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Blast from the past: Jim Brower’s a Royal (kind of)

KANSAS CITY — One of the brightest surprises of the postseason so far was bumping into Jim Brower, the former Major League reliever who just completed his second season as the pitching coach for Kansas City’s Double-A Northwest Arkansas affiliate.

Giants fans will remember Brower for his inexhaustible performance in 2004, when he led the Majors with 89 appearances. The Giants released him the following June, as he lasted only a fraction longer than two years with five different clubs after his workhorse season.

I covered Brower during his 2001-02 stint with the Reds, as well as his aborted ’05 season with the Giants. He was always a perfect gentleman, regardless of circumstances. It was great to learn that he’s still contributing to the game.

Two other ex-Giants are pitching coaches in the Royals’ Minor League system: Larry Carter with Triple-A Omaha and Mark Davis with rookie-advanced Idaho Falls.

Chris Haft

Dravecky wants to raise cholesterol awareness

Friday, Sept. 26

SAN FRANCISCO — Dave Dravecky has long been an inspirational figure. Now his gift for motivation is taking on a fresh dimension.

Dravecky, the ex-Giant who’s renowned for overcoming cancer to return to pitching in 1989, has begun urging people to undergo cholesterol screenings as part of National Cholesterol Education Month.

Saturday, Dravecky will be at AT&T Park as part of an event sponsored by AstraZeneca in which free cholesterol screenings will be conducted from 10 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. at Lefty O’ Doul Plaza.

Dravecky, whose personal saga touched so many hearts, again offers a tale everybody can relate to as he emphasizes the importance of maintaining healthy cholesterol levels.

Dravecky recalled playing with one of his grandsons for a couple of hours about three years ago. After playtime ended, Dravecky collapsed on the nearest couch, thoroughly exhausted.

“I felt like I had just been in a major prize fight,” Dravecky said. “And here’s why: At that point in time I was pushing 280 pounds. I was tired of feeling miserable. I was not eating right. I was not exercising. I knew that my cholesterol was high.”

After that experience, Dravecky consulted his physician and took the necessary steps toward changing his lifestyle and improving his cholesterol levels. “Today, I can tell you my life is so much better because of making those choices, and I’m in a much better place healthwise to be the grandpa I want to be,” he said.

Dravecky also wants to raise awareness regarding the link between high cholesterol and heart disease. His wife, Jan, lost both of her parents to heart attacks, which further sharpened the family’s attention to maintaining health.

Cholesterol screening, Dravecky said, is “a really easy thing to do and a very important thing to do in relationship to heart disease. Obviously there are things that can be done to prevent that.”

Chris Haft

Belt, Pagan return; Bochy hedges on Morse

Friday, Sept. 19

SAN DIEGO — Though the Giants have no ironclad guarantee that first baseman Brandon Belt and center fielder Angel Pagan were fit to play, both rejoined the lineup for Friday night’s series opener against the San Diego Padres.

Belt’s pinch-hitting stint Wednesday represented his first activity for the Giants since Aug. 6, which followed his recovery from a concussion. Pagan missed the three-game Arizona series with back stiffness. Their last joint appearance in the lineup was June 14.

“I wish both of them would have had a week or two of at-bats,” Giants manager Bruce Bochy said before Friday’s game.

But the urgency of the Giants’ pursuit of a postseason spot left Bochy little choice but to field his best potential lineup, even if it wasn’t the healthiest contingent he could have used.

Belt passed multiple “tests,” Bochy said. Staying in the Phoenix area while the rest of the team left for San Diego following Wednesday’s series finale against the Diamondbacks, Belt worked out at the Giants’ instructional league camp at their Scottsdale training headquarters. Belt estimated that he took 100 swings in extra and regular batting practice, besides working on his defense.

“It was productive,” Belt said of his extra work. He noticed that certain aspects of his hitting needed further sharpening. “But I knew that was going to happen,” he said.

Bochy’s reasoning for reinstalling Pagan in the leadoff spot was simple. The switch-hitter declared after Wednesday’s game that he would play Friday “no matter what,” Bochy said.

First baseman-left fielder Michael Morse also caught the health bug, telling Bochy that he felt ready for action. Bochy acknowledged that Morse was available to play. But Bochy also indicated that he wanted to wait at least another day before deciding how or whether to use Morse, who missed San Francisco’s previous 15 games with a strained left oblique.

Bochy hinted that even if Morse is playable, Gregor Blanco might remain in left field. “With the job he’s done defensively and with the bat, he’s been a catalyst and has really played some great ball on both sides,” Bochy said of Blanco, who actually entered Friday batting .182 (4-for-22) in his previous seven games.

– Chris Haft

Why Posey & not Susac

Friday, Sept. 12

SAN FRANCISCO — Explaining catcher Andrew Susac’s absence from San Francisco’s lineup in Friday night’s series opener against the Los Angeles Dodgers, Giants manager Bruce Bochy explained simply that he wanted to continue to pair left-hander Madison Bumgarner with Buster Posey behind the plate.

