July 2013

Kontos is unsung hero; Giants-Reds twinbill memories

SAN FRANCISCO — Somebody had to do it. George Kontos turned out to be the one.

When Tim Lincecum lasted just 3 2/3 innings Monday, the Giants needed a reliever to consume innings and spare the rest of the bullpen from overwork, particularly with Tuesday’s doubleheader looming. In came Kontos to consume 3 1/3 innings while throwing 63 pitches, both career highs.

Tuesday’s starters for the Giants don’t appear destined to last deep into their respective games. Eric Surkamp was challenged to go five innings in Triple-A, and Barry Zito has pitched six innings or fewer in 11 of his last 12 starts. But manager Bruce Bochy can operate his bullpen freely, thanks to Kontos.

Kontos had never thrown more than 40 pitches in a Major League game. But his background as a starter in the Yankees’ Minor League system helped brace him for Monday’s effort. “My body’s used to the workload,” he said.

*****

A large percentage of my misspent youth, more than I care to admit, came and went watching doubleheaders at Candlestick Park. As Tuesday approached, it occurred to me that some of the more memorable twinbills I witnessed involved the Reds, who consistently fielded excellent teams in the 1970s. With assistance from baseball-reference.com, here are highlights I recall from various Giants-Reds doubleheaders, listed in chronological order:

Sept. 19, 1972: The Giants managed to split the doubleheader as Juan Marichal, finishing his worst season, allowed two runs in seven innings in the nightcap. That “improved” his record to 6-15. I have a vague memory of Marichal lowering his signature leg kick for that game. Whether it was to compensate for an injury or to correct a mechanical flaw (or whether it happened at all) would require more extensive research.

April 15, 1973: Cincinnati won both games. Again, Marichal’s pitching left the deepest impression, largely because he was shockingly ineffective — four earned runs allowed and eight hits in 3 2/3 innings in the opener. Meanwhile, Don Gullett pitched a four-hit shutout.

Sept. 14, 1975: The teams split, but that was hardly relevant. In the sixth inning of the first game, the Reds loaded the bases with Joe Morgan on third base. Suddenly, Morgan broke for home and slid in safely. That’s right; it was a triple steal — something I haven’t witnessed since and might never see again.

July 1, 1979: The Giants swept this one as Willie McCovey homered to help win the first game. It was the 518th of his career and, I’m quite sure, the last homer I saw him hit. I was fortunate enough to see him hit several others.

Chris Haft

Time for Giants to lower expectations

SAN FRANCISCO — After four consecutive winning seasons and two World Series titles in the last three years, the Giants have fallen from their perch alongside the Major Leagues’ elite ballclubs.

Only a dramatic reversal will enable them to finish .500 this year. As for returning to the postseason, that’s pure fantasy.

The Giants are playing without any apparent sense of urgency, perhaps because they have virtually no hope of contending in the National League West. New additions Jeff Francoeur, who reported to Triple-A Fresno, and Kensuke Tanaka might marginally improve the club’s depth. But they probably won’t accomplish more than that. Giants general manager Brian Sabean indicated to San Jose Mercury News columnist Tim Kawakami that trying to upgrade the roster with major trades is pointless, since the organization lacks the surplus of prospects necessary to engineer deals. Moreover, the team’s performance doesn’t warrant acquiring a couple of handy veterans to accelerate a push for the division title.

Nor should the Giants adopt a scorched-earth policy and gut the roster. There’s always next year, and with it a fresh opportunity to compete in the always-balanced NL West. But implementing the quick fix of free-agent signings might be complicated, because the Giants’ payroll flexibility is limited. The likely departures of impending free agent Tim Lincecum (2013 salary: $22 million) and Barry Zito ($11 million net savings, if the club declines its $18 million option on his 2014 contract and pays him a $7 million buyout) will have limited economic impact, given the raises that Buster Posey, Madison Bumgarner, Pablo Sandoval and Sergio Romo will receive.

Moreover, the potential free-agent class isn’t oozing with talent. There probably will be few helpful performers available besides Robinson Cano, Jacoby Ellsbury, Shin-Soo Choo, Brian McCann and the Giants’ own Hunter Pence. The Giants might be wise to forge a deal with Pence, the intense right fielder who seems sincere about wanting to stay here.

Or they can trade him in the next few weeks, which would mark the third year in a row for Pence to switch teams before the July 31 Trade Deadline. A critical factor here, obviously, is determining Pence’s signability.

That leads to the biggest name the Giants could jettison: Lincecum. The notion of trading the charismatic right-hander sounds almost blasphemous, given his popularity and everything he has done for the franchise. But this is a business. The Giants might be able to receive a useful prospect or two in exchange for Lincecum, who has value despite his 4.61 ERA and 1.407 WHIP. At least one American League contender has expressed interest in Lincecum as a reliever, the role he filled spectacularly in last year’s postseason. It’s not known whether that team has proposed a trade to the Giants involving Lincecum. But if one club has hatched this idea, it’s likely that at least a couple of others share that thought.

The schedule offers a shred of hope. The Giants play their first nine games at AT&T Park after the All-Star break. A strong homestand could advance San Francisco to the fringes of the division race.

