Sunday, October 04, 2015

Last Games

It went down to the wire but the Pirates won their final regular season game to get home field for the wild card game on Wednesday.  Their loss to the Reds Saturday along with the Cubs win meant they had to win Sunday to host the game, which they did.  With the likelihood that it's going to be a tense pitchers' duel, home field might mean nothing or it might mean everything in a low scoring game.

This is the third straight year the Pirates will play the wild card game, with a record of 1-1.  It's not a fair system, especially when the team with the second best record in all of the Majors--the Pirates--can be eliminated by one bad game, while other teams with a worse record (like the Dodgers) get a series.  This is the third year for this system, and though it produced the World Champs last year, it is due for an overhaul.

But where I am, the season is effectively over, because it's over for the SF Giants, and therefore their broadcasters.  So the dials on the radios return to the classical station instead of the one that plays really awful country music when it isn't carrying the Giants games.

I doubt I can go cold turkey though, so I'll probably spend some recreational time watching selected games from last year's postseason on YouTube.  I'll stick with the Pirates live this year in any medium I can, of course, as long as they're in it.

Saturday at the ball park on the Bay, Tim Hudson was honored, and Sunday it was Jeremy Affeldt, with the astonishing postseason record of 22 consecutive game appearances without giving up a run, including the seventh game of the World Series last year.  In the postseasons he pitched in every inning except the first and the ninth.

The best part of the game was the return of Matt Cain, who started and pitched 5 scoreless innings.  That was a good transition to next year, though the outcome of the game wasn't--the Giants proceeded with a lead and a shutout throughout the game in some majesty, giving pitchers a few batters and a bow, until with one out in the ninth the Rockies erupted and won the game.

It was Star Wars day on Saturday, so the Giants victory--on 425 foot homers by Marlon Byrd and Brandon Crawford, and an inside-the-park homer by Kelby Tomlinson, who finished the year with a .301 average--was witnessed by a number of Wookies.  Jake Peavy pitched another stellar game and got the win.

Sunday was fan appreciation day, and several Giants talked about the unique qualities of Giants fans, and how this combines with the team, from front office to clubhouse.  Ryan Vogelsong said it best: "I don't know where I'm going to be next year, or what name is going to be on the front of my uniform.  But I do know this--I will always, always be a Giant."

I'm sure lots of teams and cities claim that their fans are the best of all, but in my limited observation, the Giants have a good claim.  Pittsburgh fans are passionate, and though that passion extends to the game itself (football or baseball), it is all or nothing, depending on winning or losing.  There's deep loyalty but such mood swings of adulation or disgust.  Giants fans are more about the fun of the game, loyalty to the team they know, and just constant support.  It's probably a class thing but I don't want to get into that now.  It adds up to a different kind of excitement.  I've seen lots of Pirates games but I've never felt the electricity in the stands as I did in San Francisco.

Most of all, and not surprisingly, I'll miss the announcing team.  They've utterly spoiled me.  I can't listen to anybody else without wincing.  Well, some of the national TV guys are bland enough not to matter, but for radio, nothing like the fab four.

Update 10/7: Unfortunately the wild card game went according to script, with Cubs ace Jake Arrieta blanking the Bucs and ending their season.  One of those rating guys had the Pirates at 10th of 10 teams in the playoffs, but mostly because they were facing Arrieta.  If they'd won this game, they would have been rated 2nd. Which by the way is where they finished in the majors in number of games won.

 So now a lot of pure baseball fans, and possibly Giants fans, will be rooting for the Cubs to go all the way, because they haven't in such a long time.  Not me.  I've got enough Pittsburgh still in me to wish them ill, particularly after they put one of the Pirates hitting stars on the disabled list, and after Arrieta plunked two hitters Wednesday.  He's riding high now, so he has a winning attitude, but he seems like an asshole to me. Go, Toronto.  Anyway, my baseball season is really over now.

Thursday, October 01, 2015


Tim Hudson threw his last big league pitch on Thursday afternoon in San Francisco, across the bay from where he threw his first.  In fact the same man who was umpiring at second base that first day, was umpiring second base on the last.

But in between 1999 and 2015 Tim Hudson had a pitching career that may get him into the baseball Hall of Fame someday.

He'll be honored officially at the ball park Friday.  But the Giants announcing crew talked about how deeply he was part of this team, and the lives of his teammates.  How he was a mentor to Madison Bumgarner,  close to him every step of the way in MadBum's extraordinary postseason performances a year ago.  Their families even lived together for a time.

