Eureka, I’ve found it!
I’ve finally zeroed in on the source of the Giants’ problems: their pitchers aren’t hitting.
After starting the season with their bats on fire, of late, Giants pitchers might as well be going to the plate holding an icicle. First, check out their batting averages a week into the season:
OK, Vogelsong and Cain didn’t have a hit, but you see my point. Now let’s look at these same pitchers’ averages a few weeks later.
I know what you’re saying. Zito is still hitting a remarkable .600, and Bumgarner’s .250 isn’t too shabby for a pitcher. But Zito’s average has dropped by .150, Bumgarner’s by .083, and Lincecum’s by an embarrassing .208! Meanwhile, Cain and Vogelsong remain hitless.
How can a ball club win games when their starting pitchers suddenly aren’t hitting?
Yes, I’m being silly. But no more silly, I think, than a lot of sportswriters, fans, and radio broadcasters who just four weeks into the season, with the Giants two games out of first place in the West, are already looking for scapegoats to explain why the Giants have seemingly lost their mojo. Last night on KNBR, Marty Lurie asked his listeners which Giants hitter needs to step up his game to get the rest of the Giants’ offense going. Like a prosecutor leading witness testimony, he limited their choices to Sandoval, Posey, and Pence. Apparently incapable of following simple courtroom rules, I was ready to burn Marco Scutaro at the stake until I realized what I was doing.
The thing is, Giants hitting has been good overall this season. They have the second best average in the National League, hitting .262 as a team. Even if we limit ourselves to the past four games, the Giants have gone 38 – 148, a .257 average.
Oh, but they’re not hitting with RISP! Andrew Baggarly points out that the Giants have gone 0 – 15 with RISP the past two games. Two whole (low-scoring) games!
The point is, you can cherry pick whichever numbers you wish to make an argument about what’s supposedly going wrong for the Giants. But we’re only four weeks into the season. Of course, we expect the Giants, who have won two World Series titles in the past three years, to be dominant all the time, and throughout their lineup. However, you could easily go back to the 2010 or 2012 season and take a snapshot of the team, or even a particular player, and make an argument explaining why the Giants were unlikely to win the division that year, much less go on to win the World Series.
Baseball is a game of numbers, and numbers are revealing–over a long stretch. We’re not there yet. Not even close.
OK, I was a little early with that play of the week yesterday. If I had waited a few hours, it would have been this one. No bubble, but more trouble.
Tuesday, April 23 vs. Arizona Diamondbacks: Dbacks lead 4 – 0 in the top of the eighth inning. Giants reliever George Kontos is on the mound. Dbacks catcher Miguel Montero is at the plate with one out and nobody on. On a 2-1 count, he hits a ground ball shot between third and short. Pablo Sandoval makes a great diving catch and throws Montero out at first.
It’s the bubble that makes it, the cherry on top of an already sweet play.
The Giants would go on to tie the game with two runs in the eighth inning and two more in the ninth on a Brandon Belt home run, forcing the game into extra innings. Unfortunately, the Dbacks would tack on two more runs in the top of the 11th thanks to a bevy of Giants errors.
Dbacks won, 6-4.
It was the J.T. Snow Show when the San Francisco Giants played the San Diego Padres on April 26, 2005, at AT&T Park (then SBC Park). Snow went 4-for-5 with two doubles and a triple. If that weren’t enough, he knocked in what would become the game-winning run in the bottom of the eighth inning against Padres reliever Akinori Otsuka, paving the way for the Giants a 6-5 victory.
It was a much-needed win for the Giants. They went into the game having lost six of their last eight. What’s more, the aged team was ailing. Barry Bonds was on the DL, recovering from knee surgery. Moises Alou had just returned after being out two weeks with a strained calf muscle. Giants closer Armando Benitez would end up pulling his right hamstring on the final out of the game, as he ran to cover first base on a routine grounder to Snow. Benitez had to be carried off the field, casting a shadow over the Giants’ late inning come-from-behind win.
Jason Schmidt pitched 6-2/3 innings for the Giants, giving up three runs on eight hits. Two of those runs were solo home runs, one by Padres first baseman Mark Sweeney (who would end up being traded to the Giants the following year) in the second inning, the other by catcher Ramon Hernandez in the sixth. Benitez also gave up a two-run home run to Padres pinch-hitter Phil Nevin in the top of the eighth, tying the game at 5-5. This came after the Padres squandered a 3-2 lead in the seventh, allowing three runs on three errors, two by Sweeney and one by Hernandez.
