Monday, November 7, 2016

The latest Washington whitewash reminds us of the 1920 "acquittal" of eight Chicago White Sox baseball players accused of throwing the 1919 World Series. "Someone" had stolen the grand jury testimony, which proved the players' guilt, from the courtroom, thereby removing all evidence. Sound familiar?

After the "trial," the jurors took the eight defendants out to dinner, and a fine time was had by all. Sound familiar?

And legally, those "eight men out" are still "not guilty" to this day. Sound familiar?

Fortunately baseball had Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis, who saw through the fixed trial, as he had seen through the fixed Series, and he banned the eight conspirators from baseball for life.

We don't have a Judge Landis. But we do have one hundred million-plus potential Judge Landises.

It's up to you. Do the right thing. Ban these criminals from political power for life.

Vote Trump. Destroy the Clinton cartel once and for all.

Thank you.

Wednesday, October 12, 2016

The San Francisco Giants lost their National League division series to the Chicago Cubs, three games to one.  With a sad, but mercilessly appropriate, ninth-inning bullpen meltdown, the Giants blew Game Four, a game they had in hand, surrendering four runs in the ninth inning of an eventual 6-5 loss.

And so the San Francisco Giants' quest for a fourth world championship in seven years comes to an untimely end. The Cubs, baseball's best team during the regular season, move on to play either the Los Angeles Dodgers or the Washington Nationals, depending on which team wins tonight's fifth game of their series, in the National League Championsip Series starting this Friday at Wrigley Field.

Yes, they're the best team, but for eight innings the Giants had them soundly beaten and back on their heels, anticipating a Game Five that few thought possible just two days ago. Matt Moore earned his Giant stripes last night with a dominant, eight-inning performance worthy of Madison Bumgarner at his best. Moore allowed two hits and two runs (one unearned) while striking out ten and walking only two. He got stronger as he went along; he ended the eighth with a flourish, fanning both David Ross and Dexter Fowler, freezing the latter almost comically at the plate with a called strike three as Moore and Buster Posey nonchalantly turned and started toward the dugout. He had thrown 120 pitches to get there, and it was Matt Moore's moment, a moment of victory-- and victory indeed was his, and the Giants'. 

But the dark clouds that shrouded this team over the summer returned in force, one last time, reminding us just how thin margins of victory, an defeat, can be in this game-- and also, just how catastrophic the wrong management decisions can be.  

"(Whitey) Herzog used five pitchers in the inning... I remember one other time when he used five pitchers in an inning, in the sixth inning of the third game of the A.L. playoffs in 1976. In 1977 he used six pitchers in the last two innings of the fifth and deciding game, trying unsuccessfully to protect a lead.

"Most managers won't use five pitchers in an inning because they believe that the more pitchers you use, the more chances you have to find one who doesn't have his stuff on that particular day. Herzog will because he doesn't put much stock in what you have on a given day; he believes that it's the manager's job to get the best possible matchup of pitcher's abilities against hitter's abilities. I admire him for that, because I agree with him and because he is willing to take criticism and do what he thinks is right.

"But I thought this day what I thought the other two times. Whitey, it sure looks bad when it doesn't work." 
-- Bill James, on the 1985 World Series, in the 1986 Baseball Abstract 

The Giants have, as has been stated many times, blown 30 late-inning leads this year, more than any other team in baseball.  Much of that was due to Santiago Casilla losing his ability to close out games in the ninth inning. Not all of it was, though.

As anyone who spends any time on this site will quickly realize, we yield to no one in our respect for Bill James, for his writing and his observations as well as his pioneering work in the field of baseball research and analysis. But we believe he was wrong here, and that Whitey Herzog was wrong there, and that last night, in the ninth inning, Bruce Bochy was wrong. Way wrong.

Could Moore have started the ninth, after 120 pitches? Of course he could have; he was smokin' 'em in the eighth. On a "normal" team, though, this would not be an issue. A three-run lead in the ninth inning would belong to the closer, to Aroldis Chapman for the Cubs, Kanley Jensen for the Dodgers, Jeurys Familia for the Mets, and so on. But the Giants are not a "normal" team, as even Bochy would readily admit. Madison Bumgarner pitched the ninth against the Mets last week, as he had in critical elimination-type games in the past. He did this because he is Madison Bumgarner, and also because there is no reliever on the Giants staff with his pedigree and his proven ability. Matt Moore may not be Madison Bumgarner, but last night Matt Moore was the best pitcher on Earth. He absolutely could have started the ninth, and most likely would have dispatched it in a few minutes.

But it was closer time, and the Giants not having a proven closer did not perturb Bochy. Had he really believed in Sergio Romo as that closer, we would have seen Romo start the ninth, as he did in Game Three. Yes, Romo's home-run-hitting nemesis, Kris Bryant, was leading off-- but so what? A solo homer makes it 5-3, and Romo still has a run to give in pursuit of three outs. In Game Three, Romo was left in after giving up that game-tying homer to get his three outs, which he did, and then he was sent out to complete the tenth, which he also did. That was an elimination game, too. There was confidence, then.

