Thursday, November 03, 2016

Congratulations Chicago

Congratulations to the Chicago Cubs for winning the World Series, their first in 108 years, the longest period without a championship in American sports.

They were also the first team since the 1979 Pirates to be down 3 games to 1 and win the Series on the road.  I sure remember the feelings from that series--I watched every minute of it (except when I was pacing around in the next room) and I recall the feeling when it was over.  It was the third Pirates world championship in my lifetime, and so far the last.  But Pittsburgh also had a long drought--before 1960 they hadn't won it since 1925.

I loved the stories of the Chicago fans, sacrificing seeing the game to gather together outside Wrigley Field.  And the stories about the memories of absent fans, family and friends who didn't live to see this.  Getting into the Series seemed to reawakened memories of them.

As for this seventh game, the Cubs had it won until the 8th inning, just as the Giants had their last game won until the 9th.  Like the Giants in that game, the Cubs saw their closer fail--only they have one of the top closers in the game, who was just gassed from recent appearances.  But they didn't lose it, they were tied, and went to extra innings.

But before the 10th started, there was a rain delay, something like 17 minutes.  I can't imagine what that was like for the teams.  Maybe it settled the Cubs down, who knows?

But in the 10th they scored the go-ahead runs exactly as they came back against the Giants, with opportune hitting: going with the pitches, finding the holes.  Of course, earlier homers helped, as did terrific base running.  Both teams made big mistakes, and big plays.  Cleveland got closer but couldn't prevail.  It ended with the tying run on first, 8-7.

I admit that once the Series started I was rooting for the Cubs.  I went to college in Illinois and I thought about all my classmates from Chicago.  John Podesta being one.  But then Hillary and Barack are also Chicago people.

On the other hand, being from the Pittsburgh area, hating Cleveland teams is second nature, and I particularly hate the racist name and logo of their baseball team. So I sure wasn't rooting for them.

The Cubs are a young team, and they'll probably be a factor for years to come.  Right now they're world champs, and there's going to be some joy for awhile in Chicago.

The NBA season has started.  The Warriors ended all suspense about how many games they would win in a row to start the season.  Turned out: none.  But they've won three games since, starting to get it together against Portland the other night. Thursday they face the Thunder, and all eyes will be on Durant and Westbrook playing against each other.  Plus Durant has to score 20 to keep his streak going, to match Michael Jordan for second most consecutive number of games with 20 or more points.

Durant looks great but it's Curry who is a big relief--after his injuries hampered him in the finals, he looks like his old self, moving, shedding defenders, hitting lightning-quick release and otherwise impossible 3s.

It's probably too early to tell, but I get the sense that there's a lot more parity in the NBA than sport writers said.  It's supposed to be a boring year, but I don't think so. Some teams look better than they're supposed to.  Could be a more competitive year than the experts think.

Friday, October 21, 2016

NFL Violence Over Skill

Network ratings for NFL games are down considerably, and lots of folks are spouting off on why that should be.  Everything from the Internet to political protests are offered as the reasons.

What almost nobody is taking seriously is that a growing number of people may just be fed up with the NFL's wanton violence.  The NFL can minimize the concussion issue, and the vested sports interests including sports media can ignore it, but lots of parents have to take it seriously.  They have to make decisions for their boys on whether football is worth the risk.

Parental concerns may be having some influence on the rules and how the game is played at the school level, maybe even the college level, though for the big schools, football is an addictive big business of enormous profit--especially since there are few paid employees.

But in the NFL nothing meaningful has been done, and the violence increases.  The Pittsburgh Steelers are charging that the knee injury to their star quarterback was intentional, though the NFL refused to even fine the miscreant.  He is one of several players who are known to deliberately injure opposing players.

Who wants to see that?  Who wants to see a team with its best players injured, because the NFL values violence over skill?

I don't.  And I wonder how many others are turned off as well, and are turning off the NFL.

Thursday, October 20, 2016

Post Giants Season

As the postseason develops, a couple of things are apparent: relief pitching is proving crucial to winning teams, and with a better bullpen, the San Francisco Giants could beat anybody still playing.  And if the Dodgers make it to the Series, the Giants will really be kicking themselves harder.

