Tuesday, December 15, 2015

December Brides

The San Francisco Giants blindsided pretty much everyone by making a major deal with pitcher Johnny Cueto.  It's for six years though in practical terms, it's really for two.

So no sooner did Jeff Samardzija convince everyone that he was a great fit as a San Francisco Giant than the Cueto news had to be absorbed.  On the face of it, he seems a less certain fit. His undeniable talent and uneven temperament, and a demonstrated penchant for getting rattled by hostile fans in away game ballparks, will require the kind of support the Giants organization and his teammates can provide, if he responds to it.

It's a big roll of the dice--even more so than Samardzija, who may not have his raw talent but really wants to be with the Giants, for all the right reasons.  After a bad half season in Kansas City, Cueto wasn't getting the free agent offers he probably expected, and this deal with the choice of becoming a free agent again in two years was apparently the decider, not the team.  Of course he has ample motivation for doing well in the next two years.   Cause $46 million a year isn't enough, I guess.  Update: Cueto sounds like a better fit in this account.

The Giants probably had little choice really, as division rivals the Diamondbacks and to a lesser extent the Dodgers strengthened their pitching.  The guy who loses in all this is pitcher Mike Leake.  A couple of weeks ago he was in the driver's seat, choosing between Arizona and SF, both good situations for him.  Now he's probably not getting an offer from either.

If the Giants can stay healthy--or healthier than last season--they may need just one of those guys to rebound.  Cueto has the bigger upside, they say, if he can return to form.  Both can give innings (which was Leake's m.o., so he becomes unnecessary) and Cueto can be dominating.  If both do well, the Giants will be hard to stop.  But with the Cubs strengthening their team, the Central division is also going to be very competitive.  Wild Cards may again be hard to come by in the West.

Now it looks as though the Giants will look at rookies for the outfield, with Gregor Blanco getting the start in left but able to play center when needed.  Though a deal for a second-tier player might yet happen, they say, it doesn't look like a proven home run hitter is headed this way.

In basketball, less than 24 hours after they beat the Celtics in Boston in double overtime, the Golden State Warriors lost their first game of the season, to the Bucks in Milwaukee, at the end of a 7 game road trip.  A game that should never have been scheduled that way.  So they stand at 24-1, with only a couple of more games in December.  Does that make sense, NBA?

In football, the Pittsburgh Steelers luck may have turned this season.  Though the running back the Bengals injured out for the season is still out, Big Ben is healthy, and the Bengals quarterback essentially injured himself, and he's out for the season, too.  The Steelers won big, but picking off the second string quarterback for two touchdowns really helped.  Next game is Denver at home, against their second string quarterback.  The division is still possible but unlikely--the Bengals, like the Steelers, have some relatively easy opponents late.  But if the Steelers beat Denver and don't screw up against weaker teams in the final two games, chances are pretty good for a wild card.  And the team that gets healthy and jells at the end of the season can go pretty far.

Sunday, December 06, 2015

Winter Update

Time for a sports update, as the baseball deals come fast and furious.

The San Francisco Giants again this offseason whiffed on their high profile targets of acquisition, most recently on pitcher Grienke.  They went immediately to plan B by signing Jeff Samardzgia to a five year deal, as the second starter behind MadBum.  He gives them the durability they've been lacking, even with his off-year last year.  He could help or he could be another albatross.  That's baseball.

Why have high profile pitchers passed on the Giants?  In addition to individual reasons of where they want to play, it seems mostly ego and greed.  Who will give them the contract that pays more than the last guy to get the biggest contract.

The Giants don't need those guys.  The Giants play complete baseball and they are a real team.  Brandon Crawford--Golden Glove winner and top hitting shortstop who the Giants signed to a long-term contract this offseason--is the model.  For pure baseball fans and for San Francisco area fans, the Giants will continue to be fun to watch, and to feel good about rooting for.

Meanwhile, the Golden State Warriors are utterly amazing.  Tonight was their biggest test so far--on the road against a good Brooklyn team, second of back-to-back games, with some beat-up players.  They lost their early lead in the third quarter and were briefly behind before surging in the fourth to win by their biggest margin in several games.  22-0.  Wow.

I've read about the new style of NBA games, but watching Warriors games on the net made it very clear: it's all 3 pointers and attacking the basket.  The 2-pointer jump shot that used to dominate, even on the throw it in, kick it out teams, has almost disappeared.

So Steve Kerr, one of the best 3 point shooters before Steph Curry and company blew all predecessors away, probably helped establish the Warriors game as their coach last year, but I haven't followed closely enough to know if that's what changed the league.

Former Laker Luke Walton is getting a lot of attention in that weird interim coach thing he's doing, for managing this incredible streak.  How can it be he's not getting official credit for these victories?

Big money egos taints major league baseball for me, and the injuries in football--especially concussions--have drained much of my enthusiasm for the NFL.  The Steelers play Indianapolis tonight, but this doesn't look like their year.  I've been through this particular frustration before---when the Steelers seem loaded with talent but can't put it together consistently to win.  Their defense in particular is suspect.  And Carolina and now Seattle seem the teams with the mojo working.

Later...

On the other hand...after a rocky first quarter, the Steelers manhandled the Colts 45-10 and they looked like magic.  Big Ben had an amazing touch on passes long and short, and his receivers looked superhuman.  The defense came up with takeaways and gave up only one touchdown.  Effective running game set up the pass barrage.  Suddenly the Steelers look like they might make noise this year.  Their next two games--New England and Cinncy--will tell the tale.  Commentators are prone to inflation these days, but I did hear words saying the Steelers may be better than both.  Guess we'll see.

Sunday, November 01, 2015

Bad Day, Bad Plays in New York & Pittsburgh

Daniel Murphy went from hero to goat for the Mets in the World Series, but he had serious competition.  His errors in the field led to victories for Kansas City, including in the final game in New York.  But other errors, possibly including managerial mistakes, will keep New Yorkers moaning all winter.  KC won the Series in five games.  What could be more demoralizing that leading in the eighth inning and losing--three times, including KC scoring 5 runs in the 12th inning of the final game.

The Mets had starting pitching and hitting, but KC exploited their weaknesses of defense (especially infield) and relief pitching.  Ultimately however it may be Series experience that made the difference.  KC played last year, losing to the Giants in seven.  The Giants played relaxed but also with nerves of steel.  They'd been there before, and even though key players like Joe Panik hadn't been, the team had--and the Giants are always a team.  KC took it all in.  This year they were the team that played relaxed, with nerves of steel.

Meanwhile in Pittsburgh Sunday, things also started in very promising fashion.  Big Ben was back from his injury and had the Steelers ahead in the fourth quarter against the undefeated Cinncy Bengals.  But whether it was fatigue or just bad luck, his fourth quarter interceptions gave the game away.

Perhaps even worse for Pittsburgh, they lost their franchise running back to injury--likely for the year.  It's not as bad as losing Ben, but almost.  It's just November but it's hard to see a path to the playoffs.

Friday, October 30, 2015

Cutch Apparent

From the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette:

 Andrew McCutchen learned the Roberto Clemente story many years ago, long before being drafted by Clemente’s former team, the Pirates, in 2005. When he was 11 or 12, McCutchen went to a baseball camp in San Juan, Puerto Rico, the city where Clemente was born and raised. There, McCutchen met Manny Sanguillen, the former Pirates catcher who played alongside Clemente, and heard the story of a Hall of Fame outfielder, the pride of Pittsburgh, who died in a New Year’s Eve plane crash in 1972 while on a mission to deliver supplies to earthquake victims in Nicaragua.

