June 2009

Defense helps Lincecum; Wilson lauds Mariano; Rowand hurt

ST. LOUIS – For the first 4 2/3 innings Monday night, while it seemed as if Tim Lincecum might pitch a no-hitter, a handful of close calls and sparkling plays stood out.

Albert Pujols ended the fourth inning by scorching a line drive directly at third baseman Pablo Sandoval. Had it traveled a few feet in any other direction, it would have been a double.

Second baseman Juan Uribe preserved Lincecum’s perfect game in the fifth inning by darting up the middle to snare Chris Duncan’s smash on one hop and make an off-balance but strong throw to first base for the out.

Then Rick Ankiel swung at Lincecum’s very next pitch and broke his bat but managed to bloop the ball into right-center field for a single.

Still, I remain convinced that Lincecum or Matt Cain will throw a no-hitter someday.

Even Bruce Bochy admitted that thoughts of Lincecum pitching a no-hitter crossed his mind, though that’s not the kind of thing a manager often admits.

“To be honest, yeah,” Bochy said. “That’s a good-hitting ballclub over there. But with Timmy, sure.”

But Bochy added, with Ankiel’s hit squarely in mind, “It takes a lot of luck to throw a no-hitter.”

*****

Giants closer Brian Wilson, who has listened ad nauseum to coaches and managers telling him that he must mix up his pitches more, seized upon Mariano Rivera’s milestone 500th save as an example of a pitcher who excels without variety.

“The guy’s gone after hitters with one pitch his whole career,” Wilson said, referring to Rivera’s cut fastball. “Pitching coaches always harp on getting a third pitch, a fourth pitch, and he has always been the case where I’d say, ‘Well, Mariano’s got one pitch, so” — and then dot, dot, dot.

“It’s such a good pitch that it’s really four different types of pitches. He can throw it front door to a righty, back door to a lefty, he can throw it to the other side of the plate and he can throw it down. Maybe that’s all you need. His plate zone because of that pitch is expanded.”

*****

Center fielder Aaron Rowand left Monday’s game in the seventh inning after he was hit above the left knee by a pitch from St. Louis’ Clayton Mortensen, who was making his Major League debut. Rowand hopes to play Tuesday, though he sported an ugly bruise on his leg that’s likely to swell.

– Chris Haft 

Sadowski secures Sunday’s start

MILWAUKEE — The intrigue surrounding the status of the Giants’ starting pitcher for Sunday ended on Saturday afternoon as manager Bruce Bochy named Triple-A Fresno right-hander Ryan Sadowski to pitch the series finale against the Milwaukee Brewers.

The move cements Jonathan Sanchez’s demotion to the bullpen. Sanchez, 2-8 with a 5.54 ERA, has lost four consecutive games and, in the minds of Giants officials, simply wasn’t demonstrating much improvement.

Sadowski, 26, was 5-2 with a 4.11 ERA in 13 starts with Fresno. He walked 32 and struck out 59 in 72 1/3 innings. The Giants will officially purchase his contract Sunday and announce a corresponding 40-man roster move at that time. They conceivably don’t have to tinker with the active 25-man roster, since infielder Rich Aurilia will go on the bereavement list due to the death of his father and will be absent from Sunday’s game through the upcoming St. Louis series.

Bochy said that the Giants didn’t consider summoning Madison Bumgarner or Tim Alderson, two of their leading pitching prospects, from Double-A Connecticut. They did contemplate using Tim Lincecum one notch early but on his regular rest — a luxury afforded by Thursday’s scheduled off-day. But since Lincecum has pitched 26 innings in his last three starts, the Giants figured that he and the rest of the rotation could benefit more from an extra day’s rest.

Sadowski has been outperformed at Triple-A by right-hander Kevin Pucetas (7-2, 3.41 ERA). But Pucetas last pitched on Thursday, so returning on Sunday would give him just two days’ rest, half of his usual complement.

See the upcoming Sunday game preview for further details.

– Chris Haft 

 

 

Torres makes things happen; Wild Card musings

OAKLAND — At best, Andres Torres ranks as the Giants’ fourth outfielder. But he moved to the front of the line as a source of the Giants’ success in their 4-1 victory Tuesday night over the Oakland A’s.

