Saturday, July 16, 2016

Slow Return/ Hated Dubs?

In their first two games back against a sub-.500 team they'd dominated so far, the San Francisco Giants looked like they weren't over the All-Star break.  Less than usually brilliant starting pitching, throwing and fielding errors, bad at-bats on Friday, more of the same Saturday until the bats perked up, but--real bad omen-- another blown save by Casilla, this time causing the walk-off winning run to come in on a balk.  Casilla started the 10th inning up 6-5.  He ended it the losing pitcher, 7-6.

The Giants lost both games, with an ailing Johnny Cueto scheduled to start in Sunday's afternoon game after Saturday's evening 10 innings.  Not sure who steps in if he can't go since Bochy used Suarez Saturday.

Only silver lining is that the Dodgers lost their tough one on Saturday, so the Giants don't lose additional ground to them.  These games probably indicate just a slow second half start, but for all the talk about the Giants being favorites now--especially with their position starters on the mend (though Pence may have had a setback in his first rehab game)-Saturday's ending doesn't quell that nagging suspicion that the Giants don't have the bullpen--especially the closer--to go as far as they'd like.  Although the rest of the pen did well on Saturday.

I suppose the speculation starts soon about which rooks the Giants keep after the starters come back.  I'm particularly curious about how they evaluate outfielders Williamson v. Parker.

Sunday Update: Cueto pitched, but not so well.  The Giants were very nearly no-hit by a guy who was brought up from the minors in the morning, for his last shot as a big league pitcher.  It's a nice story of redemption for him, but the Giants were terrible again, as they were all series long and as they are from time to time--in not bringing in those runners on base.  Their only hit was a three-run pinch hit homer by Connor Gillaspe. (This kid has a future.) Cueto, Belt, maybe even Posey--some kind of All Star jinx going on.

Once again they lucked out however as the Dodgers lost.  But what should have been a tune-up in San Diego turned into being outplayed and swept, and it doesn't get easier.  With cross-country travel to Boston and New York, this could turn out to be a disastrous road trip.

The game of the day however was the Pirates beating Washington in 18 innings, 2-1 on Starling Marte's home run.  No All Star jinx there, but then he didn't go.

As a result of Durant's decision, apparently Golden State Warriors are to be the league's most hated team, or at least that's what sports media are trying to gin up.  From the most loved to the most hated?  Because they added another dynamic, exciting, likable star?  Makes no sense to me.

This article however makes sense of the new Warriors team v. last year's.

Monday, July 11, 2016

Our Star

Sunday Madison Bumgarner had his curve working for 14 strikeouts in a complete game shutout.  He was so dominant that the D-Backs went hitless for 7 plus, before Jake Lamb hit a clean single.  It was only the second ball to get to the outfield--the first was also by Lamb and went for an error.  That broke up the perfect game.

The Giants won 4-0, the last two runs driven in by Brandon Crawford, the team RBI leader.  Crawford helped turn double plays in the 7th and 9th.  In the Giants' 4-2 win on Saturday, he turned a play that probably turned the game, winning it for Jake Peavy.

Crawford leads all infielders in the category of runs saved with 19.  So mostly what people talked about this weekend was: why isn't he on the All-Star team?

The All-Star balloting is bullshit.  The fan component, with unlimited votes, is bullshit.  That it's an elaborate marketing device for an insurance company is really bullshit.

The Giants have the best record in baseball, and are sending two position players and a pitcher to the All-Star game.  The Chicago Cubs, into the famine side of their early feast, are sending practically the whole team.  Bullshit.

In the past few days the Golden State Warriors have lost Speights, signed McAdoo and Ian Clark, and acquired veteran forward David West.  Meanwhile somebody said that Jerry West told him the Warriors might add another name to the team soon.


Thursday, July 07, 2016

Strength in Numbers

Strength in Numbers was the Warriors' motto last season, but as the San Francisco Giants approach the All-Star Game break, it occurs to me that it's also the headline for their success so far this year.

At the moment the Giants enjoy the best record in the majors.  Thanks to a Dodgers' loss today, they have a 6.5 game lead atop the division.  The question is why?

Especially when so many regulars have lost significant playing time with injuries, and right now three or four are unavailable (it's not clear about Span) for the final weekend before the break.  Plus one of their top relievers (Romo) has just gotten back, and one of their starting pitchers (Cain) may be ready for the second half but has been out of the rotation for several weeks--just as he seemed to be getting back on track.

And even factoring in the injury to Romo, the bullpen has underperformed, both in contrast to past years and to the league right now--with a high number of blown saves.

So why are they winning?  There's one clear stand-out star of the first half: new starting pitcher Johnny Cueto.  But he pitches just 1 out of every 5 games.  Three other starters are also pitching at a high level.  Madison Bumgarner has run into some bad luck with run support and reliever failures, Jeff S. has been inconsistent recently and Jake Peavy took awhile to get sharp, but together they are clearly among the top starting pitching staffs in the league.