 The Commissioner’s Award, given annually to the player who best represented the game of baseball on and off the field, was renamed in 1973 to honor Clemente. On Friday, McCutchen was named the 2015 Roberto Clemente Award winner in a ceremony at Citi Field prior to Game 3 of the World Series, joining Willie Stargell as just the second Pirates player to win the award...

I want to strive to be like he was,” McCutchen said, “a person who would give you the clothes off of his back just to make this world a better place.”

I saw Clemente play many times, mostly at Forbes Field in the late 50s and 60s.  I shook his hand on the field once, on one of those pre-game events when kids could meet the players.  His last regular season game was on September 30, 1972.  I saw him last on September 21, in New York, in a game with the Mets.  He got at least one hit that day, closing in on 3,000 hits for his career, a mark he hit with his last at-bat.  He hit .325 in the NLCS, but the Pirates lost to the Reds in the fifth game.

Clemente was the most exciting player I ever saw play.  Only Barry Bonds came close.  I've never seen McCutchen play, which means I haven't seen a game in Pittsburgh since 2008.  Horrors!  But everything I know about him makes him a fitting heir to Clemente, on and off the field.

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

This Was A Job for Superman

The Team of Destiny is in part predictable: it's the team that's peaking at playoff time, often because their lineup is healthy after an uneasy season, and/or they made late season acquisitions that just jelled.  In retrospect, you can see this pattern a lot--in the 2012 and 2014 San Francisco Giants, for example.

But the unpredictable part is the Guy Who Becomes Superman.  Marco Scutaro.  Cody Ross. Madison Bumgarner. And of course, the payoff of things done right by managers, coaches and the front office, and team unselfishness.  But often enough you need the superhero.

The Mets got healthy, they seem to have team chemistry, their strength of starting pitching stayed strong, and second baseman Daniel Murphy put on a cape and flew.

Murphy hit a home run in six consecutive postseason games, including all four in the NLCS Mets sweep of the Cubs. That's an All Time Record, which in baseball means it hadn't happened in more than a hundred years.  In tonight's game he had four hits, the last one--in the eighth inning--a home run to center field.  He'd missed a homer to center field earlier by feet, getting instead a double that splashed off the warning track onto the ivy.  He was named series MVP.

Murphy had his biggest home run season this year--he hit 14.  But that's back when he was Clark Kent, mild mannered utility infielder for a not so great Metropolitan baseball team.

I've written here several times that I've never been able to figure out how the Cubs won so many games.  Once the Mets (and Murphy) beat Arietta, the series was functionally over.  The Mets, who lost all their regular season games against the Cubs, never even trailed the Cubs in any of the four playoff games.

Now the question becomes whether they will meet another apparent Team of Destiny, Toronto, which must win the next two games, both in Kansas City.

Thursday, October 15, 2015

Schadenfreude 3 Dodgers 2

I won't lie.  It's the Dodgers losing rather than the Mets winning that did it for me, that actually had me excited in the bottom of the ninth on the MLB gametracker.  The criminal Chase Utley making the first out of the ninth was sweet, in his first appearance since he crippled the Mets' shortstop.

And on almost the same grounds I'm sticking with the Mets against the sentimental favorite (outside of New York) Chicago Cubs.  Yes, Barack's team, but they employ a serial criminal, however legal.

But I won't bring the same feeling to it.  I spent 5 years in Illinois, give or take, though outside of Areitta I still can't figure out why the Cubs win.   The Dodgers are not only the Giants perennial rival, these days they are their opposite.  The Giants clubhouse ethic is inclusive, personal and team-oriented, with a manager who is both respected and loved.  The operative word for the Giants is loyalty, as it is for their fans.  The Dodgers with their huge payroll appear to be the opposite.  Not as bad as Washington perhaps but by tomorrow they'll probably have a new manager, too.  Update 10/22: It took a few more days, but Dodger manager Mattingly is gone.

Meanwhile Toronto won their first series, and despite the fan damage in their ultimate home win, I'm sticking with them.  TO!  (And Trudeau!)

Sunday, October 11, 2015

No More of This, Baseball

The Dodgers' Chase Utley has been suspended for his "slide" that broke the leg of Mets shortstop Tejada in their second playoff game. The play went a long way to enabling the Dodgers to win the game.  The immediate two game suspension is being appealed.

I don't think it's enough.  The Dodgers should forfeit this game, and Utley should be charged with assault.

This story contrasts this case with the Cubs incident that injured Pirates star Kang.  The Utley play is clearly illegal, the Cubs play just hard baseball, in this view.  I don't agree.  There is no place in today's baseball for a play that carries with it the significant likelihood of injury to a player.  Especially the Cubs player in question, who is a repeat offender.  He's already ruined one career.  That can't happen.

All I can do now is reinforce my distaste for the Dodgers and the Cubs.  Go Mets!

Sunday, October 04, 2015

Last Games


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.

10/4: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.

Thursday, October 01, 2015

Huddie

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.

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Clinchmas in Pittsburgh, Running on Empty in San Diego

For the third straight year--each season on September 23, now to be enshrined in Pittsburgh as Clinchmas--the Pirates clinched a playoff berth for 2015.  They did it with a resounding victory over Colorado, with more power than pitching, but enough to get the job done.  Congratulations and we had 'em all the way.

The Cubs lost but the Cards won, so positions hold for the Pirates to host the wild card game.  An article at CBS Sports suggests that this year's Central Division leaders make this an historic division.  If current rankings hold to the end of the season--that is, if the Cards, Pirates and Cubs are 1-2-3 in total wins in the majors, it will be the first time that the top three have come from the same division.  And that seems pretty likely to happen.

Meanwhile in San Diego, the Giants bullpen pitchers ran out of gas, all nine of them.  Jake Peavy pitched very well and had a shutout after 6 innings.  But the exhausted bullpen gave up 5 runs, and although the Giants hitters kept fighting back, in the end Casilla had a terrible ninth and the Padres won 5-4.

If the Giants hadn't had a ton of bad luck this year, they would have had no luck at all.  Mostly from injuries, which unbelievably continue to mount.  That ball that hit Adrianza last night resulted in a concussion--another concussion on this team!  And he's probably done for the season, which is mercifully only 11 more games.

Buster Posey came back from his "normal" injury after a game to play first, provide key hits and heads-up play in the ninth to score the tying run on a wild pitch.  Brandon Crawford, who started coming out of his batting slump last night, had key hits, including the first two RBIs.  But he showed signs of injury, almost came out of the game, and may be out tomorrow.  If this game had gone to the 10th he probably would have come out.  It's way too brutal to imagine this as an extra-inning game.  Losing in the 9th may have been a mercy.

Latest newbie to impress is Jared Parker, who launched a homer, his second, and has previously looked good with situational hitting and baserunning.  And these guys are probably going to be the main reason to keep watching the Giants, apart from the extra resonance of games in Oakland and with the Dodgers.  Who won tonight.

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Clinching and Limping

The furious stasis in the Central continues Tuesday, as the Pirates, Cards and Cubs all won.  The Pirates have to be happy that they've shaken off their September losses, frustrated that they're not gaining ground, and excited that they are very close to clinching the postseason for the third season in a row.

