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


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?


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.