Torres coaxed a first-inning walk on Vin Mazzaro’s 3-2 pitch and opened the scoring by rushing home on Pablo Sandoval’s double. Many runners might have held at third base. But third-base coach Tim Flannery, aiming to capitalize on Torres’ speed, waved the speedster home. Sure enough, A’s shortstop Orlando Cabrera’s hurried relay flew high and wide.

“He ignited us,” Giants manager Bruce Bochy said of Torres. “That showed you what speed can do. He plays with a lot of energy, which you love.”

Torres helped seal the victory by making a not-so-routine catch of Adam Kennedy’s fly ball against the wall down the left-field line in foul territory. It ended the seventh inning and stranded two A’s baserunners.

“He probably saved us with that catch,” Bochy said.

Torres’ grab propelled Tim Lincecum to his complete-game victory. “I thought he was going to run into the wall, which he did, but it was nice the ball stayed in the playing field,” Lincecum said of Torres’ grab. “I was as pumped as anybody else.”

Torres, who wouldn’t boast about his skills if you paid him, explained that common sense helped him make the play on Kennedy’s fly. Kennedy, said Torres, had been trying to hit the ball to the opposite field all evening — probably a wise ploy against Lincecum. So, said Torres, “I tried to play that way a little bit.”

Encountering the wall didn’t concern Torres in the least. “I was just trying to catch the ball,” he said.

*****

I was all set to devote a sentence or two in my game wrapup to the Giants staying ahead in the National League Wild Card race. First, however, while waiting to interview Lincecum in the Giants clubhouse, I heard a player watch a televised sports report — I couldn’t tell which network was airing it — that trumpeted the Wild Card standings. This player shook his head in mild disgust. “Five years from now they’ll be talking about the Wild Card in April,” he told the Giant sitting next to him.

Translation: It’s far too early to make a big deal about the Wild Card. So I opted not to contribute to the hype.

I’ll occasionally mention it in the near future, though. It’s relevant to monitor, since the Giants’ position likely will influence what general manager Brian Sabean does or doesn’t do before the July 31 trade deadline. But getting overly worked up about it and delivering twice-daily updates is probably premature.

– Chris Haft 

 

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Bochy gives Sandoval All-Star endorsement

OAKLAND — It was bound to happen at some point: Giants manager Bruce Bochy declared that infielder Pablo Sandoval deserves a place on the National League All-Star team, which will face its American League counterparts July 14 in the Midsummer Classic.

“He’s a guy who should be looked at real, real hard,” Bochy said of Sandoval, who ranked second in the NL entering the game with a .338 batting average. Only David Wright of the New York Mets (.349) eclipsed Sandoval.

Sandoval also had 26 multi-hit games entering Monday, tied for fourth-most in the NL.

Sandoval has virtually no chance of being elected to the team in fan voting, so he’ll have to rely on the kindness of the folks who select the reserves — among them, manager Charlie Manuel of the reigning world champion Philadelphia Phillies.

Sandoval’s free-swinging style also has impressed A’s manager Bob Geren. “He’s a tough out because he can hit so many different styles of pitching,” Geren said. “He’s one of those guys who’s difficult to put [together] any sort of a book on.”

– Chris Haft

Zito won’t face A’s

SAN FRANCISCO — For the first season since he joined the Giants, Barry Zito will not face his former Oakland teammates.

Skeptics might say that this is just as well. Zito’s backers, as well as the man himself. Pitching at his best as a Giant, Zito wanted to take his game to the A’s, for whom he excelled from 2000-06.

“This being a new year, having my stuff back pretty much the way I want it, especially in their yard — I was really looking forward to that,” Zito said Sunday. “I checked the schedule at the beginning of the [season] but it didn’t work out. So, next year.”

Zito had hoped to reverse his fortunes against the A’s, who treated him rudely in 2007-08. He lost all three of his starts against them while recording a 9.22 ERA. His worst outing against Oakland was his first — on May 18, 2007 at the Coliseum. Aware that Zito probably would try to nibble at the corners of home plate, A’s hitters went into full “Moneyball” mode and took inordinate numbers of pitches, content to draw walks. Zito indeed walked seven while lasting just four innings and allowing the first seven runs in Oakland’s 15-3 victory.

But, with Jonathan Sanchez pitching Monday night for the Giants, redemption remains the theme for a Giants left-hander.

– Chris Haft  

300-game winners awaken treasured memories; Seaver on vino

SAN FRANCISCO — Covering Randy Johnson’s 300th victory was a distinct privilege in and of itself. That milestone continued to pay psychic dividends Saturday for us baseball writers with long memories.

