April 2009

Groin injury sidelines Sandoval

SAN FRANCISCO — Third baseman Pablo Sandoval left Wednesday’s game against the Los Angeles Dodgers after three innings with a tight left groin.

Sandoval spent plenty of time running the bases in the first couple of innings. He singled and scored on Bengie Molina’s triple in the first before grounding into an inning-ending force play in the second. Juan Uribe replaced Sandoval in the lineup.

– Chris Haft

Bochy on Lewis, Ishikawa

SAN FRANCISCO — As Dodgers left-hander Eric Stults throws his first pitch of the second inning to the backstop on the fly, I’ll try to readjust my focus to some of the more relevant subjects from Giants manager Bruce Bochy’s pregame address Wednesday.

Bochy addressed the issue of left fielder Fred Lewis, who struck out three times in each of the previous two games. Bochy said that Lewis’ struggles have nothing to do with his elevation to the leadoff spot. Rather, Lewis is having trouble catching up with hard stuff and adjusting to soft stuff — which is a dreadful combination.

“He’s late with his setup and his swing,” Bochy said. “He’s getting caught in between. He’s late on the fastball and out in front on the breaking ball.”

Bochy also noticed a difference in Lewis’ stance. His back was turned slightly more toward the pitcher’s mound. “That may be part of why he’s not seeing the ball as well,” Bochy said.

Lewis improved somewhat in his first two plate appearances Wednesday, flying out to the edge of the warning track and grounding out to shortstop.

Before addressing reporters, Bochy sat at one end of the dugout with Travis Ishikawa, discussing the first baseman’s baserunning from the previous evening. Ishikawa was doubled off third base on Emmanuel Burriss’ line drive, ending the sixth inning.

“We definitely have to improve on the bases,” Bochy said. “This past week’s been a rough one for us.”

If you’re a Giants fan, you would have been encouraged to see a relatively inexperienced player like Ishikawa receive assertive yet constructive feedback directly from the skipper.

– Chris Haft

Nifty one-liners from Monday, Aurilia bats cleanup

SAN FRANCISCO — Rich Aurilia, king of the one-liners among the Giants, spun another good one as he described the odd eighth-inning play that was instrumental in San Francisco’s 5-4 victory Monday over the Dodgers.

After fielding Aurilia’s nubber up the first-base line, Dodgers right-hander Ronald Belisario gloved the ball and unwisely flipped it home — while positioned smack dab in front of Aurilia and directly over his head.

“I ‘Matrixed’ him,” Aurilia joked.

Right-hander Merkin Valdez, who earned Monday’s decision, delivered a perhaps unintentionally witty response when asked how he felt on the mound upon pitching for the first time since April 16.

“Fresh,” Valdez said.

***

Aurilia also made a funny remark referring to Barry Bonds’ presence in the park Monday. “It felt weird hitting cleanup with that guy here,” Aurilia said.

Certainly Aurilia hasn’t been the offensive dynamo that Bonds was in the middle of the order. But Aurilia wasn’t a slouch in his limited appearances batting fourth, either.

With Cincinnati in 2006, Aurilia accumulated 227 at-bats as a cleanup hitter, sometimes with Ken Griffey Jr. and Adam Dunn surrounding him and sometimes when either one of them needed a rest. Aurilia hit .269 — not bad for a so-called bench player — with 11 home runs and 33 RBI. His slugging percentage was .485.

For his career, entering Monday, Aurilia’s .835 slugging percentage in 77 games (including 68 starts) at cleanup is his best from any spot in the batting order, except for leadoff (a spot he has occupied only 10 times and just once as a starter). His lifetime batting average at cleanup was .295 (84-for-309) with 12 homers and 43 RBIs.

– Chris Haft  

More position-player shuffling in store

SAN FRANCISCO — Manager Bruce Bochy sounded like an editor Wednesday when he said that adding catcher Steve Holm to the club will enable the Giants to have “better coverage.”