They spoke of his ongoing relationships with teammates that has extended to several looking for homes in his neighborhood so they can stay together.  One of them is pitcher Jeremy Affeldt, who before Thursday's game announced his own retirement at the end of this season.  He pitched in Hudson's game, and if he's faced his last batter, let the record show that he struck him out.

Meanwhile the Pirates had an off day while the Cubs won their game against the hapless Reds.  And the hated Ravens won their first game of the year against the Steelers in overtime.  The flaw in the Steelers game turned out not to be their substitute quarterback but their kicker.

 And of course the coaches--that's a burgh staple, though in this case they may be right.  And isn't this the third case of a failed pass on an obvious short yardage running play in a crucial moment, beginning with Seattle in the Superbowl?  Which was called the worst coaching decision ever made?

Wednesday, September 30, 2015

After Over

In the past two days, the Giants and the Pirates had to endure watching their division rivals clinch the championship by defeating them.  In both cases, the decisive game wasn't close.

Tuesday's game in San Francisco was dominated by Clayton Kershaw, who threw a one-hit complete game shutout, getting stronger as the game went on.  Madison Bumgarner was not nearly as sharp and gave up three homers in a game for the first time since his rookie season.  Manager Bochy apparently said he'd run out of gas.  Once it got to 7-0, Giants fans started leaving the building, not enthralled with watching the Dodgers celebrate.  But the Giants posted congratulations on the scoreboard, a characteristically classy move.

But Tuesday in Pittsburgh it rained--and I mean rained: 3.5. inches, which is a lot anywhere, but the most in the burgh ever on the date.  So today became a day/night double header, and in the first game the Pirates did their pitch and power thing with Cole on the mound and a grand slam by Cervelli for an 8-2 victory.  But the pitching fell apart in the nightcap and the Cards had all they could handle to keep from celebrating long before the final out.

Both final outcomes were likely but these games made it reality.  We'll see how the Bucs bounce back, with home field advantage in that stupid wild card game still somewhat at issue.   It's just a week away.

But we've seen how the Giants bounced back.  Out of the postseason completely, they played a solid, energetic game behind pitcher Mike Leake, who threw a two hit complete game shutout--remarkably, the first shutout of his career. 5-0.

 September rookie Nick Noonan playing first base for I believe the second time got only his second hit, but it was a soaring homer that almost made it into the water.  Matt Duffy got his 12th homer in the first, but even more impressive was later in the game when reliever Jansen threw at his head.  Duffy responded with a single and promptly stole second, in case message wasn't received.

Kelby Tomlinson doubled in a run, and made an athletic play picking the ball out of the air after it bounced off the heel of Crawford's glove and getting the runner at first.  The large crowd was into the game.

So for a no postseason season, almost unbelievably, the Giants are a better team.  They suffered, as Bochy said, "four concussions and three obliques" and you could probably count on one hand the games in which their starters in the field actually started.  Late trades helped,  but their farm system really came up big.

They lost one, two, three, four starting pitchers, and Chris Heston came up to give them important games and wins for much of the season.  Only one injury I can think of to the relief corps but age and wear take their toll, and while Strickland matures, up comes lefty Osich to become a go-to guy.

They lost one, two backup catchers, and discovered Trevor Brown, who was solid behind the plate from the start, and then started hitting.  Looks to me like they finally found the catcher who can alternate with Buster Posey and extend his career.  Even this year he became a godsend when first base starter Brandon Belt went down (again), and has just had surgery.

Their All-Star second baseman goes down, and up comes Kelby Tomlinson, who wins them some games with his bat, becomes a solid second baseman, and a fan favorite.

From the outfield they lose Hunter Pence, Angel Pagan, and after a hot-hitting first half, Ayoki, as well as veteran Blanco.  Up comes Jarrett Parker, and hits six homers.  He drove in the Giants final run tonight with a line drive single off the Dodgers closer.  Up come Williamson and Noonan to play solid defense, and get some timely hits.

 In fact, when contemplating the Giants lineup the night after their season became an end in itself, the only real differences were that Posey got a night off and veteran Marlon Byrd--not really expected to be the starting right fielder-- gets the rest of the season off as a starter.

So next season suddenly looks very interesting.  Pagan came back and is pretty frisky--he still has mental lapses in the outfield, but physically he seems rejuvenated.  Kelby Tomlinson will get offseason work at other positions including outfield with an eye to being slotted as the ultimate utility fielder, but--back injuries are really difficult, and the Giants need insurance at second if Panik can't play every day.

Even if he's cooled off at the plate, Parker's power can't be ignored--and power is something the Giants need.  (And what a strange year-- no big power hitter but more grand slams and more pitchers with homers than anybody.)  Williamson at worst is a late innings defender and pinch-hitter.

