's case, moving pieces around makes the most sense -- given the lack of consistent offensive punch. With that said, it may be time to replace diminutive Mike Fontenot with Ross, the Giants hottest hitter, into the No. 3 spot.

Fontenot is hitless in his last seven at bats, 1 for his last 11 (though he had a game-winning sacrifice fly in that span). He could stay in at shortstop, for the time being, and hit lower -- seventh or eighth, or give way to Miguel Tejada, who is 2-for-4 lifetime vs. today's starting pitcher, Armando Galarraga.

Mark DeRosa had an ugly return from his stint on the disabled list, striking out once on a 92 MPH fastball up that he could not catch up to and grounding weakly into a double play with the bases loaded -- something that Tejada could have done with his eyes closed. But Bochy should give DeRosa a few games at third to get his swing back.

Aaron Rowand is now mired in a 5-for-27 slump (.185), so will likely find his playing time diminished. After a .294 April, Rowand is hitting .200 in May (7-for-35). Neither Nate Schierholz nor Pat Burrell have a history against Galarraga (well, Burrell has two RBI in no official at bats), and Galarraga gives it up a bit more against lefties: over the last three years, lefties have hit .272 with a .495 slugging, while righties hit .234 and slug .388 against him. So, a slight edge to Nate.

Galarraga, by the way, has had a very middling season: he's 3-2 with a 5.29 ERA. He's had three decent starts: he went seven innings twice against the Cubs, giving up seven earned runs total (4.50 ERA) with 11 hits, three walks and seven strikeouts. And, against the Reds, he gave up three earned runs on four hits with two walks and six strikeouts in six innings.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Vogelsong's glitzy branding statement, Ross' epic at bat

It could be that this is the weekend that the Giants can look back on as the unofficial start to their World Title defense: a sweep of first-place Colorado for a six-game swing.

If the Rockies had swept the Giants, they could have created some serious distance at the top -- seven games -- and created a whole lot of angst in Giant Land. Instead, the Giants shrunk Colorado's lead to one game, sending a signal to the Rockies -- and the rest of the West -- that they are not to be trifled with.

Just a reminder of how capricious this game is: after a 3-8 stretch, in which the Giants hit .200 and the panic button was screaming to be pushed, the Giants have won five of the last six and have rediscovered the joys of clutch hitting and shutdown pitching.

They've done it with a cut and paste lineup with a supposedly washed-up, overpaid outfielder sparking the top of the lineup, a 5-foot-8 inch 160 pound backup infielder filling the power third slot, despite the continued struggles by a veteran shortstop-turned third baseman-bench-warmer-in-waiting, and Boss Bochy's continuing juggling act with the corner outfield slots.

The de rigour de jour hero for Sunday was Cody Ross, who had a walk, a fourth-inning RBI single and sixth-inning two-run HR to seal the deal. Only a few days ago, Ross had appeared to be sliding down the outfield depth chart with his bewildering post-calf injury performance.

His home run came on a full-count 94 MPH payoff fastball in an epic nine-pitch battle, after fighting off nasty Jorge De La Rosa slider after nasty slider. Telecasters Mike Krukow and Duane Kuiper noted ahead of time that Ross was looking better with each swing.

Krukow: "He's putting together some good swings as he's climbing out of his slump, his average starting to get higher every day."

By the way: he did it with high black socks, so the low-pants look Ross had sported for the last several days is likely a thing of the past, though it is also as likely he won't return to the bearded look that he abandoned at the bottom of his frustrations.

Who knows. Maybe he'll stick with the pink bat.


Ryan Vogelsong, et al, made it stand up.

Vogelsong's outing was a glitzy Madison Avenue branding statement announcing his intention to stick with the Giants, even as the high-priced Barry Zito prepares for his return. 

Vogelsong had a live fastball: from the opening pitch at 93 MPH, it had great movement and had last-second hop to it, not to mention pin-point control. But his off-speed stuff was on, too. His 2-2 changeup to Seth Smith to end the second was a thing of beauty, as was his hard-breaking curve to strike out De La Rosa to end the third. And it's always nice to have an umpire working in concert: James Joyce was generous, though to both sides.

