Thursday, July 30, 2015

Now It Begins

In some ways, it is unfortunate that the Pirates are in the same division as the St. Louis Cardinals.  The Cards have the best record, the most wins, in baseball.  Nobody is even close.  The Pirates however have the second best record.  In just about any other division of either league, they would be in first place.

But if the Cards push them to keep up, it is not so unfortunate, because they have a clear path to the postseason.  If the season ended now, they would have the first Wild Card berth.

The Giants on the other hand don't have as clear a path.  They are competing for their division championship, mostly with the Dodgers.  If they don't get that, things get chancier.  Because the race for the second Wild Card spot is unclear.  Even a half game out (as they are at the moment), they might not make the postseason--they are even closer to the record of the Chicago Cubs for the second Wild Card.

In the past two or three weeks, the Giants have done what they needed to do.  Playing mostly teams who are not in contention, they dominated.  On Wednesday they broke a pitcher's duel open with a five run inning, and took their home series with the Brewers, after breaking their latest winning streak at six with Tuesday's loss to the Brewers.  So they have won 12 of their last 14 games.

But after an off-day Thursday, things change.  They're on the road, playing better teams than they have been playing, in less congenial circumstances (like a lot of hot weather.)  The rest of the season is going to be challenging.

Both the Pirates and Giants (who play each other four more games, in Pittsburgh; the Pirates swept the last series in San Francisco) play a series with their main opponent in the last week of the season, and they both do so at home.  The Cards-Pirates games probably won't be meaningful for the division title unless the Cards have a last month swoon, and the Pirates streak.  Most Giants observers expect the Dodgers series to be meaningful, and possibly determine the division.  Probably there's a greater chance of that, but of course it's not guaranteed (besides which, both teams have another series after it.)

But that's late September.  There are a lot of games to come in the dog days--the period when the Giants faltered last year--and this year, it seems less likely that they will back into the Wild Card.  Manager Bruce Bochy seems really conscious of this--he's resting players, keeping his starters to pitch counts, and sacrificing hitters on the bench for a large pitching corps.  So this is when it gets interesting, in terms of season outcome (the Giants are an interesting and fun team to watch game by game anyway.)  This is when it begins.

Monday, July 27, 2015

Weekend Update, and Giants over the former Seattle Pilots

The weekend ended with the Giants sweeping their 3 game series with Oakland and the Pirates winning 3 of 4 from the powerhouse Washington Nationals, both at home.  The Pirates victory on Sunday meant Cole remains the win leader among starters in the league, and Melancon the league leader in saves.

One Pirates tradition from my youth still seems observed--Monday off.  But the Giants had a night game with the Milwaukee Brewers, and beat them 4-2.  For the second game in a row, their victory was aided by an inexplicable base running mistake by the opposition, with Buster Posey throwing out both runners trying a really ill-advised steal in the late innings.  On Sunday Matt Duffy had a towering home run, and on Monday Brandon Crawford sent a 3-0 fastball into the deepest part of the park, where it bounced off the low wall and into the hands of an absolutely thrilled young woman in a Giants jersey, a two-run homer.

So the Giants now have two six-game win streaks separated by one loss.  This has put them suddenly 11 games above .500 and a game behind the Dodgers for the division lead.

Chris Heston pitched seven and got his 11th win, so he remains tied for club lead with Bumgarner.  He was shaky early, even after the lead (he usually is stronger with a lead) but 3 double plays got him out of serious trouble. Aoki rejoined the team, but nobody even mentioned him in the post-game wrap.  He went 0 for 3, and Bruce Bochy wisely had him batting 8th.  And at his first opportunity, Bochy got Blanco into the game, as a pinch-hitter for Heston in the bottom of the 7th.  Blanco promptly hit a double, drove in the insurance run, and stole third.  Bochy respects team chemistry and individuals in the zone (like Blanco lately).  He's an if it ain't broke don't fit it guy.  At the same time, he can't ignore past heavy contributors coming back from injury.

 Bochy says he's committed to his current starting rotation, including Hudson, who looked better if not stronger in his victory Sunday--a victory over the As that meant he'd beaten every team in the majors over his long career.  He's the 15th pitcher to do it.  That's spectacular, although I'm surprised there were that many.

Before Crawford's homer, the Giants manufactured their first run in the classic Giants way--a Duffy double, Posey ground ball to advance him to third, Pence a long fly to score him.  The Brewers compounded the caught stealing with a hissy fit, and their cleanup hitter and manager got tossed.

Years ago, probably after 2010 WS win, Margaret gave me a Giants daily calendar--one of those small square jobs that you tear off a page every day, this time with a baseball fact on each page.  I saved a bunch of them for bookmarks.  Yesterday I grabbed one from my stash and for some reason actually read it.  It happened to be about the Milwaukee Brewers, and it was something I didn't remember.  The Brewers originally were the American League team, the Seattle Pilots, in 1969.  Even after they moved to Milwaukee and became the Brewers, they remained in the American League, until switching in 1997.

