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With Aoki sidelined, install Belt in LF

Wednesday, June 24

SAN FRANCISCO — Nori Aoki’s temporary replacement in left field could already be on the active Major League roster, and it isn’t Gregor Blanco or Justin Maxwell.

It’s Brandon Belt.

The Giants might have to tolerate an occasional defensive misplay from Belt, who has vastly more experience at first base than he does in left. But the offensive potential that San Francisco would gain by having Belt in left, Buster Posey at first base and Andrew Susac catching eclipses any other alternative.

Simpler, more obvious options abound: Summoning Juan Perez or Jarrett Parker from Triple-A Sacramento and plugging one of them in a corner outfield spot while Blanco or Maxwell occupies the other. Or, playing Blanco in left and Maxwell in right every day.

These are “safe” combinations that would provide adequate defense. And we all know that the Giants are rooted in pitching and defense. For the short term, however, the Giants need to reclaim at least some of the energy they lost with Aoki’s departure due to a fractured right fibula. They’d accomplish that while keeping Belt’s bat in the lineup, receiving possibly enhanced production from Posey, who’s hitting .313 (15-for-48) as a first baseman and .281 (56-for-199) otherwise, and adding Susac, who’s 7-for-16 in his last five games. The Giants already have tried this without dramatic results, but now’s the time to throw full support behind this venture.

This also might be a good opportunity to keep Brandon Crawford in the upper half of the batting order. Previously, he has occupied the sixth, seventh or eighth spots in 54 of 65 starts. Heck, bat Crawford leadoff. He knows what he’s doing up there. Matt Duffy, who seems incapable of NOT getting meaningful hits when called upon, also can help compensate for the void left by Aoki. Manager Bruce Bochy has somewhat fulfilled his promise to elevate Duffy in the batting order. But the rookie third baseman still has hit seventh in five of his last eight starts.

Overcoming the simultaneous absences of Aoki and right fielder Hunter Pence certainly will challenge the Giants. “If we want to be the ballclub we want to be, somebody’s going to have to step up,” ace left-hander Madison Bumgarner said. They have men who can accomplish this, if they’re placed in positions to succeed.

Chris Haft

Duffy’s destined to bat higher in order

Thursday, June 18

SEATTLE — Matt Duffy has mostly occupied the lower rungs of the Giants’ batting order. That’s expected to change immediately.

Duffy’s sustained hitting surge, contrasting with the Giants’ sputtering offense, has prompted manager Bruce Bochy to consider elevating the rookie third baseman to a more prominent spot in the order. That could happen as soon as Thursday night, when the Giants play their Interleague series finale against the Seattle Mariners.

Bochy was asked after Wednesday night’s 2-0 loss to Seattle whether Duffy, who had two of San Francisco’s four hits, would ascend in the order. “Oh, he’ll get moved up. Trust me,” Bochy said. Heretofore, Duffy has batted seventh or eighth in 31 of 44 starts.

Bochy appreciates Duffy’s determined, polished approach at the plate, as well as his production. While the Giants batted .196 (30-for-153) and scored nine runs in their recent 1-4 homestand, Duffy hit .357 (5-for-14) during the same stretch. His pair of singles Wednesday off Cy Young Award winner Felix Hernandez lifted his overall batting average to .294.

“I just love the way he puts his nose in there and fights you every pitch,” Bochy said.

Oddly, the right-handed-batting Duffy has struggled against left-handers, who have limited him to a .204 (10-for-49) average. He’ll receive an immediate test Thursday against Seattle southpaw Mike Montgomery.

“He hasn’t quite handled them as well,” Bochy said. “But he will with more experience.”

Chris Haft

Hunter Pence, unfiltered

Saturday, May 9

Giants right fielder Hunter Pence, who went 0-for-2 with a sacrifice fly as he began his Minor League injury rehabilitation stint Friday with Triple-A Sacramento, spoke Saturday at a news conference during which he addressed various topics. Thanks to the Giants’ media relations department, which provided a transcript of Pence’s remarks, here’s what he had to say.