His performance in the fifth, when his perfect game was still in play, was stellar. 

-- A textbook sequence to Troy Tulowitzki: a drop dead 12-to-6 curve to steal the first strike, a fastball in on his hands for a foul, a cutter outside, then another curve to get a weak ground out; 

-- After falling behind 3-and-0 to the still unnaturally oversized Jason Giambi, he came back to run the count full before coaxing a long fly out to center; 

-- And a 10-pitch duel on which he outlasted Smith (curve, fouled; curve up and in; slider low; a swing-through on a beauty of a changeup; fastball that missed just inside; fastball away fouled off; another fastball high and outside fouled off; a third straight fastball, at 91 MPH, fouled off, then a 93 MPH fastball pulled foul; and finally, a full-county payoff 83 MPH changeup that Smith rolled over to second).

In his at bat in the bottom of the fifth, Vogelsong appeared to tweak his back on a swing; he could be seen stretching his back in the dugout after his at bat. So, it wasn't a surprise that his streak of 15 straight outs ended with Chris Iannetta's leadoff single in the top of the sixth, a line drive up the middle on an 88 MPH fastball in what Krukow called "t-ball location."

"And you wonder if that tweak to his back that he had in his at bat is bothering him now," Krukow said. 

Next pitch, a "middle-in, thigh high, right to his wheelhouse swing": Ian Stewart crushed one that Ross caught banging against the AT&T wall (I cringe while giving AT&T free advertising by mentioning it), the loudest out off Vogelsong. But, he was able to survive the inning when he got De La Rosa on a sacrifice bunt and then blew a shoulder-high 91 MPH past Fowler.

Only an error by Mike Fontenot on what should have been an inning-ending double play kept him from a full seven inning stint. No matter. Javier Lopez closed out the first-and-second one out threat -- the Rockies' last stand -- by inducing a 3-6-1 double play.


Did it seem like more women got foul balls Sunday, Mother's Day?


Defensive Play of game: Freddie Sanchez, in the first inning, ranging to his backhand side to the shortstop side of the infield, throwing across his body to retire Tulowitzki for a "big league hang with 'em," as Krukow puts it.

Ross' basket catch in foul territory on the run from left field, fighting the sun, wind and bullpen mound ranked high for difficulty.

And Tejada's grab of Jonathan Herrerra's opposite field bullet at third in the fourth may have seemed automatic because it was right at him, but it took the reflexes of a true pro to make that catch right at his face. It would have killed you and me if we tried it.


Burrell showed his reflexes are still working, blasting a live De La Rosa 93-MPH fastball for his double to the gap in left-center ahead of Ross's RBI single.

Here's how impressive Ross's single was in the fourth: he was hitting .213 with only 1 RBI for the season, while De La Rosa had kept opponents to a .122 batting (5 hits in 41 at bats) average with runners in scoring position, .197 overall (third best in the N.L.). Ross, at .195 only four days ago, is now up to .240 after going 4-for-his-last-9.

By the way, third base coach Tim Flannery gambled and won on in sending Burrell home on Ross' base hit, a bullet to left field. It paid off when a) Burrell got a good jump and B) Carlos Gonzales' throw to the plate went way wide. Burrell's read off the bat, no hesitation on the line drive, made Flannery's decision easier.


Still, signs that the Giants offense isn't fully clicking, and that there are always things to improve on:

-- In the bottom of the first, the Giants got three walks but failed to score. After the first two got on by way of the free pass and No. 3 hitter Fontenot got ahead on a 2-0 count, the threat was erased on a double play ground out; then, after Posey walked, a strikeout.

-- In the bottom of the third, the Giants stranded Vogelsong at second after his leadoff double when Aaron Rowand struck out, Sanchez was robbed on a diving play by Giambi (did I mention he's still questionably bulked up?), and Fontenot broke his bat on a weak groundout.

-- In the bottom of the fourth, Ross, on second with one out on Gonzales' throw to home, was stranded after Tejada popped out and Eli Whiteside flied out.

