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Monday, August 29, 2011

Out call at second an ill omen for fading Giants

It was a harbinger for the fate that awaits the Giants.

Mark DeRosa's scorching line drive just inside the right field foul line invited dreams of glory, but instead ended in a heap of disillusionment.

DeRosa had come through with the kind of hit the Giants have searched vainly for over the last month: a two out, two-strike run-scoring, game-tying hit in late innings. The Giants had just fallen behind, 3-2, to the Astros in the top of the 10th, and were staring in the face of a devastating loss.

And here comes DeRosa, the man who'd come off the bench to help preserve the Giants' pennant hopes a day earlier with the dash and dare of a savvy veteran. He'd led off a rally with a single, stolen second in a bold stroke, and raced home with the winning run.

On this day, DeRosa, again a late-game double-switch replacement, came to the plate with Andres Torres on second. Torres, who'd just returned to the roster on Sunday after a stint on the disabled list more to repair his wounded psyche than any real physical malady, had appeared just as overwhelmed all day as he had all season, popping out weakly, striking out en route to an 0-for-4 day. But, in the 10th, the Torres that Giants' fans had come to adore, re-emerged with a line drive single up the middle, and a quick-strike theft of second.

DeRosa took the count to two balls and two strikes before he laced the line drive inside the bag at first and up the right field line -- another bold stroke from the broken-wristed veteran! Torres scored easily from second with the tying run, and DeRosa headed for second in an inspired effort to get into scoring position with Carlos Beltran poised to hit.

DeRosa slid in under the tag as shortstop Angel Sanchez had to lunge at him after taking a throw wide of the bag. But DeRosa slid past the bag, momentarily losing touch with it, and had to reach back to reconnect with it.

He raised his left arm to dodge the tag, and appeared to get to the bag maybe a fraction of a second before Sanchez jammed his glove under DeRosa's arm pit. It could have gone either way to the naked eye, and on close review, DeRosa might have been safe.

But it was not meant to be.

As rookie umpire Dan Bellino punched the air with his emphatic out call, it was almost with disdain, a cold, dispassionate denouement from a novice arbitrator of the game.

Not only was the umpire, a 32-year old law school graduate and former high school catcher, snuffing out the Giants' last best hope in the game, it became all too clear that the baseball Gods were denying the Giants, too, revoking their status as world champions, turning them away at the Gates of the Pennant Chase.

It was as if an avalanche of lost opportunities had come careening down from the mountainside and landed at the center of the diamond, a declaration of punishment for past sins. If only the Giants had paid homage to the hundreds upon hundreds of gifts offered them over the year. They had wasted their fortune all too often, and for this, they must pay.

Their 4-3 loss and series split against the Astros, the last place team in the Central Division with the worst record in baseball, was emblematic of the tough luck Giants, now four games behind the unrelenting Arizona Diamondbacks.

Magic is an ethereal quality, particularly so in baseball. Either ya got it or ya don't. If they had fate on their side, the Giants may have been blessed with a safe call, and Carlos Beltran's ensuing looping single that dropped ever so eloquently into the soft patch in right center field would have been the game-winner that sent the Giants into a reverie with thoughts that perhaps fortune was headed their way.

Instead, it was a final flare snuffed out two batters later when the rookie, Brandon Belt, after a stolen base and intentional walk to Pablo Sandoval, crumbled before the pressures of a pennant race by striking out, looking at a curve -- a pitch that will be his downfall if he doesn't learn to hit it. The question must be asked: Did Beltran overreach with his stolen base? Should he have remained on first to give Sandoval a chance to hit? Perhaps the Astros would have pitched around Sandoval anyway.

It is the plight of the team that has failed to seize the occasion: so many questions, so many what-if propositions.

-- Having just taken the lead, 2-1, in the bottom of the seventh, Matt Cain, who'd pitched so brilliantly, was unable to respond with a shutdown inning. His troubles began when Jimmy Parades hit a line drive just off the tip of shortstop Orlando Cabrera's glove. Would Brandon Crawford have caught it?

But, Cain's difficulty to put hitters away with two strikes is what truly cost him in the eighth inning. With one out, he had a ball and two strikes on catcher Carlos Corporan -- the .190-hitting catcher who stung the Giants with a big hit in Houston last week. But Cain hit Corporan on the thigh with the next pitch, moving the go-ahead run into scoring position.

Granted, Corporan made no attempt to get out of the way, and should have been reeled back into the batter's box by home plate umpire Larry Vanover. But Cain let that pitch get away from him, perhaps a sign that he was losing his command.

But Cain struck out the next hitter, Jason Bourgeois, his stuff still dominant, convincing Boss Bochy to keep him in.

Fleet left-handed outfielder Jordan Schafer, who'd hit a big home run in the first game of this four-game series, had scorched a line drive off Cain in his previous at bat. And he put up a tough battle in the eighth, fouling off three two-strike fastballs in taking the count full. Cain had relentlessly aimed at the outside corner to try to put him away with explosive 93 MPH fastballs -- all spoiled by the pesky Schafer.

It is unjust to fault a pitcher who has registered yet another unrewarded masterpiece. It is unjust to lay the blame on a pitcher who cannot afford a single mistake if only because his hitting brethren are so stingy in their support. Yes, they finally had given him a lead -- a 2-1 lead heading into the eighth -- and perhaps he should have felt fortunate to get that much.

But Cain faltered in a time of need.

After nailing his location on the succession of fastballs away, Cain let one leak over the middle, and the unforgiving fates would not let this pass unpunished. Schafer ripped it into right field for the game-tying single and the lead the Giants had scratched and clawed for in the seventh -- centered around a rare clutch RBI hit by the ever-fading Aubrey Huff -- had vanished.

At that moment, eyes turned to Javier Lopez, warmed and ready in the bullpen. Should he have been in there? 

It's not clear: Though Astros Manager Brad Mills had already burned right-handed hitting outfielder Bourgeois, he still had veteran right-handed hitter Jason Michaels on the bench. He likely would have brought him in to face Lopez, who has been extremely vulnerable to right handed hitters (recall recent clutch hits off Lopez by the Atlanta Braves' Martin Prado and Brooks Conrad).

But Michaels was a .196 hitter, for crying out loud, and has hit lefties this year at only a .218 clip. Maybe Lopez could have handled this right handed hitter.

As it turned out, left hander Jeremy Affeldt had a shot at Michaels in the 10th, with a runner at second and one out. Affeldt got ahead of Michaels 0-and-2. And then, he committed a sin that has plagued Giants pitchers this year: he grooved a hittable pitch on a count that major leaguers are so vulnerable on. It was a curve down but not down enough, and Michaels slammed it against the wall for a run-scoring double.

It gave the Astros a temporary 3-2 lead. DeRosa's dramatic single would tie it up in the bottom of the 10th. Might that have been the winning hit, if Affeldt -- so good all year long, as has been the rest of the bullpen -- had buried his 0-2 pitch in the dirt?

Instead, the Giants had to roll out a worn out Ramon Ramirez in the 11th. His unbelievable slider wasn't so unbelievable on this day, giving up a booming double to diminutive (all of 5-foot-3!) Jose Altuve and the game-winning RBI single to former Giants Matt Downs on consecutive flat, hanging sliders.

All the Giants had for an answer was an Aaron Rowand pinch-hit three-pitch strikeout and a Mike Fontenot groundout with the potential tying run at second.

Having only Rowand available in that spot was the Baseball Gods' way of sticking it to the Giants.

Sunday, August 28, 2011

Broken down veteran helps keep Giants in the hunt

On a night of a stellar big league debut by a kid called up from Double A ball, it was a broken down, yet savvy, veteran who stepped into the breach to keep the Giants in the hunt.

Mark DeRosa, the $12 million bust with the busted wrist, wrote his own chapter in the pennant race to which the Giants are barely clinging. He scored the winning run in the Giants' 2-1 walkoff 10-inning win over the Astros Friday, keeping the Giants within reach of the relentless Arizona Diamondbacks.

But it was how DeRosa got in the position to score on Jeff Keppinger's game-winning base hit that tells the story.

