News and stories from San Francisco Giants.

Boys by the Bay 07/25/17

Nhat Meyer/Bay Area News Group

Well, the San Francisco Bay Area is all-twitter these days – in both the old-fashioned and the modern sense – over the Giants’ recent re-signing of World Series Hero Pablo Sandoval. Or should I say of Pariah Pablo Sandoval.

 

Over the course of his 6+-years with the Giants, third baseman Sandoval kept up an average OPS of .811 OPS. He hit over .300 in three of those years, and he swatted 106 home runs. He seemed to have a playful, boyish disposition. He also clobbered three homers in Game 1 of the 2012 World Series, so he’ll definitely be a part of Giants lore forever.

 

But he left the team bitterly after the 2014 season to sign a five-year, $95 million contract with the Red Sox. Over 2-1/2 seasons in Boston, though, he hit only a cumulative .237 amid multiple injuries that saw him playing in just 161 games. This year he was hitting only .212, with 4 homers and 12 RBIs, before the team jettisoned him for good.

 

Then the Giants picked him up.

 

If Sandoval returns successfully to the big leagues this year, the Giants have to pay him only the prorated portion of the major-league minimum (which is $535,000 in 2017).

 

And he may not even get back to the majors. As of this writing he is 1-7 at Class A San Jose, and the plan is for him to get to AAA Sacramento this week. Coach Bruce Bochy has said that the team hopes to get him 40 or 50 at-bats in the minors to see what he can do.

 

Pablo has been apologizing all over the place. He has no other choice, though. Let’s face it: most likely his career was summarily over. The Giants, probably out of nostalgia as much as anything else, are his only ticket back to the ballpark.

 

So he’s been reportedly apologizing to individual players, claiming that he has matured emotionally over the last few years, and publicly talking about things like fan support and team chemistry – whereas when he bolted for the Sox after the 2014 season, he whined that he was furious about his contract negotiations and that the only Giants he’d miss would be outfielder Hunter Pence and Bruce Bochy.

 

Still, he’s now saying that he regrets not having re-signed with the Giants back in late 2014. And maybe he’s sincere. He had to have been humbled – in the true sense of the word, not in the sense that the word has been over- and misused today – by his atrocious stint in Beantown.

And here’s the thing. The Giants have absolutely nothing to lose except for that prorated league minimum. The Red Sox, meanwhile, will eat the rest of Sandoval’s entire (overvalued) contract.

 

“This is pretty much a free look at a player who’s done some good things here, and if he could help us get on track, it’s a good thing,” says Bochy.

 

Getty Images

Many of us have been speculating for some time that current Giants third baseman Eduardo Nuñez will be traded before the impending deadline. That means the team will be left with rookie third baseman Christian Arroyo, who flamed out quickly in the majors after an auspicious start, was sent back down to the minors to hone his batting skills, and promptly injured his hand twice. The second injury was a broken hand that will shelve him for two months. Alternate third baseman Jae-Gyun Hwang was just sent down last week. Until “third baseman of the future” Arroyo is ready for his big-league return (and he will be, but not anytime soon), the Giants will find themselves without a regular infielder at that position should Nuñez be traded.

 

So it all makes sense, really – certainly from a business standpoint. And maybe from a baseball standpoint, too. I’ve watched Pablo’s recent interviews and he really does appear to have lost weight, for once. Maybe he’s actually in decent shape. And since the Giants are not on track for a postseason of any sort, all they need is someone to fill in at the corner until next year. With Sandoval’s tendency to get injured, and his poor showing in the minors so far, our expectations are necessarily low. On the other hand, if the 30-year-old can hit the occasional home run (a rare sight for Giants fans this year), maybe that’s enough.

 

Last week the team’s streak of 530 consecutive sellouts finally ended. It was the longest sellout streak in National League history. The fans are getting restless.

 

So maybe his acquisition is also meant to get the fans excited – whether they love him or hate him.

 

Or maybe it’s superstition; after all, since he departed, the Giants have not returned to the World Series, and their domination (if you can call it that) appears to be over and done.

 

My take on the whole thing, as a fan, is that Giants management typically know what they’re doing, they can spot a bargain when it’s in front of them, and they have a sense of loyalty and history. They’ve undoubtedly noted Pablo’s contrition and his weight loss. He may well be a minor asset as we finish out the season.