Then, in the bottom of the eighth, Giants rookie outfielder Jason Ellison got on base with a broken bat infield single. Ellison then stole second and advanced to third on a groundout by Omar Vizquel. Coming to the plate with two outs, Snow hit a double that scored Ellison and moved the Giants ahead, 6-5.
The Padres managed to put a runner in scoring position in the top of the ninth, but the game ended when Padres shortstop Geoff Blum hit a ground ball to Snow, who underhanded the ball to Benitez for the force out at first.
It was manager Felipe Alou’s 200th win with the Giants.
The Padres manager? Our own Bruce Bochy.
When I was a kid, I used to love the board game Clue. You know, the one where you have to figure out not only who committed the murder of poor Mr. Boddy in the mansion, but where he or she did it and with which murder weapon. Was it Colonel Mustard with the dagger in the study? Or maybe it was Mrs. Peacock with the candlestick in the kitchen.
Last night, the Giants created their own murder mystery versus the Arizona Diamondbacks. They seemed so alive coming back from a four-run deficit going into the eighth inning, picking up two runs in the bottom of the eighth then tying the game 4-4 in the bottom of the ninth on a dramatic two-run home run by Brandon Belt. It looked like yet another come-from-behind victory for the Gigantes.
Then, as the game went into extra innings, the slow killing of that potential victory started to occur.
There were so many suspects in so many places leaving so many clues. Let’s take a look at a few of them and try to figure out who, ultimately, murdered the Giants’ chances.
Tim Flannery in the third base coach box with the “Go Pablo” sign?
With two outs in the bottom of the tenth, Pablo Sandoval hits a ground ball double to right field. Then D-backs pitcher Brad Ziegler intentionally walks Buster Posey. That brings Hunter Pence to the plate. On the second pitch, Pence hits a ground ball to Cody Ross in right field. Ross, as any Giants fan knows, has a great arm. But despite this, and despite the fact that the hot-hitting Brandon Belt is on deck, third base coach Tim Flannery decides to send Sandoval home. Instead of scoring the winning run, Sandoval is thrown out by a good ten feet.
Andres Torres in left field with the brain freeze?
In the top of the 11th with one out, D-backs shortstop Didi Gregorius hits a fly ball between left and center that Andres Torres gives up on. For some reason, after Torres catches the ball on a bounce, he turns to look at center fielder Angel Pagan before throwing to second. The hesitation allows Gregorius to reach second easily.
Brandon Belt at first base with the hole in his glove?
Again in the top of the 11th, D-backs pinch-hitter Alfredo Marte hits a ground ball to third that Sandoval gloves. Sandoval looks Gregorius back to second before throwing a one-hopper to Brandon Belt at first. Belt has caught these kinds of throws from Sandoval a million times. But perhaps because he’s anticipating his own throw back to Sandoval as he sees Gregorius break for third, Belt takes his eye off the ball and fails to catch it. Now there are men on first and third with one out.
Buster Posey behind the plate with the hole in his glove?
D-backs left fielder Gerardo Parra is up next. One the second pitch, Santiago Casilla throws a ball in the dirt that Buster Posey allows to get by him. Gregorius scores from third and Marte advances to second. 5-4 D-backs.
Santiago Casilla on the pitcher’s mound with the fastball?
Casilla then throws a fastball down the middle that Parra lines into the gap between left and center. Marte scores. Parra reaches second. 6-4 D-backs.
Brandon Belt between first and second with the poor base running skills (or, alternatively, Andre Torres at the plate with the double-play ball)?
With the Giants down to their final three outs in the bottom of the 11th, Brandon Belt comes to the plate and hits a line drive single to center. Andres Torres then comes up. He hits a ground ball to D-backs second baseman Martin Prado. The ball reaches Prado before Belt does, but instead of stopping and forcing Prado to either a) throw to second for the force out and possibly allow Torres to reach first, or b) try and tag him, thus allowing Torres to reach first, or c) throw to first, thus allowing Belt to advance to second, Belt instead runs right into Prado’s tag, which allows Prado time to throw the ball to first for the double play.
Brandon Crawford would then ground out, killing the Giants’ final chance.
So many clues. But it has been so long since I played the game. I’m a little rusty.
I leave it to you to decide.