He'd only just entered the game as part of a 10th-inning double-switch that Bruce Bochy made to enable reliever Jeremy Affeldt's to stay in past the top of the 10th if needed. He was stuck into the lineup in the ninth spot so he could hit second in the bottom of the 10th. 

It wasn't necessarily an afterthought to put DeRosa in, but the primary rationale was to ensure Bochy got some mileage out of Affeldt in a game that might go deep into extra innings.

And, so, when DeRosa got a base hit with one out in the bottom of the 10th, it felt like a bonus. It was a piece of work from a veteran, an inside-out swing on a 94 MPH fastball, that he lined into center field, made all the more impressive when, two pitches earlier, he could not catch up a similar fastball by the hard-throwing Fernando Rodriguez.

DeRosa, who has been watching the frustratingly stagnant offense as he's bided his time on the bench both as an injured bystander and, more recently, as the 25th man on the roster, was not content to stand idly by, hoping the next guy would move him along.

On a 1-0 pitch to Mike Fontenot, DeRosa took off. Initially, it looked like a hit and run, with Fontenot swinging wildly at a pitch away from the plate and in the dirt as if he was trying to protect the runner. But in the retelling of the story later, DeRosa said that first base coach Roberto Kelly whispered in his ear very suggestively that Rodriguez was getting to the plate slowly. DeRosa took the suggestion to heart, and took off in a straight steal.

It was a crazy proposition, given that his last stolen base came two years ago. DeRosa has slowed with age. You've seen him lumbering to first on weak ground balls. But apparently, when he gets a wild hair up his nose, DeRosa can still put on a sprint.

He got a great jump, and was fortunate that the pitch, a changeup, dived hard into the dirt. Catcher Humberto Quintero scooped it and his throw was on the money. But it was a whisker late, and DeRosa put on a sly slide, aiming to the outer edge of the bag, which forced second baseman Jose Altuve to apply a sweep tag just late.

All the intricate elements of that play had to work just so for DeRosa's great caper to come off, and they did. Not only was it an emotional lift -- who among the Giants in the dugout did not feel a welling up of pride in DeRosa's gutsy move? -- it put a win within reach.

Fontenot came within five feet of getting the the game-winner with a line drive that landed just foul down the left field line, before striking out. So, it was left up to Keppinger, the former Astro who continues to provide the irony of the series: the refugee from the last place team, lifting his new team as it scratches and crawls to fend off the would-be spoilers.

So, there was Keppinger, putting together another tough at bat, taking the count to 2-and-2, before driving a shoulder-high fastball barely over the leaping diminutive second baseman Altuve, into right field. Had Keppinger still been playing second for the Astros, he would have caught it. But that's alternative universe stuff.

In right field was the strong armed Brian Bogusevic, who unleashed a bullet from a pulled in position. But there was DeRosa, streaking around third. Just as he showed surprising speed on his stolen base, DeRosa's race home was no slog.

This was the run of a man dogged by the injustices of fate, a man spurred by the notion that he could finally have a hand in a victory, but not just any victory: one that might add up to a pennant.

It wasn't simply desire nipping at his heels. It was the hunger of a man who'd been denied the chance for so long to feast alongside his teammates on the succulent fruits of championship ball.

At first glance, it looked like DeRosa had missed third base. For the longest time, I watched to see if the Astros would ruin the ensuing celebration by appealing at third. But a replay showed that he indeed tagged the base, but cut the corner so finely that you needed a super slo-mo to prove it. It was the corner-cutting move of a veteran using whatever edge he could get to make it home.

He burst into the plate just as the throw arrived. As DeRosa thrust his foot onto home plate, the throw skipped by Quintero. He shot his left arm up in the air in triumph, and in a single motion, leaped high into an ecstatic and emphatic high-five with on-deck hitter Carlos Beltran -- a violent collision between the right hands of two guys with highly vulnerable right wrists.

As the Giants streamed onto the field with their 11th walkoff win of the year, most raced toward second to mob Keppinger. But some veered over to DeRosa first: injured reliever Brian Wilson, who ran over to DeRosa to give shake his hand ever so meaningfully, and Cody Ross, who patted him on the back as they raced together to the Keppinger dog-pile.

Keppinger was the obvious hero. Rookie Eric Surkamp had given the Giants a much needed boost with six innings of gutsy, composed pitching. But DeRosa provided an ageless lesson: that you can't give up on the 25th player on the roster, even a guy whom most thought had seen his last glories long before he arrived in San Francisco.


A fringe benefit of DeRosa thrusting himself into the center of attention is getting to hear from him. He's an obviously smart man who speaks beyond cliches, his baseball knowledge clear.

He is also humble. He took the first crack at answering his critics by apologizing for not living up to his two-year $12 million contract.

"It's been two years of doing nothing -- I just want to help a little bit," he said after the game. "I know I'm not giving fans what they bargained for. It is what it is. But I just want to grind it out the rest of the way."

Saturday, August 27, 2011

Giants, on tenterhooks, keep hope alive

It is quite remarkable how precarious the Giants' season is as they head into the final month. Every game, they teeter between disaster and triumph. From one game to the next, the fate of the Giants takes wild swings: From debilitating losses that spell impending doom to breathtaking victories that keep hope alive.

Friday night, you didn't know which way the Giants would go. They came thisclose to falling four games behind the once-again surging Diamondbacks before hanging by a thread for a 2-1 win over the Astros.

The standard formula applied: great pitching -- by starter Madison Bumgarner and relievers Ramon Ramirez and Santiago Casilla -- and a single swing of the bat. Once again, the Astros, owner of the worst record in baseball, played the cruel, devilish role of spoiler, playing a carefree brand of baseball that had the Giants peering into the abyss inning after scoreless inning.

That the Giants are on tenterhooks is no revelation. This is who they are. They would in all likelihood be a sub-.500 team if not for their pitching. So, it shouldn't be a surprise when a hapless J.A. Happ, who arrived in San Francisco with an ERA over 6.00, would stifle them, holding them scoreless through four before the Giants broke through for their only two runs in the fifth.

Well, the Giants' two-run fifth inning barely qualifies for breaking through. It took an error and a one-out walk to start things before Jeff Keppinger provided the key hit that lifted the Giants.

Isn't it ironic that Keppinger, the former Astro who escaped the doldrums of last place by going to the Giants two months ago, finds his old teammates having more fun than his new teammates, who are scratching and clawing to remain relevant in the playoff hunt?

Perhaps it was fitting, then, that it was the refugee from the last place team who came through with the most determined at bat for the Giants. After falling behind quickly, 0-and-2, Keppinger worked the count to 2-and-2, fouling off four two-strike pitches. On the ninth pitch, the scrappy second baseman split the gap with a line drive to the wall in left center field, scoring both runs.

Keppinger, who barely cracks a smile, can hit. His defense has been exposed as drab and limited compared to the energetic and sparkling play of Freddy Sanchez. But Keppinger's offense is comparable to Sanchez'. For that, general manager Brian Sabean should be credited.

Sabean's magical moves from last year continue to pay dividends, too.

Ramirez entered at the critical moment of the game: A run was in, and the Astros were threatening for more with runners at first and third with one out in the seventh inning. Bumgarner left with a 2-1 lead, but the tough-luck kid (he of the 7-12 mark despite a respectable 3.68 ERA coming into the game) needed some help if he were to hold on.

Pinch hitter Jason Michaels was pulled back for left hander Brian Bogusevic, the kid who'd done some damage against the Giants in the Houston series. Bogusevic took the count full, but Ramirez, showing the fearlessness of a veteran who's been through big moments, got him on an 88 MPH slider -- the pitch of his that acts almost as a screwball and fades away from a lefty.

That was the biggest strikeout of the season up this moment, given the circumstances.

Ramirez then closed it out by inducing the fleet Jordan Shafer to bounce out to end the inning, and Bumgarner's lead was intact.

Ramirez would put up a strong eighth inning with a pair of strikeouts -- using that un-hittable slider of his -- and hand the ball to Casilla, who is acting as if the closer role was meant for him.

Watching him go right after the Astros in the ninth -- closing it out on 11 pitches -- makes you wonder if the Giants might want to lay out some long-range plans for him.


It may have been a coincidence, but with Aubrey Huff in the dugout, the Giants showed some life on defense that has been lacking of late.