 

But I personally can’t forgive him for the ways in which he skewered the ownership and his teammates. I wasn’t a Panda-hat wearer then, and I definitely won’t be one now. Besides, word is that not all of his teammates are thrilled with his potential return, and I’m not sure he’ll give a lift to the clubhouse.

 

This isn’t about me, though. This is about the business of baseball. And it certainly isn’t going to prevent me from going out to the Yard. Loyalty is loyalty.

 

Yes, loyalty is loyalty, Pablo. I hope you’ve learned that lesson.

 

Boys by the Bay 07/14/17

With the Giants about to emerge from the All-Star break like bats squinting out of a cave, it’s time to assess what the second half of the season could possibly have in store – both for the players and for the fans. The team has a 34-56 record and is 27 games out of first place, so the postseason is clearly not a possibility.

 

Scott Strazzante, The Chronicle

For the fans, the most thrilling change will undoubtedly come this weekend, when ace Madison Bumgarner is announced as the starting pitcher. Bumgarner, who injured both his pitching shoulder and a number of ribs in an irresponsible dirt bike incident, has been out since April 20. Properly contrite, he is itching to return and, after some very sketchy rehab games in the minors, with 9.82 and 8.10 ERAs in AA and AAA, respectively, he threw six decent innings in AA San Jose on Monday. We need to keep in mind that he wasn’t exactly burning up the league with the Giants before his accident, something absolutely nobody has been talking about in the Bay Area; in fact, he was 0-3 in four starts. But his ERA was 3.00, and it helps to note that the Giants’ offense has been so lackluster that it would have been difficult for God himself to get a win with that lack of run support. So hope remains eternal.

 

To make room in the rotation, Coach Bruce Bochy announced on KNBR radio on Wednesday that starter Matt Cain would be moved the bullpen. Although there was some speculation that management could end up moving Ty Blach instead – for the sake of honoring Cain, the team’s workhorse who has been such an important component of Giants history and who will undoubtedly be gone after this year – overall no one was really surprised. Then again, considering the team’s abysmal misfortunes with injuries this year, Cain could be reinstated to the rotation at any moment, as soon as someone else tears a muscle. Or if Matt Moore or Ty Blach starts to falter even more. (Personally I’d rather see Moore replaced in the rotation; Ty Blach is young and hasn’t thrown a complete season’s worth of pitches yet.)

 

Keith Srakocic, Associated Press

Of course, there’s also the possibility that Cain could be back in the rotation if the Giants end up trading Johnny Cueto.

 

With the July 31 trade deadline coming up quickly, the assumption seems to be that Cueto will be first in line to go. Cueto can opt out after this year, and it seems to make sense that, with a losing year in the forecast, the Giants might want to jettison the last four years and $84 million of his contract and hand him off to a contending team.

 

I don’t know, though. Matt Moore has had an overall lackluster, if not bad, year, and with Bumgarner not an absolute guarantee, and Cain and Blach being inconsistent, I’m not sure management wants to give up one of its best pitchers and risk alienating its constant-sellout fan base. If they do decide to surrender the rest of the year for a team rebuilding, they would like to ensure that next year’s team is at least a contender. And the 33-year-old Cain really cannot adequately fill any starter void based on his most recent numbers: a 7.55 ERA, with eight home runs surrendered over his last six starts.

 

Willie McCovey, the former Giants first baseman and Hall of Famer, says that the Giants have considerable talent and that it is just bad luck that so many of the guys are having a “down” year. He might be right. After all, Willie understands that baseball is a whimsical game, and its vicissitudes mean that any given player can slump badly for long periods of time. If the odds aren’t in the team’s favor, a handful of slumping players can tank a team’s fortunes badly. Many of the players on the current roster are the same ones who got the Giants to the playoffs last year.

 

Still, I think making some judicious moves at the trade deadline might breathe some life into the remaining players and potentially make room for some major-league-ready youngsters who could end up surprising the team with talent and mental fortitude that is completely unexpected. Witness the emergence of Joe Panik, who after only two months in AAA came up with the Giants in June 2014 and played a decisive role in their World Series victory that year.

 

Prevailing wisdom says that homegrowners Bumgarner, catcher Buster Posey, and shortstop Brandon Crawford are the only Giants considered to be safe from the trade sword.