As you probably know by now if you’re reading this, the Giants invited fellow 300-game winners Gaylord Perry, Nolan Ryan and Tom Seaver to help honor Johnson. These weren’t just guys brought in to give the pregame ceremony star power. These were guys who gave me enduring baseball memories, all-time greats I was lucky enough to see at the height of their skills.

Perry made it entertaining to be a Giants fan in the late 1960s and early ’70s. Every so often the umpires practically undressed him on the mound to check for whatever he was supposedly dabbing on the baseball to throw his spitter, and you knew they weren’t going to find anything.

He also won quite frequently. I’ll always remember his last victory as a Giant — Game 1 of the 1971 National League Championship Series against the Pirates. I still don’t know how my dad did it, but he got tickets for that game, in the very top row of Section 5 in the upper deck at Candlestick. As far as I was concerned, we might as well have sitting right behind the dugout. Willie McCovey and Tito Fuentes each hit two-run homers that day, and Perry did the rest by fending off Pittsburgh for a 5-4 complete-game victory. Of course, the Giants lost the next three games and the series, and then came the Sam McDowell trade that sent Perry to Cleveland. At this point I’d prefer to change the subject.

My lasting memory of Ryan was forged on Sept. 14, 1988 (thank you, baseball-reference.com), when he pitched for the Houston Astros at Cincinnati and defeated the Reds, 7-1. As I recall, talk that Ryan might be in his final days with the Astros already had proliferated. So it was a thrill to see Ryan throw a four-hit complete game and strike out 13. Memories play tricks (unless baseball-reference.com can confirm them), but I recall Ryan looking a little more jubilant than might be expected as his teammates engulfed him after the final out. After all, he had just proven that he wasn’t finished yet. His performance the next few years with the Texas Rangers indeed demonstrated that he had plenty left.

The first time I saw Seaver pitch was on Aug. 31, 1969, in the first game of a Mets-Giants doubleheader at Candlestick. Willie McCovey, who was in the home stretch of his Most Valuable Player season, hit a monstrous triple in the second inning. And that was just about it for the Giants. Seaver allowed six other hits and struck out 11 in an 8-0 Mets triumph. Oh, and he pitched a complete game, just like Perry and Ryan did. No wonder I developed an affinity for that all-too-rare feat.

Fast-forward 10 seasons. Seaver had migrated to the Cincinnati Reds, and McCovey, after a brief exile with San Diego and Oakland, had rejoined the Giants and was approaching the end of his Hall of Fame career. On this June 30 afternoon, McCovey hit two drives to the center-field warning track. And that was just about it for the Giants. Seaver pitched a three-hitter in a 2-0 Reds victory.

That ties in with Seaver’s remarks about his second career: Winemaking. He operates Seaver Family Vineyards in Calistoga, releasing his wine under the label “GTS.” For the uninitiated, that stands for George Thomas Seaver, the right-hander’s given name.

Said Seaver of his current passion, “It’s about as much fun as a three-hit shutout.”

Seaver presented Johnson with a magnum of his ’06 Cabernet to commemorate victory No. 300. On the bottle, Seaver wrote in silver Sharpie above his autograph, “R.J. — Welcome to the club!”

The wine is for Johnson to share with whomever he pleases. The memories he, Seaver and others of his ilk provided are for all to enjoy.

– Chris Haft

Ishikawa continues to hit

SAN FRANCISCO — It was encouraging to see first baseman Travis Ishikawa hit so proficiently Wednesday, when he doubled and homered in three at-bats.

“I was aggressive early [in the count] and took advantage of mistakes,” the ever-humble Ishikawa said.

Though it was understandable why Ishikawa got squeezed out of the lineup when Pablo Sandoval hurt his elbow and moved to first base, it happened just as he was beginning to hit proficiently. He went 7-for-11 in a three-game stretch May 25-27. Since then, he had started exactly once until Wednesday.

It’ll be interesting to see who manager Bruce Bochy uses in the infield during the Texas series. Juan Uribe, who can play second base, shortstop and third, supposedly will be ready to rejoin the lineup Friday. Asked before Wednesday’s game whether Uribe will play second or third, Bochy coyly said, “I’ll let you know.”

Though Matt Downs has looked extremely competent at the plate in his two games with the Giants, don’t be surprised if Friday’s lineup includes Ishikawa at first base, Uribe at second and Sandoval at third.