There was no confidence in the ninth inning last night. None! Derek Law started the inning, a mild surprise, perhaps, to most people, and Bryant squeezed a single past Brandon Crawford at short. And the carousel began to whirl. A ground-ball double play from Anthony Rizzo would have snuffed out any thought of a Cubs rally, but Law never got his chance. Out he came. In came Javier Lopez, the once-dominating lefty specialist who this year walked 15 men in 26 innings. He was plenty good for one more, a six-pitch walk to Rizzo that put the tying run at the plate and marshaled the forces of doom hovering over the ballpark. Out went Lopez. In came Romo, too late as it turned out. 

"Like the exposed Wizard  of Oz frantically pulling his levers, manager Felipe Alou used no less than four relief pitchers in one inning-- and couldn't get one man out."
-- Review of the penultimate game of the Giants' 2004 season

Facing Ben Zobrist, Romo missed with three sliders, landed a 3-0 strike, then saw Zobrist rip a line drive inside the chalk in right as Bryant scored and Rizzo took third. Joe Maddon tapped Chris Coughlan to hit for the slumping Addison Russell, and Bochy obligingly brought in pitcher number four, Will Smith, for a lefty-lefty matchup. Maddon switched to right-handed Willson Contreras, who singled up the middle on a 1-1 pitch for a tie ballgame. Smith stayed in to face Justin Heyward, who grounded into a double play-- almost. Brandon Crawford, who'd uncorked an wild throw in the fifth that led to an unearned run, fired another errant one past Brandon Belt, and Heyward wound up at second with one out. Smith's reward for getting the DP ball and the inning's first out was to be yanked in favor of Hunter Strickland. Javier Baez, the Cubs' Mr Everything in this series, drilled a clean single up the middle to score Heyward with the winning run. The wheels having come off and the wagon overturned in the ditch, Aroldis Chapman came in and blew through the frozen Giants in the bottom of the ninth like a cold wind through an open boxcar. It was done.

We'll hear again and again how the 87-win Giants really didn't measure up to the 103-win Cubs, but the cognscenti had to be singin' a different tune during the first eight innings last night. The Giants greeted veteran campaigner John Lackey with abrupt rudeness from the start. Denard Span opened with a double down the right-field line, Brandon Belt sailed one of his endless supply of warning-track fly balls to center, Span taking third, and Buster Posey's long drive to deep right, caught by Heyward, brought in the run. Ross belted a solo homer off Moore in the third to tie it, but the man for whom Matt Duffy was traded shook it off and didn't allow another earned run. 

Meanwhile, the Giants hammered away at Lackey in earnest in the fourth. Conor Gillaspie, who burnished his postseason legend (and likely his career) with a 4-for-4 night, singled with one out and Joe Panik followed with a drive to right, Gillaspie taking third. Lackey pitched around Gregor Blanco, loading the bases with a walk and bringing up Moore and his .097 career average.  Two quick strikes, and Moore then grounded one neatly past the diving Rizzo at first for an RBI single as Barry Zito, watching somewhere we hope, grinned from ear to ear. Span brought a second run in when he beat the relay to first on an 3-6-1 infield grounder, Lackey hustling over to take the throw and sprawling in the dirt trying to make the play. Clearly disgusted with pitching, baseball, and life at this point, Lackey got Belt to smack one right at Fowler in center to end it. 

Albert Almora pinch-hit for Lackey with two out in the fifth. Baez had taken third on a spectacularly bad throw from Crawford past Belt, the ball ricocheting all the way up to the visitors' bullpen along the right-field line. Ross then got his second RBI bringing him home on a sacrifice fly, but Almora flailed wildly at strike three and it stayed a one-run game.  

Colorful baserunning and Hunter Pence provided much of the entertainment over the next two frames. After singling to center with one out in the Giants' fifth, Pence held up rounding second as Crawford launched a mighty blast off Cubs reliever Jason Grimm. It hit the very top of the wall, and though it bounced back into play, it sure looked like a home run. Pence ambled back to make sure he touched second, then suddenly had to sprint for third as the umpires ruled it a live ball and Crawford came steaming into second at the same moment. Bochy demanded a review, but the call on the field stood, and TV replays proved it correct. Not to worry. The Glimmer Twins, Gillaspie and Panik, ignored the lefty-lefty protocol after Travis Wood replaced Grimm, and brought in both runners, with a hit from Gillaspie and a sac fly from Panik. 

It was 5-2, Giants, and Moore was rolling. He had, however, sat for 22 minutes as six men batted and the replay videos were reviewed, and he opened the Cubs sixth by walking Fowler on four pitches. "Ball five, ball six, ball seven" greeted Bryant before he took a strike, and swinging on 3-1 he dumped a blooper in front of the hard-charging Pence, who'd been playing deep. Pence gloved the ball on the run and fired a strike to second, forcing the stunned Fowler, who'd held up briefly to see if the ball would be caught. It was instant deflation of the Chicago offense, instant inflation of Moore's confidence, and he dispatched the next eight batters quickly, quietly, and efficiently through the seventh and the eighth.   

