September 2010

Giants make sensible move with Cain

Early Thursday morning, Sept. 30

SAN FRANCISCO — The Giants’ decision to move Matt Cain ahead a day in the pitching rotation so he can start Friday night’s opener of the climactic series against the San Diego Padres made complete sense.

The move wasn’t engineered solely to give Cain his usual four days’ rest. He actually has started almost as often on five days’ rest (14 times) this season as he has with four days in between (16). He owns a better record on four days’ rest (8-5) than on five (4-5). But Cain’s ERA and WHIP (2.57, 0.982) on five days’ rest are superior to his corresponding figures on four days’ rest (3.34, 1.153).

One reason to hasten Cain’s start by a day is to maximize the Giants’ chances of winning the first game and establishing control in the series. He has been San Francisco’s best pitcher since the All-Star break, as the club has captured 12 of his 14 starts. Personally, he’s 7-2, 2.48 in that span, compared to 6-8. 3.34 before the break.

The shift also keeps Cain and Tim Lincecum separated by two days in their respective turns. When it comes time to set the postseason pitching rotation, it’ll be that much easier for manager Bruce Bochy to make one little tweak and schedule them back-to-back — unless he and the rest of the braintrust decide that continuing to separate them with a left-hander throws enough different looks at the opposition.

Bottom line: These days, when Cain pitches, it seems like a sure win for the Giants.

*****

You, Joe or Josephine Fan, deserve a salute.

You’re showing up at AT&T Park in big numbers, but moreover, you’re enthusiastic as hell. The ballpark atmosphere is intoxicating (in a positive way), and it’s fun to be around.

Moreover, the players have noticed.

“We feed off of that every day,” said closer Brian Wilson, who’s one save shy of tying Rod Beck’s record of 48 set in 1993. “You can feel the crowd getting pumped up through the course of the game. … “They believe in us. And when you have that kind of fan support, it makes baseball a little easier.”

*****

We’ll give San Diego right-hander Mat Latos a break and assume that he’s a poor misguided young soul who just doesn’t know what he’s talking about.

As you probably have heard by now, Latos told CBSsports.com’s Scott Miller, “Baseball works in funny ways. The only way I can honestly put it is, we could be like the Giants and go and change our whole lineup, put guys with ‘San Francisco Giants’ across their jerseys. We didn’t. We added two guys [Ryan Ludwick and Miguel Tejada]. We’ve been the same team all year. We haven’t just gone and grabbed guys from other teams.”

So, in the world according to Latos, there’d be no trades, certainly no Trade Deadline, maybe even no Minor League callups — none of the time-honored practices that ballclubs engage in to improve themselves.

Again, maybe Latos was speaking simply out of frustration or sour grapes. One thing’s for sure: If current trends hold up, it looks like the Padres should have added more than two players!

– Chris Haft

One step closer to the goal

Sept. 23

CHICAGO — With a few more days like Thursday, the Giants will indeed reach the postseason.

They gained ground on all of their rivals. The San Diego Padres lost, so the Giants leapfrogged them to reclaim first place in the National League West. The Colorado Rockies also fell, leaving them 3 1/2 games behind the Giants. San Francisco can all but officially end Colorado’s hopes for a division title by winning two of three games this weekend at Coors Field, which would put the Rockies 4 1/2 games back with a week remaining in the season.

NL Wild Card leader Atlanta was idle. But the Giants and Braves now have the same record (86-67). This bolsters the Giants’ hopes of qualifying for the postseason even if they don’t win the division.

Coolstandings.com lists San Francisco’s chances of reaching the postseason at 70 percent. That’s encouraging for the Giants, but I wouldn’t start computing their Magic Number yet.

*****

Bruce Bochy almost surely won’t win the NL Manager of the Year award. But my Baseball Writers’ Association of America brethren who possess ballots for that honor ought to pay at least cursory attention him.

A good manager must provide direction. Bochy has accomplished this twice in emphatic fashion.

After the Giants’ 11-3 loss to Arizona on Aug. 28, he and general manager Brian Sabean met with members of the starting rotation and essentially told them they had better shape up.