 

First baseman Brandon Belt will start raking in $17+ million a year next year, and he could conceivably end up on the block. He’s an excellent defensive first baseman, but his power numbers just have never reached his potential. Right fielder Hunter Pence has lost some of his defensive prowess but he’s a clubhouse spark, so his value is a tossup – but that includes to other teams, who may be wary of his age and his injury liability. Third baseman Eduardo Nuñes is due back on Friday and could conceivably be trade-bait considering his speed and versatility. With infielder Christian Arroyo still back in the minors nursing a hand injury, and clubhouse favorite Jae-gyun Hwang filling in at third, the Giants could certainly afford to let Nuñes go. Reliever and sometime closer Hunter Strickland could go, too. He’s got a wicked fastball but also a wicked temper, and generally the Giants don’t appreciate that kind of guy in the clubhouse. I say good riddance if he goes.

 

Blach and Moore will likely stay, mainly because they are cheap. I hope left-fielder Austin Slater stays, too. He was having a terrific year before his injury, and even though he was likely to cool off at some point, he had a certain mature baseball presence that his minor-league compadre Christian Arroyo was still too young to demonstrate. But with Slater an uncertainty, a trade for a decent left fielder would make the fans happy.

 

When you think about it, with this lineup the Giants would have an adequate squad with which to finish the season and possibly continue to build in 2018: Posey (c), Belt or trade (1B), Panik (2B), Crawford (ss), Nuñes or prospect (3B), Pence (RF), Span (CF), trade (LF).

 

We’ll see what happens over the next few weeks.

 

Boys by the Bay 06/29/17

Jose Carlos Fajardo/Bay Area News Group

The Giants’ current .370 win-loss record – only the hapless Phillies are worse – and last-place standing at 23 games back in the NL West have shaken their fan base to the very core, and even the team’s years-long sellout streak appears to be in jeopardy.

 

By now we all know what the woes are about. Pitching ace and all-around confidence-enhancer Madison Bumgarner has been on the DL for two months. Shortstop Brandon Crawford continues his defensive dominance but he’s having a lackluster offensive season, hitting only .238. Brandon Belt, at .231, still hasn’t risen to the power levels that have been expected of him, and his reliance on walking rather than swinging the bat isn’t helping out a team that can’t seem to produce RBIs. Ty Blach, the promising young starter, has one win, one no-decision, and three losses in his last five starts. The best offensive left-fielder that the Giants have started this year, Austin Slater, promisingly hit .333 with a couple of homers and then injured himself, although he returned to the lineup today. At third base, the health of Eduardo Nuñes continues to be an intermittent issue while once-hot-hitting Christian Arroyo has been sent back to the minors to find his swing again. Hunter Pence, in right field, has made a number of mind-blowingly strange errors in defensive judgment. The bullpen has been a revolving door, and closer Mark Melancon has been a disappointment, culminating in a trip to the DL for him today with a pronator strain.

 

AP Photo

I’m in the middle of reading former Giant Aubrey Huff’s book Baseball Junkie, which is a chronicle of his struggles with mental issues and drug dependence, even while playing on a World Series team. What’s most fascinating about the book is Huff’s recounting of the ways in which baseball players – who in the minds of most fans should savor every minute on the field while they rake in their huge salaries – can be overcome by depression, boredom, and bitterness when they play for a losing team. In his own experience, he says he was “uninterested, unengaged,” and that pressure and performance anxiety can be debilitating. He talks about the fact that success at the major-league level rquires precision and razor-sharp focus. It demands total mental engagement. “Ask any pro,” he says, “and they’ll tell you the same thing. Regardless of how well any season starts, or how pure your intentions. Losing game after game starts to drag you down. You’ll soon find yourself not really firing on all cylinders. Going through the motions.”

 

From a fan’s perspective, that’s exactly what it appears some of the Giants are doing. There are even rumors of dissesnsion in the clubhouse. We’ve already seen the normally placid Buster Posey lash out at Brandon Belt.

 

Before the season started, the Giants hired their first full-time mental performance coach, Bob Tewksbury. He is undoubtedly working overtime these days, aiming to improve the gametime performance of the players by treating whatever mental challenges and attitude problems they’re experiencing.