That's strength in numbers.  So is the high level of the starters in the field who've managed to stay healthy: Brandon Belt is having an All-Star year, as is Brandon Crawford, though thanks to a totally bullshit selection process, they might not be recognized as such.  Buster Posey is their MVP, for even when he's not hitting, he's guiding these pitchers and playing his position admirably.  And quite a lot of the time, he is hitting.

But strength in numbers really comes into play with the rookies and substitutes, the guys who've been sent out on the field to replace the injured starters, and to do what the team needs to win.  And by and large, they've been doing it.  Playing unfamiliar positions or bouncing around the batting order, they've mostly come through.  And among the rookie pitchers, Cory Gearrin has been heroic, pitching effectively in tight spots probably more than he should be asked to perform.  Suarez is another--bouncing back and forth from the minors, asked to relieve, asked to start, he's been pretty solid.

You have to assume that part of this is due to the team culture.  Other players envy the SF Giants organization and their clubhouse.  They were factors in getting Cueto and Jeff S. to join up.

That brings us back to the Golden State Warriors, with the same quality organization and team chemistry.  It's a smaller group in the clubhouse now that has to embrace a bunch of new players, but at Kevin Durant's signing press conference Thursday, it's clearly a great deal of why he's come to the Warriors--and he said so:

"When I met these guys, I felt as comfortable as I've ever felt," Durant said. "It was organic, it was authentic, it was real, and it was feelings I couldn't ignore."

He was reassured that there wouldn't be ego trips or selfish play.

 Of the core players he said: "It felt like they just loved each other unconditionally."

It's kind of a strange thing for an athlete to say about other players.  And yet, it seems to be crucial to the success of these two Bay Area teams.

Wednesday, July 06, 2016

The Closer (Also the Starter)

On Wednesday in San Francisco, it's all good.  Johnny Cueto pitches a complete game victory--his fourth so far this season, in an era where even one is rare--and his 13th win (highest on the Giants in the first half of the season in almost a quarter century) against one loss.  The victory over the Rockies gave the Giants the best record in MLB.  And with the Dodgers' loss, a 6 game division lead.

Pretty good day for Pittsburgh, too.  After falling behind the Cards 5-1, the Bucs roared back to win 7-5 for their seventh straight.  Bullpen again was key.  The victory secured second place in their division, 8.5 games back of the Cubs.  And the Cubs are next.

Not such a great night in San Francisco on Tuesday, though, as six strong innings by Madison Bumgarner were wasted by another bullpen implosion.  Corey Gearrin, who gave up the 3-run homer that blew the lead, was placed on the 15 day DL to rest an aching shoulder.  The rook had been the most reliable reliever on the staff until recently, and probably was overworked.  Let's hope not fatally.  The bullpen remains the Giants biggest weakness, as they are tied with the lowly Reds for the league lead in blown saves.

Meanwhile across the Bay, the past year's Golden State Warriors team continued to disassemble.  Barnes and Bogut leaving were expected consequences of Durant,  and Ezeli was probably gone in any event, but Leandro Barbosa was a fan favorite and personification of Strength in Numbers.  He declined to stay for the vet minimum and took a two-year deal from Phoenix. Free agent Brandon Rush also left.  That leaves Shaun Livingston and Iguodala, with Speights still to be determined.  The Warriors still have four roster spots to fill.

Surprisingly, veteran head coach Mike Brown has joined the Warriors' staff as an assistant, as Luke Walton takes the Lakers head coaching job that Brown once held.  Brown won Coach of the Year at, coincidentally I'm sure, Cleveland.

But all that will take a backseat on Thursday when Kevin Durant officially joins the Golden State Warriors.

Tuesday, July 05, 2016

Wow

Wow.  What else is there to say?  I certainly never expected it.

Kevin Durant announced on Monday that he would be playing for the Golden State Warriors.  In one fell swoop, the Warriors obtained one of the greatest players in the NBA, and defanged its conference rival, the Thunder.

Some other dominoes quickly fell.  Warriors Andrew Bogut and Harrison Barnes departed for Dallas, and the Dubs obtained from Dallas a year contract for big man Zaza Pahchulia, who with Curry, Thompson, Green and Durant, probably constitutes the 2016-17 starting five.

After their initial elation, Dubs fans at the Bleacher Report obsessed with financials, trying to figure out how the Warriors pay the rest of the team.  But another comment on that site says it all in one word: Surreal.

Yet it makes sense for Durant, and almost anybody.  Because every player envies the players on Golden State for the team culture and the Bay Area atmosphere.  Durant's one question in his meeting with the Warriors was, will I upset the team chemistry?  Everybody knows that's what's special about the Warriors.  Strength in Numbers is more than a slogan. (Rob Mahoney at SI makes this point at length.)  Curry texted Durant, reassuring him of the team ethic, and it's not a team of rivals.  Jerry West expounded on how Durant would fit in perfectly.  All this is at least equal to the prospects of championships to come.