Though the Giants immediately fired both first and third base coaches, the words out of the club have emphasized no panic, but yes, we're going into next season knowing who our closer is.

It won't be Casilla or Romo, as it's pretty likely they won't be with the team.  It's sad because they both contributed so much to World Series seasons.  The story of Casilla in tears after the horrendous 9th inning meltdown that ended the Giants season, because he was even asked to warm up, is heart-breaking.

Other absences are likely to be free agents Angel Pagan and Gregor Blanco.  Pagan's contributions--heroics, even--are pretty well known, but there were stretches in several years when Blanco carried the club. When healthy he was a real asset.

Management signals that it will concentrate on getting that big time closer, with several available through free agency.  That had better work, because big money is their best option.  They can't afford to lose position players through trades.

Otherwise it seems they're looking to keep young arms in the bullpen, and look at others to compete for the fifth starter.  They could use another bat with some pop. The infield is interesting, with now two possible starters at third, and Kelby Tomlinson becoming a reliable pinch hitter as well as utility infielder.  If a power hitting left fielder suddenly presented himself they might jump at it, but otherwise it seems they'll be content to platoon with young players.

Bruce Bochy seems itching to come back, so that's a plus.  We'll see what happens in the Hot Stove League (do they still call it that?)

Tuesday, October 11, 2016

Done, Done In

Two things about this final game of the SF Giants' season.  First, if you're a team of destiny, you get hits like the Cubs got in the 9th inning.  Derek Law induced a double play ball, except there was an overshift and nobody was at home in the usual shortstop area.  And the hit that tied the game was a slow hit ground ball that just happened to be perfectly placed, also due to the defensive alignment.

Second is that if you have a bullpen that can't hold a 3 run lead in the 9th, you probably don't deserve to get very far in the playoffs.  The Giants were that team.

Had the Giants won this game, they would have felt good about this season even if they'd lost in Chicago.  They got two magnificent starting pitching performances in the first and fourth games by Johnny Queto and today by Matt Moore, they had their surprising hitting star in Conor Gillaspe, solid hitting by Joe Panik and Brandon Crawford, with signs that the bats of Hunter Pence and Brandon Belt were coming around.  They were resilient.

But for all that, the total bullpen meltdown in this game has once again given this season a bad taste.  There are few things in baseball more dispiriting than a bullpen loss in the 9th, and the Giants went through that way too many times.  It's going to make a difference in who is on the field in 2017, probably beyond the bullpen.  

Well, at least here come the Warriors.

We Had 'Em All The Way

The Chicago Cubs came into the division series a confident team, and it showed.  They risked starting a pitcher the Giants had gotten to earlier in the season instead of their ace for the first game, and it worked.  They got to the Shark in game two, stifled the Giants and left Chicago looking for the sweep in San Francisco.

The Cubs took the lead on an improbable home run by ace pitcher Arrieta off Bumgarner.  Neither of the starters made it out of the sixth due to high pitch counts, although it was just a 3-2 game.

The Giants started giving the Cubs some doubt in the 8th.  They put two on and the Cubs tried to restore order with their flame-throwing closer Chapman.  But Conor Gillaspe, long ball hero of the wild card game, smoked a 101 fastball into triples alley and therefore got a triple (the first Chapman has given up to a left handed batter) and drove in the tying and lead runs.  The Giants got one more to go to the 9th ahead 5-3.

But of course the 9th has been the Giants' Waterloo since July, and new/old closer Romo walked the leadoff hitter and hung a slider for home run hitter Kris Bryant, who barely got it over the wall to tie the game.

There would be more drama, especially some amazing defensive plays by both teams, as both teams were rapidly running out of players.  Until the bottom of the 13th, a Brandon Crawford double and a Joe Panik triple, and the Giants won their 10th straight postseason elimination game, the longest streak in MLB history.