The Giants most likely will not make it to the postseason – let’s be real – but for those of us who love baseball, there’s no question that there are plenty of reasons to continue those sellouts. In my book, those reasons lie in the youngsters.

 

The kids coming up from the minors are not going to be burned out. They’re not going to be unengaged. They’re going to do whatever they can do to keep themselves in the bigs, including staying keenly tuned in to everything happening on the field. (They may, in fact, overthink things.) They’re going to be too hungry to get disinterested.

 

Jae-gyun Hwang got his first MLB start today, at third base with the Giants. Last year was his sixth All-Star year with the Korean Baseball Association, during which he hit .335 with 27 home runs, 25 stolen bases, and 113 RBIs. He was hitting .287 in the minors with 7 homers and 4 triples before his callup, and the infielder smashed a home run for his first major league hit in his first major league game today, breaking a 3-3 tie with Colorado and injecting life into a game that the Giants would go on to win.

 

It was a jolt of youth, exuberance, and sheer power for the dugout.

 

With nothing to lose regarding an unattainable postseason, look for the Giants to try out other young talent as the season goes on, and to make some moves before the trade deadline, with trade-bait possibilities being pitcher Johnny Cueto or even someone like Brandon Belt. New players, and youth, may be what this clubhouse needs to at least play some respectable games in the second half of the season.

Boys by the Bay 06/18/17

I really want Mike Matheny to get a World Series ring.

 

And yes, I’m a Giants fan through and through.

 

the St. Louis Post-Dispatch

Out here on the West Coast, we’ve heard rumors that Matheny’s job might be in jeopardy. As of this writing, the Cardinals are 31-36 in 2017, and a recent series of moves among the coaching staff has led to abundant speculation. It didn’t help, either, that General Manager John Mozeliak claimed that no one in the organization was completely secure.

 

I don’t follow the Cards as closely as I do the Giants, of course. I don’t even have a single Cardinal on either of my two fantasy baseball teams. Nevertheless, I love the team for two reason: 1) St. Louis, which is the best baseball town in America, and 2) Manager Mike Matheny.

 

Mike Matheny spent his last two seasons as a player in major league baseball (2005 and 2006) with the San Francisco Giants. He appeared in 181 games. In 2005 he won not only the team’s Willie Mac Award (for the most inspirational player) but also the NL Gold Glove (his .999 fielding percentage that year also set the Giants single-season record for a catcher). In 2005 he had career highs with 13 homers, 59 RBIs, and a .701 OPS. His three-year contract was cruelly shortened, though, when he was forced to quit baseball in 2006 after suffering multiple concussions. He’s a rugged guy, but he was told that another blow could endanger his long-term health.

 

Matheny always felt that it wasn’t as much the foul tips but the collisions at home plate that caused and exacerbated his post-concussion syndrome. When Scott Cousins severely injured Buster Posey in a takeout slide at home plate in 2011, Mike – who was a special advisor for the Cards at the time – emphatically condemned Cousin’s actions. Anyone coming to Buster’s defense, of course, immediately burrows himself a little further into my heart.

 

Although Matheny had absolutely zero managerial experience at the time, in 2012 he was awarded the Cardinals’ managerial job, succeeding the seemingly irreplaceable Tony LaRussa. And he took St. Louis to the playoffs for four straight years. No other managers had ever done that in their first four full seasons.

 

Despite his skills as a player and manager, though, I admire Mike Matheny most for other reasons. One of those reasons is the honest emotion he showed as a player after Cardinals Pitcher Darryl Kile died in 2002 of a heart attack at the age of 33. Matheny was the only pitcher to whom Kile ever wanted to pitch. I’ll never forget the moving photo of Mike pausing in grief one day and putting his hand on Kile’s jersey that was hanging in the dugout in remembrance. I recall thinking at the time that although it was a simple gesture on its face, there must have been an ocean of sadness behind that moment. And Mike didn’t care who witnessed his raw emotion.

 

I admire Matheny, too, for his leadership and character both on and off the field. Married for many years, with five children (and a recent new grandchild!), I know that he is a man of great faith who doesn’t hesitate to show it. He runs a nonprofit called the Catch 22 Foundation that serves disadvantaged children in the St. Louis area. He calls himself “old school.” He says he’s all about “respect, ownership, self motivation, and no-nonsense sportsmanship.”