Huff's replacement, Mark DeRosa, made one spectacular play that staved off a disaster: a pickup of a tough in-between hop on a throw by Miguel Tejada, that saved at least one run, probably two, and maybe more. With runners and first and second and two outs, Jason Bourgeois hit a hard hit groundball to third, Tejada threw low, and DeRosa, who wasn't looking all that comfortable at first earlier in the game, made the money play.

Later, he conceded it was a lucky play, but hey, luck is the residue of being in the game for so many years, and overcoming a series of debilitating injuries, right?

Other good, solid plays:

An around-the-horn double play in the second inning, Keppinger's quick turn just nabbing the not-slow Matt Downs;

Orlando Cabrera, ranging into the hole and throwing off balance a la Derek Jeter to take away what would have been a leadoff hit in the third inning. The way that third inning unfolded afterward, the play became even more pivotal;

Chris Stewart gunning Carlos Lee on a botched hit-and-run in the fourth inning, the play more impressive than might appear, given Lee's slow speed. Lee actually had a great jump, and only a quick release and accurate throw got him;

Miguel Tejada, pouncing on a sacrifice bunt attempt in the fifth inning, forcing Clint Barmes at second. The ball actually hit off Tejada's glove, but Tejada snatched the ball quickly to get the throw over in time;

Tejada, in the seventh, made a nice ranging play in the hole with runners at second and third; inexplicably, after he did a full 360, he started to go home where he had no shot. He held up, then made a quick throw to first just in time to nab Barmes -- his good arm bailing him out of what could have been a huge blunder.


Huff may be showing signs of age, or at least of being worn down by a long difficult season, so it was good to see Boss Bochy gave him "a day," whether to rest him or to bench him (the distinction is that he is assured a return to the lineup as soon as he's refreshed in the former and isn't in the latter).

His negative energy has carried over into the field, affecting the attitude of his teammates, I believe. Hence, the Giants appeared revived with a new set of infielders out there Friday.

Still, Huff had a role to play on the bench. During the Giants' only rally, you could see him and Pat Burrell standing on either side of Bochy, chatting away. Bochy was holding a bat and smiling, as if they'd put him up to it.

And as soon as Keppinger came through with his two-run double, Huff and Burrell fist-bumped each other as if they'd predicted the big hit and nudged Bochy, who had a big smile. Whatever they were up to, it worked.

(It turns out, as reported in the SF Chronicle, that Huff indeed put the bat in Bochy's hands, a rally bat that served its purpose. Maybe Bochy should hold onto a bat more often).

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

'Tis the season of spoilers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Some spoilers have more incentive than others.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, August 20, 2011

Salvaging a game comes down to beating a throw-away farmhand

So, it comes down to the world champions needing to beat a throw-away farmhand to salvage one game in a series with the worst team in baseball.

I bet the Giants never thought that Henry Sosa, a forgettable bullpen extra on the Fresno Grizzlies earlier this year, would play such a factor for them as he will on Sunday. Sosa is the Houston Astros' starter who is seeking his first career win.

Judging by how effective 20-year old starter Jordan Lyles was against the Giants Saturday -- he held them scoreless for the first four innings before allowing two fifth-inning runs -- Sosa has to be feeling pretty good about his chances to break into the win column.

Right now, the Giants are suspended in an alternative universe of their own creation in which they are the worst team in baseball and the Astros have the energy and abandon of a team that, well, is handing the Giants their lunch.

It has been an epic collapse. They've lost 16 of 22, dropping from 17 games above .500 to six measly games over the mark of mediocrity. The period in question covers all but one game of Carlos Beltran's tenure with the Giants, though half of those losses came with him on the shelf.

Is that a comment on Beltran's failure to provide a lift when he was in the lineup? Sure. Is it a comment on his uselessness while waiting for his hand to heal because of a stupid swing he took on a Roy Oswalt pitch he never should have taken in the first place? You bet.

Still, you can't say the Giants aren't lucky. As they continue on their inexorable slide to oblivion, they are actually staying in place, holding fast at 2.5 games behind the first-place Diamondbacks. They are going nowhere fast. That's better than a slow bus to hell. If the Giants ever do get their act together, they can thank the Diamondbacks for keeping the lights on and leaving a baloney sandwich and a hot pot of coffee out on the kitchen counter.

Just think, though. If the Giants had won one more game in Atlanta -- say, the first game, which they led 4-2 in the ninth -- and the first two in Houston (which most of us had banked when we looked ahead on the schedule weeks ago), they would now be back in first place.

But maybe it's a good thing they are not in first place. For so long, as they clung to first place even as they played awful baseball, they kept consoling themselves and reassuring us that, hey, they were in first place after all, so let's not be too hasty in calling for a wholesale change.

The problem is that, instead of playing with the hunger of a team now striving to get back on top, the Giants are playing with fear and trepidation, as if they are worried that they are losing their grip as world champions.

But that's the problem. These Giants aren't world champions. Many remaining individual players certainly still have the taste of champagne in their mouth. But as a unit, they are descendants of a world championship team, an entirely different group with dynamics all their own, devastating injuries being the topmost.

It may seem amazing to say this, but the Giants can create a whole new identity in the final 35 games. It may not match the Band of Misfits brand of last year, and they may not recapture all of the magic they conjured earlier in the season with that string of walk-off victories.

It could be that the Giants create an identity of doing just enough, the bare minimum, nothing fancy, perhaps even accidental and fortuitous, slipping through a backdoor entrance. Like the New York Mets of 1973, or the Minnesota Twins of 1987.

Who says the Giants can't back into the playoffs? There's no rule that says they can't. And there's no rule that they have to have a great record to get in. As long as it's better than the next best team, they're good.

Only problem is that the Giants have to first catch up to the D-Backs before they can backslide into the playoffs. So, they'll have to win a few games the rest of the way and hope that the pressure of holding on will be too much for the upstart parsel-tongued snake lovers.

Beating an old farm-hand might be a good start.

Feeble and broken down Giants can't take upcoming no-name pitchers for granted

As feeble and broken down as Giants hitters are right now, they can't take the upcoming pair of Astros' no-name starters for granted this weekend as they wrap up their long, nightmarish road trip.

Twenty-year old Jordan Lyles and 26-year old former Giant farmhand Henry Sosa may as well be Mike Scott and Vern Ruhle, if the Giants continue their listless approach at the plate.

On the face of it the young starters look like easy marks for the Giants, potential relief from the maddening spiral of defeatism that is strangling their offense.

Lyles carries a 1-7 record with a 5.32 ERA (and an 8.83 ERA in August). But, overall, he's turned in eight solid outings in 14 starts, holding such powerhouse teams such as Milwaukee, Cincinnati and the Boston Red Sox to a combined five earned runs in 18 innings (2.50 ERA), so there is little reason to take him lightly.

Sosa has had a pair of starts for the Astros since being coming over in the trade that sent Jeff Keppinger to the Giants. He's given up eight earned runs in 12 innings (6.00 ERA). But that was against more accomplished offenses of the Arizona Diamondbacks and Chicago Cubs than the Giants can claim to be.

Sosa had done so poorly for the Giants at AAA Fresno (17 games, all in relief, with a 10.41 ERA, 39 hits in 23 1/3 innings) that he'd been demoted to AA Richmond, where he seemed to get his act together before being dealt over to the Astros.

But we know how poorly Giants hitters adjust to pitchers they've never seen. It typically takes them two or three times through the lineup to finally figure them out. It's because there are no hitters in the Giants' lineup who have the skill or patience to force pitchers into deep counts.

How often have pitchers with control problems against the rest of the league find their command against the Giants?

With the Giants' tendency to bring out the best in marginal pitchers, perhaps the only hope the Giants have of surviving this last weekend of the road trip is that the Atlanta Braves continue to keep the first-place D-Backs at bay.

The Giants wasted two chances to gain on the losing Snakes in the last two games -- but have to feel fortunate they didn't fall further back in the standings after getting shut out twice in a row, wasting more top-notch pitching.


The Giants seemed to lose heart Friday night. After falling behind, 2-0 in the third inning on rookie center fielder J.B. Shuck's (who?!) first RBI hit of his career, a two-run double, the Giants simply gave up.

