Friday, May 22, 2015

The Boys of Zero

The San Francisco Giants returned home for three games with the Los Angeles Dodgers, first place in their division and the hottest hitting team in the bigs.

The Giants pitchers gave up zero runs in the 27 innings of the three games, and won 2-0, 4-0 and 4-0.  By the time the Dodgers left, the Giants were but a game and a half behind them, in second place.

The starters pitched very well--the operative word being "pitched."  Hudson, Lincecum and Bumgarner got into trouble in various innings, none of them was throwing overpowering stuff consistently, but they pitched their way out of tight spots, aided by superior fielding.

The Giants hit homers (a titanic blast by Posey, MadBum's shot that became the winning run in his game), had timely singles (including RBIs by Hunter Pence in his first games in San Francisco this season) and extra base hits, and also scored on hustle and base-running.  It was a fun series to listen to, full of baseball drama and derring-do.

Now the Giants head back on the road, first stop Colorado where they've had their problems, battling the elevation and close-in fences, but the Rockies are rocky at the moment and the Giants have been out-powering teams used to busting fences.  The pitchers will have to adjust, and it's an exhausting-sounding series, with the first game Friday and a double-header on Saturday.

Sunday, May 17, 2015

Giant Power

Who are these guys?  In the past two games--Friday and Saturday in Cincinnati--the San Francisco Giants scored a total of 21 runs, winning 10-2 and 11-2.  Before last week they hadn't scored more than 7 runs in any one game. Their average was 3.  And home runs were flying out of the park, including two by Brandon Belt--his first two of the season--and Brandon Crawford's fourth career grand slam.

Update: Make that 30 runs in three games, as the Giants prevailed in Cincy on Sunday 9-8, on Belt's THIRD home run in three games.  Hunter Pence had his first homer of the season, on the second day of his season.  But perhaps the most impressive moments were at the end of the game.  The runfest had all the pitchers rattled, including Cincy's "unhittable" closer who had the bases loaded before he got the final out.  In comes Casilla for the Giants in the last of the ninth--and retires the side on nine pitches, three strikeouts.  The coolest relief appearance of the year.

On Saturday the Giants were further energized by the return of Hunter Pence.  He'd come back earlier than expected from his tuneup in Sacramento where he hit two homers in three games.  But big league pitching?  In his first at bat he scorched a double, and flew around the bases to score on a single.  He went 3 for 4 and scored three times.

The starting pitching was as good as it needed to be.  Madison Bumgarner on Friday was not at his best but he stymied the Reds when they got men on base. Both starter Ryan Vogelsong and reliever Gene Machi had shaky moments on Saturday, too, but they also kept the Reds at bay.  Three of the four Cincy runs in the two games came on solo homers.

These two games were so different in a giddy way that the radio announcers were talking tongue in cheek about remembering the old days when the games were decided by one run.  Remember that?  The outbreak of power on the road is what the Giants need.  Everyone in the lineup is capable of hitting one out.  But in the long run they need homers on the road in ordinary games to make up for less than perfect pitching, fielding and baserunning--and bad luck.  This is a great start.

Brandon Belt is becoming the definition of a streaky hitter, and maybe that says something about the small difference between success and failure against today's pitching.  A little better vision, a little different quickness or whatever.

Brandon Crawford's first major league hit in his career was a grand slam.  Is he turning into an unlikely power hitter?  He's leading the club in homers and RBIs, and that no longer seems so unusual.

Thursday, May 14, 2015

Getting Sober

The Giants last two losses--the last of two in Houston, then the first of a 4 game set in Cincinnati--suggest why they may be a .500 team this year: without home run hitters, their margin for error is small, especially on the road.

The two games were very similar: the starting pitchers were shaky, and left on the mound an inning or a batter too many.  Managerial gambles didn't pay off, there was sloppy play especially on the bases.  More than anything, there was a lack of key hits with runners on base.  So even though the Giants took a lead or at least a tie into late innings, the likelihood of them losing seemed pretty high.

When this team does well, they win by one run.  When they are less than near perfect, they lose by one run.  As they did both of these games.  The difference in both--since pitching was less than stellar for both teams--was clutch hitting and especially home runs.

The Giants only home runner hitter now in the lineup is Brandon Belt, and he's been striking out consistently again, after a nice streak of hitting at home.  He has yet to hit a single home run this season.  Other Giants, like Posey or Crawford or really almost anyone, are certainly capable of homering in these homer-friendly parks on the road.  But none are consistent at it.