Some basic statistics support Bochy’s reasoning.

Bochy might have been expected to start Susac behind the plate and Posey at first base to load the batting order with as many right-handed batters as possible against Dodgers lefty Hyun-Jin Ryu. With Posey catching, the Giants still had a right-handed bat at first base — Joaquin Arias, who entered the game on a .429 binge (15-for-35).

In 25 starts this year before Friday with Posey catching, Bumgarner recorded a 2.94 ERA, a ratio of 5.09 strikeouts per walk, a .233 opponents’ batting average and a .628 opponents’ OPS (on-base plus slugging percentage). All were handsome numbers.

Susac, the rookie who has caught only three of Bumgarner’s starts since joining the Giants on July 26, has guided Bumgarner to a lower ERA (2.77) and a better strikeouts-to-walks ratio (8.00) than Posey. But Bumgarner’s opponents’ batting average and OPS rose to .300 and .774, respectively, when pitching to Susac.

Hector Sanchez, who’s sidelined by the effects of a concussion, guided Bumgarner to a 3.68 ERA, a 4.67 strikeouts-to-walks ratio, a .277 opponents’ batting average and a .755 opponents’ OPS.

Chris Haft

‘Swingman’ Lincecum still swings in BP

Tuesday, Sept. 9

SAN FRANCISCO — Tim Lincecum continues to take pregame batting practice with the Giants’ starting pitchers. Don’t read too much into this.

Before Yusmeiro Petit replaced Lincecum in the rotation, he, too, frequently took BP with the starters. This makes sense in both cases, since you never know when the “sixth starter” or long reliever will be called upon to hit.

Giants manager Bruce Bochy answered affirmatively when asked Tuesday whether he’s open to using Lincecum in multiple roles — as a long or short reliever, and in the right-hander’s customary guise as a starter if a spot opens up. Bochy added that Lincecum’s willing to be the pitching staff’s handyman.

“He’s kind of the ‘swing’ guy,” Bochy said. “But he can be a long guy [or] he can help us in the sixth or seventh inning, possibly. If not, I have to find a spot to get him out there.”

*****

Another pitcher who Bochy hopes to use in the near future is his soon, Brett, who has yet to make his Major League debut since joining the team last week as a September call-up.

The elder Bochy cited the need to keep the regular relievers sharp as a primary reason for not being able to use his son sooner.

“I’ll find a spot for him,” manager Bochy said, adding with a chuckle, “He’s not putting any pressure on me yet.”

Chris Haft

Giants’ interest in Zobrist could intensify

SAN FRANCISCO — With Thursday’s Trade Deadline approaching, the Giants’ interest in acquiring Ben Zobrist from the Tampa Bay Rays could be deepening.

The Giants’ no-risk investment in second baseman Dan Uggla has appeared to be a no-reward venture so far. Uggla has gone hitless in eight at-bats spanning three games and committed two errors, including one that generated an unearned run, in Sunday’s 4-3 loss to the Dodgers.

With Marco Scutaro unable to play everyday due to his lingering back issues and Joe Panik experiencing a rookie’s growing pains, the Giants again may have to look elsewhere for help at second base. Landing Zobrist would end that search. Jon Paul Morosi of FOX Sports.com reported that the Giants had two scouts watching Zobrist this past weekend.

Zobrist also could help in the outfield if Angel Pagan’s recovery from a back ailment continues to stall.

– Chris Haft

Fresno-bound Hicks clears waivers

MINNEAPOLIS — Brandon Hicks, who until recently was the Giants’ primary second baseman, cleared waivers Tuesday and was outrighted to Triple-A Fresno. He’ll report to the team on Friday.

Hicks was briefly in limbo since last Friday, when he was designated for assignment to create roster room for Marco Scutaro.

Hicks, 28, batted .162 with eight home runs and 22 RBI for the Giants in 71 games, including 59 starts. He reached his zenith on May 23, when his batting average reached .200 and he hit his final homer — though nobody knew that then, of course. From May 24 on, Hicks batted .095 (7-for-74) with two RBIs.

Early in the season, Hicks was celebrated for his unexpected success. He made the Opening Night squad as a non-roster invitee to Spring Training and soon beat out Joaquin Arias and Ehire Adrianza for the starting role. Hicks’ power and ability to turn the double play were his most significant assets at the time.

– Chris Haft

Bochy’s hands-off approach conveys trust

Wednesday, June 25

SAN FRANCISCO — Giants manager Bruce Bochy’s intent on helping Tim Lincecum secure his second no-hitter was clear. After Michael Morse doubled in the sixth inning, the Giants manager replaced his left fielder with pinch-runner Juan Perez, a superior defender.

Bochy later was asked about two moves he didn’t make. He stuck with third baseman Pablo Sandoval, who frequently has been removed for Joaquin Arias in the late innings with the Giants leading. Bochy also kept Joe Panik, starting his fourth Major League game, at second base. Panik assisted on the final out after gobbling up Will Venable’s grounder.