You know Buster Posey is coming out of a slump when KNBR’s Dave Flemming starts gushing about him like a schoolgirl in the postgame wrap. You could already see signs of Flemming’s excitement seep out last night immediately after Posey hit his game-tying two-run home run over the centerfield wall in the eighth inning. Flemming
wrote on his Pee-Chee tweeted to his followers:
Tell me more, tell me more, Dave. Like does he have a car?
I kid Dave because he has no idea who I am or where I live, so he can’t physically hurt me. But I have to admit, I was feeling a bit of a crush on Posey myself last night after that home run. It arced so beautifully against the night sky. The stars and planets had nothing on it.
See, I’m moved to poetry.
The two-run shot put the Giants back into the game, a game it didn’t seem in the stars for them to win thanks to Ryan Vogelsong’s less than stellar pitching performance. The home run was especially impressive after the D-backs’ David Hernandez brushed Posey back with the previous two pitches.
“He can hit,” Duane Kuiper said after the home run. “He can hit,” Mike Krukow confirmed.
But the big star of the night was Brandon Belt. There’s nothing like a game-winning knock to bring back a struggling hitter’s confidence. Granted, Bruce Bochy made Belt his pet project before the game. And Tony Sipp helped set up the hit by throwing Belt three straight sliders. But give the kid some credit. After jumping out of his shoes on the first pitch and watching the second go low and outside, Belt waited for the third pitch, a slider that was up and caught too much of the plate, and looped it for an easy line drive to center. And it was a pressure situation. Tie game, bottom of the ninth, a runner in scoring position. Making these kinds of adjustments during an at bat is exactly what Belt needs to do. Props to Bochy for putting him into the game at a key moment. Bochy knew Belt needed the lift.
How about Cody Ross last night? He knocks in two runs in the first inning and makes a spectacular sliding catch in right field in the sixth to rob Buster Posey of a hit. Almost makes you wish the Giants didn’t trade him. Almost.
Tonight, Matt Cain takes the bump. The last time Cain pitched against the D-backs was on September 26 of last year at AT&T park. He pitched seven shutout innings, struck out six, and allowed only four hits and one walk. The previous two games, his control had been an issue–he walked nine batters–but this game he was mastering his pitches, getting ahead of hitters early. All his pitches were working for him. “It seemed like he was really effortless tonight,” Buster Posey told reporters after the game. “The ball was coming out good, and he was moving the ball around to both sides of the plate. He did a nice job.”
After Cain’s last two disastrous starts, it’s the kind of “nice job” he needs to do tonight.
Take a look at the above two screen captures from last night’s Giants-Padres game. They’re both from the seventh inning.
The top one is of a man who just received a reprieve. Perhaps the governor called at the last minute. Whatever the case, the reprieved man can finally breathe a sigh of relief, and he does, even as the relief comes in with two outs and two men on. Nothing the relief can’t handle. After all, the reprieved man got out of a tighter jam in the third inning, with bases loaded, two outs, and a Padres slugger coming to the plate. The crowd knows it, too, which is why they give the reprieved man a standing ovation. The disaster inning everyone worried might happen didn’t happen. The reprieved man did well. He went 6-2/3 innings, gave up no runs and four hits and walked only two batters. He looked like the man he used to be, before the trouble started, before his life seemed to spiral out-of-control.
The second screen capture is of a man who looks like he just walked onto death row. Or maybe he received a life sentence as a result of a three strikes law. As a matter-of-fact, it was his second strike out. He went 0-3 last night, bringing his already dismal average down to .183. And his body language shows it. It’s the body language of a man who has lost hope.
Fear not, condemned man. Heed the lesson of the reprieved man. In the game of baseball, as in the game of life, there are second, third, even fourth chances. There will be dejection, yes. But there will also be renewal.
Yesterday, I wrote about the Jekyll & Hyde nature of Giants starting pitching so far this season: allowing wild, big run early innings before calming down and pitching clinical gems. Well, the potion seems to have made its way to Fresno, where the Giants’ Triple-A affiliate Grizzlies play. Grizzlies pitcher Yusmeiro Petit gave up a three-run home run in the very first inning to Tacoma Rainiers’ third baseman, Alex Liddi. Petit then went on to pitch beautifully the next five innings, giving up just one run, striking out thirteen, and walking none. Unfortunately, it wasn’t enough for the Grizzlies to win. They lost 4-2. Petit just missed tying Tim Lincecum’s single-game strikeout record of 14 for the Grizzlies.