– Chris Haft

 

Going for the Downs, but maybe not for long

SAN FRANCISCO — It’s easy to envision another change in the Giants’ second-base picture within a few days.

By next Monday, Kevin Frandsen will have spent his requisite 10 days in the Minor Leagues. As much as Frandsen impressed as the Giants in his two stints with them, they’ll likely summon him yet again — unless Matt Downs, the second baseman of the moment, plays so well that San Francisco has to keep him in the Majors.

Or the Giants could hand the job to utiltyman Juan Uribe once his hamstring heals. .

Something else to ponder: How much time will elapse before Burriss forces the Giants to recall him? I imagine they’ll give him about 100 at-bats, possibly more, to try to develop the offensive skills that manager Bruce Bochy recommended — bunting, slapping the ball on the ground, basically acting more like a true leadoff hitter.

With all due respect to Downs, he’s unlikely to become the Giants’ full-time second baseman.

– Chris Haft

Sandoval gets Kevin Mitchell’s seal of approval

SAN FRANCISCO — When it comes to hitting, Kevin Mitchell is a flat-out genius.

That was the overwhelming impression he left me with during the brief but memorable time I spent covering him — the strike-shortened 1994 season, when Mitchell hit .326 with 30 home runs and 77 RBIs in only 380 at-bats for the Cincinnati Reds. Mitchell’s 1.110 OPS that year actually exceeded his 1.023 OPS from his 1989 Most Valuable Player season with the Giants.

Anyway, Mitchell knows hitting. So when he heaped praise upon Pablo Sandoval, whose two-run homer hastened the Giants’ 7-1 victory Sunday over the Oakland A’s, it meant something.

“He reminds me of myself,” said Mitchell, one of a handful of alumni still around after Friday’s and Saturday’s festivities honoring San Francisco’s 1989 National League pennant-winning club. “He’s letting it go. He’s not scared.”

Then Mitchell added, “He’s not the mailman.”

Huh?

“He ain’t delivering no mail. He ain’t walking,” Mitchell explained.

NOW we get it.

Mitchell seems to understand hitting much more than the average baseball person. During a chat with him while watching the Giants take batting practice Friday, he complained about the preponderance of players using light bats — or bats he considered light. Hitting the ball with something behind it, he said, is essential. Mitchell himself used a 36-inch, 36-ounce club, about two inches longer and five ounces heavier than a lot of players like to swing.

Of course, not many players could handle a bat of such imposing dimensions.

Back in our Cincinnati season, Mitchell waited in the dugout before it was his turn to hit during another batting-practice session, and we watched a reserve outfielder who happened to own something like a .220 average hit line drive after line drive. Mitchell said, without citing the hitter’s name or anybody else’s, “Isn’t it funny how some guys have one kind of swing during batting practice and another kind of swing in games?” Translation: The pressure gets to some players.

Not Kevin Mitchell. And, from what we’ve seen since last August, not Pablo Sandoval.

– Chris Haft

Martinez leaves team to accelerate comeback

SAN FRANCISCO — Accelerating his comeback from his horrific April injury, right-hander Joe Martinez has left the team to report to the Giants’ extended Spring Training camp at their Scottsdale, Ariz., facility.

It’s not known when Martinez will be ready to pitch competitively, though common sense dictates that it could be sooner than later. He has remained in decent physical condition and has been throwing off a mound for the last couple of weeks.

“My release point’s getting more and more consistent. I’m ready to get out there,” Martinez said recently.

Martinez began the season as the Giants’ long reliever, a role he kept for all of three games. Then a Mike Cameron line drive struck Martinez in his forehead as he was attempting to finish a game against Milwaukee, causing a concussion and three hairline fractures in his skull.

For more than one reason, the Giants won’t rush Martinez. They want to make sure that he’s not only physically recovered, but also mentally able to face batted balls again. Being gunshy has ended the careers of several pitchers over the years, though Martinez seems resilient enough to avoid this unfortunate mindset.

Also, the Giants currently have no room for Martinez, at least as of now. Everybody in the bullpen is performing well, and the starters are routinely pitching deep into games, reducing the need for a long reliever. Martinez doubtlessly is bound for an injury rehabilitation assignment in the Minors; he could end up staying there beyond that, depending on the state of the Giants’ pitching at that time.

– Chris Haft

 

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