-- after two outs in the seventh, a two-out rally -- Rowand reaching on a HBP and racing to third on  Sanchez' blistering single to left (there's that 1-2 punch again) -- went by the wayside when Rowand was thrown out in a double-steal attempt at the plate.


Pretty prescient: Kuiper, in the bottom of the first:

"4-3 win on Friday, a 3-2 win yesterday. A laugher for the Giants would be to win by, what, three runs?"

Saturday, May 7, 2011

Freddie Sanchez' brilliant bunt deke and other inside the game observations


The Giants' 3-2 win Saturday night over the Colorado Rockies, their second straight walk-off job, was rich in subtleties and intricacies that make baseball so delectable to fans of the inside game.

To wit:

Freddie Sanchez' single in the ninth inning was a beautiful display of gamesmanship, and every bit as critical as his game-winner a game earlier. Sanchez appeared to be in a bunt situation, after Aaron Rowand led off the ninth with a single. He showed bunt on the first pitch, but then swung at the next, drilling a single through the 5 1/2 hole. As color man Mike Krukow pointed out, Sanchez had worked the situation brilliantly.

"It's a great way to get a fastball," Krukow said. "Pitchers are always taught that the fastball high is the hardest one to bunt. You show bunt on the first pitch and a pitcher often-times will come back on a 1-0 count and he'll give you a fastball. Bruce Bochy knows this, lets him swing away and (Sanchez) finds a hole."
Mike Fontenot then inherited a similar role with runners at first and second, bunting foul on the first pitch from lefty reliever Franklin Morales. The situation demanded a bunt, but Sanchez' play appeared to have unnerved Morales, who may have been thinking Fontenot might do the same thing: look fastball and swing (after all, the left handed hitting Fontenot has pounded lefties at a 7-for-13 clip this year).

So, Morales did what an unnerved pitcher, especially a left-hander, could only be expected to do: he uncorked a wild one all the way to the screen, moving Rowand and Sanchez up nicely to second and third, effectively doing Fontenot's job.

A deep fly ball by Fontenot -- who, since being moved into the three-hole last week, has been in the middle of everything! -- would finish the job.


Reliever Ramon Ramirez' line won't stand out particularly: 1 inning, 0 runs, 0 hits, two strikeouts. It lowered his ERA a bit (from 1.26 to 1.17). But the dramatics of his performance can't be overstated.

Ramirez inherited runners on first and third with no outs in a 2-2 tie in the top of the seventh, the Rockies threatening to take control of the game.

Madison Bumgarner, after pitching so beautifully for the first six innings, had had his one-a-game implosion: with no outs and runners at first and second, he got a comebacker for what should have been a double play -- what could have been the fourth he'd elicited. But he threw it away at second, aiming his throw at Sanchez, who was backing up shortstop Fontenot. That loaded the bases for Todd Helton, who, hit a slicing drive to left for a game-tying two-run single.

Ramirez lowered the temperature immediately by getting the first hitter to ground to third. Miguel Tejada picked it cleanly ranging to his left and threw a strike to home to get Troy Tulowitski easily.

Then, Ramirez went to work. He fired three sliders by an overwhelmed Ryan Spillbourghs (who may be hitting .157 but will always be remembered for the 14th inning game-winning grand slam he hit in a painful loss for the Giants in 2009).

Ramirez then started Chris Iannetta by blowing a 93 MPH fastball by him; then a slider that broke Iannetta's swing halfway through for 0-and-2. After Iannetta fouled off another slider and took a fastball off the plate, Ramirez surprised everyone with a high curve that paralyzed Iannetta for a called third strike.

"What a performance by Ramon Ramirez to get out of the jam!" bellowed Hall of Fame PBP man Jon Miller.

An inning later, Javier Lopez was looking down a bases loaded barrel  -- of his own making -- before jamming Helton with a sinking fastball for a soft grounder he fielded and took to first himself. Perhaps not as dramatic as Ramirez' game-saving performance but good enough to keep the game tied.

Even closer Brian Wilson -- who's becoming something of a vulture, grabbing two victories in the last two games in relief -- faced his own Waterloo.

