Wednesday, September 27, 2017

October Can't Come Fast Enough (with Postscript)

Postscript Oct.1: It's finally over.  The last two SF Giants games summed up the season.  Matt Cain made his last start before retiring Saturday, pitching a 3 hit shutout for 5 innings, going into the 9th with the victory, but the closer lost it, aided by a throwing error by the usually spectacular Brandon Crawford.  Then Sunday the Giants couldn't really hit a pitcher who was more or less trying out for a starting job, but ended up winning on a walk-off home run in the 9th--by Pablo Sandoval.  It was the depressingly, maddeningly repeated futility of this season, with the wistful echo of winning days past. Sunday after the game, the team celebrated Cain's 33rd birthday, and probably knew they were celebrating the end of an era.  It's likely that Matt Cain won't be the only one who played in these two games who won't be back in a Giants uniform next year.  I didn't see attendance figures for Sunday, but Saturday's game was not a sell out.

San Francisco Giants fans used to look forward to October for the playoffs and winning the World Series.  Now we just can't wait for this horrific season to end, and look forward to October for Warriors basketball.

The only suspense left for the Giants is whether they lose 100 games and/or whether they get the top draft choice because they finish with the worst record in MLB.  Then comes the long winter of discontent, as priorities are set and new players are pursued.  Right now the rookies getting some playing time must be swinging for the fences every time, as the power hitter priority is at the top.

The season of futility is symbolized by the return of Pablo Sandoval, who had a good start and then went into an epic hitting slump.  Only injuries to others have kept him in the lineup.  But SF will always remember the players who contributed to three championships and provided plenty of joy and thrills at the ball park.  Some are unlikely to be back, along with players who've joined since.

Meanwhile in the NBA, the musical chairs of big stars clustering in a few teams to compete with the Warriors will climax with the reported move of D. Wade to Cleveland.  Until this move, it seems Cleveland was going to have its hands full just winning the relatively anemic East.  But unlike K.D. coming to Golden State, several of these moves are by players who are probably past their prime, and that includes Wade and the other Cavs acquisition, Isaiah Thomas.

But these moves, including those by the Thunder and Houston, will likely make for more competitive basketball this season than seemed likely when last season ended.

The injection of politics into sports, especially by the lunatic tweets and speeches by our racist demagogue in chief, puts a different spin on the season, especially as Steph Curry and the Warriors were two of his specific targets.  Fortunately Curry is a class act and coach Steve Kerr a highly articulate and thoughtful class act.  I like being a Warriors fan.

And props from a Warriors fan to LeBron for his now famous tweet and his forthright stand.

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Return of the Panda

The trade deadline came and went without much impact on the San Francisco Giants roster, surprising many professional observers. Third baseman Eduardo Nunez was the only notable to go, and the young players received in the trade were not immediately on the roster.

But soon there was a surprising new addition, especially in that he was the prodigal returned: After being picked up on waivers and sent to a couple of minor league teams for prep, Pablo Sandoval was back at third base.

Nobody expects the Giants to do anything much this year, but any hope that can be generated would be welcome.  The Panda not only perked things up at the ball park, he seemed to boost morale in the club house and generate some play more consistent with the Giants when he was a vital member of championship teams.

In particular he seemed to perk up Hunter Pence who started hitting, and hitting for power.  The two of them were really the hitting sparkplugs of the 2014 playoffs and World Series.

Meanwhile the Giants keep trying new players and different combinations, partly because more guys keep getting injured (Joe Panik most recently) as others heal up.  Positives have been the return of Parker in left field, the starting pitching of Ty Blach and Sam Dyson's work as a closer.  And my guy Kelby Tomlinson continues to be invaluable.  The Giants started winning some games.

Meanwhile, Pablo penned an emotional essay about coming home to San Francisco.  There's no guarantee he'll be back next season, but his effect on the team will have to be part of that decision.

Right now the Giants are finishing a series with the Marlins, the team I saw them play in San Francisco.  Giancarlo Stanton homered in the first two games, extending his consecutive game streak and continuing his power surge.  Someday I'll probably need to say that I saw him play, although I didn't actually see either of the two homers he hit in the July game.  I was ducking out of the sun and saw the first one on a stadium TV, and when he hit the second I was already on the train.  But if he really breaks a record this year, I can always lie.  Who will know?