Now both teams come back barely 17 hours after this game concluded, to go at it again.  The Cubs may not be quite so confident, but they sure don't want to take it to a 5th game, not with Johnny Cueto on the mound.  And they know the Giants have done this before--come back to win a 5 game series after losing the first two. They'll face Matt Moore on Tuesday.  

Thursday, October 06, 2016

Wild Night

Mike Krukow's foolproof formula for how a pitcher wins: pitch a shutout, hit a home run.  Madison Bumgarner did the first.  Conor Gillaspe did the second--with two men on in the ninth inning.  SF Giants won their wild card game, defeating the Mets 3-0.

The Mets pitcher Noah Syndergaard was, the Giants said, virtually unhittable. Brandon Belt got into one in the 6th, and only a great running catch by Granderson in center kept the game scoreless.

But the Giants kept after Syndergaard all game, extending their at-bats, until a high pitch count ended his night after seven innings.

The Giants had their best chance in the eighth.  They faced Reed in the eighth and loaded the bases.  But they didn't score.  They then got the Mets closer Familia in the 9th.

 Brandon Crawford led off with a double.  Pagan couldn't advance him and struck out.  Then Joe Panik came to bat, in what the Mets' manager described as the key at-bat of the game.  If they got Panik out, they would walk the next batter--Gillaspe--to get to the pitcher's spot, and get Bumgarner out of the game.  And it might have worked, because Jarrett Parker was on deck behind Gillaspe.

But fouling off good pitches, Panik worked a walk.  Familia had to pitch to Gillaspe, who has been on a streak at the end of the season, when he's been playing more.  The infield was set up for a double play.  But Gillaspe hit it a little farther--into the Mets' bullpen.  It was only the second homer Familia had given up all season.

 The scoreless tie was broken, the Giants were ahead 3-0.  And Parker was called back to the dugout.

Bumgarner had used high fast balls all game to get Mets swinging, and he got three fly balls in the 9th off high fast balls.  It was his second complete game shutout in a wild card game.  In Pittsburgh in 2014 he pitched much of the game with a lead.  This one was a little different.

Johnny Cueto gets the ball on Friday for the first of a five game series with the Chicago Cubs, owners of the best record in baseball and consensus favorite to win it all.  This is when lining up those killer starters can pay off.  Especially when they throw complete games.

Sunday, October 02, 2016

Wild Finish

It does seem a little like 2014, doesn't it?  The Giants fade badly towards the end of the season and barely make it into the playoffs as the second wild card team.  But there were also signs in the last few games of a resurgence, especially in hitting.  And then...

Well, this year the Giants finished the regular season doing something they haven't done since before the All-Star break: win four games in a row.  They got the wild card with a 7-1 win over LA on Sunday, behind yet another masterful 3-hit pitching performance, this time by Matt Moore.

And they needed to win all these games, because St. Louis matched them.  Sunday they came back to batter the Pirates, but before that game was over, it was all over for their season.

Now it's on to New York to play the Mets in the wild card game on Wednesday.  I expect the Mets will be favored.  Besides MadBum's big game experience, the Giants have a better defense and a suddenly hot Brandon Belt and Buster Posey.  Romo's resurgence as closer--he was the official closer in their 2012 championship season--has steadied the bullpen and injected some confidence in the team that if they get a lead, they'll keep it.  That was key in 2014 as well.

If the Giants get into a series, their starting pitching gives them a real chance.  But they have to get past the Mets first, and especially show that their second half inability to hit superior pitching is also a thing of the past. And Mets starter Noah Syndergaard (100 mph fastballs, 94 mph sliders) is one of the best.

Update: I guess I was wrong about the Mets being favored in the wild card game, at least by ESPN "experts."  About twice as many picked the Giants.  However only one--David Schoenfeld--picked them to take the series with the Cubs, and only he picked them to win the World Series, with Brandon Belt as the projected MVP.

I should add for the record that this game was the last broadcast by Vin Scully, who did the Dodgers games for 67 years--roughly half the time MLB has been around. Which means if I had been a Dodgers fan, he would have been their voice for my whole life (assuming I waited until age 3 to start listening.)  It was also 80 years to the day that (as he recalls) he first became a baseball fan--and specifically a Giants fan.  Now that famous voice is gone, except when Jon Miller does his eerily exact imitation.