In the ninth, score still tied 2-2, Wilson got the first two -- the latter on a leaping snare of a bullet by Fontenot -- before giving up a two-strike single to Iannetta and a walk to pinch-hitter Jason Giambi.

Fleet left-handed hitter, Dexter Fowler then spanked a hard-hit grounder up the middle that had the looks of a spirit crushing go-ahead RBI single. But Fontenot, shading up the middle, grabbed it behind the bag, spun and made a strong throw in plenty of time to get Fowler to end the ninth.

Fontenot said later that he knew he would go to first rather than attempt a force at second because Sanchez was playing Fowler to pull and would have had difficulty getting to second in time.


Bumgarner, still winless and 0-5, should have sewn up a victory long before his seventh-inning collapse. But Giants hitters failed to capitalize on opportunities handed them, apparently preferring late-game heroics over sewing things up early.

-- In the first, the Giants had runners at second and third with one out but only scored one on a groundout by Posey.

-- In the fourth, Aubrey Huff got a two-out double and Pat Burrell walked, but Nate Schierholz flied out to end that threat.

-- In the fifth, they had runners at second and third with one out, a run in on Sanchez' RBI double for a 2-0 lead. "They're in position to go big," Krukow said.

But Fontenot lunged at a changeup, popping out to third base. And, after Posey walked to load the bases, Huff, befuddled by Rockies' rookie Clayton Mortensen's changeup and probably looking for it, struck out looking at a swingback sinker.

-- In the sixth, the Giants had a runner on second with one out after pinch runner Darren Ford stole second, but Tejada flew out and Bumgarner grounded out.

-- In the seventh, after Ramirez' clutch job kept the game knotted at 2-2, the Giants got a two-out double by Fontenot, who after Posey was walked intentionally, was stranded when Huff struck out again, this time on a slider from a lefty.

Bumgarner is becoming the new Matt Cain: He gets no offensive support. In his seven starts, the Giants have scored eight runs while he's in -- barely a run per outing.

Granted a couple of those games, Bumgarner was out early. But in his last three starts, Bumgarner has gone 19 innings, given up five runs -- only two earned for an 0.91 ERA -- on 13 hits, walking only four and striking out 19 -- and has had nothing to show for it. The Giants have scored two runs total in those three games.

In that time, Bumgarner's ERA dropped from 7.70 to 4.21. He has been dominant, and if he doesn't let the early disappointments shake him, could be on his way to a solid season.


Andres Torres may be returning to the Giants soon, but Rowand and Sanchez are putting together a pretty good 1-2 combination. Saturday, they were a combined 5-for-9 (6-for-10 on base); Rowand with two singles and a walk, Sanchez with a pair of singles and a double.

Twice, they paired together to spark rallies: Rowand leading off the game with a walk, followed by a Sanchez single. After the two moved up on a slow grounder, Rowand scored on Posey's groundout.

And in the ninth, Rowand again reached to lead off, on a line drive single to left. Sanchez, who showed bunt on the first pitch, lined one through the hole on the next pitch. They eventually moved up on a wild pitch, and Rowand scored the winning run on Fontenot's game-winning sacrifice fly.

Friday, May 6, 2011

Watching Willie Mays hit a HR at 50, etc.

I thought I'd share a column I wrote four years ago on Willie Mays' 76th birthday that still holds:

One of my greatest thrills as a sportswriter in the '80s was to be on the field watching Willie Mays take batting practice before an old-timers game. He actually hit a home run down the left field line, that dramatic flair still flickering in his 50-plus-year-old body.

He laughed and bantered, saying "I still got it," and I looked around the ballpark wondering if many earlier arrivers had even noticed that it was Mays who cranked that long ball.
As I saw him around the ballpark a little more frequently during the Al Rosen-Roger Craig years, after the Giants had accepted him back into their family -- I tried to play it casual. He hung around the Giants' batting cage in his matching tan double-knit pants and coat, dispensing pearls of wisdom -- in his famously scratchy, high-pitched voice -- to the likes of Candy Maldonado, who at the time was scuffling.

But I couldn't lie to myself: It was a thrill to be so close to the man I'd idolized since the moment the kid down the block, Richie Jyrinki, introduced baseball -- and the Giants -- to me in 1967 in the form of Topps baseball cards and a game of catch.