I wasn't paying much attention to baseball in 1969, and hardly ever paid much attention to the American League, so I don't even remember the Seattle Pilots.  They lasted one season there, and after protracted legal and other shenanigans, a judge declared the team bankrupt, and Bud Selig took them to Milwaukee, which had lost its Braves to Atlanta.  I should have remembered the Pilots, though, because Jim Bouton's famous Ball Four was about his season with them.

Friday, July 24, 2015

Wins and Bochy, Patron Saint of Writers

They seem to save it for the best teams.  The Pirates, comfortably back home, beat the Washington Nationals twice, with more power than pitching this time, including a monster home run into the river by Pedro Alvarez (who homered in both games) off Nat's ace Scherzer, who no-hit the Bucs the last time they met. (He came within an out of a perfect game.)

The Giants, also comfortably at home, beat the Oakland A's 9-3, without a home run.  Just four hits by Hunter Pence, including two RBI doubles, and true to his streaky ways, a multi-hit night for Brandon Belt, plus a very nice double play in the field.

But the reason I'm hitting the keys tonight is to mention something I keep forgetting. I've mentioned many times how much I like the Giants announcers (they make the current Pirates announcers a real embarrassment), while recognizing their wit and intelligence fit well for the Giants market of upscale techies.  And Bruce Bochy is recognized everywhere as one of the best managers, if not the best, in baseball.  Bochy, like players and managers everywhere, does things for "charity," and like a lot of both, he's written a book.

Bochy's book is about walks he's taken in cities the Giants have visited.  And if that's not unique enough, the proceeds go to help aspiring writers.   That's not only unique--that's amazing, even if you're too old to be called an aspiring writer anymore.

Thursday, July 23, 2015

Heating Up

The Pirates haven't righted the ship yet after the All-Star break, but the SF Giants are clipping along.  They've finished a 5-1 road trip, and have won 8 of their last 9 games.  After losing the first in San Diego, they won the next two, and scored a lot of runs doing it.

 Wednesday's game was really interesting.  Matt Cain again got better as he went along, and gave up only one run, on a mistake pitch homer.  James Shields pitching for the Padres had the Giants scoreless, missing one opportunity after another with runners on base.  But those extended innings, and the long at-bats Giants hitters had, chased him from the game early because of pitch count. Once he was gone, the Padres vulnerable middle relievers got hammered.

Brandon Belt homered for the first time in ages, and that bodes well for the near future with this highly streaky hitter.  Buster Posey once again muscled two runs across with a double--he's an unassuming Superman with runners on base.  Pence, who launched a screaming line drive homer on Tuesday that went nearly 500 feet, scorched a single and an RBI on the next pitch after Posey's double on Wednesday.  Once again, Joe Panik and Matt Duffy were getting on base the entire road trip.

But it's really past time to take notice of Brandon Crawford.  I have to admit that last year when he hit the grand slam that sunk the Bucs in their Wild Card game, I thought of it as a fluke, a lucky swing that sent the ball out in the perfect spot, the closest and lowest point for a homer.

But this year he's not only the best defensive shortstop in the league, or a clutch singles hitter at the back of the lineup.  He's hitting with authority and power. On the Giants he's second to Posey in homers, and here's a stat that blew me away: he has more RBIs than the Buc's run producer, Andrew McCutchen.  Crawford hit a big fly homer on Wednesday, with a real home run swing.

Tuesday's homer highlight was a grand slam by none other than Hector Sanchez, the catcher called up from the minors when Susak got hurt.  That was a home run swing, and a home run flip of the bat, which got the ire of the Padres' pitcher.  The man threw chewing gum at him!  The umps warned both benches.

After an off day, the Giants at home face another couple of teams with losing records, though both have been winning lately: Oakland and Milwaukee.  Then they start facing tougher opponents.  Friday may well see the return of  Aoki to the lineup.  He only got one hit in his two minor league rehab games so his timing is apt to be off, but how about this: the Giants with Aoki AND Pence in the lineup, and three pitchers returned to the starting corps, of which two--Cain and Peavy--look good.

Only flies in the ointment: Hudson didn't look sharp his first start (though he didn't get bombed either), and reliever Affeldt was ineffective in his return. We may not see Lincecum again this season, with hip problems that may require surgery.  It's not clear whether Pagan has fully recovered from his leg injury. But the Giants right now have more of their key personnel healthy than they did much of last season.

While there is some speculation about moves the Giants might make before trade deadline, there's also a feeling that they mostly have the makings.  Not so in Pittsburgh apparently--the players are fielding questions about trades, with Neil Walker quoted as saying the team has some obvious needs.

There's been a lot of chatter about trades, and none made so far.  Both the Oakland As and the Brewers are surrounded by trade talk, and some of it may happen while they're in SF.  I'd be surprised if the Giants traded very high--maybe Maxwell, who has a lot of potential, maybe Affeldt, but this team has such great chemistry it's hard to see it disrupted.  The infield is solid and with Aoki back, so is the outfield.  If the Giants trade it will be interesting to see if they sacrifice experience (a few of their older relievers) or youth (they're packed with great potential among pitchers in the minors.)  I wouldn't be surprised--or disappointed--if they stood pat basically.  And I don't think many other fans would either.

