Saturday, June 15, 2013

Seen What I Saw

What's the old saw? "Go to the ballpark and you'll see something you never saw before." Well, on Thursday night at beautiful, underpopulated PNC Park in Pittsburgh, we saw several things we'd never seen before, and all of them added up to a most entertaining 10-0 win for the Giants.  It was a good win for Matt Cain, whose 2013 road wars have featured more than a few defeats. It was a fine win for this depleted lineup, with Gregor Blanco, Brandon Crawford, and Hunter Pence leading the highlight parade.  And it was a most welcome win for the sturdy band of Giants loyalists who came to the park hoping to contribute in any way to a sweep-avoidance maneuver.

In a matter of minutes we saw three events we'd never witnessed before in person. First was an obstruction call which resulted in an awarded run, next was a runner struck by a batted ball to end an inning, and third was a line drive which caromed off Matt Cain's glove into Nick Noonan's for a bang-bang putout-and-assist.

Memo to several unnamed but oughta-know-better sportswriters: it's "obstruction," not "interference" or "defensive interference." Interference is when the runner interferes with the fielder's attempt to get to the ball. Obstruction is what third baseman Pedro Alvarez did between third and home on Thursday night as Brandon Crawford tried to get out of his way during the rundown. We were a little surprised to see the umpires award the run to Crawford, as he was ducking back toward third when the error occurred. The rule states the umpires will award the obstructed runner the base he would have, in their judgment, reached absent the obstruction. However, we did not know the obstructed runner is entitled to advance at least one base. So, thanks to the men in blue for sending us back to the rule book. (Anyone else remember the obstruction call with Benito Santiago in the 2002 NLCS against St Louis, when he was awarded third instead of home? Good-- congratulations to both of you!)

Pence, who hit the grounder that resulted in the obstruction call, was also the guy hit by the batted ball, which is scored a cheap hit for Joaquin Arias and a cheap putout for shortstop Jody Mercer, the fielder closest to the play. Had it happened with less than two out, it would be a dead-ball situation with no runners advancing and no chance for a putout anywhere else.  As for the Cain-to-Noonan lateral, Matty gets an assist, which seems only fair since that ball was destined for center field.

In the top of the ninth, we leaped to our feet in congratulation for Nick Noonan, who had just smacked his first big-league home run-- only to see it followed by a quick, on-field umpire huddle, and then an NFL-style delay while three of the blue men retired to their antechamber and a video review.  (The crew chief remains on the field, we're told, during these interludes to provide some semblance of order and decorum. Presumably the dancing bears and rodeo clowns are kept under wraps for another night.)  In a matter of moments (most certainly not an NFL-style procedure) the umps were back, waving Noonan back to second; the ball had hit, but not cleared, the yellow rail atop the right-center-field grandstand. Like the dancing bears, No. 21's long-ball debut party will have to wait for another night.

It wasn't our first replay experience; that happened the previous night, when the Pirates' Neil Walker clobbered a please-hit-me pitch from the just-departed Ramon Ramirez high and deep to right. It glanced off the facade atop the right-field stands and Walker pulled up at second. After Clint Hurdle made the appeal, the umps retreated to their inner sanctum, then returned with the familiar finger-twirl as Walker pranced around third and scored the run that really seemed to deflate the Giants, who had pulled within 10-6 just moments earlier.

Grim warnings of an impending mega-storm event certainly dampened the turnout Wednesday night as these new, much-improved Buccos laid into Barry Zito with extra relish (not to mention mustard, sauerkraut, and a few other condiments). After walking the leadoff man, Barry Z settled down and threw strikes, many of which ended up in the left- and right-center-field gaps as his harried outfielders chased them down and Pirates merrily circled the bases. Bruce Bochy brought in Ramirez to start the sixth, and the former bullpen standout pitched himself right onto the unemployment line, surrendering four hits, a walk, two homers, and three runs to the six men he faced. Afterward, the club didn't even wait for the road trip to end before announcing Ramirez would be DFA'd and a replacement summoned from Fresno posthaste.