“Of all sad words of tongue or pen, the saddest are these, 'It might have been'.”
― John Greenleaf Whittier

Giants fans of a certain age are all too familiar with this morning's emotions and regrets. Those who came aboard during the late championship run may be wondering how this could possibly happen. We can only say, welcome to the other side of winning. This is, after all, where all teams, and all fans, eventually land. The balm of three-- three!-- World Series championships, when we'd resigned ourselves to a lifetime without even one, will provide surcease as autumn gives way to winter and hope springs eternal come February. For now, though, it's a pool of tears and a hollow feeling of regret. We'll have more to say a few days from now.   

Tuesday, October 11, 2016

The San Francisco Giants defeated the Chicago Cubs, 6-5, at AT&T Park last night, staving off elimination in their National League division series and cutting the Cubs' series lead to 2-1. It was the Giants' tenth consecutive win in a do-or-die elimination game, which is a record, or oughta be.

It was a thirteen-inning, five-hour, thirteen-pitcher exhaust-o-rama, with more twists and turns and ups and downs and reversals than the Nurburgring. It was also one of the most exciting postseason games in recent memory, as almost none of the 43,571 in attendance left before the finish despite the lateness of the hour. And it ended with a bang, as Joe Panik's towering drive to the deepest part of the ballpark caromed off the wall and Brandon Crawford came sprinting home with the winning run. This only after the Giants had been knocked around, gotten up, pulled off a rally for the ages, and then been knocked down again, before squandering several opportunities that blossomed and died as the innings advanced. The last man was off the bench for the Giants, and there was a catcher in left field for the Cubs. It was that kind of night.

And so there will be a Game Four, at 5:30 PM local time (8:30 PM EDT) this evening at the 'Bell. Matt Moore will make his postseason debut against seasoned veteran John Lackey as the Giants try to square up this series and send it back to Chicago for the finale.

Asked to play Superman one more time, Madison Bumgarner proved merely mortal. Without the razor-sharp command he'd shown in New York, Bum labored like a draft horse over five innings as the patient Cubs fouled off pitch after pitch and worked deep into counts. "Bum" threw 37 pitches just in the second inning, which for a time looked as if it would be the Giants' undoing. Eight pitches to Addison Russell, and the Cubs' shortstop took one off his bicep. Seven pitches to the ubiquitous Javier Baez, and the Cubs' second baseman lined one down the third-base line that Conor Gallaspie knocked down for a single. One out later, Bumgarner hung one in front of his opposite number, Jake Arrieta, and the big righthander, like "Bum" a legitimate hitter, turned on it and belted it into the left-field seats. Three runs came in as the Cubs' bench and the large Chicago contingent in the stands went absolutely crazy, and given the way this series had gone, it was hard not to see this latest blow as a message from above. It made six RBI by Cubs pitchers in the three games; everyone else on both sides had totaled only 5.

The notion that Bumgarner, rather than dominating into the late innings, might actually have to be pulled had to be a huge stressor on Bruce Bochy and Dave Righetti. But the big guy manfully finished the inning, struggled before stranding two runners in the third, and then "pitched like Bum" for his final two frames. He left for a pinch-hitter in the fifth after 101 pitches, with a most un-"Bum"-like game score of 43. And thus the game, the series, and the season was placed into the hands of the Giants' much-maligned bullpen, where it remained for the next eight innings.

It was a 3-1 game by that point, thanks to Denard Span, who had doubled in the third and scored on Buster (3-for-5) Posey's single. And it was Span who made it a one-run game in the fifth with a triple into the deepest part of right field, coming in to score on a sacrifice fly by Brandon Belt. Those little one-run rallies didn't look like much in the wake of that three-run homer, but thanks to some good old-fashioned relief pitching, the game tightened up considerably through the sixth and the seventh and into the eighth. "Boch" and "Rags" know by now who's getting it done and who isn't, and it showed. Derek Law worked two scoreless innings, followed by Hunter Strickland with two strikeouts in the eighth. On the other side, Joe Maddon had lifted Arrieta after six in favor of Pedro Strop and Travis Wood. The Giants had a possibe rally snuffed out on a bad call (and the mistake grotesquely confirmed by replay) in the sixth, but overall it had quieted down on both sides, and as the eighth approached the Cubs had to be counting the outs standing between them and the NLCS. The Giants likewise, though theirs was pointing toward oblivion.