Yes, sports writers and commentators, that's the correct use of the word "clinch."  When you have games yet that you're definitely going to play no matter what, but you could lose all of them and still reach the postseason, that's called clinching.  When you win the fourth game of a seven game series, and no more games will be played, that's called winning.

Anyway, the Pirates could clinch tomorrow.

Meanwhile, the Dodgers are finally tanking--losing four in a row-- but it may be too late for the Giants.  Or whatever team is in the field wearing Giants uniforms.  On Tuesday, exactly three regular starters out of eight positions were playing.  And the three included an exhausted Matt Duffy. Adrianza played first base for the first time in his pro career, and it showed.  Nevertheless, somehow, even against a pitcher who struck out 8 Giants in the first three innings, they won 4-2.

The two rested regulars came through big--Pagan with a 2 run homer, Brandon Crawford--despite being in a deep slump, batting cleanup--got a hit and an RBI, plus a spectacular over the shoulder catch in the ninth.  But the newbies did well, too, especially catcher Trevor Brown, whose first hit as a Giant finally came--a double and an RBI.  He promptly got his second--a catcher who beat out an infield hit and then stole second.  He's doing well behind the plate, both in his defense and in handling pitchers and the game.  Yes, he's a keeper.

The Dodgers are still 6 games in first with 12 to play.  They will have to tank in epic fashion--and they are capable of this--and the Giants have to miraculously keep winning with a patched together lineup.  They might not even have Adrianza tomorrow--he got beat up on a hot shot in the ninth that bounced off his shin and hit him in the mouth.  If he's out and Buster Posey's back and hip aren't better, it's anybody's guess who will be playing their first game at first base tomorrow night. (And as feared, Perez did suffer a serious injury last game and is out for the season.)

And since the theme here is San Francisco and Pittsburgh, duly noted is the Steelers easy victory over the Niners on Sunday, 43-18.  Memo to Steelers: receivers so consistently and completely open is not likely to recur very often.

Monday, September 21, 2015

222

Tim Hudson pitched six innings of shutout ball in San Francisco Sunday, and his Giants teammates broke recent precedent by scoring some runs, so he notched victory number 222 of his career, soon to be ending.

It might have been Hudson's last start in the SF ballpark (though he's scheduled for one more), and the run that almost stood up for the game winner was Alejandro De Aza's first RBI as a Giant.  A few batters later, Buster Posey busted a three run homer for the victory.

Speaking of homer, Homer was one of the topics discussed by the Giants' announcing team Sunday, an erudite bunch that Saturday discoursed about regression to the mean.  Sunday it was Homer, Socrates, and the Pittsburgh Pirates--actually much more about the Pirates, who were in the process of applying their formula of pitching and power to the Dodgers, to take two out of three in L.A.  As they praised the Bucs, they gently mocked the Pirates announcers. So I'm not alone.

Brandon Crawford was back for the Giants--no rust in the field, dazzling there as ever, but plenty of rust at the plate.  Now Brandon Belt is out, with concussion symptoms. Perez may have hurt himself in this game.  It became official a few days ago that Joe Panik won't be back until next year.  On the brighter side, Brown, the catcher recently brought up who has been behind the plate these two games, looks like a backup option.  He's a converted infielder but catches well, and has some speed on the basepaths.  Hasn't gotten his first hit yet, though.  New outfielder Parker did get a hit and an RBI.

Nothing new in the standings really.  The Giants need to gain a few more games on the Dodgers to make their series consequential.  The Pirates are at least winning in September after a mini-slump, although their remaining schedule is pretty tough, while the Cards have only their head to head with the Bucs to worry about.  The Pirates have shown they can handle the Dodgers in L.A., but I'm sure Pittsburgh fans are worried about how well the Cubs handled the Bucs in Pittsburgh. Right now that looks to be the teams and the place for the sudden death wild card game.

But before that the Bucs go to Chi-town.  That Central Division is the most exaggerated in the majors.  The Cards with the best record, the Bucs with the second best, and the Cubs two games behind them, 6 behind the Cards.  And the last two teams are each 30 games out of first.

Thursday, September 17, 2015

Off Day & Bad Day

It's an off-day for the Giants, and a really bad day for the Pirates.

With only one loss in the current home stand--a nightmare game with the Reds when the bullpen couldn't hold leads and they went down in the 10th 9-8--the Giants have been doing their part to stay relevant in the division race.  But the Dodgers haven't cooperated by performing their annual tank job.  They are also winning, and with each passing day, getting closer to finishing in first.  It may be over before the two meet again.

In the Central, the Pirates hopes of overtaking the Cards are also dwindling, as the Cubs came into PNC Park and won 3, including two extra inning games.  To make matters worse for the Bucs in the postseason, today they lost a key player to injury--Jung Ho Kang--who has been their spark plug for the last month or so.  Their losses to the Cubs, likely their opponent in the Wild Card game, are troubling.  As bad as last year's Wild Card loss to the Giants was, another one and out postseason this year would be very disappointing to the team and the city.

But in San Francisco, the fans aren't hanging their heads.  There's lots to see and cheer at the Giants games.  Like legally blind Jake Peavy becoming the fifth Giants starting pitcher to homer this season, all (except MadBum) since August,  something that hasn't happened in 80 years in Giants history.  Plenty to cheer about at the ball park--some fans even cheered a heavy rain shower last night.

Spectators are getting to see some Giants of the future in their first appearances, and will see more of them if the Dodgers clinch.  That's fun-- but so is witnessing baseball history: the talk of the town is about the possible matchup of two Bay Area greats in one of the Giants-As games in Oakland to end the season: Tim Hudson, in his last major league start against the team he started with, against Barry Zito, a star pitcher for both teams.  In show biz and baseball history terms, the teams would be crazy not to match them up.

Sunday, September 13, 2015

Holding Their Own

Pitcher Mike Leake began Sunday with his worst start as a Giant.  By the end of the day he had his first win as a Giant.

Start after start, he pitched well, and sometimes brilliantly, but didn't get the run support.  On Sunday he helped remedy that himself, with a three run homer.  What's with the Giants pitchers and their hitting?  Anyway, he had plenty of help against San Diego, as the Giants came back from 0-3 to win 10-3, and swept their first series of the home stand.

The current storylines include the emergence of Adrianza, still a work in progress both at shortstop and the plate, but a young player who got key hits and RBIs throughout this series.  Also the return to health and relevance of Angel Pagan, who celebrated his ability to run well and freely for the first time all year with three stolen bases, extra bases on hits and range in center field.

But when all is said and done this season, the story is going to be Buster Posey.  He may get lost in the drama, or because his excellence is consistent over many seasons and so a bit taken for granted.  But he's got the second highest batting average in the league, and is among the RBI leaders.  His presence behind the plate is invaluable to Giants pitchers.  In the past few weeks he's been authentically awesome, the batter sensible opponents fear.  And this is when both of the other Giants catchers are out for the year, and his bat is so valuable that he's not only playing every day, but catching every game.

No Crawford or Panik again, though Adrianza and Kelby Tomlinson both had key hits and good plays.  The Dodgers bullpen almost blew it again but not quite, as LA won 4-3.

Monday night starter against the Reds is Tim Hudson.  Should be a fun night at the ball park.