Relief pitching is in pretty good shape with young arms Strickland and Osich joining the aging crew.  Remaining games this year will probably see more innings for call-ups, both relievers and starters.  I guess everyone expects that much of the offseason will be about the pitching corps.  Hudson is retiring--pitching his last game tomorrow afternoon.  Vogelsong is probably going.  Matt Cain has pitched some in relief and may get a start, but hasn't looked real good--certainly not as good as Peavy has since his injury.  Word today is that Lincecum may well be back in some role.

Then there's today's arm, Mike Leake, a free agent who after the game sounded like he'd like to remain a Giant, and make that decision pretty soon.  Lots of news to come no doubt, but the important thing is that fans go happily to the ballpark, without dread or cynicism,  and that's the way it is now.  That's a good place to be in planning next year--which is dare I mention, an even numbered year.

Monday, September 28, 2015

Undermanned Giants Beat L.A.

They were the Athenians facing the Persians at Marathon, the Spartans at Thermopylae, the English we happy few against the massed armies of France.  The depleted, undermanned San Francisco Giants defended their home ground, and prevented the Los Angeles Dodgers from clinching the division, with a 12 inning victory, 3-2.

Really--just look at the box score.  The Dodger column is twice the size of the Giants.  They used a total of 25 players--pinch hitters, pinch runners and a pitcher for every matchup.   The Giants used 16 players total, including 6 pitchers.

But on this night, the underdog triumphed, and the heroes were theirs.  Starting with the starting pitcher Jake Peavy, who outpitched the fearsome Grienke for seven innings.  Rookies who had never played in a pressure game like this excelled.  Kelby Tomlinson had two hits and at least two run-saving stops in the field.  Catcher Trevor Brown drove in 2 of the 3 Giants runs.  It looked electric out there--the veteran Peavy, dealing and pumping everybody up, the infield making plays.  I noticed that after his big hit Trevor Brown shouted the same thing as Jarrett Parker did on his big day in Oakland: Let's go!

Tomorrow it's Bumgarner against Kershaw, the epic matchup everyone has waited for, and now it still means something. In a war of attrition, the numerical superiority of the Dodgers (due to all the Giants injuries) should eventually take its toll.  But whatever happens, the Giants redeemed their season on Monday night.

Things turned out differently in Pittsburgh.  The Pirates were held scoreless for the second consecutive game.  They had the Cards scoreless most of the way, and multiple chances to score runs, but lost late, 3-0.  Now every game is a crapshoot in terms of pitching, but the Pirates must win the next two against St. Louis to have any hope of the division.

Sunday, September 27, 2015

It Means Something After All (and the Steelers Without Big Ben)

The MLB schedule-makers could see without too much difficulty what the likely division contenders would be, and at least in the NL west and central, they arranged for them to play head to head in the penultimate series of the season.

But even as recently as last week, it looked like neither the Pirates-Cardinals nor the Dodgers-Giants sets would really mean anything.  But as each of them begins, they do.

More so for the Pirates.  Though they lost Sunday, so did St. Louis, and the Bucs remain just 3 back, with the 3 game series coming up at home.  They got extra motivation on Sunday, when their 8 game winning streak was broken by Cubs pitcher Jake Arrieta, who took a perfect game into the 7th, and wound up giving up just 1 hit (and a hit batsman.)  Arrieta used the Krupe formula for a win: pitch a shutout and hit a home run.

 In the wild card game, the Pirates would likely face him again.  Even playing at home, they would be underdogs.  That's not the only reason they'd rather be division champs, but it seems like a big one.

In the West it looked increasingly like the division would be settled by the time the Dodgers came to San Francisco--and it almost is, but not totally.  So mathematically at least, these four games mean something.  And the last time the Dodgers came in, they got swept in consecutive shutouts.

What adds even more spice to this was how the Dodgers got swept in Colorado.  In Sunday's game, they didn't start any of their regular starters.  They pretty much threw the game (and were soundly beaten.)  There are a couple of interpretations of this.  First, they did it to rest their players.  This has been a trendy concept this year, and the Pirates have seemingly turned it into a science: paying attention to resting players and pitchers for the final push.  It's worked for the Pirates in their 8 game mid to late September winning streak.  It's probably something more teams will take even more seriously next year.

But the second (and not mutually exclusive) possibility is that they wanted to hold off clinching until they could do it in San Francisco.  The rivalry is bitter enough to make that possible, and maybe the Dodgers have felt their annual humiliation as they watched the Giants hoist their world championship trophies.  The Giants were humiliated on the field in their last trip to L.A.  The Dodgers perhaps want more: they want to kill the season of the defending world champs in their own home yard.  Not exactly a class move, but then we are talking about the Dodgers.