It showed in their swings -- they acted as if they were required to flail wildly at Wandy Rodriguez' offerings, no matter how far outside the strike zone his curve, as electric as one might say it was.

And the lack of heart showed in their defense. Mark DeRosa's error in the sixth might be explained by a rusty glove -- he hadn't started in a big league game since May. But, no major leaguer who is equipped to be on the field should be excused. The soft line drive had some English on it, but DeRosa flinched, as if he expected it to come up on him. It stayed down, bounced off his glove, and opened the floodgates.

It didn't have to be, even after Ryan Vogelsong hit the next hitter, Clint Barmes. Vogelsong got ahead of the No. 8 hitter, Carlos Corporan, 0-and-2, and after failing to put him away, gave up a hard-hit one hopper to first base. It was a play that Aubrey Huff has made many times, but he responded slowly to it, and it bounced off his arm into right field for an RBI single that should have been ruled an error.

Of course, the next hitter, pitcher Wandy Rodriguez, exploited the situation with a two-run double to cap off a three-run rally, all after two outs, foreclosing any thought of a comeback slim as it may have been, even at a 2-0 deficit.

Perhaps Huff was plain tired, and shouldn't have been on the field. Perhaps, he's lost his drive and intensity, given the repeated failure he has had to live through this year. But it was the play of a ballplayer whose edge has abandoned him, one who seems to have accepted his fate.


The same resignation can be seen in the swings of Aaron Rowand, Cody Ross, Miguel Tejada (though he got one single up the middle), Orlando Cabrera (whose groin strain kept him out of the lineup). Even Nate Schierholtz caught the malady, striking out three times in an 0-for-4 night.

If any one of these veterans were performing at an accepted level, Brandon Belt's return to the bench may have been somewhat understandable.

Boss Bochy was trying to spare Belt the awkward task of trying to figure out a pair of tough left-handers, and also remains convinced that Rowand can help against left-handers. But Belt's absence in the lineup over the last two games has caused a near revolt among Giants fans, recriminations rampant, calls for Bochy's resignation even beginning to resonate.

Rowand was hitting .297 against lefties heading into the game (now .286), but he hasn't had a hit against a lefty since Aug. 4. He's gone 0-for-12 against left handers in that time, and overall, he's hitting .167 (7-for-42) in August with an on base percentage of .167 (which means he has drawn not a single walk in August). He's taken a base on balls all of 10 times in 332 plate appearances. He hasn't scored a run or driven in a run all month. He's been a big zero.

Suffice it to say Rowand should never see the top of the lineup again, and would do best to return to the role they had him in toward the end of the year last year, which was to remain scarce. His numbers this year (.236/.278) in 332 plate appearances are remarkably similar to last year (.230/.281 in 347 plate appearances).

The difference is that Rowand had, by this time last year, fallen out of favor with Bochy, and was relegated to days on end on the bench last year. This year, injuries have forced Rowand into a more prominent role far too late in a season on a team in need of an offensive spark. Bochy should understand that Rowand will not provide that spark.

Belt has had his own rough patch: he went 0-for-9 in the Braves series. But he's got a .300 average against left-handers (6-for-20), and who can forget the home run he hit against tough left-hander Mike Dunn in Florida?

Bochy has never fully bought into Belt, even when Belt has appeared on the verge of breaking through. Bochy still seems ruled by his level of disappointment in Belt's early season struggles. Instead, he held fast to the notion that Huff would re-emerge as the team leader well past his expiration date.

And, after injuries opened up a spot in the outfield for Belt, Bochy said he'd give him consistent playing time. But after Belt's three rough games in Atlanta, Bochy once again turned to a veteran, Rowand, over Belt.

Now, Bochy is vowing playing time for Belt in the final two games of the Houston series, but it has the look of a mini-audition as the Giants prepare for the return of Carlos Beltran Tuesday when they return to San Francisco.

Once Beltran returns, the Giants will probably go with an outfield of Beltran in right field, Cody Ross in center field and Schierholtz in left. So, Belt will have to battle Schierholtz, and to a lesser degree, Huff, for playing time.

Unless Bochy gets the nerve to send Beltran to center field, keep Schierholtz in right field, and either platoon Ross with Belt in left field or rotate Belt with Ross, Huff and Schierholtz, depending on who's doing well.

At least with Keppinger apparently ready to return to the bench, the Giants can be spared of having Tejada and Cabrera in the lineup at the same time.

And perhaps newly recalled catcher Hector Sanchez can provide a lift in his week's assignment as Eli Whiteside shakes off the effects of his face plant. Who knows? If Sanchez comes up with some big hits, maybe Bochy will rethink his stubborn resistance against bringing fresh blood up from the farm.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Stoic, steady Cain leads Giants out of wilderness

With bodies littering the field and the team psyche just as wounded after a spate of fresh injuries and two crushing walk-off losses, the Giants had only one option Wednesday: to win.

Well, two: to stay safe, too.

A loss would have lodged the toxic lump of defeat halfway down their collective esophagus, solidified the narrative that seemed to be carrying them toward an ugly fate. It would have given credence to the fast-growing notion that the Giants had run out of luck, were destined to pay for whatever bargain they'd made to win last year's world championship.

The accumulation of bad news was becoming untenable. It felt as if the whole season was collapsing in on the Giants. It was becoming more and more acceptable to buy into the malicious fate that seemed to await them.

And yet, there was hope. They had Matt Cain they could turn to, lean on, have faith in. It is the one saving grace of a faltering team: Good, tough pitching. It can heal wounds, correct the course, slay the demons.

Matt Cain is stoic, thoughtful, but mostly he is steady, tenacious. He has a fixed expression of a slight frown, a bit of a scowl. But it is his eyes that give him away. He peers in with an almost vacant look, as if he doesn't see you, the hitter. He sees a target, but mostly, he has a task. It is to get the Giants through these trying times, to instill a calm and order.

In another time, Cain would have led a great cattle drive through the wild Western plains, steering his men through the dangers of an untamed land, unbowed by nature's challenges or the slings and arrows of enemies.

Cain's performance Tuesday added to his legacy as the man who could be counted on. Add it to his seven shutout innings that gave the Giants a critical 2-games-to-1 lead over the Phillies in last year's NLCS. Because, make no mistake, the Giants were fighting for survival and Cain steadied the rickety foot bridge over the deep ravine.

After he got out of the first inning with just the one run on a bases loaded walk -- dodging the bullet when Brandon Belt ran down a drifting fly ball -- Cain was all in.

Whatever was called for, he had: a fastball that darted in on the hands of left-handers, a sweeping curve that danced away from righties, or plain power fastballs that broke down swings. He had nine strikeouts and only one walk, retiring the final 18 hitters before yielding to the bullpen in the ninth.


Cain has struggled his entire career for offensive support, which has made him a better pitcher, a pitcher who was forced to focus on every pitch because a single mistake could sink him.

Uncharacteristically, however, the offense backed him on this night, and played with the urgency of a team trying to remain relevant.

They scored first on a pair of doubles, then broke through with four in the fourth, the inning that broke through the still lingering angst that had stifled their offense a night earlier, when they'd been no-hit by a rookie for six innings and could only muster a run on five hits through 11 innings.

It all started with a flare that landed weakly but beautifully down the left field line off the bat of Aubrey Huff, who, having paid his debt to society through a series of rollover ground outs to second, was due a bit of madcap luck.

And then the hits came out on a string, adding up to a 5-1 lead. It was as if an unconventional hit, one suffused with good fortune as Huff's was, would be what broke down the barrier that had blocked the Giants for so long.

They would add two more in the top of the ninth, both on sacrifice flies by the men who the Giants will need to rely on down the stretch -- Huff and Pablo Sandoval. Maybe they saw the runs as superfluous, as stats to add to their RBI ledgers. But they proved to be critical when the bullpen nearly coughed it up in the bottom of the ninth.

Jeremy Affeldt's emotional, almost angry, reaction when he grabbed the ball from Chris Stewart after the game summed it up: he was beside himself over nearly blowing it. By no means was it all on him. Just recalled left-hander Dan Runzler dug a pretty deep hole by sandwiching a walk with a pair of base hits to left-handers Freddie Freeman and Jason Heyward for one run.