Also retiring this year is Lee Jones, the producer of Giants radio broadcasts.  I've recently become acquainted with the way retiring people can be completely ignored by their employers.  But the Giants have more class than that--they put the ball in Lee Jones' hand for a ceremonial first pitch.  Good for him.  

A Ty for the Win

Friday night's SF Giants win over the visiting Dodgers was solid, but the 9-3 score could be seen as chiefly due to the Dodgers auditioning a possible starting pitcher for the playoffs, and leaving him in too long in the sixth inning, when the Giants scored 7 quick runs, including a three-run homer by Brandon Belt.  Though he had two bad stretches, Madison Bumgarner was dominant, finally winning his 100th career game.

But Saturday's win was classic.  It pitted one of the great pitchers now in baseball and the Dodger's ace, against a rookie with one previous start, and he didn't get past the third inning in that.

Clayton Kershaw was sharp, but Ty Blach was better.  He pitched a three-hit shutout for eight complete.  The Giants' new closer--who was also their old closer before Casilla--Sergio Romo made quick work of the ninth.  Angel Pagan's homer off Kershaw (Pagan is the club leader for the tragic after the All Star season) was enough, as the Giants won 3-0.  Ty Blach also got two hits.  He's only the second pitcher to ever get two hits off Kershaw in a game.

Unfortunately the Pirates haven't contributed, as the Cards beat them easily on Friday, but had to come from behind to win Saturday 3-2.  So the Giants have held on to their one game lead for the second wild card spot.  If they win on Sunday or the Cards lose, they're in.  If they lose and the Cards win, these two teams are tied and play one game in St. Louis on Monday to break it.

The Cards had won their game on Saturday while the Giants-Dodgers were still scoreless.  But Sunday, the last day of the regular season, all MLB games will start at the same time, high noon in SF.  The Giants will again be working against the stats--Dodger pitcher Maeda hasn't lost at AT&T Park this season.

Announcer Mike Krukow made an excellent point about Saturday's game: a lot of credit should go to catcher Buster Posey for his work with the rookie pitcher, pacing the game, calling the pitches, keeping him focused and confident.  Nobody in baseball is better at this, Mike said.  

Looking forward, I'm not sure if Blach is eligible for the playoffs, but if he is, the Giants suddenly have five starters with the proven capability of shutting down a quality opponent. It's still hard to see anybody getting past the Cubs this year, but it's one game at a time for the Giants from here to wherever.  

Thursday, September 29, 2016

Three to Get There

Three more games in the SF Giants regular season, all with the Dodgers in San Francisco.  They go into these games with a one game lead for the second wild card over St. Louis, who kept pace thanks to a blown call to end their game with Cinncy.

So absent a Mets crash--not likely since they are playing Philadelphia--it comes down to staying ahead of the Cards.  St. Louis is also at home, hosting the Pittsburgh Pirates.  So this weekend I get to root hard for both my teams.

 The Pirates are out of the playoff picture but they can help the Giants.  Who are going all out to win these games, with no thought of rotation consequences beyond it.  Except for Bumgarner, who will start Friday and will likely start the wild card game, if any.

The Giants kept their ultra-slim lead with a win against the Rockies on Thursday.  They still aren't hitting, though--the 7 runs were mostly due to errors and the luck they haven't had for months.  Only Johnny Cueto was impressive--after missing one start due to a groin injury, he pitched seven innings, struck out 11, gave up only two runs--and by running hard on a bunt and forcing an error, drove in two runs.  On a bunt!  Cueto has won 18 games, leading the team.

The Dodgers theoretically have something to play for, besides keeping the Giants out of the playoffs (not an inconsiderable goal.)  Though they've won the division, the home field is still to be decided.  But Washington is ahead two games so it's unlikely but it is still there.

Being this close with the last regular season series starting may help to keep this team more or less intact for next year, even if they don't make the postseason.  But how they play these last three games may be very consequential, beyond this season.