On his journey to recovery:
“It’s been a long journey, for sure. Having an injury that not too many people have had, I didn’t realize the amount of work rehab really is, and how long it was going to be, and how painful. It’s just a long process. Your days are really, extremely long, trying to just get the wrist back moving as quick as possible, and a lot of treatment. I owe so much gratitude to our training staff, the amount of work they put in. It’s a long time sitting there, twisting a wrist, and holding hands with people. It’s been tough.”
On the emotional aspect of his injury:
“Emotions are things you can somewhat control, especially since you can’t control when you get hit by a pitch in a certain way. So I tried to stay in positive spirits. I think I have some unrealistic expectations of coming back, but I don’t think it hurts to dream big. But the process, I just try to take it each moment, each day. Whatever they need me to do, whatever we can think of to intelligently get it going again. A lot of times you have to hold back because I want to push through a little more than it will allow you to.”
“Well, at least it happened this early and I can get back quicker. Control what you can control and just try to get back out there. It’s definitely still to be determined how it’s going to affect this season because you put in all your work in the offseason, you come in ready to rock, and then having to get this going as quick as possible, so I feel good. The training staff and our strength team have done a wonderful job.”
On the Sacramento experience:
“It’s been incredible. It’s really nice to be able to just hop in a car and drive out here, and Sacramento is a beautiful town. I just got a little bit of time driving around, but you got a nice river and a beautiful stadium here. The fans were enthusiastic last night and it’s a nice setup, and I feel pretty grateful to come here and play some ball.”
On participating in Friday night’s game:
“It was great. I was really amped and I was pretty excited. I hardly slept the night before, just adrenaline. I had to remind myself, ‘Hey, you’ve played this game before. Calm down.’ But I was really pumped.”

On his scooter:
“The scooter doesn’t have the battery life to get down here. Maybe one day. That’d be pretty fun, to have a little scooter cruise around town.”
On his Sacramento teammates:
“I know a lot of these guys from Spring Training, most of them. There’s very few that I haven’t gotten to play with, but it’s a great group. There’s a tremendous amount of talent. One of the coolest things about getting to play here is getting to see some of these guys play a little more and to be a teammate with them. A lot of these guys are knocking on the door to come help us and we know that. It gives us a lot of confidence knowing the amount of talent that we have down here. This is an incredibly talented team and a lot of guys that are deserving to play with us. To know how good a team this is and the amount of talent, it’s pretty remarkable to see.”
On the Giants’ slow start to the season:
“You know, that’s baseball. We have a staff and a group that understands that you’re gonna hit those stints, you’re gonna have those things happen. I think we have a unit that just understands the process and how to keep working and keep doing the things that matter and stay the course. You just gotta keep pushing and, no matter what, baseball is going to have ups and downs. You just gotta understand that and keep on pushin’.”

On video games:
“There was definitely a long time where I wasn’t able to do anything but a tablet game. Obviously I had like four weeks in a cast, and then it came out of the cast a little early and I still wasn’t able to do hardly anything. So it wasn’t until just recently that I was able to do anything. They said a moderate amount of playing would be helpful, but I don’t really think after the 8 hour – or however long it felt like I was twisting and turning my wrist – that I needed much more. Played a little bit of Mortal Kombat when it came out, but there’s not really much wrist action in that. Just moving your thumb.”

On the “Hunter Pence” signs Friday night:
“I saw a few. I saw a cute one from a little girl that said ‘Superman wears Hunter Pence underwear’. It’s one I’d seen before, but it’s a nice one. There was a lot of love and definitely I got a lot of attention. I just want to let the fans know I appreciate it and I’m grateful for it.”
On spending time in Triple-A:
“It’s a joy to be here. It’s a joy to play baseball, in general. I think this is a spectacular stadium. The atmosphere is incredible. I’m absolutely enjoying this time.”

Chris Haft

Dodgers series rewind: Don’t forget about SF ‘pen

Friday, April 24

SAN FRANCISCO — It’s easy to identify the highlights of the Giants’ three-game sweep of the Dodgers. Tim Lincecum generated career victory No. 102 in Tuesday’s series opener. That propelled the Giants to back-to-back walk-off triumphs. Brandon Crawford and Justin Maxwell excelled on offense and defense. Brandon Belt, Buster Posey, Angel Pagan and Casey McGehee contributed key hits at various junctures.

Moreover, don’t forget about the performance of the bullpen, which was easy to overlook amid the late rallies, the Dodgers’ complaints over the Roberto Kelly-Gregor Blanco waltz and the Clayton Kershaw-Madison Bumgarner hype.

San Francisco’s relievers combined to allow one run in 9 2/3 innings. That’s a 0.93 ERA. Santiago Casilla collected two wins and a save. Javier Lopez stranded runners on second and third in one appearance and induced an inning-ending double-play grounder in another. Jeremy Affeldt and Sergio Romo combined to allow one hit in 3 2/3 innings. George Kontos and Jean Machi contributed big outs.

Lopez deflected credit to Lincecum, Madison Bumgarner and Ryan Vogelsong, who delivered quality starts. “Good starting pitching really sets us up well,” Lopez said. “When we’re getting it, that’s when we kind of get in that rhythm we’re looking for.”