Meanwhile in Pittsburgh...The Cards broke their losing streak, but the Pirates were behind 6-1 to their odd nemesis, the Brewers.  Not to worry.  They worked back to a tie in the 7th, and victory in the 11th, 7-6.  They remain 2.5 back, with crucial series against the Cubs next and the Cards later, both at home, where they are just about invincible.

Saturday, September 12, 2015

Perfect Minus 1

On most occasions, a one-hitter is a one-hitter, which is pretty damn good.  But this wasn't most.  This was, once again, Madison Bumgarner going into the very late innings with a perfect game.  Tonight there were four outs to go when a clean single up the middle spoiled perfection.  Still, it was more than a one-hitter.  It was a game without Bumgarner allowing a walk or the Giants making an error.  It was perfect, except for one batter.

It's a weird thing to listen to.  The announcers have little to say when every single Padres player is 0 for 1 or 0 for 2, and eventually 0 for 3.  But for awhile it wasn't the story to get excited about.  The Giants once again beat up on the Padres offensively.  They did it exclusively with singles last night in a 9-1 win--which was, by the way, a 2 hitter for Jake Peavy.  But tonight they had singles, double, triples and homers by Pagan and Belt.  One of those triples was almost an inside the park homer.  The Giants scored 8 runs.  (Once again, no Crawford or Panik in the lineup, and Blanco is out as well, with a concussion.)

But by the 7th there was just one story, and the eyes of baseball all over the country were turning towards San Francisco.  And then with one swing, perfection was over.  And Madison Bumgarner had merely thrown a one-hit shutout complete game, for his 18th win of the season, matching his personal best of last year's regular season.  It was his third one-hitter, and the second one in two years that was perfect until very late in the game.

Sure, it's that time of year when teams clearly out of it are experimenting with minor leaguers they brought up.  And the Giants pitcher do tend to throw no-nos against the Padres.  But the Giants are only 8-6 v. the Padres by my count, overall this year.  So these are still real games.

Big moment of the night on Friday: manager and former pitcher Bruce Bochy had sent his son and (until recently) minor league pitcher Brett Bochy in for some relief work in the ninth.  Brett was doing well, got the first two outs, but gave up a hit and hit a batter.  The elder Bochy had other relievers who needed work, so he took his walk out to the mound, intending to take Brett out.

Now fellow old timers will recall that managers used to make multiple trips to the mound before the rule was changed to allow them only two visits per pitcher, meaning the second time the pitcher had to be taken out.  These days you seldom see a manager go to the mound except to take the pitcher out.  But he doesn't have to.

The fans knew what it meant when dad headed out to the mound, and they booed him.  They wanted to see Brett pitch some more.  Bruce Bochy heard them, and with an eight run lead, he told his son, you get one more batter.  He walked back to the dugout to the cheers.  Brett struck out the batter to end the game.  Hello Hollywood!

Meanwhile, things are REALLY getting interesting in the NL Central, as the Cards continue to skid while the Pirates are winning.  Today the Bucs won while both the Cards and Cubs lost.  The Bucs blowout over the Brewers included a pinch hit grand slam by former Giants playoff hero Michael Morse.  The Pirates are just 2.5 games out of first.

Wednesday, September 09, 2015

The Kid Comes Back (And So Does the Old Man)

It's a good thing the Giants aren't actually in a division race anymore.  On Tuesday they got back a starting pitcher and their All-Star second baseman, and both were great.  But in the fourth inning, after several plays at shortstop probably only he could make, Brandon Crawford left the game with recurrence of both the injuries that have kept him off the field.  He'll be out for at least "a few days."  So the Giants had their starting infield intact for all of three innings in the past month.

Announcer Jon Miller (I think it was) outlined what's happened since the last time the team had a day off, two weeks ago.  They went 5-9 while the Dodgers went 12-2.  And of course, 3 of the Dodger wins were over the Giants.  No Panik or Crawford or Pence.

But Tuesday's story--and Tuesday's win--was about the guys who made it back.  This is the fun of following a team this closely--to know these stories, to feel along with them.  Forty year old Tim Hudson pitched six strong innings, and had two hits, including--and this is getting to be a habit with these Giants pitchers--a home run.  The fourth of his career, the first as a Giant.  This is all but certainly his last season, and each game like this is precious.  I hope it all slowed down for him so he could savor it all.  He couldn't end his career on a better team.

Joe Panik, from last year's rookie to this year's All-Star, came back, and sparked the victory.  He hit, he ran, he fielded, he drove in runs, he scored--and he homered, too.  The Giants have one more game in Arizona, and then go home.  He may not play until then--and that place will rock to see him.

Tim Hudson has earned a place in the rotation, and it'll be great if he gets a start in the home park.  Somebody figured out that if he maintains his spot, he would pitch in the season's final series, to be played in Oakland, where he began his storied career.

It's also worth noting that a run scored due to Pagan's speed, and he's been out of the lineup for a long time as well.  Anyway, the Giants won 6-2 (Gregor Blanco homered again too), and the Dodgers won as well.  So far no implosion.

As for this last game in Arizona, it will likely be back to a much weakened lineup--without Crawford or Panik, and possibly with the substitute catcher, which means two very weak spots in the order.  Chris Heston will have to pitch a damn good game.

Meanwhile, the NL Central is getting interesting.  After the Pirates took two of three in St. Louis, the Cubs have defeated the Cards twice.  While that means the Bucs are now four games out of first, it also means that the Cubs are pressing them from behind--just two games behind them.  At this point they are probably playing for home field in the Wild Card game, but this is becoming a race worth watching.

The Pirates kept pace by beating the Reds with pitching and power, their formula.  I'm gearing up to follow them deep in the playoffs, but I am dismayed at the prospect of listening to their announcers.  They are awful.

Wednesday Update: Sure enough, the Giants were shorthanded and lost again by that ghastly score of 2-1, the most painful score of all really.  Chris Heston and the bullpen pitched very well--a 2 run homer was all Arizona got.  Joe Panik played but probably shouldn't have--he left hurting, if not hurt.  Now the Giants come home from this fateful road trip with a different emphasis--preparing for next year. But the fans will be out to make this not at all a sad time.  And Tim Hudson announced that indeed he is retiring at the end of this season.  The Cards beat the Cubs, the Pirates won, so there remains a little mystery in that division.

Saturday, September 05, 2015

Weird Enough Yet?

The game tonight is as good a microcosm of the Giants season as any.  Having lost two more players to injury, probably for the rest of the season (Aoki, Susak), after Lincecum's season-ending surgery was announced and news on the return of Hunter Pence was fairly doleful, the Giants had to scratch first baseman Brandon Belt from the starting lineup because of a stomach issue.

 Since manager Bochy was determined to give a banged-up Buster Posey the night off, that meant that Nick Noonan--called up this week--had to play first base, which he had never done professionally. Alejandro De Aza batted cleanup, for the first time in his big league career.

Then in the third inning, third-string catcher Hector Sanchez sprained his ankle trying to beat out a bunt.  With Susak gone, the only catcher the Giants had was Posey.  His night off was over.  

So what happened?  Giants announcers began the game carping on the lack of homers by the team.  The only one in forever was the eye-rolling blast by pitcher Ryan Vogelsong.  It was his first homer--in his entire career. How weird was that?