 

Mike Matheny made what some consider to be a questionable pitching change in game 5 of the 2014 NLCS against the Giants. He removed pitcher Adam Wainwright after seven innings, and the Giants – who were behind at the time – went on to win the game. Who really knows what would have happened had Wainwright stayed in. Maybe Matheny still thinks about it. But the lasting image for me, from that series, is seeing him tip his cap to Giants coach Bruce Bochy from the visitors’ dugout after the game ended. Imagine a man showing that kind of class to an opposing coach who had just handed him one of his most painful defeats ever. Mike Matheny’s face in that moment was filled with sadness, regret, and resignation. I still tear up whenever I think about it.

The Cards are only 4-1/2 games back in the NL Central. All is not lost. Not only do I want Mike Matheny to keep his job, I want him to get that World Series ring. I want class and character to win out. Call me “old school.”

Boys by the Bay 06/04/17

I’m beginning to feel sorry for Buster Posey. He has the weight of the world on his shoulders this year.

 

USATSI

The Giants, who are currently tied for the cellar position in the National League West, have found themselves in a division that has surpassed expectations. It’s going to be difficult to crawl their way up in a division in which the Rockies, Diamondbacks, and Dodgers all have winning percentages of .600 or more. Even a wild card scenario would appear, at this point, to be nearly impossible.

 

And unfortunately, most of the team’s burdens and responsibilities this year have been imposed on veteran catcher Buster Posey.

 

With right-fielder Hunter Pence still shelved with an injury, the outfield has been a complete mess – a revolving door of declining veterans and minor-league hopefuls who just haven’t had the ability to produce much offense. Center-fielder Denard Span, taken down by an injury himself when he collided with the wall earlier in the season, is back, but his .231 average and 0 stolen bases have been disappointing. In left field, after Jarrett Parker (himself a question mark) went down with a serious injury, guys like Mac Williamson just didn’t bring much to the table. Other outfielders like Drew Stubbs, Justin Ruggiano, and Gorkys Hernandez have been feeble as well. The Giants brought up Orlando Calixte last week, and Austin Slater this week and are hoping that these minor-leaguers can rise to the occasion. As of this writing, Slater is in the lineup for Friday night.

 

Slashing in the minors, though, is not necessarily an indicator of big-league success – at least, not right out of the gate. Look at the decline in production from third-baseman Christian Arroyo, who, as I predicted in my last blog, might well be headed back to the minors soon for a hitting tune-up. It’s likely that Eduardo Nuñez, the third baseman who has been spending time in left field (yes, along with the other cast of characters), will probably go back to his former position if the Arroyo demotion happens.

 

With nothing happening in the outfield, then, and with Arroyo possibly heading back down, the Giants have been depending more on Posey’s offensive output than they ever have.

 

Well, to clarify, they are depending on Posey and the Brandons (Crawford at SS and Belt at 1B), but Belt is hitting well below .250 and Crawford doesn’t have a ton of power.

 

So it’s been up to Posey to carry the team, and he’s met the challenge by hitting a whopping .348, although he’s slightly off his usual pace in the power department with 7 homers and the same number of doubles.

 

Buster also caught flak on Memorial Day when he stayed out of the now-infamous brawl that started when Giants reliever Hunter Strickland deliberately hit Nationals outfielder Bryce Harper with a fastball in retaliation for gamesmanship that happened between them in the 2014 postseason. The criticism of Posey is ridiculous. I know it’s not unheard-of for guys to carry grudges that last for years, and to take their shots when they get the first opportunity to do so, even if it’s a matter of waiting an eternity to do it. I don’t condone the practice, but it happens. One of the most entertaining books I’ve ever read – The Baseball Codes by Jason Turbow – devotes a long chapter to “Retaliation” and recounts a story about how Bob Gibson, the phenomenal Cardinals pitcher, gave up a grand slam to Pete LaCock of the Chicago Cubs in Gibson’s very last game before he retired. Now out of professional baseball, Gibson couldn’t get past his desire to plunk LaCock and he managed to do it 15 years later in an old-timers’ game!

