April 2010

Defense adds sparkle to diamond

Tuesday, April 27

SAN FRANCISCO — Great pitching is sublime. Powerful, consistent hitting is impressive. But few aspects of baseball demonstrate its beautiful, skillful demands like defense.

There was plenty of that on display at AT&T Park on Tuesday as the Giants defeated the Phillies, 6-2. If you saw it, consider yourself fortunate.

The defensive display began early, as Schierholtz dove to snare Placido Polanco’s fly to right-center field for the second out in the first inning.

Schierholtz gained an accomplice in the second inning. He corralled Ryan Howard’s liner into the right-field corner and unleased a strong one-hop throw to second base, where shortstop Edgar Renteria was waiting nonchalantly. Fooled by Renteria’s passive posture, Howard slowed as he neared the bag, believing he had a sure double. Instead, Renteria slapped the tag on Howard a stride before he reached base.

The Phillies’ turn came in the third. With Renteria on first base and one out, Sandoval smacked a grounder up the middle that shortstop Juan Castro lunged for and gloved. Falling down, he shoveled the ball from his glove — under his right arm, like a basketball player making a no-look pass — to second baseman Chase Utley, who barehanded the ball and relayed it to first for a double play.

Footnote: I covered Castro for a few years in Cincinnati. He’s like a master violinist who performs in obscurity. Everybody in baseball, however, knows what a marvelous defender he is. That play he made was eye-popping but not surprising.

Recapturing the spotlight, Schierholtz ran down Carlos Ruiz’s long drive to right-center to christen the fifth inning. Then Schierholtz threw out Utley, who was trying to stretch a single into a double, to open the ninth. That gave Schierholtz two outfield assists in a game for the first time in his relatively brief career (193 games). The last Giants outfielder to record two outfield assists in a game was Randy Winn on April 15, 2006 at Los Angeles.

– Chris Haft

Veterans play key role for Giants against Phils

Monday, April 26

SAN FRANCISCO — The Giants defeated the Phormidable Phillies on Monday night because their veterans contributed handsomely.

I could have written that the veterans “stepped up,” but I was taught long ago to avoid cliches. Either way, you know what I mean.

Mark DeRosa’s two-run single in the first inning started everything. Aubrey Huff added a key RBI single in the sixth inning.

Guillermo Mota recorded his ninth consecutive scoreless outing, but it was by far the most important one of the bunch. Jeremy Affeldt, having regained his curveball, used it to strike out Ben Francisco in the seventh inning and escape a bases-loaded jam.

Virtually everybody who played contributed in some way for the Giants. But against opponents such as the Phillies, proven champions who are capable of overcoming any deficit, a team needs its most reliable performers to provide stability and the winning edge. It needs its veterans. The Giants provided a reminder of that in the opener of a series which should be a compelling one.

– Chris Haft

Schierholtz might be in leadoff mix

Friday, April 23

SAN FRANCISCO — Fully expecting an answer along the lines of, “Are you kidding?”, I asked manager Bruce Bochy before Friday’s game if he has considered trying Nate Schierholtz as a leadoff hitter during Aaron Rowand’s stay on the disabled list.

Somewhat surprisingly, Bochy said that he has indeed thought about batting Schierholtz leadoff. After San Francisco’s 4-1 victory Friday over the St. Louis Cardinals, Bochy dropped no hints regarding who would lead off Saturday against right-hander Adam Wainwright, St. Louis’ co-ace. Don’t be surprised if it’s Schierholtz, whose playing time in right field has increased lately (though that’s partly due to Rowand’s absence).

The case for Schierholtz:

– He’s hitting .320, and his on-base percentage is .414. Schierholtz has drawn three walks in 30 plate appearances, which isn’t much. But it’s a heck of an improvement over his career ratio. Entering this season, Schierholtz had walked 21 times in 506 plate appearances.

– He’s fast.

– Eugenio Velez, who has been leading off against right-handers since Rowand went on the DL, is in a 1-for-16 skid.

– It’s fair to say that Bochy is reluctant to use Andres Torres, Friday’s leadoff man, against right-handers. Torres, a switch-hitter, batted .210 off righties last year and is 0-for-8 against them this season.

Schierholtz has never started a game at leadoff during his Major League career. But there’s a first time for everything.

– Chris Haft

Is Posey the answer? Tough call

Tuesday, April 20

SAN DIEGO — I’m not sure whether I committed the following thought to print. I do know that I expressed it in various conversations and voiced it on radio interviews.

Asked when I thought Buster Posey would be promoted to the Majors, I predicted it would happen at the first sign of trouble.

Well, if trouble’s not here, he’s about to pick up his credential granting him access to the Giants’ clubhouse. They’ve lost three games in a row, each by one run; they’re facing a pitcher in Wednesday’s series finale against the Padres (right-hander Jon Garland) who gives them fits; and they’re about to embark upon a homestand in which they’ll face three consecutive 2009 postseason qualifiers — St. Louis, Philadelphia and Colorado.

Right now, a one-out walk constitutes a big rally for the Giants. It’s an opportune time to bring aboard Posey, the heralded prospect who’s batting .354 with a .456 on-base percentage through 12 games with Triple-A Fresno.