Fortunately, Madison Bumgarner has yet to imbibe the potion. In fact, he was spectacular all the way through last night against the Padres, going six innings and giving up just four hits and two runs. He struck out ten and gave up no walks.
In fact, it was a downright typical Giants game, for a change, a low-scoring tie into the ninth that was decided by an Angel Pagan double driving in Andres Torres. Giants win, 3-2.
The only unusual thing that happened last night was in the bottom of the sixth. And boy, was it unusual. Brandon Belt hit a bloop single into left field. Gregor Blanco moved him to second with a groundball single to right. That brought up Madison Bumgarner, whom 44,000+ fans in AT&T Park, everyone watching the game on television, and everyone listening on the radio expected to bunt. On the first pitch, Bumgarner did indeed square around to bunt. Then he pulled back his bat and slapped a ground ball right at Padres shortstop Everth Cabrera who tagged the passing Brandon Belt before throwing to second to force out Blanco. Padres second baseman Jedd Gyorko avoided Blanco’s slide and threw to first, nearly getting the triple play. But his off-balance throw bounced over the glove of first baseman Yonder Alonso.
I haven’t looked it up, but I’m pretty sure it would have been the first time in Major League Baseball history that two triple plays were turned in a single month.
After the game, Bumgarner said the decision to hit was his. Padres third baseman Chase Headley was playing in, expecting the bunt. Cabrera shifted to his right and Bumgarner saw a huge gap between Cabrera and second. Unfortunately, he hit the ball right at Cabrera.
Tonight, Tim Lincecum pitches, and for the first time this season Buster Posey will be catching him. So much for conspiracy theories.
Last year when Lincecum faced the Padres at AT&T Park for the first time in the 2012 season, he got the win, 2-1. He went eight innings, giving up three hits and no earned runs. He struck out five and walked four. The Padres got their only run in the third inning on a bases loaded sacrifice fly by Nick Hundley. The Padres led 1-0 until the bottom of the seventh when Brandon Belt hit a line drive double to center field that scored Melky Cabrera and Nate Schierholtz.
Lincecum pitching a nice three-hit game with no earned runs and Brandon Belt knocking in the winning runs? Yeah, let’s see that again tonight.
I have this friend who has some rather odd driving habits. Whenever he gets behind the wheel of a car, he appears nervous at first, uncertain of himself. He makes a lot of small adjustments to the rear view and side view mirrors. He rolls the electric windows up and down. He moves his seat backwards, then forwards, then backwards again, unable to find the exact position he wants. He checks the glove box, closes it, and checks it one more time. He releases the emergency brake, puts it on, releases it. He makes one more mirror adjustment. Finally, after craning his neck two or three times to look out the rear window, he starts the car.
Right away, he adds too much gas and lurches backwards before slamming on the brakes and coming to a screeching stop. Sometimes, he mistakenly puts the car in ‘Drive’ instead of ‘Reverse’ and shoots forward into his garage door or the wall of a local establishment. When he gets on the road, he has a hard time staying in his own lane. He has been known to drive onto the curb and stay on it for a good 500 feet, smashing into neighbors’ trashcans. Now and then, he honks at passing drivers by mistake, which usually results in them giving him the finger.
His nervous, erratic driving goes on for about ten minutes. Then suddenly, without rhyme or reason, it stops. He remains comfortably in his lane. He appears calm, confident. He observes the speed limit. He waves pleasantly at passing drivers he knows. He drives smoothly, one might even say expertly. It’s as if the bumbling, incompetent driver who got into his car ten minutes earlier turned magically into Mario Andretti.
If I were the type of person who bestows nicknames on his friends, I would call this one Giants Starter.
It has become a common routine for Giants starting pitchers, hasn’t it? Begin a game as if you were the worst pitcher in baseball. Give up a bunch of runs in the early innings. Then somehow, magically, transform into the lights-out pitcher everyone knows you are.
April 18 vs. Brewers: Matt Cain gives up seven runs in the first three innings before pitching three shutout innings.
April 14 vs. Cubs: Tim Lincecum allows four runs in the first inning then doesn’t allow another run his next four innings.
April 11 vs. Cubs: Ryan Vogelsong gives up one run in the second inning and four more in the third, then blanks Cubs hitters the next three innings.
April 9 vs. Rockies: Tim Lincecum gives up five runs in the second inning and only one additional run in the next four innings.