 

I’m really happy that Buster stayed out of the fray. I don’t think he had an obligation to protect Strickland, who has a reputation for being an immature hothead anyway. “Well I mean after it happened, I kind of saw Harper’s point,” Posey said later. It was also a two-run game at the time, and Strickland’s actions put the game in more jeopardy. Buster also has a history of concussions as well as, of course, the gruesome leg injury in 2011 that most likely weakened his ankle ligaments for life. Players, unfortunately, can get severely injured in pileups. Giants pitcher Dave Dravecky, for example, famously broke his arm in a celebratory scrum.

 

In any case, Buster still is taking some heat, and when you pile that on top of his performance expectations, his leadership role on the team, and the responsibilities that simply come with being a catcher and piloting the field, I think the pressure has all taken its toll. The normally stoic Buster was visibly angry at Brandon Belt a couple of times in the last few weeks, and the cameras caught some, shall we say, unsavory verbiage coming out of his mouth. On one of the occasions, Belt ignored Posey’s signal to hold a runner close to the bag, and as a result the runner stole second. I’m sure Buster was thinking, Damn! If they’re gonna depend on me for everything, they need to at least pay attention to my signals!

 

I can only hope that Giants management makes some moves to rustle up some offense in the near future. The trade deadline is two months away and the season could be completely out of our grasp by then.

 

 

For now, rather than weep, I’m going to go play with my dog. His name, by the way, is Buster Posey.

 

Boys by the Bay 05/20/17

So, the Giants emerged from their most recent homestand with five consecutive victories under their belts. In San Francisco it’s being seen as something of a miracle, because before that the team had back-to-back wins only twice, and those two streaks had ended at, well, two games. So five games is giving fans some hope.

 

I was sitting in the stands at the game on Wednesday when the Giants finally surrendered their winning streak and lost to Clayton Kershaw and the Dodgers. I was thinking about how my favorite new young Giant, Christian Arroyo, had gone 0 for 4 that day and as of the end of that game was sporting a fairly meager .209 batting average. His early-season home runs had stopped coming, too; two of his three homers were hit in April, and his last was on May 5.

 

Jim Gensheimer/Bay Area News Group

The night before, Arroyo had made his first major-league start at second base (he’s a former shortstop, but with Brandon Crawford at that position for the foreseeable future, Arroyo mainly now plays third base) and still managed to immediately turn a double play in inning 1, fire home to get Justin Turner out in the fourth inning, and later make an athletic diving stop on a Joc Pederson scorcher.

 

The kid has great hands, and I began to realize that he reminds me of Matt Williams, one of my all-time favorite Giants.

 

In 1989, Giants third baseman Williams was really struggling. He’d had two abbreviated seasons in 1987 and ’88, during which he hit around .200 and lofted 8 homers in each year. Pitchers were on to him, and in May, when he was batting a whopping .130, the Giants sent him down to the minors to learn how to hit a curveball. He was particularly ineffective with making contact with balls that dropped into the dirt. So he grinded it out in the minors and came back in the summer of ’89. Working with then-hitting coach Dusty Baker, he somehow found his power, and the next year he raised his average to .277 and smacked 33 home runs.

 

The Giants really didn’t want to bring Arroyo up from the minors yet this year. He’s only 21, after all, and he doesn’t quite have full major-league strength. But management also didn’t bank on losing their most promising left fielder – Jarret Parker – to injury, and they didn’t imagine that they would ever be playing their regular third baseman, Eduardo Nuñez, in left field. Nuñez’s speed and athleticism have worked out well in left, though, and Arroyo’s stratospheric batting average at AAA Sacramento made him a gift the Giants couldn’t refuse.

 

After a hot start in the big leagues, Arroyo has cooled. In fact, he’s bogged down in a slump right now. But this happens to most young players fresh out of the minors. They start out like a house afire because opposing pitchers haven’t seen them yet. But once big-league pitchers figure them out – and it doesn’t take long – the rookies are suddenly faced with their own Achilles heel. The trick is to learn how to face their weaknesses.

 

The word is that because Arroyo showed immediately that he could hit the inside fastball, pitchers have begun to avoid the inside part of the plate completely and throw outside pitches that the youngster seems unable to connect with. Batting coach Hensley Meulens, who confirms that Arroyo is a quick study, has been working with him to move him closer in to the plate so he can reach – rather than flail at – those outside pitches.