Belt singled off the lefthander Wood, and Maddon called on righty Hector Rondon. Posey, 3-for-3 at the time, earned a critical base on balls as he checked his swing in a manner reminiscent of Gorkys Hernandez in Game One. He went to first with the tying run, and Maddon pulled the trigger on Aroldis Chapman, asking the ace lefty with the 100-MPH stuff to deliver a two-inning save. Gillaspie, standing in against Chapman for the first time, looked at strike one, then hammered a 101-MPH screamer over the leaping, diving Albert Almora in right-center. The 'Bell erupted in a Richter Scale-worthy frenzy as Belt and Posey came around to score and the Giants took their first lead of the series. Brandon Crawford followed with a clean single up the middle for a 5-3 lead, and after Panik walked and Crawford stole third, Maddon dragged himself out to the mound and removed Chapman, tacitly acknowledging he needed to save the big guy for a likely Game Four, and perhaps for his own good as well.  Justin Grimm came in to face Gregor Blanco, and catcher Willson Contreras nearly brought Crawford home with a wild attempted-pickoff throw to third. It glanced off "Craw's" left elbow and was corralled by Kris Bryant, and after several anxious moments, Crawford dismissed the Giants trainers and stayed in. Blanco then topped a slow grounder toward first, Grimm covering-- but inexplicably, from our perspective, Crawford held third on the difficult play. Pinch-hitter Hernandez, the eighth man to bat in the inning, made the third out and the 5-3 lead held.

Now it was the Giants' closer, venerable Sergio Romo, three outs away from victory. Dexter Fowler, who had set the tone for the Cubs early by fouling off multiple pitches and working Bumgarner deep into the count, did the same to Romo and drew a walk. Bryant had other ideas. He took a strike, then launched one high into the air and deep to left. Blanco appeared to have a play on it, but the ball hit the very top of the wall and bounced into the stands, a two-run homer. Shocked into silence, Giants fans watched numbly as Bryant circled the bases, the lead gone and the game now tied. Romo, to his credit, recovered and retired the side, and Mike Montgomery, Maddon's last reliever plus one, came out for the bottom of the ninth.

Buster Posey hit the all hard all night, and none harder than the line drive he scorched into the right-field corner after Belt had walked with one out. But Almora, who couldn't reach Gillaspie's shot, got this one with a full-out sacrifice-the-body dive, then got up and easily doubled Belt, who had sold out with the winning run and was already rounding third, off first. Extra innings.

Hail now the Giants' bullpen; gentlemen, we hardly knew ye! Romo with a perfect tenth, Will Smith likewise in the eleventh, and rookie Ty Blach with two scoreless frames and, ultimately, the win. Span made a fine catch to save a base in the twelfth; initially ruled a trap, the call was overturned by replay ("Finally! They got one right!"). Baez and Contreras singled with one out on the thirteenth, but Blach then got what he needed, an expertly turned 6-4-3 double play that took unconscionably long to uphold after Maddon challenged the call at first.  Bryant's homer remains the only blemish on eight innings of relief work, a prospect that would have terrified all of us had the news been leaked in advance. 

For his part, Mike Montgonery was equally heroic, right up until it was too late. Maddon having burned all his players and all but one of this relievers (Carl Edwards remained), the veteran lefthander went four innings, surviving a leadoff single by Panik and a sacrifice bunt by Blanco in the 11th. In the thirteenth it was Crawford leading off, lefty against lefty, and "Craw" ripped an 0-2 pitch down the right-field line and hustled into second ahead of Almora's strong throw. Now Panik. Sometimes benched against lefties, he'd singled off Montgonery two innings earlier. On a 2-1 pitch the young All-Star belted one high and deep to right-center, the crowd rising as one in full roar as the ball hit the bricks far above Almora, who slowed to a resigned jog as he realized the inevitable-- which was Crawford coming in with the winning run. Exhaustion never had a chance against exhilaration as the Giants swarmed onto the field in mass congratulation.

Fowler... Arrieta... Span... Belt... Posey... Law... Strickland... Gillaspie... Bryant... Montgomery... Blach... Crawford... Panik.   The list of game-changers, game-savers, and just plain gamers could encompass almost everyone on both sides. If Maddon had played the part of the mad genius back in Chicago, this night was Bochy's turn-- the patient, determined, implacable skipper riding out the storm. "Bochy is not a what-have-you-done-for-me-lately kind of manager," noted John Smoltz as Romo, battered but unbowed, came out to work the tenth after allowing Bryant's homer. The man who loves the lefty-righty matchups had his best lefty reliever face down three right-handed hitters in the eleventh, and saw the game-winning rally generated by two lefty batters against a lefty pitcher. It was a night of extremes, of carefully-laid plans being chucked out the window, of bold, unorthodox moves and some extremely questionable "further reviews" by the unseen arbiters in New York. All in all, it was as entertaining as baseball can be, and with two of the three games in this series already certifiable classics, the inevitable question remains: what about now?

"Now" is John Lackey, 37 years old, veteran of two world champions, 11-8 on the year with a 3.35 ERA, a 1.06 WHIP, and 180 strikeouts in 188 inings. It's Matt Moore, ten years younger, not exactly a postseason neophyte but lacking Lackey's pedigree, with a record of being either very, very good or very, very bad in his starts. It says here, with absolutely nothing to base it on but gut instinct, that tonight's game will be decided with the bats, not the arms, and that the Giants best be prepared to do what they did last night. That is, score runs, especially when it counts the most.