By all rights Affeldt should have ended it right there when he came in and jammed Michael Bourn on the thumbs to induce a weak Little League pop up halfway up the grass portion of the infield.

All thoughts of an easy win disappeared when Orlando Cabrera couldn't make the play -- a tough one, running all-out, trying to catch a ball with English, to bring home a second run. But it was a play that had to be made.

And when Martin Prado powered Affeldt's 94 MPH fastball into the right center field alley, Cody Ross took a bad route, slipped, and then watched as it bounced against the wall for two more runs, and the Giants' lead had narrowed to 7-5 with the All-Star catcher Brian McCann striding to the plate.

Would the Giants face another collapse, this of even more epic proportions than when Brian Wilson blew a 4-2 lead on Monday? Who among Giants fans had confidence the Giants would emerge victorious?

It seemed written in the pages of destiny that the Giants were indeed doomed to suffer. Affeldt fell behind in the count, 3 balls and 1 strike. First base was open, but Dan Uggla, the star second baseman just off a 33-game hitting streak, loomed on deck as the potential winning run.

Affeldt, whose curve had failed him so far, bent one that stayed high and appeared to be just inside, but got the call, reeling McCann, shaking his head vehemently, back into the batters box. McCann fouled off a couple fastballs.

And then Affeldt pulled deep within to make the pitch for the ages, a 94 MPH fastball that had a spectral sink to it, as if it disappeared at the last moment, under the bat. For a strikeout. To end the game. And send the Giants gingerly back into the field of hope, the wild plains of the playoff hunt.

Array of forces lined up against the Giants, who are in need of a paradigm shift

As bad as things have gone for the Giants lately, I'm not sure anyone could have braced for what hit them Tuesday. It was as if an array of forces not only lined up against the Giants but proceeded to slap them one by one and then insulted their mothers.

First, you get news that Carlos Beltran is indeed going on the disabled list. Fair enough. It was expected, though the long-term news on that may be more grim than we understand now.

Then, it's Sergio Romo who gets the call to the DL, which, again, was expected, though not any less painful to see the right-handed pitching savant go down.

Then comes word that Nate Schierholtz and Jeff Keppinger would be held out of the lineup, one worried  that he'd broken a foot on a foul ball (later determined to be not the case), and another having jammed his wrist. Though not as bad as feared, the injuries may land one or both on the disabled list. Ditto Aaron Rowand, who took himself out of play with an injured throwing arm.

The good news was that Pablo Sandoval was able to return to the lineup after missing most of Monday's game after fouling one off his foot.

Boss Bochy had to roll out a hodgepodge lineup with players sprinkled around the field in unfamiliar surroundings -- Aubrey Huff, the biggest sore thumb sticking out in left field -- and they'd have to make a go of it with the shaky Jonathan Sanchez going.

But it turned out that Sanchez brought something special to the mound. He was sharp, confident and in control, giving a glimpse of a possible revival that could have been a wonderful harbinger for the Giants as they prepared for the stretch drive.

And then, he went down! All of Giant Nation wondered aloud what they had done to anger the Baseball Gods, begged forgiveness and promised to hand over their young if only the endless cycle of bad news would stop.

Oh, did I mention yet that the Giants went on to lose to the Braves, a second straight walk-off loss in a second classic, tightly played, dramatic contest?

There was even a little bit of kizmit when the goat of last year's N.L. Division series, Brooks Conrad, the one player singularly responsible for the Giants moving on to the championship series, got a key blow, a one-out double, that led to the winning rally.

Again, a playoff-like intensity suffused the game, defensive gems and clutch pitching punctuating the scene. The two teams played as if they were reprising last year's National League Division Series, and that survival was at stake.

But, almost as if to puncture the sense of hope that was building, news came that the Arizona Diamondbacks had defeated the Phillies by waging a ninth-inning rally off Philadelphia ace Roy Halladay.

Moments later, Javier Lopez offered up a two-out off-field game-winning base hit to Martin Prado, who drove in Conrad.

Down by 3.5 games to the Diamondbacks, six behind the Braves in the wild card standings, with 39 games to go, the Giants' time is running short. They're without a legitimate leadoff hitter, their season-long offensive doldrums have shown few signs of lifting, and the sense of their misfortune is mounting.

Still, they've Matt Cain and Tim Lincecum going in the next two days, and if they can salvage a split of this four-game series, and hope that the Phillies can slow down the Diamondbacks over the next two days, the paradigm might just shift.


It was hard to feel angry at the Giants Tuesday. They'd played their heart out, and they'd done it with a patchwork lineup and only two position players on the bench as they headed into extra innings. Their bullpen had to go eight innings in relief of the injured Sanchez, another brilliant collective performance.

Even the offense, which had been silenced for six innings by rookie Randall Delgado, came up with the one big hit -- Cody Ross' monster home run that broke up Delgado's no-hitter leading off the seventh -- they needed to lengthen the game.

To put up such a fight against the backdrop of the injuries, and after such a devastating loss the previous night, proved that championship blood still runs through this team.

It truly was a display of their resourcefulness that the Giants were able to take the game into the 11th inning -- all hinging on defensive brilliance:

-- Chris Stewart's throw to nail Michael Bourn -- the N.L.s leader in stolen bases -- on a first inning theft attempt seemed to lift Sanchez, who had just walked the game's leadoff hitter.

-- Aubrey Huff's spectacular catch in left field just before crashing into the wall in the bottom of the ninth inning with the winning run on base had Web gem written all over it.

It robbed Martin Prado of a potential game-winner, and it was that much more sensational given it was only his second start all year in left field, and first since April. Huff seemed to kick into a gear he may not have known he had to catch up to the ball, then slammed into the wall, the kind of play reminiscent of the spirit he brought to the team last season.

-- What a beautiful throw by Brandon Belt, making his first start ever in right field, to nab Freddie Freeman after he'd rounded first base on his single to right in the 10th.

Freeman hadn't rounded the bag by that much but Belt saw enough daylight to exploit it. His throw was strong, accurate and had a touch of veteran savvy behind it. It turned out to be crucial, when after an intentional walk to Chipper Jones, Lopez induced Alex Gonzales into a dramatic inning ending double play.

-- Orlando Cabrera's smooth turn on that double play that ended the Braves' 10th inning threat with runners at first and third. The ball was hit hard to his left, and in a single motion, he lunged and grabbed it, stepped on second, and threw off balance to double up Gonzalez, leaving the winning run on third.


As speculation mounts over how the Giants can revive their offense, fans are clamoring for first baseman  Brett Pill, who has hit 24 home runs with 101 RBI and a .312 batting average. But Pill got a special  endorsement late Tuesday night when Fresno Grizzlies teammate, pitcher Shane Loux, tweeted:

"Brett Pill is hands down our best player. A professional hitter with power and the ability to just plain drive in runs. He needs a shot."

The problem is that the Giants are overstocked in first basemen. Unless they keep Huff in left (why not after his brilliant play?) and Belt in right field (why not after that amazing throw?).

Monday, August 15, 2011

Another devastating blow to Giants' psyche

Brian Wilson's nightmarish collapse Monday night was worth only a half game in the N.L. West standings, but make no mistake: it was a dagger thrust that cut deep into the Giants' heart, a dark symbol that stood for all the misfortune that has befallen the world champions.

It was as heart-wrenching a loss that a team can withstand, particularly this deep in the year and under the precarious conditions that the Giants seem to be constructing for themselves.

The Giants' 5-4 loss to the Braves was all the more poignant in the way it wiped out 8 1/2 innings of positive vibes that promised to build into something special. The Giants were on the verge of their third straight win, which would have begun to open some distance from the rough patch they'd been through. They were now in a groove, or were at the edge of capturing that good feeling.

They were poised to claim a victory over the tough veteran right hander, Tim Hudson, having smacked him around for a rare pair of home runs, while riding the hard-nosed performance of the young left-hander Madison Bumgarner, whose wicked slider had Braves hitters almost literally screwing themselves into the ground chasing the un-hittable offerings.