Lopez added that the wavelength between the relievers and manager Bruce Bochy remained intact. “That’s why I think there’s never a panic down there for us,” Lopez said. “We always kind of have an idea when we might throw and I think that’s why we’re starting to shine a little bit.”

San Francisco’s bullpen actually shone a lot, largely accounting for Los Angeles’ .067 (1-for-15) batting average with runners in scoring position. That provides a backdrop for an intriguing three-game rematch beginning Monday at Dodger Stadium.

Chris Haft

Previous 4-10 Giants squads were mostly dreadful

Giants fans of a certain age, the age where hair turns gray or thins, joints ache and eyesight fails, might feel nauseous.

They’re the ones who heard that the current Giants (4-10) matched the team’s worst 14-game record since the franchise moved to San Francisco in 1958 — a mark previously logged by the 1980, ’83, ’85 and 2000 clubs — and wondered, “Are they really that bad?”

Long memories can be a curse for experienced Giants fans. The 1980, ’83 and ’85 squads ranged from mediocre (’83) to bad (’80) to horrible (’85, the lone 100-loss season in Giants history).

The mere suggestion that the defending World Series champions could in any way be as dreadful as these teams is enough to prompt nightmares of Buster Posey metamorphosing into Milt May or Madison Bumgarner transforming into Phil Nastu.

The outlier in that foursome, of course, is the 2000 club. That bunch recovered from its slow start to win the West division with a National League-best 97-65 record. That should serve as a lesson. Anybody dismissing this year’s Giants as failures with 148 games remaining does so at his or her own risk.

But fans who watched those other three teams perform (that’s using the term loosely) and emerged with their love for baseball intact must be praying that this year won’t become an early ’80s revival.

For the uninitiated, here’s a synopsis of the hopelessness those 4-10 teams of the ’80s evoked. You young ‘uns have no idea: These days, it’s fashionable to be a Giants fan. Back then, people actually laughed at you if you rooted for the Giants.

Here’s why:

1980
Eventual finish: 75-86, fifth place NL West
Most games over .500: 2
Most games under .500: 11
Saving grace: This was one of the greatest moments in Giants history, but it got overlooked in such a crappy year. On June 29, Willie McCovey, who announced his retirement a few days earlier, lashed a pinch-hit double to break a ninth-inning tie and give the Giants a walkoff victory over the Dodgers. The mighty knight had risen to slay the evil dragon one last time.
But it was usually like this: The Giants were five games out of first place on Aug. 14. Twelve losses in 13 games to start September dashed any wild postseason dreams. The Giants scored 32 runs in that stretch, which included three consecutive shutout defeats.

1983
Eventual finish: 79-83, fifth place NL West
Most games over .500: 6
Most games under .500: 10
Saving grace: Atlee Hammaker, whose 2.25 ERA was the NL’s best, allowed as many as four earned runs only four times in 23 starts.
But it was usually like this: The Giants scored 13 runs on Opening Day, demonstrating their formidable offensive potential. Just one problem: San Diego scored 16.

1985
Eventual finish: 62-100, siXth place NL West
Most games over .500: 1
Most games under .500: 39
Saving grace: A 4-3 walkoff win on Opening Day. The 161 games that followed were mostly futile. These guys finished 33 games out of first place!
But it was usually like this: Through June 4, the Giants owned an admirable 2.42 team ERA. Yet they were a day away from taking up permanent residency in last place, due to their .216 team batting average and their scoring rate — a shade less than three runs per game.

Chris Haft

Sabean’s surprise picks, bye to Brown, Shelley’s promotion

Friday, April 3

SAN FRANCISCO — Not surprisingly, Brian Sabean said Friday that two of his proudest seasons during his 18-year tenure as the Giants’ general manager occurred during the past five years, when the team won three World Series in that span.

Here’s the catch: The two years when San Francisco didn’t even reach the postseason, 2011 and 2013, were the ones Sabean singled out, primarily because of the club’s diligence.

“Against all odds in ’11, we almost made it in,” Sabean said. In fact, remarkably little went right for the Giants that year. Cody Ross and Brian Wilson began the season on the disabled list. Injuries also hounded Pat Burrell, Santiago Casilla and Barry Zito. Jonathan Sanchez failed to fulfill his promise. Aubrey Huff’s performance plunged precipitously. Free-agent shortstop Miguel Tejada was a bust. Pablo Sandoval broke his right hamate bone at the end of April, when the offense was slumping and he owned a gaudy slash line of .313/.374/.530. Freddy Sanchez sustained a career-ending shoulder injury. Acquired at the Trade Deadline to bolster the sagging offense, Carlos Beltran injured his right hand, robbing him of his power.