Giants. GIANTS! GIANTS!!!!  


Monday, October 10, 2016

The San Francisco Giants face the Chicago Cubs in Game Three of their National League division series tonight at AT&T Park. Game time is slated for 6:30 PM local time (9:30 PM EDT). For the tenth time since 2012, the Giants are playing an elimination game. Saturday's 5-2 loss to the Cubs at Wrigley Field put the Giants behind in the series, 2-0; they need to sweep the remaining three games to survive.

The last three times the Giants faced an elimination game, it was Madison Bumgarner to the rescue, and it will be he who is tasked with winning tonight and keeping this series alive. That's no small order, even given "Bum's" stellar postseason record, because the 2016 Chicago Cubs are as formidable an opponent as the Giants have faced since this postseason run began in 2010. Just for starters, Bumgarner's opponent is 18-game-winner Jake Arrieta, as good a pitcher as there is in the league, and that the Cubs were able to make him their third starter in this series further testifies to their excellence.

We breathed a sigh of relief when Jeff Samardzija was tabbed to start Game Two instead of Matt Moore; we needn't have bothered. Unable to "separate," in the words of John Smoltz, his fastball from his breaking pitches, "Shark" was hit hard, early, and often by the robust Cubs lineup, lasted only two innings, and took the loss. Dexter Fowler opened the first with a double, and after Samardzija got the next two outs, Ben Zobrist blooped a RBI single to right. An inning later, Jason Heyward opened the second as Fowler had the first, with a ringing double past Hunter Pence in right. "Shark" walked the dangerous Javier Baez, and catcher Willson Contreras scorched a single to right, hit so hard Heyward had to stop at third. That loaded 'em up for pitcher Kyle Hendricks, but any thoughts of escaping the jam evaporated when Hendricks dumped a Texas Leaguer in front of Denard Span in center for two runs. One out later, Kris Bryant made it 4-0 with another bullet to right. Samardzija got out of it, but knew his night was done.

The Giants desperately needing to answer back, Bruce Bochy pinch-hit Gregor Blanco for "Shark" after Joe Panik opened the third with a leadoff double to left. Blanco came through big-time: he smacked Hendricks' first pitch off the wall in left-center, and one out later scored on Brandon Belt's sacrifice fly, the third time in three games Belt has sent one to the warning track in deepest center. When George Kontos retired the Cubs in order in the third, we had a ballgame. And then the Giants got Hendricks, the league ERA leader, out of the game in the fourth, though not by design. Angel Pagan's line drive  back up the middle appeared to "punch" Hendriks right in the chest, but it turned out the ball deflected off his pitching arm and left a "stinger." With his deep bullpen, Joe Maddon took no chances and removed Hendricks in favor of veteran Travis Wood, the first of five relievers who would stifle the Giants on the night. Wood got the third out and then, in the bottom of the fourth, he took a Kontos fastball high and deep over the left-field fence for a 5-2 lead, and the scoring was done. Perhaps the most pungent explanation of the way this series has gone so far is to note that Cubs pitchers have driven in more runs (3) than has the entire Giants team (2).

Yes, we still had a ballgame, but it was the Cubs' game. Opportunities were meager against Wood, Carl Edwards, Mike Montgomery, Hector Rondon, and the inevitable Aroldis Chapman over the final five. Bumgarner caused a minor stir when he pinch-hit for Kontos in the fifth, scorched a grounder that Bryant couldn't handle, and eventually reached third before being stranded. Singles by Belt in the eighth and Brandon Crawford in the sixth likewise went nowhere. On a positive note, the Giants' bullpen performed well, especially Ty Blach, Javier Lopez, and Hunter Strickland. Then again there was no lead to protect. In this series, there hasn't been one yet.

The Giants have won nine consecutive elimination games, dating back to the division series against Cincinnati in 2012. There, they lost the first two at home, had to win three on the road, and did it. The following week, down 3-1 to St Louis in the NLCS, they won three straight, one on the road and two at home. Then there was the winner-take-all wild-card playoff in 2014, Game Seven of the World Series that year, and, most recently, Wednesday night last's victory over the Mets. And, of course, it was Madison Bumgarner who shut out the Pirates on four hits in 2014, memorably pitched that shutout five-inning save in Game Seven, and just completed the shutout in New York. The last time "Bum" pitched a postseason game at home, it was another shutout, over Kansas City in Game Five of the 2014 World Series. Will it take yet another shutout to turn the tables on Chicago?

This is an awful lot to hang on one man, even one as imperturbable as Bumgarner. Christy Mathewson had Game Eight of the 1912 World Series, Sandy Koufax Game Two of the 1966 Series, and Bob Gibson Game Seven in 1968.  "Bum" is already in their league, or they in his. If he shuts down the Cubs-- and, just as importantly, if the Giants score some runs, preferably early-- this series will be wide open once again. If he doesn't, well, that's baseball. But it's also the San Francisco Giants, who are never out of any game, or any series, until the last out is made.