They'd overcome what could have been a devastating first-inning injury to their star, Pablo Sandoval, by sending out a replacement, Mike Fontenot, to fill out the task with an opposite field home run and a dazzling diving play to save a run.

Taking the first game from the Braves by beating their ace could have been a cutting message for the rest of the series: it would have said that whatever troubles that had been ailing the Giants, they were back. They were doing it with power, solid defense and their trademark stellar starting pitching. And the Braves would have to rethink this business of waltzing to a wild card title, knowing that the Giants would be on their heels.

All that changed in mere moments, and the details matter, the small stuff added up.

Here's how that ninth inning unfolded. Count the ways that Wilson added fuel to his own fire:

First, there was the infield two-hopper that the fleet Jose Constanza slapped into the hole at shortstop. It was a play that shortstop Orlando Cabrera could have made if he hadn't rushed, foiled when he could not get the ball out of his glove on his first grab.

Then, there was the walk to pinch hitter Eric Hinske. Wilson appeared unwilling to go straight after Hinske, especially after Hinske ripped his 94 MPH fastball foul on a 2-and-0 count. So, when he got to a full count, Wilson chose to try to nibble at the corner and lost him on a pitch that wasn't even close.

Undoubtedly, Wilson had in mind the dramatic game-tying home run Hinske hit last year as a pinch hitter in Game 2 of the NLDS (which the Giants came back to win, 3-2). Hinske has hit 10 home runs in 206 at bats this year.

But, that was about as inexcusable walk as you could have in the ninth inning because it set up a bunt situation, in which the Braves would be able to move the tying run into scoring position. Michael Bourn's bunt achieved that.

Wilson's approach to Martin Prado was just as boggling. After jumping ahead in the count 1-ball-and-2-strikes on a 96 MPH fastball that he blew by him, Wilson floated a 90 MPH cutter out over the plate, which Prado ripped into left field for a run, and pushing the tying run to third.

Why would Wilson go with his secondary pitch there, especially after powering right by Prado a pitch earlier? He sped up Prado's bat, and put it on a tee for good measure. Wilson looked equipped to blow his way through the Braves hitters: he had a great fastball. He was just reluctant to use it. Almost as if he's too proud of his wide repertoire to be seen merely as a flame thrower.

With runners at first and third, Wilson clearly pitched around the dangerous Brian McCann, walking him on four pitches. That's understandable in most circumstances, except that in this case, it moved the winning run to second base for free.

Wilson rallied to strike out the dangerous Dan Uggla, blowing a 97 MPH fastball right by him on the outer edge. His best fastball was there. There was no reason to continue going back to his less effective cutter. Not in a situation that called for a strikeout.

But here's how he went after rookie Freddie Freeman: A cutter up (ball one); a 97 MPH fastball fouled (1-and-1), a 96 MPH fastball on the inside corner (1-and-2); a 96 MPH fastball way up, rather than something the would tempt him; it was an easy take (2-and-2). And get this: he went back to his 91 MPH cutter away, again trying to nibble but without effect. Freeman wasn't biting; it was another easy take.

So, Wilson was forced to come in over the heart of the plate. He had no room for mistake, so he had to lay it in there and hope that Freeman would hit it at someone. Rather than using the 1and-2- and 2-and-2 counts to get Freeman to chase on tough fastballs (like the one he threw to Uggla), Wilson toyed with Freeman.

He paid for it with the next pitch, and it was just another psychic blow the Giants will have to recover from. Boss Bochy is hoping Pablo can recover from the foul ball he slammed against the top of his foot. But it will be his team's ability to heal quickly from Wilson's meltdown that he'll be watching closely.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Bochy 'committed' to consistent playing time for Belt

It was somewhat reassuring to hear Boss Bochy say on his pre-game show Sunday that he was "committed" to getting Brandon Belt "consistent" playing time. It was even more reassuring to hear him acknowledge that Belt can provide the Giants offense a much needed left-handed bat with some pop.

It may have been 40 games late, but it was nice to hear that the Giants were finally committed to going with Belt.

Still, you couldn't be absolutely convinced that Bochy would keep his word, especially if Belt got off to a slow start. It could have been that Bochy would have given Belt just enough rope to hang himself to settle the issue once and for all this season and to quiet the madding crowd pining for the prospect's place in the lineup.

Belt, instead, settled the issue for good Sunday. His two home runs, monstrous and majestic, were instructive in so many ways.

They were the displays of a very powerful young man -- his first home run was more prodigious than the first inning blast over the center field wall by the Marlins' stud outfielder, Mike Stanton.

They were dramatic. For the second time this year, he answered his call-up from Fresno with a home run, only in this case he apparently felt he needed some insurance. Last time, Bochy rewarded Belt with a spot on the bench, soon followed by a bus ticket to Fresno. Two home runs cinched his place, not only on the roster but in the lineup.

His second home run, another solo blast in the eighth inning, argued for Belt's place in the lineup full time, even against tough left handers. Belt had a truly seminal battle against Mike Dunn, a filthy left hander who has no respect for left-handed hitters.

Dunn had never given up a home run to a left hander in his two-plus years in the major leagues, and had held them to a .175 batting average (21-for-120) and a measly .233 slugging percentage.

Here's how that at bat went, and notice how Belt set himself up for a slider on the payoff pitch:

Dunn backed him away with a 95 MPH fastball that could have intimidated a weak soul, and then had Belt bailing on a slider, which bent in for a strike. Dunn tried another slider but Belt stayed back on it and watched it break low and away. He then fouled off a 94 MPH fastball, and stayed cool on a 96 MPH heater that dipped low. Dunn had given him his best, some nasty pitches, but Belt had pushed the count full with his good eye and professional restraint.

Dunn, recalling Belt's bailout on the 1-0 slider, tried another, but Belt was waiting for it and put on a swing reminiscent of Darryl Strawberry, perhaps even to some old-timers, of Ted Williams. It was actually a short stroke, but filled with such rangy-armed strength, that it carried 15 rows up.

It was Brandon Belt's branding moment as the Giants' future first baseman. And though he won't take Aubrey Huff's spot outright, Belt will now take his place in the lineup somewhere permanently.

As Giants TV colorman Mike Krukow put it after his second home run, "You know what that swing says right there? I ain't going back to Fresno."

So, here's how it should play out in the coming days.

Belt will likely be considered more as the starting left fielder who will occasionally spell Huff at first. This is a natural conclusion, given the choice that Bochy has now between Huff and Aaron Rowand. Not a tough pick, though Monday night, if Bochy wants to go with matchups, he may go with Rowand against Tim Hudson.

Rowand is 8-for-24 against Hudson, likely a lot of those numbers compiled in his halcyon days in Philadelphia. Rowand also matched up well against Chris Volstead, coming into Sunday's game 3-for-7 (.429), but could barely touch the ball Sunday, striking out twice and flying out easily. What did they say about damn lies and statistics?

Huff hasn't been so bad against Hudson -- 6-for-27 -- and has been hitting with much more authority of late than Rowand, who continues to muddle along in the low .240s and hasn't had an RBI in 38 at bats. It's time to re-install Rowand firmly back on the bench, and hope that his late inning defensive inserts don't haunt the Giants offensively.

Belt's move into left field will push Cody Ross, whose bat is heating up, to center field, with Nate Schierholtz in right field.

That should hold until Carlos Beltran returns, at which point Bochy will be faced with the real decision: Who sits among Belt, Nate, Huff, and Ross. Or, if you believe Ross is the only legitimate backup center fielder, it would be between Belt, Nate and Huff.

Cynics might say the real battle would be between Belt and Nate, given Bochy's devotion to Huff at first, his insistence that Huff must be there for the Giants if they're to win.

It gets back to the main problem: how do you get that extra left-handed bat in the lineup. Could it be that Nate has center field in his future?

Here's a lineup to go against a tough right hander:

Keppinger, 2b
Cabrera, SS
Sandoval, 3b
Beltran, RF
Schierholtz, CF
Belt, LF
Huff, 1B
Stewart/Whiteside, C

I like putting Cabrera up to the No. 2 slot to take him out of RBI positions, and it stretches out the lineup, putting Huff in the non-threatening No. 7 slot. And I've always felt that Sandoval belongs in the No. 3 slot to provide Beltran an additional opportunity to hit with runners on.