What’s going on here? Early season adjustments? Are Giants pitchers learning from their mistakes, discovering first what doesn’t work before settling on what does?
Let’s hope so. Because although in some cases, the shutout innings have allowed the Giants to get back into the game with their bats, such as on April 9 against the Rockies and April 11 and 14 against the Cubs, Giants pitchers can’t count on the hitters to bail them out all the time. Case in point, yesterday against the Brewers.
Time to meditate on what works before the first pitch is thrown.
October of 1962 was a tense time for the United States. The country was in the midst of the Cuban Missile Crisis. James Meredith, escorted by U.S. Marshals, became the first African-American student to attend the University of Mississippi. Jazz composer Charles Mingus, during a chaotic New York Town Hall rehearsal, punched trombonist Jimmy Knepper in the mouth, knocking out a tooth. And the San Francisco Giants and the New York Yankees went seven games in the World Series, one of the longest Series in Major League Baseball history thanks to autumn rain in both New York and San Francisco postponing Games 5 and 6. Game 6 was pushed back four days due to record rainfall in the Bay Area.
How appropriate, then, that the outcome of the World Series that October should come down to a single nerve-wracking at bat in the bottom of the ninth inning of Game 7 at Candlestick Park.
Here’s the scenario, if you don’t know it already.
With the Series tied 3-3 and the Yankees leading the Giants 1-0 going into the bottom of the ninth, Giants pinch-hitter Matty Alou led off with a base hit bunt. His brother Felipe (who would go on to manage the Giants 40 years later) struck out, as did second baseman Chuck Hiller. The Giants were down to their final out. Then Willie Mays came up and hit a line drive double into the right field corner. Alou rounded third and thought about scoring but held up, not wishing to test the strong arm of Yankees right fielder Roger Maris.
With men on second and third and Giants slugger Willie McCovey coming to the plate, Yankees pitcher Ralph Terry had a decision to make. Should he pitch to McCovey, who had a triple in the game and had taken Terry long in Game 2? Or should he walk McCovey to load the bases and take his chances with another Giants heavy hitter, first baseman Orlando Cepeda?
Terry chose to pitch to McCovey.
On the first pitch, McCovey hit a towering fly ball foul near the right field stands. Terry then threw a fastball inside that McCovey somehow got around on, launching a rocket right at Yankees second baseman Bobby Richardson. McCovey would later say it was the hardest ball he ever hit. Richardson, however, managed to snag the line drive, ending the game and winning the World Series for the Yankees.
The Series took place several years before I was born. Growing up, I first became aware of it through a couple of now-iconic Peanuts comic strips. I was a big Peanuts fan as a kid and owned several collections of Schulz’s daily strip. I remember well the two strips that referenced that last 1962 World Series game. The first originally appeared a few days before Christmas, 1962. The second appeared a little more than a month later.
As a kid, I took the strips at face value. I knew nothing about the 1962 World Series, but I did know who Willie McCovey was. My brother was a big Giants fan. Willie Mays was his god. He had a huge baseball card collection, including Topps cards featuring Mays and McCovey. I believe he still has them.
Anyway, even though I didn’t know specifically which game Charlie Brown was referring to, I had a good idea of what happened: Willie McCovey came to the plate with two outs in a close game and hit a ball that wouldn’t have been caught if he had hit it a little higher.
It was only years later that I saw footage of that game-ending line drive, and it kind of surprised me. I had always assumed Richardson had to leap to catch the ball. However, as you can see in this screen capture, Richardson actually catches the ball at shoulder level.
So was Charlie Brown right? In the first strip, possibly. A ball hit three feet higher, especially as hard as McCovey hit it, might have gone over Richardson’s outstretched glove, even if he had made a well-timed leap.
But two feet higher? Grab a tape measure and have a look. Personally, I think Richardson would have caught it.
I know, I’m arguing with a cartoon kid who had a lot more going against him than an erroneous view of the 1962 World Series. But I only bring it up because that heartbreaking line drive catch became part of Giants lore as a result of the strip. Charlie Brown seemed to speak for all Giants fans.
More heartbreaking, as far as I’m concerned, was the previous play, in which Matty Alou failed to score on the Willie Mays drive to right. Yes, there were two outs. And, yes, Maris did have a good arm and got to the ball quickly. But look where Alou is when Maris throws the ball to his cutoff man, Richardson.
I think he would have made it. Willie Mays thought so too. And Willie Mays is always right.
He’s a god, after all.