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Sunday, April 29, 2012

Anyone still critical of the Melky Cabrera-Jonathan Sanchez deal?

Any more holdouts on the Jonathan Sanchez-Melky Cabrera deal?

If you are one of them, you need to look at yourself in the mirror and ask if it's just that you can't fathom giving Giants' general manager Brian Sabean credit for anything he does right.

Because Sabean was right on this one. Cabrera is the real deal. His 200-plus hit season in 2011 was no aberration. He can hit, and it looks like he thrives on pressure situations. His leadoff double in the Giants' seventh -- the first hit by a non-pitcher off Anthony Bass -- sparked the winning rally in a game that the Giants really needed.

They were on the verge of losing a series to the lowly Padres and sending starter Tim Lincecum to an excruciating defeat at a time when he was just beginning to build up his confidence.

After his leadoff double -- off a rare mistake, a changeup that stayed up -- Cabrera would have to wait through two poor at bats by Pablo Sandoval (shallow pop fly) and Buster Posey (strikeout) before fortunes turned around for the Giants: Nate Schierholtz' infield single made possible by a throw that took the first baseman off the bag by an inch; and then Brandon Belt's inspiring, Will Clark-like heroics, a thing-of-beauty opposite field line drive that split the gap in left-center and drove home two runs in the Giants' 2-1 win.

Lincecum and Santiago Casilla made it all stand up by shutting down the Padres in the tense, spine-tingling eighth and ninth innings, building on a developing theme that the Giants still have the ability to win the close ones.

None of this amounts to a bale of hay if not for Cabrera's two spectacular catches -- on successive, nearly identical, over-the-shoulder, on-the-run plays near the wall -- that saved Lincecum from a potentially damaging fourth inning.

Already down 1-0 and completely stifled by Bass (who kept the Giants off the bases until two outs in the sixth), the Giants could ill afford a Padres rally at that point.

It would have buried the Giants.

For one, they didn't look at all capable of solving Bass, a relatively new guy on the scene who pitched like a veteran with an assortment of 94 MPH fastballs, 82 MPH changeups and drop sliders that had the Giants flailing. Two of them -- Posey and Angel Pagan --were so fooled, they swung out from underneath their helmets. The only hard-hit balls were a Brandon Crawford scorcher to first and Belt's long fly out to the edge of the warning track in left-center.

But, more important, Lincecum was still on tenterhooks. He'd come into the game with an ERA near 9.00, and though he'd won his last start, it was by the narrowest margins. Remember, he was on the verge of being pulled with one out in the fifth in his last start before a spectacular double play (the great back-hand grab and flip by second baseman Manny Burriss and the equally athletic pivot and throw by shortstop Crawford) bailed him out of a bases loaded jam and gave him the bare minimum innings to qualify for a win.

And that was on top of two horrific first starts that had fans going through another round of angst over whether the Freak had lost it.

Lincecum still hasn't discovered his big fastball. He topped 90 MPH only a handful of times Friday. But he threw with guile, using confidence as a weapon, hitting corners with his slider, keeping the Padres off balance with a nice blend of fastballs and change-ups. His mechanics and rhythm, so essential to his success, were there for him.

Still, he had to escape jams in the second and third innings, facing a one-out first and second situation in the second and a one-out bases loaded quandary in the third. Somehow, he limited the Padres to a single run, and though it was heartening to see Lincecum come through relatively unscathed, you still held your breath on every pitch.

Enter Cabrera. In the fourth, with one out, Cameron Maybin, only 3-for-17 against Lincecum lifetime, got ahold of an 88-MPH fastball up and drove one toward the wall in left field. On a full sprint, Cabrera took a perfectly direct route, angling sharply at a 140 degree angle, and caught up to the ball, right arm fully extended aloft as he felt the dirt of the warning track under his feet.

Lincecum raised his right forefinger to the sky in a you-da-man salute, and three pitches later, decided to see if Cabrera was really for real.

Andy Parrino, the Padres talented young left-handed hitting shortstop, hit another long fly ball, almost precisely to the same point, but maybe even further toward the gap and away from Cabrera. No mind, Cabrera got another great jump, and rode out another perfect angle to the ball and again extended full-out at full-gallop to prove that the first play was no fluke.

Lincecum could hardly believe it, his look of utter anxiety melting into a big, relieved smile and shake of the head. He knew he'd dodged a big one and that he was in Cabrera's debt.

He paid it off by retiring nine of the next 10 hitters he faced, keeping the game close into the bottom of the seventh, and then, after his offensive bro's provided two runs, turning in a shutdown eighth on pure emotion and adrenaline.

Only two days earlier, Cabrera's defense played a critical part in the Giants' 6-5 comeback win over the Cincinnati Reds. The Reds had just stretched their lead to 5-3 in the bottom of the seventh inning on a Scott Rolen home run (after grooving Rolen two off-speed pitches for HRs in that series, the Giants should stick with major league fastballs against the aging mistake-hitter next time they face him).