Pre-Beltran, the lineup could go this way:

Ross, CF
Cabrera, SS
Sandoval, 3b
Belt, LF
Schierholtz, RF
Keppinger, 2b
Huff, 1B
Stewart/Whiteside, C


I was pretty stunned to see how poorly Andres Torres took his assignment to the disabled list. To pout and run off to Puerto Rico shows a serious lack of self-awareness. Did he not see that his performance was pulling the team down? Did he think he was owed a spot on the active roster?

I thought he would have understood the reality: the Giants could no longer stand for a .228 hitter at the leadoff spot, and he had shown no sign of raising his game though he'd been given ample time to get his game going again.

Then again, when you see your career flashing before your eyes, it's tough to remain composed. It's just that for all he's gone through with this team, you would think Torres might have some concern for his teammates.

Freddy Sanchez' absence from the dugout since his injury has also been notable. He has always seemed somewhat detached from his teammates -- just slightly above the fray -- and his decision to stay away from the Giants calls to question whether there are some signs of strains between the second baseman and his team.


Santiago Casilla provided maybe the funniest moment of the year, when he stood in the furthest corner, the deepest recesses, of the batter's box against hard throwing Jose Ceda, the 6-foot-4, 275 pound 24-year old kid whom Krukow described as a beast. He did not take his bat off his shoulder, and actually bailed out on each pitch, making you wonder why he bothered to wear batting gloves. And of course, he drew a walk, heading down to first after appearing somewhat confused after taking the last pitch out of the strike zone.


Did anyone notice the Braves just lost two of three to the Cubs? And that their starting staff is in disarray?

Tommy Hanson is on the disabled list, Derek Lowe has been atrocious (since June 13, he's had a 6.15 ERA, giving up 90 hits, 23 walks and 45 earned runs in 65.2 innings; sadly, the Giants will miss him in this four-game series).

Hudson (2.68 ERA in his last 83.2 innings), who has been the most consistent starter for the Braves, gives Madison Bumgarner a tough assignment Monday. But afterward, the Giants have a chance to capitalize on the Braves' rough patch.

Tuesday, Jonathan Sanchez goes up against 21-year old rookie Randall Delgado, whose only appearance came in June against the Texas Rangers, where he gave up three earned runs and seven hits in four innings.

Wednesday, Matt Cain is paired with Jair Jurrjens, who has kept close to Ryan Vogelsong in the ERA title chase, but has been shaky of late (16 earned runs in his last 23 innings).

And Thursday, another rookie, Mike Minor, gets a big task: he goes up against one of the hottest pitchers in the major leagues, Tim Lincecum. Minor has a 4.84 ERA in 44.2 innings, but since being called back up on Aug. 7, he has given up seven earned runs in 11.1 innings.

Meanwhile, the scorching Arizona Diamondbacks will see how their momentum fares against the Philadelphia Phillies. They face Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee and Vance Worley beginning Tuesday.

Saturday, August 13, 2011

Sunday notebook: Timmy's stopper gem and Florida's generosity

No one would be foolish to declare the Giants back on track after their 3-0 win Saturday over the Florida Marlins.

They still sputtered offensively, and relied on the graciousness of the hosts to push across two of their three runs.

Still, it was a beautiful sight to see Tim Lincecum asserting himself once more as the team's true leader. He has been the Giants stopper through his career, 37 of his 67 lifetime wins coming after losses. Saturday, he stopped the bleeding.

What a run he's been on. Over his last 11 starts, he's had a 1.51 ERA, allowing only 12 earned runs in 71 2/3 innings, on 47 hits with 81 strikeouts.

Inning after inning, Lincecum's determined, bulldogish presence on the mound appeared to put the Giants at ease. The Marlins got three base runners in scoring position, but they never had a chance. On two of those occasions, he closed out the threats with resounding strikeouts; on the third, second baseman Jeff Keppinger's diving play ended the fifth inning and kept the shutout intact.

Perhaps the singular moment that announced Lincecum's mastery came in the third, when the Marlins had a runner on third with two outs and their rookie slugger Mike Stanton up. The Giants led 1-0, but their bats had gone cold immediately after Keppinger's one-out solo home run in the first.

As delicate as this sounds, a run at this point might have, let us say, discouraged the poor, snake-bit Giants. They never recovered after the Marlins had scored two runs in the first inning Friday night, seemingly shellshocked that they were faced with a one-run deficit. Pathetic really.

But Lincecum had the answer. He treated the talented and daunting 6-foot-5, 240 pound Adonis to a short seminar on pitching with artistry, deceit and power.

Lincecum seemed to startle Stanton with a 93 MPH fastball right down the middle that he took. Lincecum went right after him again with a 94 MPH fastball, pure power. But the deceit and artistry  was in the perfect placement -- above his hands, in and up. It evoked a swing that was so weak, it was almost jarring coming from such a powerful young man. Stanton didn't seem to have much heart in his next swing, a check-swing foul on an identical pitch.

Lincecum put Stanton away by raising the ante with a 95 MPH fastball, again in on the hands, that the outfielder could not touch. Maybe as the 21-year old Stanton gains experience and studies film on this at bat, he will have Lincecum figured out. But then he will have to contend with Tim's other side, the one that has hitters flailing after his darting split finger and diving slider.

Four innings later, on Lincecum's 119th pitch, he blew a 93 MPH fastball by pinch hitter Wes Helms for his 10th strikeout. That was an exclamation point to his answer to Marlins' manager Jack McKeon, who'd complained about Boss Bochy's choice of Lincecum on the All-Star team, saying, "Do we reward what you're doing now, or do we reward for what you've done in the past?"

Lincecum got his reward for doing just fine in the present.


As I said, the offense hardly broke out of its slump. Outside of Keppinger's solo home run in the first inning (the 21st in a row as the Giants try to put the major league record out of reach), the Giants needed the help and comfort of the Florida Marlins to score.

In the fifth inning, Nate Schierholtz hit a laser beam off the left field wall -- it looks like his swing is returning -- and continued on to third when left fielder Logan Morrison's throw skipped past the second baseman. Schierholtz' should have been thrown out at third when he slid too early and barely got to the bag. But third baseman Greg Dobbs applied a tag in slow motion, so Nate was able to avert the Cardinal Sin of getting thrown at third with no outs.

After Orlando Cabrera popped out weakly in foul territory, it was up to Aaron Rowand to get that run in with less than two outs. How many of you had confidence in that? It didn't have to come to that, because starter Javier Vazquez obliged with a wild pitch. 

With pressure off, Rowand promptly singled to right. How many of you believe he would have done that with Nate still on third?

In the sixth, Cody Ross hit another bullet off the left field wall -- his swing is starting to look better, too -- but was held to a long single. After Keppinger lined softly to second and Pablo Sandoval went after an unhittable pitch to fly out, Ross was wild pitched to second.

Aubrey Huff appeared disappointed, though, when he promptly flied to left. The ball drifted to the line, and the 6-foot-3, 235-pound Morrison, playing bunched toward the gap came chugging toward the line. He got to the ball, but tried to basket catch it as he crumpled to the ground. He forgot to use his glove hand, though, and it clattered off his bare hand for another break for the Giants.

(Morrison was promptly sent down to the minors after the game, though he told Marlins' beat writers he believes he's being punished for showing up season-ticket holders at an event that he blew off. Helms was released, and not because he couldn't catch up to Lincecum's heater; apparently, he was mixed up in the season-ticket holder snafu, too. Glad to see the Marlins have their priorities straight.)

Huff wasn't throwing back that double into the sea or the RBI that went with it. He and the Giants were due for a break or two.

Are these the kinds of breaks that turn the fortunes around for the Giants? We shall see.


The Giants stuck with Andres Torres way beyond his usefulness, out of a desire to see him recapture the magic of last year. The evidence of his regression was overwhelming, and it was painfully clear that Torres' career path had hit an end.

Rather than release him, the Giants put him on the disabled list with yet another phantom injury, perhaps hopeful he can find his swing by the time they expand the roster in September. But make no mistake, he has taken the same exit that Barry Zito, Miguel Tejada, and Pat Burrell have taken (though Zito gets special dispensation, thanks to the financial ball and chain he has wrapped around the organization).