If the season ended today, the Pittsburgh Pirates would qualify as a wild-card team, their first postseason appearance in 21 years. It's easy to see why. Hurdle, who had previous success with a Cinderella-style cub at Colorado in 2007, uses all his players and stacks the top of the order with guys who get on base. His first four on Wednesday-- Marte, Mercer, the redoubtable Andrew McCutchen, and Gaby Sanchez-- combined for thirteen hits and eight runs scored. No, it doesn't always work-- Hurdle switched out four starters Thursday to get the lefties into the lineup, and was rewarded with three measly hits-- but it appears to us the Pirates are about one starting pitcher away from fielding a serious contender, and if they're still in the hunt a month from now perhaps they'll make a move.

Speaking of trades, former Giants Francisco Liriano and Jason Grilli opened and closed Wednesday's game, Liriano getting the start and the win, and Grilli, the NL's saves leader, closing it out in a non-save situation. For those of you scoring at home, Liriano was sent packing, along with Joe Nathan, back in 2004 because the Giants had, just had, to have A.J. Pierzynski as their catcher. Going back five years before that, Grilli, then a minor-league 'phenom' and first-round draft choice, was part of the price we paid to acquire Livan Hernandez. No, the two World Series championships we've won in the past three years don't exactly erase these ignoble moments from our history, though perhaps they do make them more bearable when we take time to reflect.

We've beaten the drum before about Gregor Blanco being our best leadoff man; his Thursday stat line (3-for-5 with a walk, a double, and two runs scored) is not atypical of what he can do. With three starters on the shelf (Angel Pagan and Pablo Sandoval on the DL, Marco Scutaro trying to avoid it), guys like Blanco, Noonan, and Joaquin Arias are going to have to carry more of the load. We'd like to see Blanco get the left-field and leadoff roles for good, with Pagan in center batting fifth when he returns to the lineup.

Hunter Pence's three-run cannon shot to the deepest part of the ballpark Thursday underscored what a terrific season he's having. Slugging over .500, with more homers than Albert Pujols, Pence is thriving in the four-spot-- and for those of you who haven't noticed, our cleanup hitter has stolen thirteen bases and hasn't been caught once.

We know little about Juan Perez, called up in the wake of Pagan's DL stint; he's a 27-year-old rookie, which tend to temper the enthusiasm a tad. But he can sure throw the ball, as evidenced by his center-field relay to third which nailed the aforementioned Mercer trying to advance on a sacrifice fly in the bottom of the first Wednesday night, and thereby prevented a big inning. (Not to worry, Pittsburgh got big innings in the third, fifth, and sixth, thank you very much.)

And it's a shame about Ramirez. Sent to the Mets, along with Torres, in exchange for Pagan after the 2011 campaign, he carried most of the value in that trade and was considered a potential ace reliever or closer. Is Citi Field some kind of giant sinkhole for players' careers or something? Ramirez, released outright before the Giants picked him up a couple weeks ago, seems to have lost everything since the trade. We hope he can regain his form somewhere, because we remember his 2010 contributions most fondly.

Da Burgh

It goes without saying that PNC Park is one of the most charming and idyllic baseball fields in the land. With the appealing Pittsburgh skyline as a backdrop, the historic Monongahela river flowing past right field, its idiosyncratic dimensions, and its superb sight lines, we rate it equal in every respect to Pacific Bell Park (yes, yes, we know, we know).  We first came here in 2002, back when Pittsburgh was still the nearest National League city to western Virginia, and we have revisited several times since. In years past we stayed up in the Oakland section of town, with its colorful restaurants and shops, while braving downtown traffic to park in the garage right across the Roberto Clemente Bridge from the ballpark. (They close the bridge to auto traffic on game days so fans can walk across the "Mon" from downtown to the park.) More recently we've been bunking out in the Greentree section and driving through historic West End Village to Station Square, where a ferryboat will carry you past the Fort Duquesne fountain and Heinz Field right up to a berth below PNC's right-field entrance. It's a great town, and it's great to see the Pirate fans enthused about their ballclub after a whole generation of steady losing. Maybe we'll see a Giants-Buccos rematch come postseason.

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