The news of Durant's announcement came as the San Francisco Giants were finishing up their afternoon game at home--Duane Kiper related it during the radio broadcast-- riding homers by Posey and Pagan behind a strong start by Peavy (yeah, the killer P's, inevitably) to beat the Rockies 3-1.  Also notable: Sergio Romo returned to the bullpen, pitching in the eighth.  And for the first time in awhile, the Giants got through the eighth with their lead intact.

They leaned on their rookies again, though mostly for defense.  Parker and Williamson made nice outfield plays on a tricky sun-and-wind day, and Grant Green made an excellent play at second base.

The Dodgers also won so the Giants didn't get any additional space at the top of the division, but their victory did pull them to one-half game behind the Cubs for the best record in the league.  They've won 16 of their last 22 games, the best record in MLB for that period.

The Pirates beat the Cardinals 4-2 to go above .500 and gain a game on second place Cards--they're now just a game and a half behind them.

It's another year of feast and famine so far.  All the division leaders are near or above .600, with Cleveland, Texas and Chicago leading their divisions by at least 6 games (the Giants by 5.)  Most look to be two team races at best.  The American League East is the sole exception.

Sunday, July 03, 2016

Revenge of the Rooks II

On Sunday the Pittsburgh Pirates completed a sweep of the A's in Oakland and after winning four straight are back at .500.  Notable in this streak is their bullpen, which hasn't given up a run in 32 innings.

That's in contrast to the San Francisco Giants bullpen, which blew late inning leads in their last two games in Arizona.  After leading 5-1 for much of the Saturday game, a 3-run homer in the eighth gave Arizona the lead and ultimately the win, 6-5.  Before that, the highlight was Mac Williamson's titanic home run that hit the scoreboard, which none of the Giants' announcers could remember seeing before.

On Sunday an even more makeshift lineup (Brandon Belt playing left field because of injuries to Span and Blanco, playing next to Jarrett Parker and Williamson) the Giants nevertheless had a 4-1 lead while starter Suarez was pitching, but blew it once again on a homer in the 8th, this time tying the game at 4.  It took eleven innings for the Giants to win it 5-4, with the bullpen holding the line in the extras.

Brandon Belt had two keys, one of them a 2 RBI double, as well as an important catch in the field, and Brandon Crawford had another stellar defensive game that saved some runs.  But again it was the rooks who were the story--both Parker and Williamson were in the thick of it, and the winning hit came from the hobbling Pena, not fit to field yet but who came off the bench to double in the 11th inning, bringing the speedy Parker around from first.

Williamson hit another boomer, but this time a line drive that was caught.  Announcer Jon Miller gets a lot of joshing from the rest of the crew for fixating on the new stat of bat speed.  But Dave Fleming had to admit that the ball traveling at an exceptionally fast 117 mph off Williamson's bat correlates with a hit 95% of the time.  

So the Giants limp home from a short road trip with, almost unaccountably, 3 out of 5 wins, and still 5 ahead of the streaking Dodgers.  They return with Denard Span awaiting results of an MRI on his neck that could lead to yet another player on the DL.  The good news: Kelby Tomlinson is doing his final rehab thing in triple-A and is close to returning, while Hunter Pence seems ahead of schedule on his possible return, taking batting practice.  Matt Cain is doing his triple-A starts.  And best of all for the beleaguered bullpen would be the return of Romo.

Saturday, July 02, 2016

Revenge of the Rooks

When five of your eight starters in the field aren't playing, and a few of their backups can't either, a lot of teams wouldn't be expecting to win.  SF Giants manager Bruce Bochy had an ace in the hole, i.e. on the mound, in Johnny Cueto.  But he wasn't feeling all that great either, with a stomach virus.  He gave up four runs before settling into a quality start, seven innings with nine strikeouts.

You might look to Crawford, Belt and Pagan to get you going, but they all went hitless. Yet the Giants came back to win 6-4, and it was just about all because of the rooks (and the semi-rooks who had some playing time late last season.)  Conor Gillaspie had another fine day, going 3 for 4, a homer shy of a cycle.  The homer--a big fly to the opposite field--came from the powerful bat of Jarrett Parker.  Catcher Trevor Brown had a key hit, and so did the rookiest of the rooks, Grant Green, up from the minors and playing his second game as a Giant, subbing for DL Joe Panik at second.  Green had two hits Friday, including a key single with two outs in the fourth inning that drove in two runs. He also had two hits in his first game.

Even rookie Cody Gearrin pitched a hitless eighth, while Casilla's ninth was another adventure, aided by a tough Belt to Crawford to Belt double play.

The day before in Oakland, the Giants salvaged the last game of the home-and-home Bridge series behind Madison Bumgarner's pitching--and his double that got the hit parade started, 12-6.  Buster Posey had a three run homer.  As of Friday the Giants are again 20 games over .500, leading the Dodgers by 6 games.  LA got bad news when their ace Clayton Kershaw went on the 15 day DL.  My Pirates have been winning more lately and are now just three games under .500, creeping up on the slumping Cards for second place, and the first place Cubs have been slumping as well (though they still have the best record in baseball, along with the Texas Rangers.)