Apparently not weird enough.  Because in this game, starting pitcher Jake Peavy, in addition to handcuffing the Rockies, hit a double.  Then he hit another one, and got an RBI.  Peavy is not only a pitcher, but he's about as close to legally blind as any player allowed in the bigs.

And the Giants got a home run--by Angel Pagan.  Not the first in his career exactly, but the first all this season, and most of last season.

Nick Noonan doubled in a run--his first big league hit in a year.  And when Duffy made a difficult backhanded grab at third and his back foot slipped as he made his throw, Noonan stretched to get it like he's been playing first base all his life, and got the out.  Duffy had three hits, including a double that drove in two, giving the Giants a 4-1 lead.  De Aza had two hits, and on his day off Posey had one.

Then another Giants power hitter got a home run.  That would be Blanco.  His fourth of the year.

So the good starting pitching and the great relief pitching that the Giants have been getting in this losing streak this time got runs behind them, and the Giants won 7-3.

Meanwhile in St. Louis, the Cards defeated the Pirates.  That pretty much settles first place, barring a Cardinal dive and a Bucco surge.

Oh, also in Colorado, league home run leader Arenado hit another one--so he's homered in six straight games. That's a Rockies record.  So what's the major league record for homers in consecutive games you ask?  Well...

Return with me now to yesteryear (1958 or so), to an afternoon outside the confectionary (as they called themselves--the neighborhood store) about midway on my paper route where I often stopped for a frosty bottle of Verner's root beer from the cooler outside, and maybe some penny candy and a pack or two of baseball cards and the enclosed slice of pink bubble gum. (This was also the place where I once heard a local wit ask, how much are those nickel candy bars?  A question I've been asking ever since, and getting increasingly shocking answers.)

 This store was just a few doors up a sidestreet from Hamilton Avenue, catty-corner from the brick Knights of Columbus hall, behind which my grandfather occasionally played bocce, and next to the barber shop with the barber whose daughter was my 7th grade math teacher.  I think we were vaguely related, but then just about all the Italians in western PA were vaguely related.

Besides color photos of a player on one side and his stats on the other, the bubble gum baseball cards had a baseball quiz question at the bottom, with the answer upsidedown beneath it.  The question this particular sunny day was precisely the one I just asked.

The answer on that card was Dale Long, who homered in eight consecutive games. I remembered that today.  And dang if that still isn't the record, although a couple of more recent players also own it: Don Mattingly and Ken Griffey, Jr.   But Dale Long did it while he was on the Pittsburgh Pirates in 1956. which was only a couple of years before I read about it on that baseball card.  I hadn't started really following the Pirates then--not until 1958, when they astonished everyone by finishing in second place.

Dale Long, by the way, remains the only National Leaguer to hit homers in 8 consecutive games.  Arenado has a shot to be the second.  But he's probably going to have to hit one off Madison Bumgarner, who starts for the Giants Sunday.

Update Sunday: Arenado's streak ended at 6.  The only homer in Sunday's game was by Buster Posey, the 100th of his career.  Giants won 7-4, MadBum got his 17th win. Dodgers won over Padres.  Cubs won. Pirates rang up the Cards behind Gerrit Cole, to get 2 of 3.  Close game until late innings, 7-1.

Friday, September 04, 2015

A Winter's Tale

The three game sweep of the Giants will be talked about in L.A. for some time to come.  Every game was hard-fought, all settled by one run--the first in 14 innings, the next two by the score of 2-1.  Clayton Kershaw had a career game in the last one, pitching a complete game, and inducing more swings and misses that he ever has, or anyone else has this year.

Giants fans however may remember a very odd but telling detail about those last two games.  In a crucial late inning in both of them, with the Giants threatening, an umpire named Winters made a crucial call that some Giants strongly disagreed with.  When manager Bruce Bochy defended his players, Winters tossed him from the game.  Both games.  Both of the games that the Giants lost 2-1.

As Bochy said after the first instance, that kind of thing just isn't done--not in games like this, between teams like this, at this time of year.  The idea that Bochy, acknowledged as the best manager in baseball, would do or say something so flagrant to earn such a quick hook is pretty much unthinkable.

Something really wrong there.  Wonder what it is, and if anybody will try to find out.

In the two games since that epic series, both teams showed exhaustion in their first game out but the Dodgers recovered for a win tonight, while the Giants did not.  They lost by that same awful score of 2-1, in usually hitting-friendly Colorado.  Chris Heston pitched well, but gave up back to back homers to the league's home run leaders in the first inning, and that was all.  Once again, Marlon Byrd struck out in the game's most crucial at-bat.

This was the Giants' seventh loss in a row, and unless this streaky team suddenly goes on an epic winning streak, the front office attention turns towards winter, and the moves the team needs to make for next season, beginning with a new starting rotation.

There is still some potentially intriguing baseball to come.  What will it be like to have Joe Panik, Brian Crawford (both injured) on the field again with Matt Duffy (showing signs of wear) but with Kelby Tomlinson in the mix?  What will it be like to have Hunter Pence in the lineup, but with Byrd and their latest acquisition Alejandro De Aza available, as well as Blanco?  That infield may happen soon, the outfield before season's end, maybe.  (More bad news on the injury front came Saturday: Aoki is out again with recurrent concussion symptoms, Susak reinjured--both may miss the rest of the season.  Meanwhile the return of Hunter Pence may not come until the season's final week, if then. Earlier it was announced that Tim Lincecum will undergo hip surgery, so he won't return this year.)

Meanwhile, the Pittsburgh Pirates broke a four game losing streak to beat their rival Cardinals in St. Louis and move to 5.5 games out of first.  But they'd have to sweep the series to make a real dent in that lead.  Not easy to do in St. Louis. J.A.Happ, acquired in July, gave the Pirates 7 scoreless on Friday, and with Burnett coming back, pitching seems even stronger.

Tuesday, September 01, 2015

Reality Check

For awhile now, the Giants getting into the postseason was an unlikely possibility.  Now after dropping the final two games at home with St. Louis, and the first two games of three at Los Angeles, that has grown more remote.  Not impossible, not on the first of September, but some dramatic stuff will have to happen.

But you know what?  They still give you your money's worth.  Bruce Bochy said he was proud of how they played in the L.A. opener on Monday (into Tuesday), even though they lost in the 14th inning.  (Had it gone 15, they likely would have won, because the Dodgers were out of pitchers.)  Credit the Dodgers relievers, otherwise that team's weakness.

Things could have hardly gone worse in that epic opener.  On the last day before roster expansion, the starters had to stay in the game for 14 innings and the bullpen, already overused, got stretched to the limit.  And Brandon Crawford got injured all over again, in his first game back.  They just never got the one hit that might have salvaged at least the win, in the game of the series that on paper they were more likely to win than the other two.

Tuesday night an exhausted team, fielding some players who had just joined or rejoined the club, couldn't support MadBum's start, and they lost the second game 2-1.  The Giants have learned how to win without Pence, but they haven't without Crawford.  Buster Posey, who caught 14 innings in a game that ended after midnight, was back behind the plate, and got one hit. That's heroic.  Manager Bochy as well as pitcher Jake Peavy were ejected for arguing a key strikeout call in the 7th, when the Giants had runners on second and third.  Once again, Matt Duffy made a stellar play and got a key hit.