Sunday, July 16, 2017

The Baffling Giants, From the Stands

I saw the San Francisco Giants host the Marlins last Sunday, the final game before the All-Star break. Exactly a year before, the Giants had the best record in MLB. Many of the players on the field last Sunday were on that team. But if the Bay Area sports media is right, that may no longer be true even a month from now.

 Except for the unsurprisingly bad Phillies, the Giants ended the first half with the worst record in baseball, and have just lost a series in San Diego (due in part to 2 homers by their former backup catcher Hector Sanchez), where the Padres are almost as woeful.

 This is the worst Giants record in a generation, and it's baffled everyone. It's a proven team of highly skilled players just a year past predominance. Yet that year has been an ongoing disaster. And now a lot of people are expecting a lot of trades, and maybe for the first time are willing for them to happen.

 I tried to discern some difference at AT&T Park. I maybe didn't see the same intensity from Johnny Cueto on the mound, but that may not be valid. (He's now on the disabled list.) Otherwise, nothing I could be sure of. Maybe there wasn't the same electric buzz in the stands as there had been at some previous games, but the park was full on a clear warm afternoon, with a bright hot sun. Maybe the scoreboard emphasized past glories a lot, and they got the biggest cheers. As usual there were a lot of fans wearing Giants gear, including players shirts--often players of the past.

 But it wasn't a bad game. The Giants took the early lead on a titanic 2 run homer to the deepest part of the yard in right center by Brandon Crawford. The Marlins immediately tied it, then went ahead on a Giancarlo Stanton homer on a pitch that Cueto grooved. Then sub catcher Hundley homered right back to tie the score again.

 But over the past year, Giants fans have come to expect the bullpen cave, and it came when the Marlins scored 4 runs in the 7th. At 7-3, the script for the past year says the game is about over. But not this time.

 The Giants got a run back in the 7th and then staged a very exciting rally in the 8th, tying the game. Buster Posey (the lone Giants All-Star) got an ovation as a pinch-hitter but he inexplicably swung on an 3-0 pitch and grounded out without bringing in a run. Still, after Gomez two strike pinch hit single, the lead run was on third with one out. But one of the younger players--don't remember which--couldn't get a long sacrifice. With 2 out Denard Span smacked a deep ball to right that just got caught. A game of inches--if the ball had gone over the fielder's head, it would likely have scored two-- and how the dice falls, because one batter earlier and Span's ball would have easily scored the lead run, even if caught.

 A game also of instant heroics and instant humiliation. With the score still tied in the 13th, Brandon Crawford--who had a homer and run-scoring hit in the 8th inning rally for three RBIs, plus several clutch fielding plays and throws to first--scooped up a tough grounder and threw hard over Belt's head at first base for a two-base error. A couple of batters later, Kontos gave up a two run homer. By the time Stanton had homered again as well, and Kelby Tomlinson tripled in the bottom of the inning but the Giants could manage only one run for a 10-8 loss--we were on our way to, and sitting in, the train. In prior years, the chances of coming back again in the bottom of the 13th would be excellent enough to stay. This year, not so much.  (I do regret not seeing the Tomlinson triple.  He's a personal favorite.)

 As for the experience, I saw Matt Cain pitch in relief, and Ichiro pinch hit. I had the most expensive mocha I've ever purchased. I don't know how to compare this to previous years because I mostly kept to my seat before, but on this day there seemed an awful lot of people walking around and watching the boats in the marina. Maybe they were escaping the sun as I was. The people were a big part of the show. It will take a lot before people stop coming, I'm sure. It's such a San Francisco experience now--a very diverse crowd, all together here in Giants gear.

 But it may not be long before the players they see are different. (And in fact, we heard somebody yell "Trade 'em all!") Posey, Crawford, Bumgarner will remain the core. They've already broken up that perfect infield of Duffy, Crawford, Panik and Belt, and at least one of those left could go soon, as well as players added later. As for outfielders, though Hunter Pence is enormously popular, Span is probably more likely to be kept. But that's just guessing.