Bochy meant better coverage at catcher, a position Bengie Molina had manned for every inning of the previous 13 games. The Giants added Holm not just to serve as Molina’s occasional backup while Pablo Sandoval continues to play third base. Holm will enable the Giants to rest Molina in the late innings, sparing the veteran some wear and tear.

And, of course, Bochy still has the option of doing what he did Wednesday: Starting Sandoval behind the plate and inserting capable utilityman Juan Uribe at third. If Bochy had to remove Sandoval for some reason or switch him to another position, Molina could continue to rest, as long as Holm’s around.

Before the Giants could recall Holm, he had to heal a bruised right elbow he sustained when he was hit by a pitch on April 13. Holm rested a few days before playing Saturday and Sunday for Triple-A Fresno.

Most observers figured that the Giants would summon Holm at some point, given their stated desire to keep a three-catcher contingent (including Sandoval). But Holm himself assumed nothing.

“I didn’t know,” Holm said. “You don’t want to get caught up in stuff like that.”

As has been reported, Holm’s arrival shrank the pitching staff to 11, since reliever Alex Hinshaw was optioned to Fresno. But with only four scheduled off-days between May 1 and the All-Star break that begins July 13, San Francisco’s pitchers could be susceptible to fatigue, meaning another move will have to be made.

“My guess is we’ll go back to 12 (pitchers) at some point,” Bochy said.

Once the Giants feel that need, Holm won’t necessarily be the position player who disappears to the Minors. Eugenio Velez or Andres Torres could be vulnerable instead.

– Chris Haft

It’s Ishikawa, not Aurilia, at first base

SAN FRANCISCO — Contrary to what he announced Tuesday, manager Bruce Bochy started Travis Ishikawa at first base instead of Rich Aurilia on Wednesday afternoon against the San Diego Padres.

Bochy’s explanation was simple: He liked what he saw Tuesday night, when Ishikawa went 2-for-3 with two RBIs. Keeping his bat in the lineup was the right thing to do, Bochy reasoned.

“This is where, as a manager, you have the right to change your mind,” Bochy said. Of Ishikawa, Bochy said, “He looks like he’s being more selective, yet at the same time when he gets his pitches, he’s letting it go.”

Center fielder Aaron Rowand, bothered by a mild ankle injury, received Wednesday off. This, combined with Thursday’s scheduled off-day, should enable Rowand to rejoin the lineup Friday at Arizona.

Tuesday’s postgame move: Hinshaw out, Holm returns; etc.

SAN FRANCISCO — The Giants re-entered the mode they appeared to favor during much of Spring Training — using an 11-man pitching staff and employing three catchers — by optioning left-hander Alex Hinshaw to Triple-A Fresno and recalling Steve Holm after Tuesday’s 8-3 victory over San Diego.<p/>

To answer the question that seemed to be on everybody’s lips, Pablo Sandoval, the everyday third baseman, will still catch Wednesday afternoon’s series finale, as manager Bruce Bochy had announced before Tuesday’s game.

Asked about the timing of the move, Bochy said “it’s getting at that point” where an extra catcher is necessary. Using Sandoval to catch even occasionally is risky, since the Giants don’t want to lose their regular third baseman to one of those injuries that easily strikes catchers.

Besides, Bochy said, “I’m getting concerned about wearing Bengie down, even though it’s early (in the season).” Molina caught every inning of the Giants’ first 13 games.<p/>

Hinshaw, who had an 8.44 ERA in seven appearances, might have been demoted no matter what he did in Tuesday’s game. But he didn’t help himself by falling behind on the count 3-1 against a left-handed batter, Brian Giles, who ultimately singled. Hinshaw did retire Adrian Gonzalez, another left-handed hitter, to end the game. But Hinshaw, who walked five in 5 1/3 innings, might not return until his command does, also.

Besides, with two more scheduled off days coming up each of the next two Thursdays and the starting pitchers beginning to work deeper into games, the Giants figure that they can afford shrinking the staff from 12 to 11.