Back to Pittsburgh: fans there are rabid, frenzied, totally loyal, and also prone to anger and despair.  Sunday's Pirates game doubtless spread anxiety as well as depression.  But that wasn't the only such event.  The Steelers won their game against St. Louis, but Big Ben went down with an injury that is likely to keep him out for a month if not longer.

Now I wonder how the much criticized in the burgh acquisition of Michael Vick is faring among fans.  For Vick stepped in and did a credible job.  Even if he can't move as well as he used to, he still has the advantage of also being a mobile quarterback like Ben, so even if the Steelers must depend more on their running game--which should be pretty formidable, with not one but two of the league's best runners--his mobility and passing ability should keep the defenses from teeing off on the run.

But it should remind the city and the team that so far they have no future beyond Big Ben, who cannot play forever.  They don't have, and don't seem to care about having, a young quarterback they can develop.  Maybe that's not how it's done in the NFL anymore, but I do remember the many, many lost years after Terry Bradshaw.  They were painful.

Saturday, September 26, 2015

Rookie Parker Steals the Show

It was supposed to be Old Timers Day in Oakland, but it turned out to be the Day of the Rookies, especially the Giants September call-up Jarrett Parker.  Just hours after hitting what may well be the longest homer to center field in Oakland Coliseum history last night, he launched one, two, three more home runs, the last one a grand slam that won the game, 14-10.

Parker has hit six homers in 17 at bats.  But he wasn't the only rookie to shine: Kelby Tomlinson had four hits and an RBI, catcher Trevor Brown had three and Matt Duffy had two and an RBI.  But Parker's 3 home runs and 7 RBIs were the most of any Giants rookie in history, and the most for any Giants player since Willie Mays in 1961.

The Old Timers were starting pitchers Tim Hudson (SF) and Barry Zito (Oakland.)  Both had started their careers with Oakland in the 90s and won many games there, and both got World Series rings with SF in this decade.  Both are finishing their final season.

But the game didn't follow the storybook. Hudson had a 7 pitch first inning but fell apart completely in the second, unable to find the strike zone.  He walked in two runs and hit a batter for a third.  Zito gave up 4 runs to the Giants in his first inning.  Both came out early, both got ovations, but very quickly Old Timers Day was over.

Their ineffectiveness only began what looked to be a clownish game, with sloppy play and the novelty act of the A's "switch-pitching" reliever, who throws left or right according to the hitter.  Jarrett Parker had his clown moment in left field when he fought the sun glare and tripped over his own feet to let a fly ball fall.

But Parker changed everything with his second and third homers.  Last night he faced the A's reliever named Dull and hit that titanic home run into the center field upper deck, for one of the longest home runs by anyone this season.  The very next pitch he saw from Dull was in this game, and he smacked it for another epic shot, a grand slam homer that gave the Giants their four run lead.

Meanwhile, the Pirates kept the pressure on with a 4-0 victory over the Cubs, behind pitcher Francisco Liriano.  However, the Cards took a commanding lead in Milwaukee when their game started later.  So the Pirates didn't gain on them.  If they can manage not to fall back by the end of Sunday, then they could tie St. Louis for first with a sweep next week.  At the very least, they've demonstrated that their best pitchers can dominate the Cubs.  That fact and their experience could provide an edge in the wild card game, still the most likely scenario.

Friday, September 25, 2015

Eyes on the Windy City

While the SF Giants seem in pursuit of a record--how many games in a row a team can lose by the score of 5-4--the Pittsburgh Pirates are once again making things very interesting in the NL Central.

In what is likely to be the pitching matchup of a wild card game between the two teams, Garrit Cole faced John Lester, and the Bucs were one run better against the Cubs 3-2.  Combined with a St. Louis loss to the Brewers, the Pirates moved to 3 games behind the Cards for the division crown.

The Pirates have won 7 consecutive road games, but they are playing the Cubs in Chicago for 2 more games this weekend, and then the Cards come to Pittsburgh for 3.  The pressure is on, but unlike last year, the Pirates have not jiggered their rotation to face the Cards with their best.  They tried that in 2014 in a last ditch effort to win the division, they failed, and were left with a lesser starter against the Giants in the wild card game, which of course they lost and the rest is history.

So it is still likely that the Pittsburgh will host the Cubs (who clinched tonight anyway when the Giants lost) in the wild card, while the Cardinals hold home field advantage throughout their series as division winner.  But it is still possible that the Pirates win the division--in which case they will hold home field advantage over the likely western winner, the Dodgers.