Sunday, September 18, 2016

A New Sound That May Echo For Awhile

As shocking as the SF Giants fall has been, it reached a particular inflection point on Saturday night that might have consequences beyond this season.

The Giants had won two games in a row against St. Louis, improving their wild card position while gaining on the Dodgers.  On Saturday they were leading 2-1 going into the ninth, in the game that would put them 4 games up on St. Louis for the wild card.

That manager Bruce Bochy turned to Casilla to save the game was a surprise.  Casilla's reception in his home ball park was the shock.  He was booed.  When he gave up the tying run, he was booed again.  When he left the game after giving up the lead run, he was booed once more.  The Giants lost 3-2, and went down with barely a whimper on Sunday afternoon.  They split the series, but to play even at this point in their season is to lose ground, and they did.

Writers so far are saying that no Giant has been booed in their home park in this century.  (The good-natured booing that greeted Bochy's visit to the mound to take his own son out of the game--which he then decided against--doesn't count.)

It's a big deal.  And it can mean a great deal.  It probably means that Casilla will not be booed again this season, because his season in his home park is probably over, certainly in the ninth inning.  He probably won't be in an SF uniform next year.

But if this trajectory continues and the Giants fail to make the playoffs, he may not be the only one. There could be a very different team in San Francisco next season.  Conceivably with a different manager.

The Giants made a mid-season correction to better their chances in the playoffs.  But they weakened themselves for getting to the playoffs by lacerating team chemistry with the Duffy trade.  They gambled on stacking their starting pitching and their starters have been excellent lately.  But they don't have a closer, and they don't have much time to find one.  They'll try Derek Law, who is probably not even at full strength after his injury.  But that's their last play this year.

Bochy has 15 relief pitchers on the payroll, and still his bullpen is weaker than it was last year and certainly in 2014.  All those roster spots mean fewer hitters, fewer pitch hit possibilities in those last of the ninth matchups when the bullpen blew the lead.  Fewer ways to spell starters and keep them fresh.

The lineup may start changing even before this season ends.  Meanwhile it's hard to watch.  And if things keep going down like this, there's not much more to say.

Thursday, September 15, 2016

Giant Nightmare

If the trajectory of the SF Giants season continues as it's going now (which is down, down, down),  there might be a moment remembered as both causal and indicative.  It happened Tuesday night in the ninth inning.

SF went into the ninth leading San Diego 4-1.  Hunter Strickland was in his second audition recently as Closer; he'd done well the last time, inducing a game ending double play.

He got the first out.  Then things started dinking and dunking badly and he started losing it.  But..there came a moment when the Giants still led that he induced a double play ball that would have ended the game, heading towards the sure glove of Joe Panik--and Strickland stuck out his glove just enough to deflect the ball.

 Even at that Panik was able to get one out.  But not the two that would have saved the victory, and boosted the Giants one game closer to LA.

But it didn't happen and agonizing minutes later,a rookie reliever gave up a 3-run homer on a two-strike pitch.  The Giants went meekly in the bottom of the 9th (losing 6-4), and apparently were so disheartened the next afternoon that they could manage but one run to support their ace Bumgarner, and lost 3-1.

A crucial tuneup against a weaker team turned into a sweep for San Diego.  Someone has figured out that if the Giants second half won-lost record were extrapolated for the whole season, this would be the worst team in Giants history.

The Giants conceivably could still make the playoffs (the division title is now pretty much gone) and advancing is within the realm of possibility.  But the latter is very unlikely, and so the former might be worse.

When a series or maybe even a season definitively and finally goes south, there might be a moment in which (at least in retrospect) the story was told.  That just might be the moment the ball deflected off Strickland's glove on Tuesday night.

Monday, September 12, 2016

How Sweep It Is

The SF Giants return home after sweeping the three game series at Arizona.  Matt Moore pitched a strong, confident game, and Hunter Pence was the all out star of the series, blasting the winning runs in this one with an opposite field double.

With the wind at their back they take on San Diego before upcoming and potentially fateful series with St. Louis and six of their last 20 games with LA.  Apart from those games, the Giants' schedule is easier than the Dodgers.  The Dodgers lead by 3 games.

 Sunday's win at last felt like the first half Giants.  They weren't overpowering but they were determined and clutch.  Except for Moore, who was at times overpowering.

The other day I saw an evaluation of their second half troubles by somebody who writes about the Giants professionally.  He notes the disruption caused by the Matt Duffy trade, which is exactly what I was afraid of when it happened.  The team chemistry got thrown. It left a bad taste.