Tim Lincecum described the message Bochy and Sabean conveyed as “pretty much a sense of urgency. We need to come ready to play. No more worrying about where the ball’s going to go, what my mechanics are going to be. Just go out there. You’re here for a reason. Now play the game. Pretty clear-cut and simple.”

Since then, the starters have a 1.94 ERA.

And, of course, Bochy met with the hitters before Thursday’s 13-0 whipping of Chicago. “We came out with the right approach today,” Buster Posey said. “There was a little bit more fire in everybody. Hopefully that’s something we can continue for the next nine games. If we give this [pitching] staff some run support, we’re going to be pretty tough.”

*****

“Pretty tough” describes the challenge the Giants will face this weekend as they try to lengthen their 17-game streak of allowing opponents three runs or fewer — a stretch that hasn’t been matched since the Chicago White Sox reached 20 in 1917.

The Rockies are a formidable offensive club anywhere, but especially at Coors Field. Their home/road breakdown borders on unreal.

At home, the Rockies are a wrecking crew. They’re hitting .304 at Coors with 452 runs, 102 homers and an .880 OPS (on-base plus slugging percentage) in 75 games.

On the road, the Rockies are merely a wreck. Their numbers dip to .230 with 64 homers, 289 runs and a .663 OBP in 77 games.

*****

The Giants have existed since 1883. Yet none of their players had been hit by pitches twice in one inning until Thursday, when Jose Guillen was nicked by a pair of Ryan Dempster deliveries in the second inning. Juan Uribe homered following each plunking.

“Hey! Record book already,” Guillen said when told of his achievement.

*****

Had the Cubs won this week’s series from San Francisco, it wouldn’t have been their first time to ruin the Giants’ season.

You already know this if you’re either pushing 60 years old (at least) or an avid student of baseball history.

The 1959 Giants trailed the Dodgers by one game with five to play. That was after Los Angeles swept a three-game series at Seals Stadium to wrest first place from San Francisco.

Anyway, the Giants were still in the race. But consecutive one-run losses, 5-4 and 9-8 in 10 innings, pretty much finished their pennant bid. History didn’t repeat itself this time, however.

Instead, the Giants’ 13-0 rout Thursday represented their largest margin of victory over the Cubs since Sept. 3, 1963 (Juan Marichal won his 20th game that day as Orlando Cepeda, Tom Haller and Felipe Alou homered).

– Chris Haft

Contenders savor flavor of September

Sunday, Sept. 19

SAN FRANCISCO — All that stuff about how winning in April means just as much as winning in September is true. Mathematically, at least.

In reality, context changes everything. The pursuit of a postseason berth magnifies each game for contenders during the stretch drive.

“Back in May, you don’t really know how the season’s going to unfold,” Giants outfielder Cody Ross said after Sunday’s 9-2 victory over the Milwaukee Brewers. “Now, we have a solid team. We’ve adapted to each other. We get the job done. That’s what makes it exciting.”

For ballplayers — especially playoff-hungry ones like the Giants, who haven’t qualified for the postseason since 2003 — the stretch drive represents the culmination of their year-round labor. Well, winning the World Series might mean more. But precious few players get to experience that. Participating in a pennant race is more attainable and, in some ways, provides more of a rush, since it sustains a high and prolongs the buzz surrounding a ballclub for weeks.

“Going out there every single day — I can’t speak for everybody; for me, I can’t wait to get to the field and keep going,” Ross said. “It’s going to be an exciting game no matter who you play.”

Said Barry Zito, who finally recorded a long-deserved victory, “This is why we do what we do all offseason, training and going to Spring Training, and [working] hard. It’s all about this last month here and getting in [the postseason.”

*****

Speaking of stretch drives, Zito and Jose Guillen were A’s teammates in the last couple of months of the 2003 season, when Oakland acquired the latter from Cincinnati to bolster the offense. Guillen batted only .265 in 45 games for the A’s after hitting a torrid .337 in 91 games with the Reds. But Zito has seen enough from Guillen, then and now, to know that the outfielder remains dangerous at the plate.

“He’s had some incredible hot streaks in his career,” Zito said after Guillen’s six-RBI day. “Being a veteran player, he knows what he needs to do to produce and stay in his comfort zone. Having him hot can be a huge addition for us.”