And, of course, Buster Posey experienced his unfortunate home-plate collision with Scott Cousins on May 25.

But the pitching was superb — Wilson, Matt Cain, Tim Lincecum and the previously unheralded Ryan Vogelsong made the All-Star team — which helped keep the Giants atop the National League West standings through Aug. 9. Arizona inevitably surpassed them.

“While that was frustrating,” Sabean said during Friday’s news conference at AT&T Park to announce contract extensions for him and manager Bruce Bochy, “I appreciated the effort.”

Sabean related that he felt much the same after 2013, which began with several Giants injured or on the disabled list. Most of them participated in the World Baseball Classic, which the Giants came to regard as a cursed event, albeit a well-intentioned one.

The offense went soft. Posey hit .294 but totaled only 15 homers. Marco Scutaro posted one of the quietest .297 batting averages in Major League history. Injuries limited Angel Pagan to 71 games. Lincecum (4.37 ERA) and Cain (4.00) weren’t the same, and Vogelsong (4-6, 5.73) was almost unrecognizable.

“That season could have, should have been a disaster,” Sabean said. “And Boch will tell you, our guys, to a man, didn’t give up. They stayed professional, they knew what it meant to the fan base to finish on a high note.” Mustering a 76-86 record, Sabean concluded, “catapulted us into ’14.”

*****

After five seasons, with this year’s Spring Training tacked on, the Giants basically ran out of patience with Gary Brown.

The organization’s No. 1 selection (24th overall) in the 2010 amateur draft, Brown was designated for assignment Tuesday and claimed on waivers Friday by St. Louis. The Cardinals have room for a center fielder at Triple-A.

“Sorry to see him go,” Giants general manager Bobby Evans said, “but as I told him, ‘It’s an opportunity. Take advantage of it.’ ”

Brown simply didn’t hit enough to suit the Giants. He batted a rousing .336 at Class A Advanced San Jose in 2011. But he struck out 254 times at Triple-A in 2013-14 as he hit a combined .250.

“He has extremely strong defensive tools and still has the speed tools. It’s just that the bat has taken a little longer to get into a consistent rhythm after that first year in San Jose,” Evans said. “It’s in there. I hope it comes out in some fashion sooner rather than later.”

Moreover, the presence of outfielders Juan Perez and Mac Williamson and the emergence of Daniel Carbonell obscured Brown, 26. Evans said that Brown sank to the “bottom” of the 40-man roster, having been rendered expendable by the aforementioned trio. So when the Giants added Justin Maxwell to the 40-man roster, they subtracted Brown.

“We knew he had value,” Evans said. “We’re not surprised that he got claimed.”

*****

Not to be overlooked in Friday’s cluster of promotions and contract extensions was Jeremy Shelley’s elevation to vice president and assistant general manager of professional scouting and player evaluation.

Shelley, entering his 22nd season with the Giants, has proven valuable behind the scenes regarding international operations, amateur scouting and the statistical analysis that critics believe the Giants ignore.

— Chris Haft

Thank you, Nick Peters

March 23, 2015

My admiration for Nick Peters had relatively little to do with his writing ability, which was considerable, or his vast experience as a baseball beat writer, which was virtually unmatched.

Rather, I respected Nick for the ardor with which he lived and his seemingly innate identification with me. He considered me a kindred spirit; I considered myself lucky to be in such good company.

I’ll always associate Nick, who died Monday at 75, with vigor. He seemed to do everything with enthusiasm or in a robust manner, whether he was bustling across the clubhouse to interview a player, devouring a meal or just being himself. He and his saintly wife, Lise, traveled constantly, and I don’t mean just to the various and sundry National and American League garden spots (though they did that, too). They spanned the globe, apparently intent on sampling everything this world has to offer.

Also, I’ll remain grateful to Nick for treating me so well. I believe he sensed that I was a lot like him. We shared the feeling that covering baseball was a privilege; we shared a special love  for northern California in general and San Francisco in particular; and we shared an appreciation for Giants lore.

Nick took an interest in my family and my health. He genuinely cared about what was going on with me. And when I wrote an article he particularly liked, he quickly sent a complimentary e-mail. Nick was a like a big brother, friend, favorite uncle, drinking buddy and confidant all in one.

That’s a lot of people to replace. There’s no use trying to do so, especially when all those figures are rolled up into one person. People like that are truly rare. God Bless You, Nick, and thanks for everything.