Saturday, October 8, 2016

The San Francisco Giants face the Chicago Cubs in Game Two of their National League division series tonight at Wrigley Field. Game time is slated for 7 PM CDT (8 PM EDT).  The Cubs took the series lead with a tight, 1-0 win last night as Javier Baez' eighth-inning home run broke up a magnificent effort from Johnny Cueto and made a winner out of Jon Lester, who had matched Cueto zero-for-zero in a superb pitching duel marked by sharp, stellar fielding on both sides.  

Cueto allowed only three hits, struck out ten, didn't walk a batter, and allowed only one man to reach third.  That was in the fourth when Kris Bryant doubled with one out, advanced to third on a groundout, then was stranded when Kelby Tomlinson ranged far to his left and turned a possible RBI single from Ben Zobrist into a routine putout at first.  Baez had given a hint of what was to come in the third, when his drive to deep left-center was snared by the running, sliding Gorkys Hernandez, the defensive play of the game and one that prompted a congratulatory cap-twirl from the demonstrative Cueto. Other than that, it was a lot of swinging and missing by the Cubs, until the eighth. With one out, Baez had a full count when he crushed a no-doubt-about-it shot in the direction of Waveland Avenue. But thanks to a stiff wind, there was doubt, lots of it, until the ball settled into the webbing above the left field wall, just above the despondent Angel Pagan.

Lester, for his part, was not dominant, but he was utterly resilient. The Giants got the leadoff man on base in each of the first three innings, and never advanced him as far as second. Hernandez, who opened the game with a bunt single, was easily thrown out stealing by catcher David Ross.  Hunter Pence went nowhere in the second, and in the third the Cubs pulled off some slick defensive chicanery from the mind of manager Joe Maddon. Conor Gillaspie, Wednesday night's hero, singled to right to open the frame. With Cueto up to bunt, Baez and first baseman Anthony Rizzo switched positions, the left-handed Rizzo moving onto the grass immediately to the left of the pitcher's mound. With great ceremony, the Cubs sent out a batboy to swap out Rizzo's first-baseman's glove for a standard glove as per the rules. The unusual procedure thus complete-- how many left-handed second basemen do you see over the course of a season, anyway?-- Cueto squared up, let a ball go by, and catcher Ross immediately fired a throw to first, where Baez had slipped behind Gillaspie and promptly tagged him out. Napping? Deked? Distracted? No matter. Out.            

The best chance came in the fourth. Buster Posey singled with one out, and an out later Pagan dropped a soft line drive into left that got past Zobrist. Posey took third-- it will be debated whether he might have scored-- and with second and third, Lester got Brandon Crawford  to end it.  As with most great pitchers, Lester got better as he went along; he didn't allow another baserunner after that and, like Cueto, he didn't walk anybody. In fact, there was not a single base on balls issued in this game, about which more presently.  

Though he'd thrown only 86 pitches, Lester got a congratulatory hug from Maddon after the eighth, and with a 1-0 lead Aroldis Chapman took over. The 100-MPH ace closer is one of the best in the game, but still the Giants had to be optimistic. They'd beaten the Mets' bullpen under similar circumstances just two nights earlier, after all. Getting Lester out of there had to be a tonic, no matter who succeeded him. And despite his well-earned rep, Chapman has one weakness-- a tendency to be wild.  Sure enough, Hernandez worked him hard leading off the top of the ninth, holding up his swing on ball four to take the walk. That's how Hernandez, Chapman, Ross, plate umpire Todd Tichenor, and most of the 42,148 in attendance and millions on TV saw it, anyway. But first-base umpire Alan Porter didn't see it that way. He ruled Hernandez had swung, and it was strike three. One out later, Posey ripped the first pitch he saw in the same direction as Baez' homer, where it caromed off the wall for a double, easily deep enough to score a runner from first, had there been a runner on first. Instead, it was tying run in scoring position, two out, and Chapman, who hit 103 on the radar gun, got Pence on a grounder back to the box to end it.

It was a great game, well-played, and is already being hailed as a classic, but we Giants fans may perhaps be forgiven if we'd prefer a little less tension and tightness in tonight's game. It will be Jeff Samardzija taking the baton at Wrigley Field, where he started 41 games in years past for the Cubs. League ERA leader Kyle Hendricks, a right-hander with a 16-8 record, opposes. The Giants need to square up this series before it shifts to San Francisco Monday night. They must win at least one game at Wrigley to win this series, after all. Why not tonight?


Both American League series could be over by tomorrow. The Toronto Blue Jays have gone on a home run barrage in Texas, beating the Rangers twice amid liberal applications of the long ball. Now they return home with a chance to finish it out. This team reached the ALCS last year; it ought to surprise no one if they get back there now, wild-card or no. Meanwhile, the Cleveland Indians have gone the other way, beating the Boston Red Sox with good pitching against the game's highest-scoring lineup. Josh Tomlin gets the chance to close it out tomorrow; we'll see if the return to Fenway Park awakens the Boston bats.