Now maybe they're overcoming it (and Duffy would probably be unavailable to them anyway, as he is out for the season requiring surgery.)  It's hard to complain about the guy they got for Duffy, Matt Moore, with a very near no-hitter and his performance Sunday.

Hunter Strickland saved Sunday's game and so may be trusted as a closer.  High hopes in that role as well for Derek Law when he returns.  Casilla and Romo may have had their day, though they can still have their excellent outings.  But Casilla can't be trusted to pitch the ninth.

A big finish is really important to this particular team.  Now it actually seems possible.

Sunday, September 11, 2016

No Longer A Sport

I've approached the NFL season warily, reading a few stories, especially about the Steelers.  But my worst fears were confirmed in accounts of the Carolina-Denver game, in which Carolina quarterback Cam Newton was hit repeatedly in the head by Denver's thug head-hunters.  In the later very weak judgment of the NFL, one merited a penalty.  Denver's thuggery lost them nothing.  Newton, visibly hurting, was not lifted or the concussion protocols followed by his own team.

From all this I conclude that the officials who didn't call the penalties should be fired,  the Carolina officials who did not invoke the concussion protocols should be fired, members of the Denver team defense and their coach should be suspended and fined or better yet, arrested, and the game should be forfeit.  And the NFL should fine itself.

None of that happened or will happen.  And I won't be watching an NFL game until this scandal is rectified.  It's not a sport anymore. It's criminal assault, and probably slow motion manslaughter.

At the moment, the SF Giants have won two games in a row on the road for the first time in this second half.  They cling to playoff possibilities but must keep winning at a first-half rate.  We'll see.  Starting pitching and Hunter Pence are carrying them at the moment, with some other bats coming around.  But even one of these games involved a blown save and a torturous 5.5 hours of 13 innings against a team on a losing streak.

The bullpen is their Achilles heel.  They won in 2014 with less than a stellar starting rotation but a supple, strong and reliable bullpen.  They fixed the rotation pretty much this year, but the bullpen --and the absence of a closer--is a significant deficiency, in the playoffs even if they get there, which is not at all certain.

The Pirates also seem to be fading from the playoff hunt though neither team is out of it yet.  Only the Dodgers seem to be getting stronger, especially with the return of Kershaw.

Wednesday, September 07, 2016

The Great One

Major League Baseball celebrates the career of Roberto Clemente today.

I saw Clemente play at Forbes Field in Pittsburgh, and as a kid went down on the field on a meet the players day and shook his hand.  He was the player I sought out.

Here's my favorite Clemente story, which I've probably told you before.  It was a night game at Forbes Field.  I don't know if beer was sold there by the can or people just brought it in, but I remember hearing the sound of many cans opening and seeing the spray in the lights.

It was a long game.  The score was tied in the bottom of the ninth, or it may have been the 10th.  I was excited but getting sleepy.  Concentrating on a ball game is tiring.  But one of the Pirates got a hit, a double. Everybody stood up for that.

Clemente was coming up. People were sitting down, settling in for a typical Clemente at-bat.  This almost always meant he let the first pitch go by.  He might swing at a pitch so hard that his helmet and his regular cap he wore underneath it would both fly off.  And then he would get serious.

Except not this time. People were still sitting down when he swung at the first pitch and hit it so hard, that when it hit the right field fence right on the foul line, it seemed to knock the paint or the chalk right off of it.  It sounded like a cannon shot and left nothing to see but smoke.  The game was over.

The last time I saw him was more than a decade later, in 1972, playing against the Mets at Shea Stadium.  I was in an upper deck on the first base side, so I watched him on first base after he hit a single.

It turned out to be one of the last times anyone saw him.  It was the last away series before the Pirates returned home and Clemente got the 3,000 hit of his career, against the Mets.  That's his official number.  He actually got several more hits in a playoff series, but the Pirates didn't advance.

And then that winter he was lost in the sea, trying to get supplies to earthquake victims in a little country not his own.

He was the Great One.

He played right field like a gazelle, and had a cannon of a throwing arm.  He complained it was never the same after early in his career he threw from the deepest part of right field on a line to home plate.  He had style--his own form of the basket catch, his batting stance and base running.

The deepest part of right field, by the way, was the Exit Gate, not always used as I recall but once we did leave Forbes Field that way--walking across the grass that Clemente patrolled every game.

He played in the World Series twice.  In 1960 he hit safely in all 7 games.  In 1971 he hit over .400 and won the series MVP.  The Pirates won both championships.  The one in 1960 against the Yankees was their first since 1927.

He overcame racial hostility and misunderstanding to become a beloved player in Pittsburgh.  When the Pirates left Forbes Field for Three Rivers he was bereft--he'd played that right field half his life, he said.