***

This has nothing to do with anything, but I must confess that sometimes I’m a little TOO old-school.

When Molina just missed tagging out two runners at home plate on the same play Tuesday, my first thought was, “Luke Sewell.” Luke Sewell caught for 20 years in the big leagues between 1921 and 1942 and was good enough to be an All-Star. With Washington in 1933, he also tagged out Lou Gehrig and Dixie Walker at home on the same play. I remembered this because I read about it in “This Great Game,” an early 1970s coffee-table book stuffed with outstanding photographs and historical perspective. I also read a recollection of this play rendered by my patron baseball-writing saint, Roger Angell.

But a Google search revealed a list compiled by Society of American Baseball Research members David Smith and David Vincent, who compiled a list of similar plays — although there have been only about six others remotely like it. Luke Sewell’s was the oldest, chronologically. I swear, sometimes I think I’m a living, breathing rotary phone.

– Chris Haft

Behold Tim Lincecum, in all his glory

SAN FRANCISCO — Watching Tim Lincecum pitch is the best show in baseball.

I declared that in my final Mailbag column (which has since given way to the Inbox) last December, and that feeling was reaffirmed Saturday as the diminutive Giant struck out 13 in eight shutout innings against the Arizona Diamondbacks.

In a galling outcome for San Francisco, Arizona won, 2-0, with a pair of ninth-inning runs. But at least the Giants left the park knowing that their ace’s skills remained intact.

“He is so big for this ballclub. That’s no question,” Giants manager Bruce Bochy said. “It’s going to make us a better club having him healthy.”

Not that the Giants ever doubted Lincecum, the reigning National League Cy Young Award winner. But a handful of national baseball writers had expressed skepticism about the right-hander. Some cited scouts who pointed out that Lincecum’s velocity had diminished. Others considered the 49 2/3-inning increase in his workload last year over 2007 and whispered that his arm had weakened.

Lincecum knows this cynicism well.

“People are going to say what they want,” he said. “That’s been my whole life. People are saying I”m going to do something and I don’t. That just gives me more motivation to want to come out and get better. My expectations, of course, are the highest of anybody’s — [higher] than fans, my dad; I want to do better than any of them want me to. You try to live up to your own expectations; sometimes that can be tough. So you try to take a step back and make the game simple again. That’s what I tried to do today.”

What was simple wouldn’t have been possible without the subtle. By studying videotapes, Lincecum noticed that his left (front) foot was landing three inches closer than usual to the right-handed batter’s box. This flaw muted his fastball and threw his other deliveries askew. Steering his motion more directly toward home plate yielded the desired effect. 

Improved health also helped. Bronchitis bothered Lincecum in Spring Training, and a queasy stomach nagged him as recently as this week.

But the Lincecum who lasted a combined 8 1/3 innings while compiling a 7.56 ERA in his previous two starts was gone. He was replaced by the Lincecum whose fastball reached 95 mph as late as the seventh inning — though, as always, he complemented his heat with his arresting curveball and sweeping change-up.

The fans, who ended an otherwise glorious afternoon by showering boos upon San Francisco’s hitters and relievers, released their pent-up Timmy-love early and often. They sounded appreciative after Lincecum struck out the final two batters to end both the first and second innings. But after he repeated this feat in the third inning, the crowd’s roar was even louder and more triumphant — as if spectators had just received undeniable confirmation that their hero had returned.

Lincecum ended three of the next five innings with strikeouts, giving fans ample opportunity to cheer in anticipation when the count reached two strikes. They did so without prompting from the scoreboard — a welcome development and an improvement over 2008, when two-strike counts caused an oafish “Make Some Noise”-type exhortation to appear on the Big Mitsubishi.

As is often the case with Lincecum, his effectiveness began with his pregame warmup — which he didn’t even begin until after the National Anthem was rendered. “Usually I try to use my bullpens to get loose and get a rhythm,” Lincecum said. “But today I made a little bit better point of trying to throw strikes as well as trying to get a rhythm. Make it more of a game-like situation.”