Despite a so-so start from Clayton Kershaw, the LA Dodgers hung on to beat the Nationals at Washington last night, 4-3. Relievers Joe Blanton, Grant Dayton, Pedro Baez, and especially Kanley Jensen, who earned a five-out save, held the Nats scoreless over the last four. Max Scherzer, victim of one bad inning, took a tough loss. Tanner Roark, the answer to a Giants' trivia question, will try to even it up today against Rich Hill.  

Friday, October 7, 2016

The San Francisco Giants face the Chicago Cubs in Game One of their National League division series tonight at Wrigley Field. Game time is slated for 8 PM CDT (9 PM EDT).

It will be Johnny Cueto against Jon Lester, an 18-game-winning righty and a 19-game-winning lefty, two pitchers who made their reputations with other ballclubs before signing big contracts with their current teams, and two pitchers with World Series experience.

The Giants have been going with a platoon system at third base and in center field lately, which means Wednesday night's hero, Conor Gillaspie, may start the game on the bench behind Kelby Tomlinson, and Gorkys Hernandez, not Denard Span, may start in center. Brandon Belt, the one Giant who hit the ball hard against Noah Syndergaard the other night-- remember, it took Curtis Granderson's highlight-film catch to reel it in-- will join Brandon Crawford and Joe Panik as the three lefty hitters Lester is likely to face.

Meanwhile Cueto faces a lineup stocked with hitters, good ones. Four regulars-- Anthony Rizzo, Kris "MVP" Bryant, Dexter Fowler, and Ben Zobrist-- had OPS over .800; Bryant and Rizzo were both over .900, with 71 homers and 211 RBI between them. Bryant scored 121 runs, Rizzo hit 43 doubles. And all these guys will walk, too-- Zobrist led the club with 96 but all four were over 74. And while Jason Heyward's numbers were down, no one considers him an automatic out, nor is young Javier Baez at third. If there's a weakness here, it's that all these guys (except Zobrist) do strike out a lot, but when you score 808 runs as a team, well, a few extra swings-and-misses can be tolerated.    

Cueto has been a model of consistency wherever he's pitched. His home-and-away ERA are within 1/100 of each other; he's 8-3 at home, 10-2 on the road, 1.08 WHIP versus 1.11. He strikes out more and walks more on the road, and gives up a few more hits at home.  The Cubs' lineup may bother him, but rest assured Wrigley Field and the playoff atmosphere won't.

Looking ahead to Saturday night's game, one issue stands out in glaring red neon: Bruce Bochy absolutely must start Jeff Samardzija--  or, for that matter, anyone-- instead of Matt Moore. Moore's home/road splits aren't just dramatic, they're positively cosmic, especially considering that near no-hitter at LA is skewing the numbers positive. Consider: a road ERA of 5.17 verses a home ERA of 3.16.  Moore has walked 20 men in 31.1 innings away from AT&T Park; at home he's walked 12 in 37 innings. His road WHIP is 1.5; his home WHIP is 1.19. Over the course of  a six-inning start (assuming he even makes it that far), that's two, maybe three, extra men on base. It's not hard to imagine what the Cubs will do with those extra baserunners, is it? By contrast, "Shark" allows fewer hits and walks per nine on the road. His road ERA is half a run higher, but that's likely due to home runs alone, an AT&T Park anomaly that affects all pitchers.  With Madison Bumgarner likely to start Monday at the 'Bell on his normal four days' rest, Moore should be the candidate for a possible Game Four at home.
It'll be back-to-back evening starts at Wrigley, a rare occurrence of events indeed. Evidently the Giants-Cubs matchup is of more value to television advertisers than is LA-Washington, which gets underway about 80 miles from here at 5 PM local time.  Who'd'a thunk it? But the Cubs' 1908 legend is so well-known, and their regular-season dominance has built such high expectations, and their postseason failures have been so ineffably tragic (think 1969, Steve Garvey, and "Bartman"), that a series against the unlikely three-time champions makes for an irresistible story.  For baseball's sake, we hope the games measure up to the hype. For the Giants' sake, we need Our Boys to get off first.    


Thursday, October 6, 2016

Here We Go Again!

The San Francisco Giants defeated the New York Mets, 3-0, at Citi Feld in New York last night, winning the wild-card playoff and launching themselves squarely into the middle of the National League 2016 postseason fracas.

Once again, it was the unflappable, historically impenetrable Madison Bumgarner, pitching a complete-game four-hit shutout and running his consecutive scoreless inning streak to 23. Once again, it was an overlooked Giant reserve player, forced into the starting role by circumstance, delivering a game-winning three-run homer in the clutch. And once again it was the San Francisco Giants, waiting out a superb performance by the opposition starter, and taking merciless advantage once that ace had left the game. In short, it was Giants postseason baseball... and as the crypto-mysto fog rolls in yet again as it seems to do every other year, the rest of the baseball world is put on notice: they're back, folks. Whatever it is the Giants do in the postseason, they're doing it. Again.