Pirates announcer Bob Prince would pronounce his full name with correct pronunciation--Ro-buer-to Clem-en-tay the first time, and then refer to him as Bob or Bobby "Clemeney."  He also gave him the nickname of "Arriba" as in "Vamos arriba," let's rise up, let's go.

He battled injuries but had a career of remarkably consistent excellence as a hitter and a fielder, and longevity as a player of 18 seasons with the Pirates. Considering that he'd won that MVP one season before he died, his career wasn't nearly over.  We sure weren't ready to say goodbye.

Sunday, September 04, 2016

There's Always '018

The San Francisco Giants played four games in Chicago decided by one run each, and lost three of them.  The one that hurt the most was the last one, on Sunday, when they led 2-1 in the bottom of the ninth.  Casilla blew another save when the Cubs tied at 2-2, and then the Giants failed to cash in on several chances in extra innings.  They lost 3-2 after 13.

The one bright spot was Saturday, when the Giants combined a very strong performance by Madison Bumgarner with opportunistic baseball, taking full advantage of a couple of Cubs mistakes.  This game suggested that the Giants still have some postseason moxie left in them.

They can console themselves that they lost to the team that is clearly the best in baseball at the moment, and must be the heavy favorite to win all the marbles this year.  On the other hand, the Giants had everything to play for and the Cubs essentially had nothing, and it was the Cubs that came through in the crucial moments to win three one-run games.

The Giants are a mess, carrying way too many pitchers and not getting enough hits.  At least one of their risky moves last month has come back to haunt them, as I suspected it might: they got rid of catcher Andrew Susak, their backup catcher last year who would have been a strong third option now.  With backup Trevor Brown ailing, Buster Posey has been playing way too much, adding exhaustion to several minor ailments that aren't getting rest to heal.  Posey's hitting is predictably way down.

The Giants have been lucky in one regard--the Dodgers haven't been a lot better.  But today's combination of Giants' loss and Dodgers victory drops SF three games back, which right now looks like a very steep climb.  With the Cards and Mets surging, and the Pirates staying around, even a Wild Card berth is questionable.

Bumgarner on Saturday pointed out that the Giants are actually in better shape in the standings now than they were at this time in 2014.  I don't know how much consolation that is, however.  The Giants had a more reliable closer then, and a more experienced bullpen.  And there wasn't anybody who looked as strong as the Cubs do now.  Even if the Giants limp into postseason, it's hard to see them getting past the Cubs in a series.

Still, it's baseball.  And there's enough of it left to offer big surprises.

Thursday, September 01, 2016

Historic

On September 1, 1971, the Pittsburgh Pirates fielded the first major league baseball team in history comprised completely of African American and Latino players.  This team would go on to make similar World Series history.  It included several All-Stars and two future Hall of Fame players in Roberto Clemente and Willie Stargell.  Also starting were Rennie Stennent, who was back in the news this year when Brandon Crawford matched his 7 hits in one game record, All-Star catcher Manny Sanguillen and pitcher Dock Ellis.

This was also the Pirates era of longevity.  Clemente and Bill Mazeroski were among the players who had starred 11 years before on the 1960 World Champion Pirates, and would again with this team.  Their manager was also the same: Danny Murtaugh.  Bill Virdon, center fielder for the 1960 champs, was a  Pirates coach in 1971.

This was the Pirates' 90th season, and their first away from Forbes Field--they'd inaugurated Three Rivers Stadium the previous July.  They beat the San Francisco Giants in the National League Championship series and the Baltimore Orioles in the World Series.  Roberto Clemente would be named the World Series MVP.

Fateful

The San Francisco Giants begin their most important road trip of the season tonight in Chicago.  They begin 1.5 games out of first place, and only barely ahead in the Wild Card.  They split their home series with Arizona by winning Wednesday 4-2.

As beset by injuries as the Giants have been, the Dodgers have their continuing woes, especially among starting pitchers.  After losing the first game of their doubleheader at Colorado 7-0 on Wednesday, they were forced to string together bullpen pitchers for the second game when their announced starter continued to have blister issues.  Only a late offensive flurry saved them from losing both games, but the split kept them 1.5 games ahead of the Giants instead of .5.

The Giants are going to have to show such resilience in Chicago, Arizona and Colorado before they finish mostly at home.  The Cubs are one of the hottest second half teams, running away with their division.  The Giants...well, you know.

A bunch of roster additions today, including the return of Kelby Tomlinson from the DL.  Giants get a look at young phenom Ty Blach, left handed reliever.