 

I think Meulens will help Arroyo unlock his power again, as Baker did with Williams. If not, and if the rookie needs some further time in the minors to get his positioning down, that’s not the end of the world. After all, once Williams spent some time in Phoenix, he came back to lead the National League in RBIs (122) the next year. In 1994 he was on pace to break Roger Maris’s single-season home run record when the baseball strike ended the season. He was a five-time All-Star, a three-time Silver Slugger, and a Gold Glove winner. After the 2003 season he left baseball with a .268 career average and 378 home runs.

 

In the meantime, Christian Arroyo is contributing to the team in a host of different ways. His defense is sterling. He isn’t making rookie mistakes. He’s moving runners along. He’s got a great eye and makes pitchers work during his at-bats. With experience and maturity, he’ll master the outside pitch and, with his power potential, may even become another Matt Williams. (Minus the steroid accusations, of course.)

 

Scott Strazzante / The Chronicle

Buster Posey is suddenly red-hot, hitting an eye-popping .378 with seven home runs. Denard Span has come back from his injury with a vengeance, hitting .379 in May. Eduardo Nuñez is covering left field like a master, upped his .250 April average to .280 so far in May, and hit his first home run of the season on Wednesday. As for pitching, Matt Cain is looking like the workhorse he was four or five years ago, and Ty Blach has filled in just fine for an injured Madison Bumgarner, bouncing back with maturity from a trouncing by the Reds to pitch seven quality innings in his next start against the same team and then getting the win against the Dodgers in the game after that.

 

Now the Giants are facing the formidable Cardinals and Cubs on the road. But neither of those teams, surprisingly, is exactly running away with the NL Central. If this road trip yields at least a split, I’d say the Giants are back in business.

Boys by the Bay 05/07/17

I’ve always thought it was a strange practice to lay blame on a pitcher every time a batter gets a hit. That’s what baseball fans tend to do, especially in the latter innings of a ballgame, when a reliever who allows one or two well-timed hits is said to have essentially blown the entire game. This kind of thinking operates under the assumption that pitchers are expected to never “allow” a batter to get on base – that the norm is hitlessness. But that assumption essentially means that we should then expect a perfect game from every pitcher. I’m not sure why we can’t simply give credit to the batter. If every hit is a pitcher’s fault, then there are no good batters – only lucky ones.

 

AP Photo

As of May 6, San Francisco’s record is 11-19. The Giants have lost more games than any other team in the National League – a strange phenomenon for a team that has won three World Series over the last seven years. And Giants fans and critics have been quick to pin most of their frustration on the bullpen. But in truth, with some flagrant exceptions, the relievers have been decent.

And starting pitching has certainly exceeded expectations in many ways (this week’s meltdowns by the two Matts notwithstanding). Matt Cain was practically given up for dead before he started the season, with everyone presuming that it would be his farewell season because his contracts ends this year. But before last night, his 2017 2.30 ERA bested even what he was able to do in his great (pre-2012) years. (Last night’s debacle, however, shot his ERA up to 4.70.)

In those early years, Cain was one of the league leaders in quality start non-wins. In 2007-008, for example, he pitched 28 games in which he went seven innings or more and gave up three runs or fewer, with an overall ERA of 1.97. Yet his record was 9-9.

Last night’s loss notwithstanding, 2017 is shaping up like those early years when Cain would pitch sterling games and lose by scores like 1-0 because he had absolutely no run support. His last start in April was a gem in which he struck out seven and allowed only one run through five innings, but after he came out the game completely fell apart.

New starter Ty Blach, too, has been somewhat of a revelation. Originally groomed to be waiting in the wings as Matt Cain’s potential replacement, he’s now pitching in place of Madison Bumgarner, who looks to be out at least until a couple of weeks after the All-Star break with a Grade 2 shoulder sprain.

In his first game this year, Black gave up only 4 hits to the Dodgers in five innings – and added his own double against Clayton Kershaw to the mix – but he took the loss when the Dodgers won 2-1. In his second game, against San Diego, he threw seven shutout innings but the Giants lost in extra innings, unable to acquire more than two runs on the day. So far Blach hasn’t been a strikeout pitcher, netting only three K’s in the two games he started, but he’s had terrific control.

 

USATSI

Starter Jeff Samardzija has come through, too. In his most recent game, he pitched eight innings, allowed two hits, and struck out 11. He didn’t get the win, but at least the Giants scored three runs in the 11th inning to beat the Dodgers.