I even got Willie Mays' autograph (a faux pas for reporters on the field) on a day that the Giants brought Leo Durocher into town to reunite with Mays. I still have it, on lined reporter's notebook paper, with Durocher's underneath it.

Durocher told me that he'd seen Mays make even greater catches than The Catch he is universally known for.

"One time, in old Crosley Field (in Cincinnati)," Durocher said, "the wind was blowing and Willie was chasing a line drive into the right center field alley when the ball got knocked down like it was shot out of the air. Willie had overrun it, but he stuck out his hand and caught it barehanded like it was nothing. And that ball was hit like a bullet."
My introduction to Mays in the late 60s was strictly through the limited means fans had to connect with ballplayers of the time: baseball cards, radio broadcasts, some Channel 2 games, and baseball books and magazines. The legend was as much a part of the mind as it was a tactile experience.

East Bay kids who'd become Giants fans before the Oakland A's had even come to town would trek out to Candlestick Park, loaded down with dimes and nickels, by way of AC Transit (the F San Francisco bus to the S.F. terminal) and the long Muni ride through the Hunter's Point projects before we caught glimpse of what we considered to be the majestic palace of Candlestick Point.

By the time we had our parents' permission to go alone, though, Mays was more legend than practicing star, already in the twilight of his career.

We spent more time yelling "We want Willie! We want Willie!" than cheering on anything he did on the field as he rested his weary body in the dugout.

But he remained our hero. After one game, my twin brother, Joel, and I were hanging out with a bunch of kids at the ballplayers' parking lot (can you do that anymore?), hunting for autographs (finally settling on the Mets' Bud Harrelson, who barely stood taller than us), and lo, there was Mays, riding shotgun in his pink Cadillac!

We all swarmed around the magnificent, gleaming symbol of stardom, yelling, again, "We want Willie! We want Willie!" Joel, always the brazen one, jumped on the hood and rode on it before Willie himself yelled at him to get off -- a thrill in itself to have the Say Hey kid barking at us.
Suffice it to say, Willie Mays' legendary place in my heart is secure as I toast his 76th birthday today. The iconic Willie Mays imagery is one of pure American strength and grace; his name alone evokes a feeling of hero worship that rests deep in my inner 12-year old soul.

It's his willingness to accept Barry Bonds' record-breaking pursuit that's been so disheartening. I often wonder whether Mays, in his most private moments of contemplation, doubts the legitimacy of Bonds' home run career, or if he is just too close to his godson to believe the worst in him.

More, I'm sad that Bonds would have put his ego ahead of the sanctity of his baseball forefathers' marks, including Mays' 660 home runs. Bonds was on his way to a Hall of Fame career before he allowed Mark McGwire's illegitimate assault on the single-season HR record to get under his jealous skin.
Perhaps, Mays just doesn't care that Bonds will soon surpass Hank Aaron's 755. Aaron's record, remember, came while playing half his career in the Fulton County Launching Pad, while Mays toiled in the swirly winds off Candlestick Point.


As Mays turns 80 today, all bitter thoughts of Bonds' home run pursuit behind me, I can only marvel at Mays' durability, the enduring glow that emanates from his name. It was with deep satisfaction that I read James Hirsch's wonderful biography, Willie Mays, The Life, The Legend, last year.

The 628-page tome (they should have stretched it to 660, just for the symbolism) gave me a fuller appreciation of his life. Hirsch gave texture and perspective to Mays' virtual silence on racism when his Civil Rights brethren were calling for revolution. He uncovered the shocking treatment Mays received from San Franciscans who fought to keep him from moving into their neighborhood. Hirsch delved into his childhood deeper than all those who have tried before. It's a book well worth the time to read and it didn't, by any degree at all, shake my faith in the legend of Willie Mays.

Thursday, May 5, 2011

'The enigma that is Jonathan Sanchez resurfaces'

Maybe we'll all look back and laugh at ourselves for being so foolish for being driven mad by Jonathan Sanchez. Perhaps, he'll go on to a successful career with stellar numbers and fingers filled with championship rings, and we'll have forgotten all the land mines he took us through.