Michael Moore's homers carried the Giants early last year, and he's gone. It might be awhile before Hunter Pence can be expected to return to form, even after he returns to the lineup.  It's hard to see what the Giants have to offer other teams in trade for a power hitter, but they've pulled rabbits out of a hat before.  Failing that, the law of averages suggests they're going to be a very good team that can't put away lesser teams, and so are always in danger of losing because of one mistake, or one whiff with runners on base.  The games will still be exciting, but to get to postseason will likely take a lucky streak at the right time.

As to what's wrong with the Pirates now, I've got no clue.  They've lost two low-scoring games to the Phillies.  So maybe they haven't turned the corner after all.

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

The Young and the Great

They're an old team, say the critics.  But youth was served up piping hot today as two young Giants starred: rookie pitcher Chris Heston--brought up last month from the minors because of injuries to the aging starting rotation--pitched a two hitter, a complete game with 10 strikeouts, which only two veteran pitchers could match all last year.  And for the second game in a row, young Matt Duffy brought in the winning run with a key hit--this time with a 3 hit, 5 RBI game.  The SF Giants beat the Astros in Houston 8-1.  In the Giants last game of the homestand on Sunday against the Marlins, Duffy got his first walkoff hit in the majors, winning the game with two outs in the last of the ninth. That's his swing in the photo above.

Granted that Houston is struggling, and key errors gave the Giants a bunch of runs, but it was highest run total for the Giants all year.  I'm guessing what impressed baseball execs throughout the league was that Heston knew how to pitch with a lead.  He stayed aggressive, as evidenced by those ten strikeouts (even granted that the Astros strike out a lot.)

Can't say enough about Duffy.  Maybe pitchers don't know him yet but he's taken advantage of situations and shown some power.  His double with the bases loaded in the third inning bounced over the wall or it would have been a triple.  Duffy has twice as many hits with the bases loaded as the rest of the team combined.

It's fun when the young guys are coming through.  The announcers add to everything.  A few days ago, when the Giants had completed their fourth shutout of the homestand, one (Kiper or maybe Miller) noted in the deadpan but enthusiastic voice used to announce meaningful records, "and the Giants won every one of them."  "Amazing!" Dave Flemming said.

Last night, Barry Bonds chose two of these announcers--Duane Kiper and Mike Krukow--to introduce him at the awards dinner inducting him into the Bay Area Sports Hall of Fame.  Here's something very interesting they said earlier:

Asked for his favorite memory of the slugger, Kuiper pointed not to the diamond but to a plane ride. They were on the team flight headed for Atlanta, where Greg Maddux was scheduled to start for the Braves. Krukow and Kuiper were talking about Maddux when the hitter said, "You want to know something? I'll tell you the first seven pitches he's going to throw me." Bonds was so sure of the sequence that he insisted that the broadcasters write it down. 

 "It never got to seven, because he hit the sixth pitch," Kuiper recalled. "But the first five were right. He knew exactly what Maddux was going to do to him. "

So if he knew what Maddux was going to do him, then he knew what most guys were going to do to him. You don't think that's an advantage?" Krukow said: "Bonds is the best player I ever saw that I was old enough to appreciate. I saw Willie Mays when I was a kid, so I couldn't really appreciate how great he was -- I mean, I knew he was fabulous.

 "But you can actually see Bonds' genius at the plate. If you break down the mechanics of his swing, they were perfect to hit for average. They were perfect to hit for power. And he had one of the most brilliant minds ever to step into a batter's box."

Barry Bonds unites my baseball enthusiasms--I saw him play for both the Pittsburgh Pirates and the SF Giants.  He was one of my favorite players to watch on those Pirates teams, and what he did as a Giant is amazing. Beyond the whatever,  Krukow suggests why.

Meanwhile, the Bucs are continuing to stay hot, matching big hits with solid pitching.  They've also recently climbed just above .500  but like the Giants they've dug themselves a hole in their division.  They are both about six games behind.  The Pirates when they are hitting is the more formidable club--but you know, that was also sort of true last year.

Tuesday, May 05, 2015

Giant Streak

This streak has to be said.  The Giants beat the Padres 6-0 on Tuesday evening, for their fifth victory in a row.  It was also their third consecutive shutout, including the last two blanking the Padres, statistically the hottest hitting team in the National League.  And suddenly the Giants are in second place, 3.5. games behind the Dodgers.

As in the previous games, the Giants got excellent starting pitching deep into the game.  This time it was Ryan Vogelsong, starting only because of injuries, but with streaks of solid and even great starts in his past with the Giants.  He pitched a shutdown seven innings. In the final two innings  Kontos and Petit challenged the Padres hitters and struck them out.