Bochy cited Sandoval’s considerable defensive improvement as the primary reason for leaving him in the game. “If you look at his third-base play, it’s been really impressive — the jumps he’s getting on the ball, his range, how he’s throwing,” Bochy said. “He’s a different third baseman now than when I was taking him out and putting Arias in. I definitely wanted him [Sandoval] out there.”

By contrast, Bochy replaced Sandoval with Arias during Matt Cain’s perfect game, each game of the 2012 World Series and in every victory except one in the National League Championship Series. Oh, and in numerous regular-season games, too.

Leaving Panik in the game should bolster the 23-year-old’s confidence. Bochy acknowledged that he could have installed Brandon Hicks, who possesses more experience than Panik. But Hicks’ edge in savvy wasn’t enough to prompt Bochy to disrupt the continuity of the contingent on the field. Not to mention Panik’s concentration.

“It’s not like both [Hicks and Panik] have a ton of experience at second base in the Major Leagues,” Bochy said. “Joe was out there the whole game. Let me tell you — when you’re in a no-hitter, those guys on defense, they know pressure. They feel it. They don’t want to be the one to make a mistake.”

Neither did Bochy.

Chris Haft

Welch hinted at greatness quickly at ‘Stick

Great moment No. 1 in the late Bob Welch’s career was, of course, his strikeout of Reggie Jackson that sealed the Los Angeles Dodgers’ triumph over the New York Yankees in Game 2 of the 1978 World Series.

Great moment No. 2 for Welch very well could have occurred during that same year. It was a performance against the Giants that helped re-establish the Dodgers’ footing in the National League West.

Saturday, Aug. 5 dawned with the Giants leading the West by two games over second-place Cincinnati. Los Angeles, the reigning division champions, occupied third place, 4 1/2 games behind the Giants. The Dodgers appeared to be reeling, having slipped closer to fourth place (San Diego trailed them by four games) than first.

Then Bob Welch took the mound at Candlestick Park.

The Giants clearly were overdosing on momentum. They captured one-run decisions in the first two games of a four-game series against the Dodgers. The pitching matchup for game three of the series seemed to favor the Giants. Ed Halicki, a 16-game winner the year before who had a respectable 3.03 ERA this season, opposed Welch, a rookie making his 13th Major League appearance but just his fourth start. Surely, San Francisco would teach Welch what the Giants-Dodgers rivalry was about.

It didn’t happen that way. Welch pitched his first Major League complete game, allowing nine hits in Los Angeles’ 2-0 victory. In a dress rehearsal for his confrontation with Jackson, Welch struck out Jack Clark, the Giants’ premier slugger, with two runners on base and one out in the ninth inning. The Giants remained in the division race through early September. But the Dodgers did more than just hang around. Welch’s victory began a 20-6 surge that helped propel Los Angeles into first place.

As the saying goes, you never get a second chance to make a first impression. Anybody who saw Welch pitch that afternoon sensed that he would make an impact. He certainly did, as his career attested. If more pitchers like him come along, baseball fans should be so lucky.

Chris Haft

Sandoval’s big day: Illusion or the real thing?

Sunday, April 27

SAN FRANCISCO — False alarms signaling Pablo Sandoval’s hitting resurgence have sounded on a handful of occasions already this year.

Thus, any enthusiasm over Sandoval’s outburst of offense (2-for-4) in the Giants’ 4-1 victory Sunday over the Cleveland Indians must be tempered. He’s still hitting only .180.

But the season is so young that just a few big games will restore Sandoval’s batting average to respectability.

Sandoval insisted that he’s not dwelling on his statistics. “I don’t look at my numbers. The only thing I care about is winning,” he said Sunday for about the fifth or sixth time this year.

That’s a wise comment from a guy who’ll become a free agent at the end of this season. But why be cynical? All of us who have watched Sandoval since he ascended to the Giants late in the 2008 season believe in his baseball passion and his hitting ability.

Sandoval’s production at the plate in the series finale against Cleveland indeed appeared to be the start of something big. Batting left-handed against hard-throwing Indians right-hander Danny Salazar, Sandoval drilled his fourth-inning double into the left-field corner before scoring on Brandon Crawford’s double. In Sandoval’s next plate appearance, he singled to right-center on a 2-2 pitch — his first hit of the season on a two-strike count. Was this the vintage Sandoval who sprays line drives to all fields? It certainly seemed that way.

Maybe it was just a coincidence that Barry Bonds, who needs no introduction, visited the Giants clubhouse on Sunday.

Speaking to Manolo Hernandez-Douen, the excellent Spanish-speaking baseball writer, Sandoval said he recently scrutinized videotapes of his at-bats and observed, “I see what I was doing wrong.” The next few games could reveal whether Sandoval truly has righted those wrongs.

Chris Haft

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