But right now, a whole lot of folks would like one minute with the beguiling lefty to drop a few f-bombs and what-the-hell-are-you-thinkings on him, if not a few smacks upside the head.

Twitterville was blaring loudly in reaction to Sanchez' performance Thursday, in which he gave up five runs on five hits with six walks and six strikeouts in the Giants' exasperating 5-2 loss to the Mets to end the road trip 5-5:
"Jonathan Sanchez' act is wearing thin right now," tweeted Extrabaggs, otherwise known as Andrew Baggerly of the Mercury News. "I am no longer filling out my scorebook. Just writing 'pitcher indifference' in block letters."
"I don't even think he deserves the 'enigma' status. Flat out bad," wrote KNBRmurph, the handle of radiocaster and ex-Chron sportswriter Brian Murphy. "Tell U what. Starting to burn out on Slingin' Jonny Sanchez. The vacant stare. The endless walks. The lack of focus. Snap out of it, bro."
And Resa81W: "Sanchez drives me crazy. I am so done with him."
If the Mets offered Jose Reyes for Sanchez straight up, Brian Sabean would not be blamed for jumping at the offer, whatever you may think about keeping the starting rotation intact. Heck, Barry Zito can turn in an outing like that.

Trouble is, Sanchez takes you to the point of exasperation and just when he's lost all hope, he pulls off a gem. Remember his no-hitter? He was pitching for his life. Calls to yank him from the rotation were resounding through Giant Land, and he was told he was gone unless he turned things around. He did, and wound up having a great season last year, though not without reverting to bad form from time to time (remember Philadelphia in October?).

That seems to be how Sanchez operates. It's as if he needs verbal broadsides to snap to attention. In his last start, Bochy gave him an earful after walking five and hit one batter through the first two innings, after which he gathered his focus in time to give his team three good innings en route to a win. Bochy again came down on him in full view of the cameras on Thursday after he failed to run out a bunt he thought was foul that turned into a double play.

He responded with two solid innings, and the Giants crept to within 3-2, thanks in part to an RBI single by Sanchez.

But, he seemed to lose his focus after the hit, as if he could relax for a job well done. How else do you explain the fastball right down the middle to Carlos Beltran in the bottom of the fifth with a runner on? Sanchez had retired Beltran twice earlier, the latter at bat on two beautiful curves that froze the switch-hitting power hitter. After finding it so difficult to get his fastball over, he entered the strike zone a bit too willingly on that one.

But the true scandal of Sanchez' start came in the Mets' three-run second inning. He'd done well to limit the Mets to one run after facing a first and third, no-out jam, inducing a double play ground ball. But then he walked No. 8 hitter Scott Hairston, who'd only had two hits in 15 at bats lifetime against Sanchez, on four pitches. And, the Cardinal Sin of all sins, walked the opposing pitcher, Michael Pelfrey.

"And the enigma that is Jonathan Sanchez resurfaces here," play-by-play Hall of Famer Jon Miller intoned.

And then, after falling behind 2-and-0, a fastball down the middle to Reyes for a two-run triple into the gap in left center field. Where was that fastball down the middle to Pelfrey or Hairston?

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Mets' manager: 'You can't strike out 12 times'. Tell that to 28 other teams

It was laughable to read New York Mets Manager Terry Collins, a lifetime .255 minor league hitter, criticize his players for not taking the right approach against Giants ace Tim Lincecum, who struck out 12 in seven innings -- including the last five he faced -- in S.F.'s 2-0 win Wednesday night.

"You know, you’ve got to grind out at-bats. You can’t strike out 12 times. And with guys in scoring position when you’ve got to put the ball in play, you’ve got to go up there, get ready to hit. We can’t be late getting our feet down, can’t be late getting in balance. We’ve got to get in there ready to hit, got to hunt something, and we can’t miss it.”

You can't strike out 12 times? Tell that to the 28 other teams that have struck out 10 or more times against the two-time Cy Young.