Monday, July 20, 2015

Good, Bad and Ugly

Coming out of the gate after the All-Star game break, the San Francisco Giants swept their three game series at Arizona, including a 5 hour epic that used a record 10 pitchers.  That extends a pre-break winning streak to 6 games, and two sweeps.  Good!

Coming out of the break, the Pittsburgh Pirates were swept in Milwaukee.  This team has a history of stuttering if not stopping in the second half of the season.  Bad!

The ugly was a serious injury to the Pirates' starting shortstop Jordy Mercer.  It sounds like it may have ended his season, though that's not yet confirmed.

Also not pretty but not as bad by comparison was the minor injury to Giants catcher Andrew Susak.  He's on the 15-day DL by which time he's expected to be fine.  But he'd been hitting very well lately and stoking hopes that he could platoon behind the plate more often, getting Buster Posey in an upright position playing first base.  His injury also may complicate trade possibilities before the deadline for Hector Sanchez, the backup catcher he replaced and who is now replacing him.  The Giants carry only two catchers.

The Pirates getting batted around in Milwaukee may not be as bad as it seems, since the Brewers were already on a hot streak.  It doesn't get any easier for them however, as they next play last year's American League champs at Kansas City.

The Giants will test that Brewer's streak when they come into SF next week but first they go to San Diego, where the Padres have recently awakened.  On Sunday, the Padres experienced only their second rain-out in the history of their ball park, as remnants of Pacific hurricane Delores deluged southern California.  The Angels game was also called.

And then there's a really hard month of baseball for the Giants as they play a string of contenders, often away.  So could be good, could be bad, and it could be ugly.

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

My All-Star Moment

As both of my teams are in the NL, not good news that the AL won the All-Star game to secure home field advantage in the World Series.

As possibly the world's only Pittsburgh Pirates/San Francisco Giants fan, I note that the Giants players did ok--Madison Bumgarner pitched a scoreless inning, Brandon Crawford got an RBI--and the Pirates did well, especially Andrew McCutchen who blasted a second-deck homer.  Pretty to watch.

But the highlight perhaps peculiar to me was the strikeout of the game's MVP, Mike Trout (the first to go back to back) with the Bucs' ace Gerrit Cole pitching (a nasty curve) and the Giants' star Buster Posey catching. Both of these are currently on a loop at Bleacher Report-Pittsburgh Pirates.

Monday, July 13, 2015

Springing into the Break

Both my teams are surging into the All-Star break,  but you can't beat the Pittsburgh Pirates for a dramatic and ecstatic weekend.  On Saturday night, they played the St. Louis Cardinals to a tie in regulation nine, then St. Louis scored a run in the top of the 14th.  But in the bottom of the 14th, Neil Walker singled and Andrew McCutchen hit a towering homerun to center that hit into the topiary bushes that spell out  PIRATES.  Game over.

Can't top that huh?  Think again.  In the ESPN nationally broadcast Sunday night game, the Cards and Bucs again went back and forth until they were tied at 3 apiece in regulation.  In the top of the 10th the Cards scored not one but two runs. (They tried to score three but got thrown out at the plate.)  They led 5-3.

Then against the All-Star closer Trevor Rosenthal, the Pirates kept hitting in the bottom of the 14th, with RBIs by Marte, their surprise star catcher Cervelli and their new star outfielder Gregory Polanco, who (with two outs and bases loaded) stroked a single to right to bring in the winning run and end the game, 6-5.  The Pirates go into the break an amazing 18 games above .500 and now only 2.5 games behind St. Louis in the division.  Good enough for the second best record in the league.

Meanwhile, the SF Giants swept their three game series with the visiting Phillies, with 15 hits on Saturday and a more subdued 4-1 victory Sunday on Andrew Susac's three-run homer in the fourth.  Like the Pirates, they got great starting pitching in this last series--on Sunday it was Chris Heston for his 9th win, matching records with Madison Bumgarner as tops on the team.

The Giants go into the break with good momentum and more players getting healthy, but only 3 games above .500 and 4.5 back of Los Angeles in their division.  But at the moment they wouldn't qualify for either Wild Card spot, behind the Cubs and the Mets.

Both teams have great starting pitching, a dominant closer (though more so the Bucs), big stars (Cutch, Posey) and big young surprises--Cervelli and to some extent Polanco for the Bucs, Duffy, Heston and to some extent Susak for the Giants. The Pirates are finally living up to their potential, and though the Giants play exciting and exception ball (3 double plays Sunday) they have yet to prove they are better than a .500 team.

When the Giants managed only one of three against the Mets last week it looked bad, but the Mets have been surging too, and are now only 2 back of the Nationals in their eastern division.  The Pirates and Cards have split their 10 games with each other right down the middle, with half of those games going to extras, and the home team winning each of those.