But where would Posey play? Catcher Bengie Molina, who’s hitting .351, is part of the short-term solution, not the problem. First baseman Aubrey Huff is batting .288 with a .393 on-base percentage. They occupy the two positions Posey is capable of playing. Unless manager Bruce Bochy is ready to bench Molina and/or Huff at least three times a week so Posey can get appreciable playing time and at-bats. Otherwise, summoning Posey would be a waste … as well as being a potentially costly luxury (assuming Posey stayed in the Majors for good, he’d become eligible for salary arbitration after the 2012 season and would cash in big a year early as a “Super Two,” just as Tim Lincecum did this past off-season).

In a way, there’s no need for the Giants to panic. Their biggest strength, starting pitching, remains intact. But, 1-for-25 through three games with runners in scoring position? It doesn’t get much worse than that.

So let’s see what the Giants do, if anything. I found it interesting to watch general manager Brian Sabean enter San Francisco’s clubhouse. after Tuesday’s loss. He didn’t trudge; he didn’t slouch. He strolled boldly through the clubhouse doors. It’s not too hard to imagine that he made a beeline for Bochy’s office to discuss the struggling offense — with or without Posey.

– Chris Haft

Bowker may sit against lefties; Bochy backs Rowand

Tuesday, April 6

HOUSTON — John Bowker won the competition to be San Francisco’s Opening Day right fielder. That doesn’t mean he’ll be the everyday right fielder.

With left-hander Wandy Rodriguez starting Tuesday for Houston, Giants manager Bruce Bochy used switch-hitting Andres Torres in right field and sat the left-handed-batting Bowker, who contributed an RBI single to Monday night’s season-opening triumph.

Bochy insisted that it was too early to define this maneuvering as a platoon. But he did say, “Torres did such a great job against left-handers last year (.338) that early on he’s going to get some playing time against them.”

Torres went 0-for-3 with a walk. Meanwhile, Bowker grounded a pinch-hit single in the ninth inning off right-hander Matt Lindstrom.

Also, don’t expect Aaron Rowand to be rested in Wednesday’s series finale, just because he’s 0-for-10.

“It’s two games. It happens,” Bochy said. Reminding interrogators of Rowand’s excellent Cactus League hitting, Bochy added, “He just needs a hit to get going. But I don’t think he needs a day [off].”

– Chris Haft

More on efficient offense, solid Bowker, wayward Romo

Monday, April 5
HOUSTON — That was a well-executed rally the Giants staged in Monday’s second inning to grab a 3-0 lead.

As superb as Tim Lincecum was, this early outburst boosted their confidence considerably as they proceeded to win, 5-2, and improve to 7-1 all-time in season openers against Houston.

“I felt good about it, [ahead] 3-0, with the way he was throwing the ball,” left fielder Mark DeRosa said.

After Aubrey Huff began the uprising with a leadoff single off Houston ace Roy Oswalt, DeRosa lived up to his billing as a “professional hitter” by drawing a walk on a 3-2 pitch after nearly slicing a double into the right-field corner.

“I’ve faced Roy a lot,” said DeRosa, who entered the game hitting .481 (13-for-27) in his career against Oswalt. “I study video religiously and come up with a game plan. I really don’t think you can succeed on the big league level if you don’t go up there with a game plan. In that sequence I fouled off a couple of pitches that I probably wanted to put in play.”

Ball four was a low changeup. “He kind of ‘spiked’ it,” DeRosa said. “It was a little easier to lay off than probably if he would have thrown it a little closer.”

Then came the inning’s hero, Bengie Molina. He lined an RBI single on an 0-2 pitch, then advanced from first base to third on John Bowker’s single off the left-field wall. Molina had to “read” the flight of the ball expertly to make his move. That enabled Molina to score on Juan Uribe’s sacrifice fly.

After Edgar Renteria got an early jump in Comeback Player of the Year Award consideration with his second hit, a two-out, seventh-inning RBI double off Chris Sampson, DeRosa poked an opposite-field homer to right with one out in the eighth off Tim Byrdak. Afterward, a reporter suggested that DeRosa’s homer would have a single at AT&T Park.

“Everyone’s saying that,” DeRosa said good-naturedly. “I don’t care. It’s a home run. I’ll take the single when we go home, but for now I’ll take the homer here.”

*****

Bowker, who pulled ahead of Nate Schierholtz in the second half of Spring Training in competition for the right-field job, had a memorable first Opening Day. He followed that run-scoring hit with a running catch in the corner on J.R. Towles’ tricky drive to end the bottom of the second inning.

Facing Oswalt in the second inning, Bowker sensed he would have a chance to do what he does best: Swing the bat. “Oswalt fell behind 2-0, so I knew I was going to get a pitch to hit.”

Did that help Bowker’s self-esteem in his first Opening Day start? Of course. “It felt good to get that first hit [and] first RBI out of the way,” he said.

Bowker described the catch by saying, “It was weird because I was playing shallow, and with two strikes [on the count] I moved over a little bit. The wind out there, I think, was swirling. It felt like it was blowing in, so I didn’t think [Towles] could drive one through the wind. But then when it got up it started taking off and drifting toward the right-field corner.”

*****

Right-hander Sergio Romo, whose Opening Day excitement was documented in another story on this site, showed just how pumped up he was when he bounded off the pitcher’s mound and began sprinting toward the Giants’ dugout … after striking out Michael Bourn for the second out of the eighth inning.

Romo stopped short of the third-base line and returned to the mound before he made himself look even more foolish.

“I was so into it,” Romo said. “I was excited. There was no disrespect [meant toward the Astros]. I got caught up in the moment. I got a big strikeout in my eyes and I went, ‘Ohhhh!’ “

– Chris Haft

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