It is a sad ending to a wonderful story, and I think fans will continue to hope he can find his swing to help the Giants down the stretch. But Torres was a shadow of himself this season, unable to identify curves down and in, unable to hold up on fastballs up; he'd lost his power, he'd lost his confidence, he succumbed to the ravages of age (possibly exacerbated by the attention deficit disorder that plagued him).

Torres will always have a special place in the hearts of Giants fans as the energetic, eager and endearing ballplayer who proved all his doubters wrong for one thrilling season. He was the late-arriving star who carved a niche at the top of the lineup of a world champion, electrified fans and teammates with his clutch play, the daring on the base paths and dazzling play in center field.

His decline has coincided with the Giants decline, and so the Giants had no choice but to set him aside.

He will be missed. 


Unfortunately, the Giants are left with few viable options to replace Torres at the top of the lineup. Ross assumed the leadoff spot Saturday, but he is likely a temporary placeholder. For who? That's not known.

Speculation is swirling around Johnny Damon, the 37-year old Tampa Bay outfielder who has cleared waivers. With his post-season experience as well as his long tenure as a leadoff hitter, he is being chatted up as an intriguing possibility.

The trouble is, he's been a designated hitter for all but 15 games this year. The Giants would have to sacrifice on two defensive fronts: he has slowed considerably, and his arm has always been weak. And they would not get much in return on offense. 

Overall, Damon is hitting .261 with an on base percentage of .316 -- hardly the numbers you want from a leadoff hitter. Damon has a .353 lifetime OBP, so it's clear that age has caught up with him. He probably doesn't feel confident enough to take the count deep as he did in his prime, so he's putting the ball into play earlier than he used to.

Worse, he's hitting .159 in August (7-for-44). There's a reason he's cleared waivers. 

Ideally, the Giants would have pulled the trigger two weeks ago to acquire the speedy leadoff hitter and center fielder Michael Bourne, who instead went to the Atlanta Braves. We still have yet to hear a good explanation of why Bourne did not make it here.

The waiver wire has been slow so far, but perhaps 2011 version of Cody Ross will show up on the scrap heap.


Right hand swing man Clay Hensley, the former San Diego Padres pitcher, gets the start Sunday against the Giants. He's been tougher on lefties (.187 batting average against/.311 on base percentage) than righties (.293/.376).

That might give the lower quadrant of the Giants lineup -- Cabrera, Rowand and Eli Whiteside/Chris Stewart -- just a whisper of a chance to make a presence. Rowand actually has some good numbers (5-for-11 vs. Hensley). 

But I wouldn't hold my breath. That part of the lineup has been a vortex of failure, an assembly line of ground outs to third base or weak pop outs to the infield.

If Carlos Beltran's absence has done anything, it has shortened the lineup, creating a virtual graveyard after the No. 5 hole. At least with Beltran in, you could have a fairly legitimate threat in Nate Schierholtz hitting sixth. Cabrera, Rowand and the catchers have been near-automatic outs in the week that Bochy has had to use them, creating that much more pressure at the top of the lineup, which has had its own problems.

This is where Brandon Belt comes in. Sunday, he will get a spot start at first to spell Huff in a day game after a night game. If Belt can show that he hasn't contracted vertigo from the dizzying up and down path he's worn between Fresno and San Francisco, and more important, if he can swing with authority in his one-game audition, Boss Bochy could be compelled to keep him in the lineup and try Belt in left field.

It would lengthen the lineup, add a left handed hitter to break up the right-handed imbalance, and possibly add some youthful spark to a team in need of it.

Ross has put on some better swings lately -- he had a deep drive swallowed by the vast depths of Florida's center field on Friday, and ripped a long single off the left field wall on Saturday. So, he would be the first choice to man center field as Belt slips into left, and Rowand can return to the backup role he so desperately needs to return to.

Giants in jeopardy of vanishing out of sight

It is a descent from the clouds without a parachute, a free fall from grace.

It has become painful to watch as the world champions grope in the dark for that magical something that they were conjuring at will as recently as a month ago.

The Giants' offense produced 27 outs with assembly line proficiency Friday, one of their most limp, lackluster performances of the season, a 2-1 loss to the Florida Marlins. And that's saying something, coming off a dreadful 3-7 homestand.

Now that they have lost six games in the standings in a matter of two weeks -- going from four games up to two games behind the Arizona Diamondbacks -- they are in jeopardy of vanishing from sight.

For too long, the Giants reassured themselves that they were in first place, that the Arizona Diamondbacks could not sustain their pace, that they were the World Champions, dammit!

But the Diamondbacks are playing with the kind of jovial life force that swept through the Giants as they chased an unknown destiny a year ago. The upstart Diamonbacks are the ones pulling out late-inning triumphs, who have become the darlings of the baseball gods, who are chasing their own unknown destiny.

Sure, last year at this time the Giants were 2.5 games behind the Padres in the standings. But the Giants were on the rise: Buster Posey, Pat Burrell, Juan Uribe, Aubrey Huff and Andres Torres and the rest were all just beginning to learn how to win.

Now, the Giants appear to have forgotten how to win. After falling behind 2-1 in the first inning, the Giants had the look of a team that expected to lose, that had no hope of even making up a one-run deficit.


The Giants' decline has taken on a character of its own. It is a self-strangling creature that feeds off every feeble swing, every weak ground ball, every scoreless inning. It is the growing look of panic in the eyes of Giants hitters, who appear to be overtaken by the dawning realization that the season is quickly getting away from them.

That it began with the acquisition of Carlos Beltran has added to the confusion. The former New York Mets star was supposed to spur them to greater heights, add muscle to a sorely lacking lineup. The Giants, though, just stopped winning when he joined them, and continue to lose as he stays on the shelf with a hand injury.

Beltran's injury came by way of a terrible swing, a symptom of the desperation that seemed to envelope him from the beginning, as if he'd caught the contagion that had been spreading throughout the lineup.

It came on a two-ball, two-strike pitch Beltran had no business swinging at -- a Roy Oswalt fastball riding eye-high and outside. Beltran, who has a .378 on base percentage and has hit Oswalt pretty well in his career, should have known better. It was a pitch that might tempt a rookie, but not a savvy veteran with a good eye.

But Beltran came to the Giants hailed as the savior and was all too aware that his early struggles were infecting his new teammates. He went out of his comfort zone; he tried to hit that mythical five-run home run. Ironically, Beltran's strikeout came after the Giants had already scored a run, pushing their lead to 3-1 in their eventual win by the same score over the Phillies. They didn't need extra heroics from him at that moment.


It was the same kind of pitch that Aubrey Huff went after Friday night in the Giants' only real scoring threat (outside of Pablo Sandoval's first-inning solo home run).

Florida starter Ricky Nolasco had just walked Sandoval intentionally to load the bases with two outs in the third inning. It was a direct challenge to Huff, the Giants cleanup hitter in name only.

Huff, who has been swinging the bat with more authority in the last two weeks, had already hit a line drive for an out in the first inning. He'd taken the count full, fighting off tough changeups, taking close, tough pitches before scorching one to right field. It was an out, but a continuation of the good swings he's had that lifted his batting average to his season-high .249.

But, when it counted -- when the Giants could have used some drama, a bold stroke to lift the team -- Huff seemed to lose all judgment, as if blinded by the reckless need to compensate for a season full of agonizing moments.

He swung at the first pitch, a fastball riding high and wide, just like the one Beltran swung at. It was as if Huff had convinced himself he would jump on that first pitch, no matter where it was. Huff is known to lay in the weeds in a fastball count, ambushing fastballs. If I know that, so do opposing pitchers. And they have set their own traps that he has all too often fallen into.

And, so Huff popped out, ending the threat, which turned out to be the last earnest hope of the night for the Giants. The look on his face, I swear, was, "well, what can you expect with two outs?" Or, "hey, I hit the ball hard the first time, you can't do it every time." I did not see a look of despair or anger; no fire in his eyes. Perhaps he had put up a mask to cover for his true thoughts: when will this nightmare end?

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

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

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

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

Nah, he had the Giants on tap.

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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