Some will say the Giants' season is over, but you know, it just ain't.  They play good ball, heroic at times, fun to watch.  This road trip may have already turned deadly--especially if they lose the third game (and the pitching matchup says they probably will)--but they are at home for most of the rest of the season.  There will be great days and evenings at their San Francisco park, fans will see terrific baseball and have fun.  Kids will get their certificate for seeing their first Giants game, as my pal Beckett did last weekend.

It also looks more and more likely that the Pirates will get into the postseason only as a Wild Card.  They lost Tuesday while the Cards won.

Friday, August 28, 2015

Super Kelby!!

Once again the mild-manner re-, ah, second baseman surveys the scene.  The game is tied, bottom of the ninth, Giants against the Cards, the team with the best record in the majors.  The Giants have squandered a 4 run lead, left a lot of runners on base all game, but now, the bases are loaded.  And this looks like a job for...

Super-Kelby!  With two strikes he scorches a liner past the overshifted infield, and the Giants win 5-4.

True, the ball didn't go nearly as far (and again I repeat myself) as the home run by Marlon Byrd.  Not a three run shot to center this time.  Nah.  A grand slam to center.  Yesterday Kelby hit the seventh grand slam of the year for the Giants, tying a club record.  Tonight the record was broken with the eighth.

Kelby Tomlinson also made a terrific play in the field in the top of the ninth that helped keep the Cards from scoring, and set up his own dramatics.  With his slam yesterday and the winning hit tonight, both before sold out crowds at home, he's becoming a social media star.  Only a matter of time before the oversized Clark Kent glasses show up in the stands, if they haven't already.

Mike Leake pitched his second strong game in a row at home, and again doesn't get a win.  His wild pitch however was costly.  Gregor Blanco was back in the lineup and had two hits, and drew a walk in the ninth.

Brandon Crawford was really missed this game in the field, and the news of a faster recovery yesterday was reversed today.  The soonest he'll be back in the field is in L.A.  Matt Cain went on the DL, Chris Heston was recalled to replace him, he starts on Sunday.  Angel Pagan also won't rejoin the club until Sept. 1.

The Dodgers also won so the Giants only stay at 2.5 back, but the more games they win now, the more pressure there is on the Dodgers when they go to L.A. next week.  The Pirates won, and so thanks to the Giants, they gain a game on St. Louis.

It's kind of amazing but with all these injuries, the only conspicuous weakness the Giants have in the field and at bat is Adrianza when he's at short (that's with Aoki and Blanco back).  The starting rotation still has some gaps but the bullpen is making good use of young arms like Strickland, Osich and Broadway as well as the veterans.  The expanded roster is going to help the starting situation, if not directly,  then with long relievers.

Thursday, August 27, 2015

Kelby!

It was the eighth inning, runners on second and third.  The Cubs elected to intentionally walk Byrd-man (who earlier in the game hit a three run homer to put the Giants comfortably ahead) to load the bases for the mild-mannered reporter--er, second baseman--Kelby Tomlinson.  Who, on a 1-2 count and without even taking off his Clark Kent glasses, turned into Superman, and launched his first major league home run--which also happened to be a grand slam.

Look, up in the sky!  It's a bird, it's a plane--no, it's a baseball!  And it's gone, it's bye bye baby, it's outa here!

It's true that Marlon Byrd's homer to center was about 100 feet longer, but Tomlinson's was special--the home crowd responded with a standing O, and Kelby flashed his super smile.

And arguably it wasn't even his most important hit of the game.  He got the Giants' first hit with two outs in the second, and was running when Perez doubled and scored the tying run from first.  The Cubs were ahead in the game for exactly a half inning.

 Madison Bumgarner had an uneasy second but otherwise dominated, with 12 strikeouts in 6 innings.  Manager Bochy took him out with a four run lead, which Tomlinson turned into eight.  Final score was 9-1.  MadBum got the win, which makes him 5-0 in August.  He's once again sharing a club record with Juan Marichal--the only two Giants pitchers to go 5-0 in a month three times.

The standings didn't change today, as the Dodgers, Pirates and Cards all won.  This was only the second Giants win against the Cubs this year, but the Chicago team suddenly looks vulnerable.  They are such a young team that they could take a dive to follow this incredible hot streak.  It bears watching.  (No, that's not a Chicago joke, exactly.)

Tomorrow night the Cards and their ace Macha.  The Giants played well enough in St. Louis that home field could be the difference in this series.  I look for them to win two.  Their upcoming road trip to Los Angeles looms ever larger.

Duffy's ankle was good enough for him to play, and play well.  Crawford's injury reportedly not as bad as first reported.  Yet the Giants won two games against the Cubs with only three players who started the season at their position--and only one of them (catcher Buster Posey) hasn't lost games to injury this year.  (One starter lost his job to Matt Duffy and is gone.)

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Running Wounded

It's why they play the game, and why this team is so much fun to follow.

Injuries seemingly have been rampant almost everywhere this year but with the San Francisco Giants it is getting ridiculous.  Missing three starting position players already and a rotating two or three starting pitchers, the Giants on Wednesday lost their All Star shortstop, home run leader and RBI leader for most of the season, Brandon Crawford.  And the player who came off the bench to become an offensive as well as defensive mainstay in center field, Gregor Blanco. This was but a few hours after reliever Jeremy Affeldt had another of his habitual weird household accidents and was out.

And then in Wednesday's game, their rookie of the year Matt Duffy sprained an ankle.  He stayed in the game and was instrumental in the Giant's victory, but he's day to day.

Did I say victory?  Their first win over the Chicago Cubs this year, 4-2.  Timely hitting and running by rookie replacement Kelby Tomlinson, a gut-check pitching performance by starter Jake Peavy, and bullpen perfection won the day, ending with Casia's incredible ninth inning--he threw 8 pitches, all strikes, and got two strikeouts and a ground out.  And no drama.

As for the walking wounded, Duffy is day-to-day, Crawford will sit out tomorrow's game (rubber match with the Cubs, Bumgarner pitching) but hopes to be back for the first game with the Cards.  No word on Blanco, but Angel Pagan is scheduled to be back for the Cards series.  Encouraging words on Joe Panik's return soon as well.

Tim Hudson may return early to pitch Sunday in Matt Cain's spot, or Chris Heston could be recalled, to replace an injured pitcher.  Pence is not even in the conversation yet.

The Cubs victory on Tuesday sent several local writers into despair about a wild card spot, but I thought that's been pretty much out of reach for awhile.  Even with this loss, the Cubs are 21-5 in their last 26 games.  The Mets aren't quite as hot but they're close.  While the Giants lost one and won one, the Dodgers won two, and are 2.5 games in front.  The schedule just doesn't favor the Giants the rest of the way, and a musical chairs lineup doesn't help either.

But then there are games like this one, that started like it was going to be an absolute disaster, almost got into keystone kops territory again in the sixth, and then a few key hits and a mesmerizing bullpen turned it into an electric evening in San Francisco.

Meanwhile the Pirates beat up on the Marlins, as Cutch hit a 3-run shot, his 20th homer of the year.  St. Louis also won, over Arizona.

 

Sunday, August 23, 2015

How to Win at Baseball

If baseball games were won on style points, the SF Giants would be returning from their road trip with at least five wins.  Unfortunately, the team that scores the most runs wins the game, and on that basis, the Giants went 2-5, winning one game in St. Louis out of three, and one out of four in Pittsburgh.