Chris Haft

Combing non-roster lists for ex-Giants

Wednesday, Feb. 25

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. — Copies of the 2015 Spring Training media guide were distributed to reporters today. Receiving this little spiral-bound fount of information is one of the highlights of camp, since it’s a rich source of entertainment value.

The first thing many baseball people do with the guide is examine each team’s list of non-roster invitees. It’s always intriguing — or sometimes sad — to see which ex-Giants landed elsewhere for an opportunity to prolong their careers.

This was a big year for left-handers, besides Barry Zito. Six southpaws formerly belonging to the Giants earned non-roster invitations to other camps. The catch is that only three of them pitched in the Major Leagues for the Giants: Dan Runzler, Jose Mijares and David Huff. They’re with Arizona, Cincinnati and the Dodgers, respectively.

Three other lefties who spent time in the Giants’ Minor League system coaxed invitations. They were Ryan Verdugo (A’s), Joe Paterson (Royals) and former Marlins ace Dontrelle Willis (Brewers).

Three teams each have a pair of invitees who once called themselves Giants. In Angels camp are outfielder Roger Kieschnick and catcher Jackson Williams. The Washington Nationals have infielders Emmanuel Burriss and Dan Uggla, whose four-game stint at second base with the Giants last year immediately preceded Joe Panik’s rise to prominence. Besides Mijares, the Reds latched onto infielder Chris Dominguez.

Right-hander Brad Penny, who excelled for the Giants in September 2009 when they were on the fringes of the National League West race, is in camp with the White Sox. Two other guys who keep getting chances are outfielder Jeff Francoeur (Phillies) and infielder Eugenio Velez (Rays). Another ballplayer who still manages to get a look is infielder Ryan Rohlinger (Indians).

Catcher Johnny Monell, a native of the Bronx, will play in his backyard if he can break through with the Mets.

Two outfielders who have displayed big league ability but must constantly fight for jobs are Nate Schierholtz (Texas) and Cole Gillespie (Miami).

Chris Haft

Giants’ medical staff to lead weekend seminars

Thursday, Jan. 15

SAN FRANCISCO — The Giants have recorded their first sellout of the season, except the patrons are medical professionals, not fans.

The ballclub’s medical and athletic training staffs will conduct the team’s inaugural Sports Medicine Conference, presented by Dignity Health. All sessions on Friday at the Palace Hotel and Saturday at AT&T Park, which address baseball-related maladies literally from head to toe, are full.

Dave Groeschner, the Giants’ head athletic trainer, said Thursday that he and other event organizers initially wanted to cap attendance at 200. That grew to 250, then 275. Groeschner, team orthopedist Dr. Ken Akizuki and their Giants colleagues finally ceased accepting applications when the number reached 300.

“People keep wanting to come, which is great,” Groeschner said.

Groeschner noted that he and the rest of the Giants’ medical and training staffs are eager to receive knowledge, not just impart it. He expects question-and-answer periods to be lively.

“There will be a lot of smart people there who maybe we can learn from, too,” Groeschner said. “It makes us better at what we do.”

Akizuki initially broached the possibility last year of staging this sort of conference, Groeschner said.

Naturally, shoulder and elbow injuries, as well as concussions, will be heavily discussed topics. Caring for the arms of youngsters who are beginning to pitch also should generate ample interest. That’s a subject Groeschner particularly welcomed, since it enables the seminar’s participants to “give back to the community.”

Chris Haft

Return to postseason heights with Comcast

SAN FRANCISCO — Giants fans can give themselves a nice year-end present by activating their television sets. Or their TiVos.<p>

Comcast SportsNet Bay Area will ring out 2014 by replaying the Giants’ last five postseason victories that brought them their third World Series title in five years. The sequence begins Wednesday night at 7 with San Francisco’s 6-3 victory over St. Louis in the National League Championship Series clincher — otherwise known as the Travis Ishikawa Game.

That will be followed by the Giants’ quartet of World Series wins: Game 1 on Wednesday, Dec. 24, Game 4 on Friday, Dec. 26, Game 5 on Sunday, Dec. 28 and Game 7 (otherwise known as the Madison Bumgarner Game) on Monday, Dec. 29. All telecasts will begin at 7 p.m. except for the Game 5 review, which is set for 7:30 p.m.

These won’t strictly be FOX replays, either. Viewers will have the privilege of hearing the radio calls of Jon Miller, Duane Kuiper, Mike Krukow and Dave Flemming.

As a bonus, Comcast will re-broadcast the Giants’ World Series parade and City Hall celebration on Thursday, Dec. 25 at 10 a.m. and Thursday, Jan. 1 at 9 a.m.

Chris Haft

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