That much was the same, but there were three notable differences from yesterday: first, they fielded well with some excellent plays, including one by Brandon Belt, and second, speaking of Belt, his hitting came around.  Third, they got hits to bring in baserunners pretty efficiently.  It was 5-0 after 5, and Joe Panik made it six with his second home run in the past three days.  Which puts him on pace for, what, 55? Okay, maybe not.

On the downside, Pagan was out of the lineup with an injury to his finger that hampers his ability to swing the bat.  Tomorrow a day game so he's unlikely to play then either.

On the other side of the continent, the Pirates are going the other way--still not scoring runs but giving up even more.  Their streak is a losing one, I think at four now.

Monday, May 04, 2015

Giants de Mayo

More on the Giants, after their Monday night 2-0 victory over the hot-hitting San Diego Padres--another shutout, this one while committing four fielding errors, the first time in more than 80 years a Giants team has shut out the opponent with that many errors.  The difference: Madison Bumgarner, who took a no-hitter into the seventh, went 7 and a third giving up two hits.

Besides contagious high level of starting pitching and consistent relief pitching, what other factors account for recent success?  Overall the new lineup is working, with Aoki replacing Pagan at leadoff, and Pagan feasting at .350 hitting third.  And so far staying healthy.  There's a nice rhythm to it, and at its best it works as last season's club did in the postseason.  Run production is the chief problem--missing the key hit.

Panik in his second season is still very solid, Susac is a valuable addition again this year and deserves to stay with the club, Maxwell is fielding well and hitting for power, McGehee is not yet consistent at the plate, Crawford is off to a very good start, Posey's batting average is moving up closer to normal.  Brandon Belt however is still floundering.  He made two of the four errors tonight (though charged with only one of them), and though he had a double and is showing some signs of regaining power, he's still a bit flummoxed at the plate.  If his fielding deteriorates and his hitting doesn't sharpen, it's a problem.

And even in this relative prosperity the Giants are still not hitting much, especially with runners aboard.

Sunday, May 03, 2015

Giants Weekend

It's been a baseball weekend for me.  Saturday listening to SF Giants day game, then later through the miracle of YouTube I finished watching the 2004 ALCS in which the Red Sox came back from three to none to win four in a row over the Yankees, propelling them into a four game sweep and the first Boston World Series victory since 1918.  Then rewatched the 30-30 docu on that historic ALCS. At the time, with a crucial election coming up etc. I hadn't watched the ALCS until the 7th game, when I finally caught on to the historic possibilities for the team that had once been my home team, in the years I lived in Cambridge MA.

Then today listened to another Giants day game, another victory, with another twist of history.  Saturday the game ended with a baserunner hit by the ball, a bizarre finish that none of the experienced announcing team nor any of the players interviewed could remember ever seeing before.  It turns out it had happened, but was very rare.  And then, before the day was out, it happened again, in the Dodgers game. Oh the wonders of baseball.

The weekend victories completed the Giants 3 game sweep of the Angels, drawing them ever closer to a .500 record.  The most promising aspect was the starting pitching--Tim Hudson a strong 8 innings plus, Tim Lincecum a strong 8 and a shutout.  The game began with the first two Giants at the plate hitting home runs--the first time that quirk had happened on Giants teams in 51 years.  The 2-0 lead became 5-0 by the late innings.

The Giants aren't the only team struggling with a number of key injuries or gaps--arguably the Angels are, and the Dodgers certainly are.  But at the moment the Giants seem to be adapting to adversity the best.  But they will be tested with the hot bats of the Padres coming into town, a team that some project to win the division they share with the Giants, and most place ahead of the Giants.  Hunter Pence is taking batting practice but the two starting pitchers who are down are still weeks away.

Meanwhile the Pirates seem to have lost the ability to hit, and have lost three tight low scoring games to St. Louis.  Given each team's circumstances, the Giants are probably overperforming but the Pirates are underperforming.

Anyway, I enjoyed this baseball weekend.  It's just a joy to listen to the Giants announcing team (and fun to hear Jon Miller's voice on 30-30 calling some of the 2004 Red Sox moments, probably for ESPN radio.)  Baseball and the radio go together for me, and these guys are knowledgeable, informative during the game (an eye for pitches that I envy) and a lot of fun, especially when teamed up and for the post-game show when they all gather.  It's usually the only time I hear Mike Krukow, and he's the most interesting about aspects of the game, particularly the pitchers. Plus you get seagulls in the background--how great is that?  I've said all this before but it's still true.  I still enjoy them.