When the next hitter, Drew Stubbs hit that drive to deep left field that glanced off Cabrera's glove against the wall, the Reds appeared poised for the kind of rally that would secure a win -- and sweep. Stubbs, one of the major leagues' fastest ballplayers, took off for third when the ball bounded away from Cabrera. But Cabrera quickly got to the ball and threw a cannon shot to third, easily nailing a stunned Stubbs for the second out of the inning.

Joey Votto's double was like a tree falling in the forest, setting up the dramatics of Angel Pagan's three-run, game-winning home run in the ninth. Though Cabrera went only 1-for-5 in that game, the Giants' clubhouse knew that Cabrera had the biggest assist of the game.

Cabrera may not be that home run threat that some fans wished the Giants had. He doesn't command the national attention accorded mega-watt superstars: he's not imposing physically -- he's list at 6 feet tall but he can't be more than 5-feet-10-inches -- and he's not controversial or overly quotable.

But there's a reason the New York Yankees made him a regular at 21. He has that indefinable quality of quiet confidence, and the athleticism that gets the job done consistently if not spectacularly. He appears to be unwavering in the face of pressure. Starting center field for the Yankees at age 21 is not a bad apprenticeship for a career in a pressure-packed profession.

Sabean got it right in bringing Cabrera here. You don't have to look at Sanchez' early season struggles to know that. Just in case you do, here are the ugly numbers: in four starts, the former Giant lefty has a 6.75 ERA in 17.1 innings. He's failed to pitch beyond the fifth inning. In his last start, Sanchez walked seven in 4.2 innings (does that sound familiar?); in all he's walked 17 in 17.1 innings.

It doesn't look like Sanchez has grown out of his ponderous, spacey ways, if he ever will.

But, in Cabrera, who's a veteran of six years at the ripe age of 27, the Giants have a star in the making.  Sabean needs to complete the deal by extending Cabrera's contract well into the future.


Thursday, April 26, 2012

Huff the victim of a vitriolic fan base?

I've been guilty of deriding Aubrey Huff for all those four-to-threes, the 23-hoppers to second base that filled last year's scorebooks.

I've been frustrated by his inability to recapture the swing that was so critical to the Giants' 2010 World Series triumph. And I've criticized Boss Bochy for sticking with the veteran long past Huff's expiration date.

But I always hoped he would do well. Maybe his off-season Pilates workouts would translate to a more physically ready Huff this year. Maybe knowing that he had competition this spring would kick him into gear. He seemed to have responded, at least in Spring Training.

When the bell rung, however, we were treated with another round of weak ground outs complemented only by ineffectual popouts in clutch situations. It appeared that, indeed, Huff was heading to that good night.

The straight ahead stare and clenched jawbones were signs of a man defeated. His lapse at second base in New York last weekend -- failing to cover the base on what should have been an easy double play -- captured it all: though he had never played the position, he should have known that the first thing to do is to cover the bag. But he froze.

Afterward, it was painful to see him standing out there with no place to hide. (Blame for that play, by the way, should have been squarely shouldered by Bochy, who should never have put Huff in that spot).

Huff had previously shown signs that he'd been troubled by the pressures he was facing.

When Barry Zito turned in his improbable shutout in his '12 debut, Huff said, "It's no secret he gets buried by fans and the media, everything like that, so ... for all the haters out there, that's for them."

It was an astounding comment that gave insight into Huff's own inner turmoil. It was as if he was answering his own critics.

Perhaps Aubrey Huff has been harboring dark thoughts about Giants fans, but if so, he had a reason. They have been merciless.

They've arrived at the point of hysteria when it comes to Zito (though they've been temporarily muzzled by Zito's astounding run of decent outings), and Giants' fans have been nearly as rabid about Huff (particularly over the issue of giving Brandon Belt regular playing time).

Some fans have questioned Huff's desire and his dedication, as if just because he landed a nice, fat contract, he all of the sudden decided he didn't care what he put on the back of his baseball card. That's from fans who have never played and who believe that money drives ballplayers.

Compounding Huff's troubles with fans is the proliferation of blogs and social media outlets, on top of a more discerning and ever-present talk show culture.

Criticism is louder, gets amplified and goes viral. In my younger days, the only time a Giant would hear criticism would be from the boos in the stands, and maybe from callers to KNBR, which had a three-hour talk-show slot for sports. Now, KNBR is an all-sports station, and Huff has no doubt gone to bed with some of that vitriol ringing in his ears.

It seems to me that Giants fans have become increasingly critical, especially since after the 2010 World Series. I've detected something of an entitlement mentality that used to be associated strictly with East Coast fans. Success is supposed to breed more success. Unfortunately, success also breeds greed.

We don't know if the anxiety disorder Huff's been diagnosed with is connected to the pressures he's facing from his failures on the field. It could be the divorce he's going through. Or a combination of both, and other unknown factors.

But at this point, we should all take a step back and consider what pressures professional athletes go through. Yes, they're paid obscene sums, but that doesn't take away from their humanity.