The last two in Pittsburgh were those style point victories, including Sunday's 5-2 loss.  The Giants did everything better but score runs, and not coincidentally, hit homers.  The Pirates again won with power on Sunday--dingers by Cutch and Alvarez.  But they need to be careful of relying on it too much--their baserunning was sloppy on Saturday, and their defense was sloppy on Sunday.

But if revenge for the Giants' victory in last year's Wild Card game that kept them out of the postseason was the motivation, the Pirates got it.  They've won the regular season series 6-1.  That alone might ensure they won't meet again in a wild card game this season.

In Sunday's game Ryan Vogelsong had a bad start, lasting only 3.5 innings after giving up 3 runs in the first.  Again the bullpen gave up solo homers, but again the biggest problem was the Giants inability to cash in runners.  For the Giants hit pretty well on this road trip and in this game, but not when it counted most.  Duffy had 3 hits Sunday, Crawford doubled deep, and Tomlinson, Aoki, Perez and Blanco hit.  Though Crawford was robbed of RBIs by his double bouncing into the stands, Buster Posey again went 0-5, as did Byrd.  Both left men on base.

The only saving grace is that the Dodgers lost 5 in a row, and SF actually picked up a game on the roadtrip.  But even now at home they will be tested: by the Cubs, who started their current torrid winning ways by dominating the Giants in Chicago,  and then the Cards.  The Cubs are so hot that they are locking up the second wild card, while Arizona and San Diego are moving closer to the second place Giants in the division.  As Bruce Bochy said before today's game, there's only one task to concentrate on for the rest of the schedule: win games.  And you do that (let's review) by...scoring the most runs in each one.  

Saturday, August 22, 2015

Are the Bucs Going All the Way?

So today, in the third game in Pittsburgh between the two teams I follow, the Pirates prevailed 3-2, showing their postseason potential.

They crushed three solo homers, two by Kang and the walk-off in the ninth by Marte, who earlier in the field had robbed a homer from Brandon Crawford.  The Giants dinked their two runs and had plenty of chances for more--twice they had a man on third with one out, and didn't cash in.  As good as Byrd looked yesterday, he looked woeful today.  Duffy, Belt and Blanco are all playing well, but when your RBI guys--Posey and Crawford in this lineup--aren't hitting, chances to win decline severely.

Mike Leake had a very good start, giving up just one hit--unfortunately it was Kang's first homer.  Cole had a bumpier time for the Pirates but he pitched out of jams most of the time.  The Giants stole bases, the Pirates got caught.  The Pirates' second-string catcher had a real tough game.  But the Pirates' difference-maker is power up and down the lineup.

So after Hunter Strictland picks off a runner at third and there are two outs, on the next pitch Kang hits a long home run.  And in the ninth, as Kontos seems very sharp and in command, and with two strikes on the batter, Marte hits a long one to end the game.

I'm finding it impossible to root against the Giants or even remain neutral--I've just listened to too many of their games.  But I had a familiar feeling when the score was tied in the eighth.  It was the feeling that the Pirates, playing with assurance, were going to find a way to win it, in the ninth or the fifteenth, whatever it took.  It's the same kind of confidence as with the 1979 champions.

The Pirates just have that feeling about them now.  This could be their year.

Meanwhile the Giants didn't lose ground, as the Dodgers lost to Houston again.  The Pirates picked up a game on St. Louis, which lost big to San Diego.

Correction: The Giants sent Chris Heston down to make room for Marlon Byrd, not Mike Leake.  They subsequently sent down outfielder Ryan Lollis to make room for Leake.  It sounds as if Pagan's return is still a week or so away, pretty close to--and perhaps past--Sept. 1, when active rosters expand from 25 to 40 when Heston and perhaps Lollis rejoin the Giants.

Friday, August 21, 2015

Byrd in the Hand

Marlon Byrd made the SF Giants front office look mighty good by launching a two-run homer in his first at-bat as a Giant, in Pittsburgh Friday.  He also doubled and singled in the game, going 3 for 5.

With that homer, Byrd instantly became the Giants' home run leader with 20 for the year.  Brian Crawford has been stuck at 19 for awhile.

Madison Bumgarner pitched 6 and a third gritty innings, giving up but two runs, which he got back with a 400 foot plus homer with one on.  He's homered in his last two starts.

The Giants offence then stalled and the Pirates chipped away in their usual relentless fashion, but the Giants' bullpen bent but did not break, and the Giants won the second game of this four game set, 6-4.

All the heroics (that included some excellent fielding by Duffy and Blanco) obscured the shocker of the day--to make required roster room in activating Mike Leake (who will start on Saturday), the Giants sent their second-best pitcher back to the minors.  Chris Heston will get some rest and some less pressured work for 10 days, until the rosters expand and he can rejoin the club.

Maybe others expected this but I sure didn't.  Still, it makes some sense, especially after a strong couple of starts by Vogelsong and a promising start by Matt Cain.  Heston is, after all, a rookie, and his shaky starts recently could indicate some bad habits that need to be corrected before they get worse, or even just a breather from big league pressure before it gets really intense in September.

Manager Bruce Bochy didn't want to give up a position player--his bench is replete with good gloves but not so many bats.  In a pitching emergency, Tim Hudson could be quickly activated.  The next decision point may be when Angel Pagan is healthy.

Marlon Byrd started in right field, which is the short side in Pittsburgh but the long side in San Francisco.  I'd look for him to start games there but be platooned with a younger fielder in the late innings of close games.  His three hits Friday came on his first three at-bats.  Aoki was in left field, and he had a three hit day as well, leading off.

Blanco has started hitting again after a slumping start to the road trip.  Buster Posey is slumping in terms of hits but he drove in the first run with a sac fly, and he's hit some very deep balls on this trip.  Brian Crawford, who got his hitting streak broken yesterday, got a hit today.

So far the series works for me, as I'd like to see it even at 2-2.  Mike Leake starts Saturday, against the Pirates ace, Gerit Cole.  Leake normally pitches well against the Bucs, but this is his first game off the DL.

The Pirates also got back their leadoff man, Josh Harrison, who started at second base.  When Mercer comes back, the Bucs hope to soon be in the enviable position of having 5 infielders who can start (and hit) for three positions.  They're going to be something in the postseason.

Speaking of postseason, one of the heroes of the 2013 postseason for the Pirates was none other than Marlon Byrd.

In today's races, the Pirates lost no ground as the Cards lost, but the Giants picked up a game when Mike Fiers of the Astros threw a no-hitter against the Dodgers.  The last LA batter was up as the Giants announcers were beginning their postgame wrap, so they did an improvised and hilarious fake play by play (Ronald Reagan-style, by picking up the pitch off the wire and making up the rest) on Fier's final strikeout.  I'm sorry but I'm absolutely spoiled for any other announcing team--they all sound like fake automatons next to these guys.


Thursday, August 20, 2015

Pop

The Giants' dilemma became really obvious in the past two games.  After the bullpen gave up the one run lead to St. Louis, the best the Giants could do in the ninth for a pinch-hitter was pitcher Madison Bumgarner.  They lost 4-3.  At the end of the next game in Pittsburgh, the last two batters including pinch hitter Andrew Susak had below .250 averages.  The Giants lost 4-0.