Guillen was one of the few productive Giants during their six-game homestand, batting .500 (7-for-14) with two home runs. His first-inning grand slam was the fifth of his career.

*****

Brewers pitchers might see Buster Posey in their nightmares this winter. Posey hit .500 (12-for-24) with four homers, nine RBI and nine runs scored against Milwaukee this season.

– Chris Haft

Statistically, Sanchez ranks among top lefties

Thursday, Sept. 16

SAN FRANCISCO — With his seven-inning gem Thursday night against the Dodgers, Jonathan Sanchez of the Giants continued his march toward an obscure yet impressive pitching distinction.

Sanchez struck out 12, hiking his season total to 188 in 176 2/3 innings. He, Boston’s Jon Lester (208 strikeouts, 190 innings) and Los Angeles’ Clayton Kershaw (201, 1902 1/3) should continue to average more than a strikeout an inning, marking the second year in a row that this trio of left-handers has accomplished that feat while pitching enough innings (162) to quality for the ERA title.

According to the “HardballTalk” feature on msnbc.com, since the expansion era began in 1961, 17 different left-handers have hit this strikeouts/innings exacta, and only five reached this level more than once: Randy Johnson (12 times), Sandy Koufax, Sam McDowell and Johan Santana (four times apiece) and Sid Fernandez (three).

Former Giants farmhand Francisco Liriano, now with the Minnesota Twins, is also on course to join this accomplished group (189 strikeouts, 178 1/3 innings) for the first time.

*****

Another note on Sanchez: He became the fourth left-hander in franchise history to strike out at least 12 and walk none in a game. The first to accomplish this was Hall of Famer Carl Hubbell in 1933; the most recent one had been Atlee Hammaker on June 26, 1983 in a four-hit, 2-0 shutout against San Diego. By the way, the Giants won despite collecting only two hits in that game.

Ray Sadecki, a decent pitcher who had the misfortune of being acquired for Orlando Cepeda, recorded such efforts twice: On Sept. 12, 1967 at Los Angeles and on Aug. 11, 1968 against the Mets.

*****

If you have a feeling that Edgar Renteria will play more frequently down the stretch, you’re not alone.

Renteria won’t continue to bat .800, as he did Thursday night by going 4-for-5 from the leadoff spot in the Giants’ 10-2 victory over the Dodgers. But the 15-year veteran remains more than capable of contributing.

Renteria just might receive more chances, particularly against left-handed pitchers. In those events, switch-hitting Pablo Sandoval, who has struggled against lefties all year, would be benched as Juan Uribe would move to third base to vacate shortstop for Renteria.

You can call it a modified lefty-righty platoon. Sandoval is hitting .228 off left-handers, Manager Bruce Bochy already has said that Renteria will start Friday night’s series opener against the Milwaukee Brewers, who are starting left-hander Randy Wolf. After Brewers ace Yovani Gallardo pitches Saturday, another left-hander, Chris Narveson, will work on Sunday.

So Renteria, who has been maligned by fans and media since signing his two-year, $18.5 million deal, could have multiple chances to silence his critics if Bochy sticks with him.

*****

A final word, or more: True Giants fans must have basked in glory Thursday night. You did, didn’t you?

Fog enveloped AT&T Park. The Giants not only moved into first place, but they thrashed the Dodgers while doing so. This was an evening made for San Francisco fans, whose euphoria was almost palpable.

Times like this don’t come around very often. This bite of success tastes fresh, since it’s the first that’s spiced with a cast of Giants who have never reached the postseason. Enjoy yourselves, folks.

– Chris Haft

More from Friday (Giants 1, Padres 0)

Friday, Sept. 10

SAN DIEGO — Ah, the little things. They make such a big difference, as was the case Friday night in the Giants’ 1-0 victory over San Diego that pulled them into a virtual tie for first place in the National League West.

Here’s a partial list of the little things that fueled not just this triumph but also San Francisco’s postseason hopes:

– Catcher Eli Whiteside’s strong throw that apprehended Everth Cabrera, who tried to steal second base in the eighth inning. “That kind of sealed it for us,” Giants closer Brian Wilson said.