Professional ballplayers are exceptional people with the ability to withstand more pressure than any of us can imagine. But, they also have frailties.

If anything, Huff's anxiety shows that he cares -- cares about what people think of him, cares about producing, cares about the impact that his failures have had on his teammates.

Remember, Huff was one of the good guys in that championship clubhouse in 2010. His clubhouse presence was the stuff of legend. He's the kind of guy I'd loved to have had as a teammate. The wise-cracker with a big heart.

When he comes back to the field, I hope fans give him a warm welcome, let him know that we care about him.

Friday, April 6, 2012

Bochy missed chance to exploit bench depth; yanked Lincecum too late

You can't get too upset about Opening Day losses -- it is one of 162 games, after all.

But I've got just a couple nits to pick that are leftover irritants from some of last year's frustrations: Bruce Bochy's late hook of Tim Lincecum and his decision to stay with Aubrey Huff late in the game against a left-handed reliever.

Lincecum had done well to recover from early struggles, putting up four scoreless innings after allowing three runs on a pair of home runs in the first inning.

But the stringy, long-haired Freak found himself in immediate danger in the bottom of the sixth. He left a changeup out over the plate for Justin Upton, who promptly led off with a double. Miguel Montero then just missed a home run with a fly ball that right fielder Melky Cabrera caught at the fence.

Two real good swings off of some fat pitches, with Lincecum approaching his 90th pitch on Opening Day after an underwhelming spring training? Should've been hookville right there.

Bochy stuck with his ace, however, and Lincecum appeared to justify the move, getting Jason Kubel to nub a weak chopper out in front of the plate for what should have been the second out. Buster Posey, perhaps showing a touch of rust in his first regular-season game since his horrendous season-ending injury last May, reached out and swiped at the ball a bit casually rather than grabbing it firmly. The ball popped out of his glove, and Posey had to hurry his throw to first, just a touch late.

Bochy raced out to argue the call, though replays showed Kubel appeared to beat the throw, barely. No sooner had Bochy returned the dugout, however, that Lincecum teed up yet a third fat pitch -- this one to Ryan Roberts, who slammed it off the left field wall for a two-run double and a 5-3 lead.

Was Bochy of sound mind after his heated display on the call at first? If he hadn't had that distraction, might he have given some thought about yanking Lincecum? There was plenty evidence suggesting Timmy Boy was done.

I'm all for toughing things out with my starting pitcher. But on Opening Day, you proceed with a little more caution with your starters, who aren't at peak strength -- not by a long shot. Lincecum in particular has shown this spring that he isn't yet up to snuff. How many times had he thrown 95 pitches in spring training? And yet Bochy let him make that 95th pitch, with the game on the line.


Now, down 5-3 in the top of the seventh, the Giants had a chance to close the deficit with two runners on, though two were out. Arizona Manager Kirk Gibson got the the matchup he wanted, bringing in left handed reliever Joe Paterson to face Huff.

Huff did OK against lefties last year: his .270 batting average was 35 points better than he hit against righties. But Paterson is a specialist who is especially difficult to hit for lefties (they hit .201 against him, while righties hit .255 against him). Huff's sample against Paterson was small, but ineffective: 0-for-3.

Huff had figured nicely in the Giants' sixth, leading off with a base hit on an 0-2 changeup off last year's 21-game winner, Ian Kennedy, eventually scoring the tying run, at 3-3.

Against the side-winding lefty Paterson, Huff hung in there admirably, fouling off some tough pitches, but inevitably grounded out weakly to end the threat.

SF Chron's Henry Schulman tweeted afterward that Bochy "is not going to yank a veteran starter in his first AB against a lefty in first game for young PH."

I tweeted -- before the at bat -- that this was an opportune time to bring in someone like Brett Pill. KNBR's Marty Lurie replied to me: "Great point. In the 1st gm let Huff hit ... in 3 wks you absolutely consider the RH option... what about HSanchez? If he's here use him."

Why not? Bochy already made it clear that Huff will be a mostly six-inning player, to be subbed out defensively in latter innings. Why shouldn't that principle apply to tough hitting situations, especially when you have guys like Pill and Hector Sanchez who are on the roster for the express purpose of adding offense -- not to mention provide the electricity that only talented youth can bring?

We saw this far too often last year: Bochy putting too much stock in Huff and other veterans. And though Huff had a nice spring training (he did last year, too, hitting six home runs), Bochy's mandate should not be to worry about Huff's confidence or sense of place in the lineup. Huff should be well aware that he is just one moveable piece among many.

So, in his first opportunity to show off what promises to be an exciting, young, quick and energetic team, Bochy failed to exploit one of his assets. He turned his back on the bench depth he just got finished piecing together.

And, his decision to keep Lincecum in the game was the first judgment call of the year that backfired on Bochy, not a promising sign after a year full of missteps from management.

It's only Game 1. But, that's what Opening Day is all about, right? Create a spark, set a tone, go bold out of the chute. It's not too late to return to first principles in Game 2.