So today the Giants acquired Marlon Byrd, a right-side hitting outfielder, who even late in career has as many homers as the Giants' current leader, Brandon Crawford, at 19.  Without Pence in the lineup, this move was inevitable, and cost the Giants another young pitching prospect.  Will it turn out to mean anything?  A very qualified maybe.

Byrd is probably a liability in the field however, and though lacking pop, the current roster of Giants outfielders have proven to be excellent fielders, robbing opponents of hits and runs.  Juan Perez got a rare start in St. Louis and took away a home run with a spectacular fence-climbing catch.

In this game Giants infielders made the great plays: Crawford and Duffy, and Tomlinson not too shabby either.

The Giants did get one of three in St. Louis, and the last game hurt.  But Matt Cain had his best start, so in that way it was a positive.  Now the Giants will have to struggle for a split in Pittsburgh to get three wins on this road trip.  It won't be easy.  However, Aoki is back (and got a hit), and Mike Leake is expected to start on Sunday.

Neil Walker had a titanic homer, Charlie Morton pitched very well for the Bucs.  The Pirates are very strong at home, and their versatility at bat and on the bases is really formidable when their starters pitch well--which they do, better than anybody in the league except St. Louis.  

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Giants Victorious--and Penceless (Again)

Monday night in St. Louis, the SF Giants behind 2-1 with two outs in the ninth and a man aboard, Buster Posey hits a drive that off the bat looks like a sure home run to put the Giants ahead.  But it lands a foot or so short in the outfielder's glove, his back on the wall, to end the game.

What else could go wrong?

Well.

Earlier that inning, Hunter Pence hit a deep drive to center that looked like it might go out, but it didn't.  It was caught on the warning track.  On his way to first, Pence flinched and grabbed his side.

That's what.

Pence hurt his oblique muscle, and was taken out of the lineup for Tuesday's game. So the Giants play the team with the best record in baseball, without a single starter in the outfield, and without the starting second baseman.   Maxwell is in right, Blanco in center (though Blanco at this point may well be considered the starting center fielder) and Lollis starts his first major league game in left.   Oh, and without the previously announced starting pitcher, Mike Leake.

So what happens?

The Giants win 2-0, behind a sweaty but ultimately successful start by Ryan Vogelsong, and with a pinch hit by...that man again...Madison Bumgarner.  He singled to start the 7th and scored the second run when Belt was hit by a pitch with the bases loaded.  Rookies Tomlinson and Duffy got hits, and Ryan Lollis got his first major league hit. Rookie Osich pitched a perfect relief inning. Lollis made a pretty nifty catch in left, as did Maxwell out of his usual position in right.  Blanco hit as well, but that's becoming normal.  Crawford hit safely in his 12th straight game, a personal high.  Buster Posey just missed another homer to center.

It's an object lesson never to count this team out, but... The danger signs for the near future are formidable.  After the game the word was that Pence will go on the 15-day DL...again.  Right at the wrong moment.  Even within the win, there were too many left on base, and an 0 for 10 with runners in scoring position.

The good news?  Susak is back, Leake and Aoki probably soon will be.  And these guys play hard.  Chris Heston also gutted out his start on Monday and held the Cards to 2 runs.  Posey, Crawford and Duffy have to keep on being spectacular, they need Aoki to return to early season form, Belt to stay hot, etc.

Matt Cain starts tomorrow--maybe his last chance to return to his dominant form before "decisions are made" when Leake returns.  With two good starts in a row, Vogelsong has earned his spot in the rotation.  It's been suggested that Cain accept a minor league assignment so he could work out the kinks with less pressure.  Of course, a strong scoreless seven will throw all those calculations into the wind.

As might a deal, as might be in the offing soon. Like tomorrow.

Meanwhile, the Pirates won another extra-innings game, this time outslugging Arizona in 15, 9-8.  But it wasn't easy--they blew a big lead, some sloppy play, but at home they find a way.  


Sunday, August 16, 2015

A Day to Savor

If the San Francisco Giants publicity department had been empowered to script Sunday's game at the home field, they couldn't have topped what actually happened.

Thousands of fans received small copies of the statue at the park of Hall of Famer Juan Marichal, the great Giants pitcher of the 1960s.  Marichal was himself on hand, doing interviews with TV and radio.    In one such interview, Marichal recalled that in his last major league win, he struck out slugger Reggie Jackson three times.

In the actual game, Madison Bumgarner was on the mound, facing the Washington Nationals.  The last time he pitched to them, in Washington, two of the first three hitters hit home runs.  In Sunday's first inning he struck out the side.

When young Joe Ross also struck out the side in the first, a real pitchers' battle seemed in the offing,  Both pitchers went 1-2-3 in the second, although it took three good plays for MadBum.  After the high-scoring game Saturday night, the Giants announcers joked how much better they sounded when they had lots of hits and runs to describe.  Not like "another 1-2-3-inning," Duane Kiper said with exaggerated slowness.  Well, it looked like it could be that kind of game.

Then to start the third, Gregor Blanco got a seeing-eye hit up the middle, which still seemed as if it was an anomaly.  But then the Giants started teeing off on Ross.  Duffy and Belt just missed homers (as Crawford would later, by inches) but Hunter Pence didn't.  His titanic shot capped a 3 run inning.

Two more runs were driven in later, both by MadBum himself, with a double and his fourth home run of the season, a no-doubt-about-it drive into the stands in left.  Meanwhile, his pitching just got stronger.  And when the dust cleared....

Bumgarner had pitched his second complete game in a row, beginning and ending this 5-1 homestand.  He fanned 14, tying his career high.  And he became the second SF Giant pitcher to pitch a shutout, strike out at least 10 and homer in the same game.  The first?  Who else?

Juan Marichal.

The only two Giant pitchers to do that were in the stadium at the same time, separated in their playing time by some 40 years.

Incidentally, after Marichal's Reggie Jackson story, Bumgarner matched him--he struck out one of baseball's top hitters this year, Bryce Harper, three times.  And added fanning the Nationals' leadoff hitter four times.  Sunday's 5-0 game completed the 4-game sweep of Washington, and one upped the Giants in the season series now completed, those 4 to the 3 game sweep the Nats inflicted in July.

This was, as announcer Jon Miller said, a day to savor.  And if you were there, a program to carefully put away to keep.

Now the Giants head out for a fateful 7 game road trip--3 games in St. Louis against the club with the most wins in baseball, and 4 games in Pittsburgh against the team with the second best record in baseball.  (Washington's only solace this weekend was that the Bucs swept the Mets, and so the Nats didn't lose any more ground in their division race.)

But let's stay with that a second--the Pirates went into New York against one of the three hottest teams in baseball, and swept them on the road, in two extra-inning games and in what was a close low-scoring game on Sunday until the 7th, when Pirates bats erupted. Alex Ramirez struck the fatal double, one of his four hits. They ended up winning 8-1.

So now my mind games begin.  Every Giants victory against St. Louis not only helps them, but may help the Pirates.  I'd be happy with a split in Pittsburgh.  But frankly a 3-4 trip would be really okay.

The Giants may be further bouyed by pitcher Mike Leake and catcher
Andrew Susak coming off the DL, and Aoki is expected to be ready when his concussion DL is up.  So Leake may be available for a start in St. Louis, Susak may be as well, but all three are likely to be active when the team is in Pittsburgh.
The news on Joe Panik is less positive--just more medical consultations about his back.