 Still, expectations that it will all change in a month aren't realistic. The starting pitching rotation was carefully crafted and looked so formidable before the season, and it is in shambles. Unfortunately you can't pick up a quality pitching staff in a month. The bullpen is so dispirited that nobody is completely safe. But contracts etc. enter in, and that's a level beyond my interest.

 I can see why people enjoy looking back, not only because those were championship teams--and pretty lucky teams at times--but several were definable teams. The team that played most of the first half of last season was a real team. But despite the familiar players, there's less sense of that now. Partly due to another season of injuries, but also to this baffling inability to win, players have been coming through, lineups and roles juggled. Things are likely to get even less stable before they settle, which will be when they jell. And become a team, a winning team, again.

Postscript: On Monday (July 17) the Giants' streak of consecutive home game sellouts ended at 530 games.  SF holds the record for the National League, and it is the second-longest streak in MLB to the Boston Red Sox 794.

Sunday, July 02, 2017

Dubs Progress and Giants Revival

It's only been a few weeks since the victory parade but already prospects for the 2017-18 Golden State Warriors looks awfully good.  The Dubs have awarded a huge new contract to Steph Curry for five years, and are about to sign Andre Iguodala for three.  Also back on board are Shaun Livingston and David West.  Everyone expects that Kevin Durant will now re-sign, since he was willing to take less for next year in order to keep Iguodala.

Already under contract are Draymond, Klay Thompson, Patrick McCaw and Jordan Bell.

Jordan Bell was a surprise steal when the Dubs bought a draft pick from the Bulls. The Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year, he is said to have Draymond potential with the size of KD.

Plus the Warriors got Bell's Oregon Ducks teammate Chris Boucher as an undrafted free agent.  Hobbled by a serious injury until October, his upside potential is considerable.  

Meanwhile, several western conference rivals have strengthened themselves so far--notably Houston and Minnesota--but notably the Cavs have not.

While we weren't looking, the San Francisco Giants have gone on a five game winning streak, notching blowouts and today's 11th inning win on the road in Pittsburgh.  The injuries continue, but trades and call-ups are rotating new players all over the field as well as in the bullpen.

I may get a look at them next weekend when they return to San Francisco to play three games with the Marlins.

Tuesday, June 27, 2017

NBA Awards and Steph Props

Congratulations to Draymond Green for winning the Defensive Player of the Year Award, to Warriors GM Bob Myers for winning Exec of the Year and to Klay Thompson for the fan's award of Performance of the Year, all announced at the NBA awards.

With Kevin Durant winning the Finals MVP and often touted as the best player on the Warriors (perhaps the best or second best in the NBA), last year's unanimous league MVP seems obscured if not forgotten.

But the fan award of Assist of the Year to Steph Curry suggests his visible contributions to the Warriors championship season.  Let's not forget that when KD went down with what was feared to be a season-ending injury, Steph Curry led the Warriors on an epic winning streak that provided the confidence to go into the playoffs without fear.

And while KD got the attention and made key plays, Curry in every game made vital contributions in whatever ways were most needed.  In the Finals especially he may not have dazzled with so many of the 3s he had displayed throughout the season and in the early rounds, but he rebounded, he passed, he drove to the basket.  Maybe the Warriors wouldn't have won the championship without KD, and maybe they would have.  But they would not have won it without Steph Curry.

That's as much for his contributions that weren't visible on the TV screen.  Steve Kerr called him the heart and soul of the team, the one player who defines who the Warriors are.  The Warriors wouldn't be who they are without Draymond and Klay, and KD has become part of that dynamic.  This Ramona Shelburne piece at ESPN says it all eloquently.  At the center of it all is Steph Curry.

If the basketball world has been looking elsewhere, Warriors fans have not.  Steph Curry is clearly the most popular player, the one people want to watch.  They got more game to watch this year, as the video above suggests.

But basketball is over, and unfortunately there's only baseball.  It's hard to believe that the San Francisco Giants are basically the same team that had the best record in baseball going into the All-Star break last year.  This year they may yet have the worst, though the Phillies are again making that particular run.

This has to be the earliest in decades that the Giants have been out of playoff contention.  The Pittsburgh Pirates are having a down year but they've still got a shot, thanks in part to the even more epic collapse of the Cardinals and the rough start of the Cubs.