"Get ready to hit?" What is this Little League? Of course the Mets were ready to hit. They just had a hard time putting that readiness to use when what they were ready for never came. Can't be late getting in balance? What good is that if you're balance is all screwed up by a split finger that dives from waist to toe in .0006 seconds?

Collins says in one breath you "got to hunt something," but in the next, “You can’t guess. You can’t guess with those guys.”

Reminded me of Jim Bouton's beautiful retelling, in Ball Four, of then Seattle Pilots pitching coach Sal Maglie's second guessing his pitcher in the dugout: "throw him heat, throw him heat" he'd say, and when the guy hit a home run off a fastball, would mutter "damn it, I knew he should have thrown him a curve."

Especially as the game went along, Lincecum was masterful and overpowering, an artist with a sledgehammer. Or was it a butcher with a scalpel? He mystified Mets with fastballs down the middle for crissakes. Who does that?

He seemed to get extra amped by the defense behind him: an over the shoulder catch on the run by Pat Burrell in LF that ended the third inning, and a spectacular, far-ranging, sliding catch and pop up throw by second baseman Freddie Sanchez, holding Carlos Beltran on third in the sixth when the Giants were holding precariously on to a 1-0 lead. Lincecum, who has his own Nuschler going in those spots, rewarded Sanchez' play by striking out the next two to strand Beltran.

The Giants' lineup is out: Rowand, Burriss (did Sanchez hurt his arm on the throw?) Fontenot (he keeps getting those clutch hits), Huff (he looks locked in), Schierholz (ride the hot bat), Ross (hmm) Tejada (he's on a roll: he had a hit!), Whiteside (see below), J. Sanchez.

If Buster Posey appears tired and beat up at the plate, it's because he is. We're getting glimpse of how a catcher's offense can suffer because of the demands of his position. 

He's taken some real shots behind the plate on the road trip. On two successive nights, he took hard foul balls off his right shoulder, in the exact same spot; last night it was a toe and a bell ringer off his forehead. 

It's no wonder that he's dropped to .250 (6-for-his last 39) and it's a concern for the long haul: how much will we lose from his offense, and how much will be shaved off his career after the bruises add up?


I'd been yelling from my little perch here to use LH Nate Schierholz against lefties -- he's got a .364 lifetime batting average against them -- and finally Boss Bochy listened (or figured it out himself). Sure enough, Schierholz plunked down a single in three at bats against lefty Chris Capuano.

Schierholz, hitting .298 with a couple monster HRs this year, has earned himself some playing time, forcing the competition for the third OF spot, for the time being, to be between Cody Ross and Burrell.

Burrell helped his case with an RBI single that gave S.F. a 1-0 lead, astoundingly his first in 11 games and only ninth of the year. He also hit a blast that would have cleared most fences around the league but was caught at the 384-foot mark in left center.

Ross' newly beardless face and lowered pants didn't help him in his only AB: a strikeout into a double play. 

Ross swung wildly at two fastballs up and out of the strike zone before swinging through a fastball down the middle for the strikeout. Bochy, strangely, sent Miguel Tejada (who, praise the high chiefs, actually hit a line drive single up the middle!) from first on two strikes to draw a throw to try and steal a run with Schierholz from third, but the Mets played it cleanly for the DP at the plate.

I say strangely because Aaron Rowand was on deck. Rowand has been as clutch as anyone in the lineup, so it was puzzling to see the opportunity taken out of his hands. Rowand later came through with a double to lead off the Giants' run-scoring seventh.

Ross has been put in a tough spot by management eager to get him back in the lineup. He should have taken more time in his minor league rehab stint to get his swing back. The Giants have learned the lesson, and are saying Andres Torres will not be rushed back from his stint.

And now, with management thinking hard about bringing Brandon Belt back up, Ross could find himself being pushed back on the depth chart, similar to when he first arrived in S.F. when he was stuck behind Jose Guillen. Not that he needs to be spurred by competition -- Ross is a proud ballplayer. But, those guaranteed contracts have a funny way of messing with a players' performance, especially if they've spent their career having to prove themselves.

At minimum, Ross will look better -- sans that faux Mennonite beard and high black socks -- as he tries to earn his way back in. Today's a big day for him.