– Chris Haft
 

Joe Martinez, superhuman

SAN FRANCISCO — Dr. Anthony Saglimbeni’s praise of Joe Martinez might have been a little hyperbolic. But it certainly sounded good, and part of it made perfect sense.

During Friday’s news conference to update Martinez’s condition, a reporter asked how the Giants right-hander managed to remain mostly headache-free in the days immediately after Mike Cameron’s line drive struck him in the right side of the forehead.

“Athletes are out there, their adrenaline is going, especially the pitcher trying to get the last out of the game,” began Dr. Saglimbeni, a team internist. “The rest of it, I think, might be a little bit more than human. Joe’s a little bit more than human because I think most of us would have a headache the next day.”

The “little bit more than human” part made Martinez look embarrassed. If his teammates get a hold of this, the teasing won’t stop for a while. Maybe somebody will hang a Superman T-shirt in his locker.

The stuff about adrenaline is easily understandable to anybody who has played competitive sports or found themselves in fight-or-flight mode.

“You know he has a couple of bones that are fractured,” Saglimbeni continued. “They’re not displaced or anything, but that hurts in itself. I think he has a high threshold of pain.”

Let’s hope that threshold is never seriously tested again.

– Chris Haft

Cain’s non-complaint; Martinez out of hospital

LOS ANGELES — Rarely will a pitcher differ with an umpire as calmly as Matt Cain did Wednesday night.

Asked if the 3-2 fastball he threw to Los Angeles’ Russell Martin was a strike — which was the way it looked — Cain said he thought it was. But instead of growling about plate umpire Ed Rapuano, Cain pointed out that Rapuano called balls on pitches in that low area all night. Thus, both Cain and Clayton Kershaw of the Dodgers knew what to expect.

“He stayed consistent with the zone. You can’t fault him,” said Cain, even though Rapuano’s call hurt Cain, who also walked the next batter, James Loney, to force in a run.

***

Right-hander Joe Martinez is out of the hospital, which is good news. But, remember, he’s not expected to resume physical activity for close to another month while those three hairline fractures, courtesy of Mike Cameron’s line drive, heal in his forehead.

Don’t be afraid to take a pitch; salute to Harry Kalas & The Bird

LOS ANGELES — At the risk of sounding like a “Moneyball” proponent (not that getting on base is a bad thing), the Giants aren’t supplementing their offense with walks. At all.

They’ve gone three consecutive games without drawing a free pass, the first time that’s happened since June 4-6, 1976 against Philadelphia.

Manager Bruce Bochy admitted that this factoid demonstrates that his youngish hitters are overanxious, not selective enough, etc.

“That’s part of the evidence that shows they’re getting out of their game a little bit,” Bochy said.

***

Rest in peace, Harry Kalas and Mark Fidrych.

I met Harry fleetingly a couple of times, and once I joined a group of Philadelphia writers for dinner that Kalas also attended. My enduring memory of that evening is of a nice, graceful man who was comfortable with himself and his celebrity (some guys at dinner made friendly jokes aboiut his Campbell’s Chunky Soup commercials). Moreover, though I was essentially a stranger to him, he treated me like one of the boys. May God bless him and his family.

As for “The Bird,” Mark Fidrych — my gosh, the excitement he brought to baseball in that summer of 1976 was remarkable. As I recall, the only road crowd he drew below 30,000 was in Oakland — 25,659 on Aug. 29, 1976 (thank you, baseball-reference.com). I actually attended that game, sitting in the top deck behind home plate at the Oakland Coliseum, and it was riveting. Fidrych and Mike Torrez threw darts for 11 innings until Rollie Fingers took over for the A’s in the 12th. Every time Fidrych went into his little act — smoothing the mound with his hand, talking to the ball — the crowd buzzed.

The A’s finally scored the game-winning run off Fidrych in the 12th, but I went home knowing that I had just witnessed one of the best regular-season games I’d ever see.

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