– Nate Schierholtz’s hustling slide into second baseman David Eckstein to break up a seventh-inning double play and enable the Giants to tally the game’s lone run. “He [Eckstein] was right on top of the bag and I was able to get a piece of him,” Schierholtz said.

– Juan Uribe’s defense. He assisted on four putouts, three involving Miguel Tejada.

– Chris Haft

Reflections on Saturday night (Giants 5, Dodgers 4)

Saturday, Sept. 4

LOS ANGELES — That was one of the damndest games I’ve seen in nearly 20 years of covering professional sports.

We’ve all witnessed bigger comebacks. Most of us probably have seen a team hit more homers in one game. But the Giants’ fierce, sudden uprising — four home runs in the final three innings, after Dodgers starter Ted Lilly held them to one hit in six innings — was downright dizzying, even for seasoned pros.

“It takes everything you can not to punch your teammate in the chest,” said Aubrey Huff, who needed a physical outlet for the excitement he felt after Juan Uribe’s two-run, ninth-inning homer put San Francisco ahead.

There’s no underestimating the magnitude of this victory for the Giants. Not only did they reclaim whatever momentum they lost after dropping Friday night’s series opener, but they also gained a game on the first-place Padres in the National League West race.

Of course, the Giants can’t stop here. They still trail San Diego by two games in the division and Wild Card leader Philadelphia by three. The thrill of Saturday night’s win will quickly ebb if they lose Sunday. And if they win Sunday — well, guess what? The magnitude of that triumph may actually eclipse Saturday’s. At this juncture and under these circumstances, each win is bigger than the next.

But as they sip vanilla milkshakes and write letters to their grandmothers before falling asleep, the Giants must allow themselves to savor this victory. Four home runs in the final three innings against the Dodgers, during a race for a postseason berth! Somewhere, Russ Hodges is bellowing, “Bye Bye Baby!” with heavenly gusto.

*****

Here’s the bad news: The Giants are still slumping, despite all those home runs.

They’re batting .163 (24-for-147) in their last five games. And the disease isn’t isolated. It’s an epidemic.

Even with his pinch-hit homer in Saturday’s eighth inning, Pat Burrell is 2-for-16.

Jose Guillen struck out in all four of his plate appearances and is 2-for-17.

Aubrey Huff is 3-for-32 in his last nine games.

Travis Ishikawa is in a 2-for-26 skid.

Buster Posey has eight hits in his last 38 at-bats (.211).

Aaron Rowand ended an 0-for-16 tailspin with his first-inning double but is hitting .128 (5-for-39) in his last 17 games.

Pablo Sandoval is in a .167 funk (4-for-24) which includes no hits in his last 12 at-bats.

Andres Torres is 1-for-16 in his last five games.

Uribe, Saturday’s hero, is 3-for-23 (.130) in an eight-game stretch.

Eli Whiteside is 10-for-56 (.179).

It’ll be intriguing to see what kind of lineup manager Bruce Bochy comes up with Sunday. Bochy likes to play the hot hand, and right now nobody fully fits that description.

*****

Giants starter Matt Cain played a key role in Saturday’s victory by holding the Dodgers scoreless for three innings after being lit up for four runs in the fourth.

“Give Matt a lot of credit for settling down,” Bochy said.

*****

An unsung hero for the Giants was Nate Schierholtz, who pinch-ran for Pat Burrell in the ninth inning and stayed in the game to play right field. You’ll recall that Jamey Carroll singled to right with one out and Casey Blake on first base. The way Carroll’s liner scissored across the outfield, it could have eluded the outfielder for an extra-base hit that would have scored Blake with the tying run. But Schierholtz, who remains one of the Giants’ best defensive outfielders, neatly cut off the ball. It wasn’t a spectacular play, but it was a necessary one.

*****

Bochy was asked whether this game eased the sting of another game at Dodger Stadium that featured plenty of late home runs: The Dodgers’ five-homer fusillade against the San Diego Padres, who Bochy then managed, on Sept. 18, 2006. After Los Angeles’ four ninth-inning homers erased San Diego’s 9-5 lead, Nomar Garciaparra hit a two-run homer in the 10th to win it for the Dodgers.

“That’s a game I’d like to forget but I can’t because I see it on TV sometimes,” Bochy said.

– Chris Haft

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