Monday, June 12, 2017

"You're Home, Baby"

The Golden State Warriors defeated the Cavs 129-120 in the fifth game of the NBA Finals to claim the 2017 Championship.  It was a storybook win for this team because every player played well and several played brilliantly.  It was Strength in Numbers triumphant.  After winning in 2015 and losing the seven game series last year, Steph Curry could touch the championship trophy and tell it, "you're home, baby."

Kevin Durant won the Finals MVP but in this revealing postgame press conference he noted the big contributions made by Steph Curry, who some observers claimed on the basis of numbers was the real most valuable player.  (And in fact, after KD got a huge ovation from the home crowd as he held up his trophy, when Steph was introduced the crowd chanted MVP--which technically he could still win for the season, though it's unlikely.)

KD had 39 points, bolstered by some audacious threes and jump shots.  The Cavs harassed Curry all game again and he wasn't hitting 3s but with drive after drive to the basket, he scored 34.  Andre Iguodala played longer off the bench as part of the Hampton Five smaller lineup and again came up big defensively while scoring 20 points.

Klay Thompson's defense paid off again and he had his 3 stroke going.  Draymond Green kept his cool, made plays and hit his open 3s.  Both veteran David West (who finally won his first championship) and rookie Patrick McCaw had key buckets and made plays.

All this was necessary because the Cavs got not only lots of scoring from LeBron and Kyrie but J.R. Smith hit seven 3s.  The Cavs won the first quarter but the Warriors went on major runs in the second and fourth quarters to keep control.  They led by as many as 17 points.

All the talk about the Warriors being the most hated team evaporated during these playoffs.  This is the team of unselfishness, of playing with joy, and of friendship.  The good guys won.  Congratulations to the Golden State Warriors, 2017 NBA champions.

Sunday, June 11, 2017

Pre-Game Five

The Cavs hit a record number of threes, benefited from dubious officiating ( hitting their foul shots while the Warriors didn't) and got away with muscling the Warriors to take the fourth game of the NBA Finals.

But nobody was harder on the Warriors effort than Coach Kerr on Sunday, especially on defense.  It was acknowledged by everyone that the Cavs were the more aggressive team.

Now the Warriors come home, playing another close-out game on Monday.  The fifth game is the most crucial game of any series, as the winner of it almost always wins the series.  It is the Warriors best chance to win the championship.

What adjustments do they need to make?  Most observers note that they scored well enough to win most games, but in addition to the Cavs super-hot shooting, their defense was inhibited by foul trouble.  They lost the first quarter badly but stayed pretty even the rest of the way.

It seems the fatigue factor hit the Warriors more, against the desperation energy of the Cavs, which continued by playing ahead and in some sort of zone.  Now the energy edge should go back to the Warriors at home.

One observer suggested that Steph Curry didn't have the ball in his hands enough as playmaker, and given the Cavs muscling him off the ball, it threw him off his rhythm.  So running the offense through Curry more seems like a good idea.

What is there to worry about?  Defending threes but not giving up layups as a consequence.  I'm not sure I liked Steph's statement after the fourth game that the first six minutes are crucial, and without them it takes a near miracle to win. It forecasts the strategy, and if the Dubs don't have a great first six minutes then the doubts creep in?

Draymond has been a little too vocal between games for my tastes.  Everyone knows the Cavs love to bait him, and he seems to be cooperating.  He needs to play a cool game for the first three quarters, and take over the fourth defensively if necessary.

The Cavs opened the fourth game with desperate energy and got the breaks they needed--they got calls, the Warriors were a step behind, and they hit shots at a phenomenal rate.  They fed off that overwhelming start, and even though the Warriors had gotten back within 7 points in the second quarter, the Cavs kept hitting key shots while the Dubs did not, to keep the Cavs at a safe distance.  It's hard to see this happening again.

The Warriors have to play with composure as well as joy, for the Cavs will do their worst to frustrate them and beat them up.  However it's hard to believe that the officiating will be as bad either.  The Warriors have to be the overwhelming favorite to win the championship tonight.

Congratulations to the Pittsburgh Penguins, winner of the Stanley Cup NHL championship with a 2-0 win on Sunday in the sixth game.  (They won the fifth game 6-0.)  The Penguins are the first NHL team since 1998 to win two straight championships.