But the mathematics of returning to respectability — widely defined as a .500 record — are daunting. To climb to .500 by the end of the season, the Giants must finish 41-31. That’s a winning percentage of .569, a pace the Giants haven’t come close to approaching recently. Remember, San Francisco owns the Major Leagues’ worst record (17-35) since May 14.

Reaching .500 sooner would require vast improvement. The Giants would have to win 13 of their next 16 games to climb to .500 by the end of the month. Push back the deadline to Sept. 1, Game No. 136. The Giants must go 28-18 from Thursday until then to hit the .500 level.

Next, forget the arithmetic and employ common sense. The Giants have done nothing — nothing — to indicate that they’re capable of executing such a turnaround.

Their pitching staff is no longer elite. The starting rotation has become unreliable. Matt Cain, once indomitable, is decidedly vulnerable. Nobody wants to admit that Cain is injured to some degree. If he isn’t hurt, he has forgotten how to pitch. Anybody who have followed his career know that’s not the case.

Lincecum and Zito can’t win on the road. Rookie left-hander Mike Kickham has good-looking stuff but an incomplete understanding of how to use it. Only Madison Bumgarner has maintained his excellence, and he can’t do more than pitch every fifth day.

Injuries and ineffectiveness have dulled the bullpen. The Giants miss Santiago Casilla, who hasn’t quite recovered from knee surgery. Ryan Vogelsong’s fractured right hand robbed the relief corps of Chad Gaudin, who’s in the rotation. Manager Bruce Bochy thus must rely on a group that includes rookies Jake Dunning and Sandy Rosario. Both have shown flashes of competence and could turn out to be keepers. But such inexperience does nothing for a World Series title defense.

On to the offense, or lack of it. Collectively, the Giants have misplaced the situational-hitting skills that sustained them in last year’s second half. They went 3-for-11 with runners in scoring position Tuesday, ending a 16-game stretch in which they hadn’t collected more than two hits in those instances. Overall, their .250 batting average with runners in scoring position actually places them in the top half of the NL team rankings. But it’s a sharp decrease from the .296 RISP average they compiled after last year’s All-Star break.

Individually, numerous players are is struggling to some degree. Sandoval is batting .140 (8-for-57) since returning from the disabled list. Pence is in an .098 skid (5-for-51) over his last 13 games. Gregor Blanco is in a .136 tailspin (6-for-44) spanning 12 games. Fellow outfielder Andres Torres’ past nine appearances have yielded a .154 average (4-for-26).

Monday, the Giants’ pitching excelled but the offense floundered. Tuesday, the offense improved while the pitching regressed. Wednesday, nothing went right. The Giants insist that they get along great, and that’s the way it seems when reporters are allowed in the clubhouse. But they can’t coordinate their efforts on the field.

That’s a glaring sign of a poor team. At the current rate, we’ll see more in the next couple of months.

Chris Haft

No-hit hangovers and memories

Tuesday, July 2

CINCINNATI — Ideally, the Giants will demonstrate their championship resilience Wednesday and recover from the no-hitter Homer Bailey dealt them by thrashing the Cincinnati Reds.

In reality, it hasn’t happened that way.

The Giants lost their previous four games on days after they were no-hit. They averaged a little more than nine hits in those games, a healthy number. But the all-around performance was missing, something with which this year’s Giants are quite familiar.

It’s worth noting that one of the Giants who excelled when they last won following a no-hit defeat will be on the premises Wednesday at Great American Ball Park. On Sept. 26, 1986, the day after Houston’s Mike Scott dominated them, they downed the Dodgers, 3-0. Mike Krukow smothered L.A. on three hits through eight innings for his 19th victory. Maybe he should perform some sort of good-luck ritual before settling into the broadcast booth.

*****

Speaking of luck, I’ve been extremely fortunate to witness five no-hitters. Of the previous four, I was a spectator at two: Ed Halicki, Aug. 24, 1975 against the Mets and Jerry Reuss, June 27, 1980 for the Dodgers over the Giants. I worked (that term “worked” is used loosely; I gladly would have paid to be at the park) the other two: Jonathan Sanchez, July 10, 2009 against San Diego and, of course, Matt Cain’s perfect game last June 13 against Houston.

I have to echo Giants manager Bruce Bochy in pronouncing Bailey’s effort the most overpowering, though Cain (14), Sanchez (11) and Halicki (10) exceeded Bailey’s total of nine strikeouts. With that 97-mph fastball, Bailey looked like a frickin’ monster.

Each one occupies a special place in my memory. Halicki’s ended with the crowd in sheer delirium, partly because the Giants weren’t very good then and we had little to cheer about. The weird thing about Reuss’ game was the unusual heat that enveloped Candlestick Park that night. The enduring images I have of Sanchez’s no-no include Aaron Rowand’s leaping catch at the center-field wall in the ninth inning and Randy Johnson, hands stuffed in his
jacket, loping toward the on-field celebration as the last Giant to leave the dugout.

I could say a lot about Cain’s perfecto, since it occurred so recently, but I’ll distill my recollections into two words: Gregor Blanco.

Chris Haft

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