And so it will be the San Francisco Giants against the Chicago Cubs on Friday night at Wrigley Field, opening their division series with a matchless pitching matchup-- Johnny Cueto and Jon Lester.  The Giants have faced down, and beaten, the team with the league's best record-- Philadelphia in 2010 and Washington in 2014-- before in these situations. They'll have to do it again, before another loud, hostile crowd thirsty for a postseason payoff-- and who's to say they can't do it?

A hostile crowd and a matchless pitching matchup-- that describes last night's game to a "T", at least up until the eighth inning when the tide began to turn. It was "Bum" against "Thor," the Mets' brilliant young righthander Noah Syndergaard, and both were near-perfect through seven. Bumgarner needed only 21 pitches total to retire the first nine Mets he faced through three. Syndergaard took a no-hitter into the sixth and struck out ten Giants on the night. "Bum" worked his way out of one tough inning, the fourth, and never looked back. "Thor" wasn't hassled at all until the seventh, when the Giants finally got a runner to second base. Brandon Crawford walked with two out and Angel Pagan beat out just the Giants' second hit off Syndergaard, a slow infield chopper. But Joe Panik grounded back to the box and the game stayed scoreless.

That was a 17-pitch inning, and 108 total, for the young ace, and manager Terry Collins went to his bullpen. The Giants have done this so many times to opposition relievers that it really came as a surprise to see Addison Reed, instead of Syndergaard, starting the eighth. Regardless of skill-- and both Reed and his successor, Jeurys Familia, are good ones-- getting the near-unhittable "Thor" out of there was all the Giants wanted, and it showed right away. Conor Gillaspie-- more on him later, you bet!-- greeted Reed with a base hit to right (and the crypto-mysto fog began rising....) . "Bum" laid down an exquisite sacrifice bunt, and after Denard Span popped up, Brandon Belt watched two excruciatingly close pitches go by and drew a walk. Reed bounced one past catcher Rene Rivera as the runners moved up, which occasioned a bases-loading walk to Buster Posey. Reed then reached back for his best stuff and fanned Hunter Pence to end it, but the Giants had, in some undefinable but definite way, broken the spell. "Bum" allowed his fourth, and last, hit in the bottom of the eighth, and Familia came out for the ninth.

Commentator Buster Olney warned presciently that the base on balls was the one chink in the closer's 51-save arsenal. Familia promptly fell behind Crawford 2-1, and Brandon ripped a double up the alley in left-center to lead it off. After Pagan, seeing nothing but high heat, struck out, Joe Panik worked, and worked, and worked some more to draw a critical walk, which seemed to unbalance Familia just a bit. Up stepped Gillaspie, who had flailed helplessly in two-at-bats against Syndergaard. A one-time first-round pick-- he was drafted right after Buster Posey in 2008-- Gillaspie again and again failed to establish himself as a starter while the likes of Crawford, Panik, and Matt Duffy passed him by. He spent a year with the Chicago White Sox but didn't stick, and a year ago was DFA'd by the LA Angels. Now 29 and back with the Giants, he made it as a spring NRI, and began to see some regular action when Duffy went on the DL. After the trade, though, it was Eduardo Nunez, and not Gillaspie, who took the regular third-base job. Like Kelby Tomlinson, Gillaspie played well enough to make the postseason roster as a backup, but only Nunez' nagging injury, which disabled him for last night, got Gillaspie into the lineup. If all this sounds vaguely familiar, it should-- Travis Ishikawa brought a similar resume to the plate in Game Five of the 2012 NLCS.

Here, Gillaspie looked at two pitches, then drove the third-- a sinker that stayed up-- high and deep over the right-center-field wall, and the raucous crowd fell deathly silent. They saw what all of us saw-- not only had Gillaspie broken the scoreless tie with a three-run shot, but Jarrett Parker, on deck to bat for Bumgarner, was called back to the dugout. "Bum" batted for himself, flied out to deep left, then strolled out to the mound and allowed three harmless fly balls to close it out on the bottom of the ninth. Raucousness at that point was limited to the Giants, who boiled out onto the field in fervent, if characteristically restrained, celebration, and the small number of  'Frisco fans who congregated above the dugout and pounded enthusiastically on its roof. The Mets, players and fans, stared at the scene for some time before their quiet departure.

The combination of Bumgarner, an unlikely late-inning hero, and the entire team's uncanny ability to wait out a close game and then pounce at the first hint of vulnerability-- that's become the Giants' own unique signature. Of course, "Bum" can't pitch every night, and Conor Gillaspie is not Babe Ruth, and there are pitchers aplenty on the Cubs, Nationals, and Dodgers who have the ability to hold the Giants' lineup harmless. But, as we asked four, and two, years ago about this time-- given what we know, and given what we've seen, who, exactly, is willing to bet against the San Francisco Giants in any postseason series?