So the problem, as I said, isn’t with starting pitching, and to blame all the Giants losses on the bullpen would do the relievers a disservice.

I think the major challenge for the Giants is power.

In April, the team had the lowest number of home runs in the National League at 16. They also had two or fewer extra-base hits in 14 of their games last month.

 

Left fielder Jarrett Parker, who doesn’t necessarily hit for average but can put balls over the fence, was badly injured early in the regular season and isn’t going to come back anytime soon.

 

Catcher Buster Posey has, let’s face it, lost much of his power over the past few years. His average has held fairly steady, but his home run total has dropped from his high of 24 in 2012 to last year’s total of 14. So far this season he’s swatted two. And he’s hit only three doubles. (In 2016, he hit a total of 33.)

 

Right fielder Hunter Pence also has only two doubles this year.

 

At least second baseman Joe Panik, hitting .293, has smacked five doubles, a triple, and a home run. That’s something.

 

First baseman Brandon Belt has displayed the most clout. He has four homers, seven doubles, and a triple so far this year. Giants fans have been waiting for a power breakout from him for a few years now, and maybe 2017 will bring that hope to fruition.

 

Michael Morse, brought back from baseball’s limbo, swung the bat mightily in the Spring, got injured, and then hit a critical home run in his first regular game with the Giants. He looks like Babe Ruth out there, and he’s a real motivator, but so-so defense and a low batting average don’t make him much of a savior for the Giants.

 

That leads us to The Great Young Hope – rookie Christian Arroyo, who’s hitting only .239 but in 10 games already has three homers and six RBIs under his belt, along with some stellar defense at third base. He’s only 21 years old, but he already has great baseball smarts and can work a pitcher into the ground. Assuming he only improves in the big leagues, he might be a small part of what the Giants need – provided he begins to log the occasional double or triple.

 

But they need more guys with a big bat. Pitchers can only do so much.

Boys by the Bay 04/25/17

boysbybay

You certainly couldn’t count the Giants’ 2017 travails on one hand:

 

  • Patrick Tehan/Bay Area News Group

    Patrick Tehan/Bay Area News Group

    The team is in last place.

  • As of Tuesday morning they are 7-13.
  • Their opening-season record hasn’t been this bad since 1983.
  • Their pitching staff has the worst ERA in the major leagues.
  • Jarrett Parker – really their only hope in left field – broke his collarbone in an at-the-wall grab and won’t be back anytime soon.
  • Center fielder Denard Span sprained his shoulder, also in a collision with a wall, and ended up on the DL.
  • Backup infielder/outfielder Aaron Hill just went on the DL with a strained forearm.
  • Backup centerfielder Gorkys Hernandez is hitting .108.
  • Left-handed reliever Will Smith – possibly the best lefty in the bullpen – didn’t even make it out of spring training before he was diagnosed with a need for Tommy John surgery.
  • And horror of all horrors, Madison Bumgarner, their ace, was involved in a dirt bike accident and injured his ribs and his pitching shoulder badly enough that it may be months before he returns. Even then, his effectiveness could be in question.

 

I think, though, that someone wearing rose-colored glasses could find one positive aspect to Bumgarner’s absence.

 

Ty Blach gets a start on Tuesday.

 

Rick Scuteri-USA TODAY Sports

Rick Scuteri-USA TODAY Sports

Initially, the 26-year-old left-hander was assumed to be a potential replacement for starter Matt Cain. Cain’s last good year was in 2012, when he went 16-5 with a 2.79 ERA and pitched a perfect game to boot. But since then “The Horse” has had four rough seasons battling a host of arm troubles including bone chips and cysts, and in 2016 he won only 4 games and finished with a 5.64 ERA. Still, because management wanted to accord him the respect they felt he deserved after 12 years with the Giants, the majority of which were solid, they named him as the fifth starter for the 2017 season and figured that Blach could well end up being a replacement if necessary.

 

Blach has been patiently sitting in the bullpen. He’s pitched 5.2 innings of relief and struck out two, with a 4.76 ERA and a 1.06 WHIP.

 

Last year, he came up at the end of the year after a 14-7 season in AAA Sacramento and started two games for the Giants. In his second start, on the penultimate day of the season, he threw a shutout over eight innings against the Dodgers and Clayton Kershaw, which of course endeared him firmly to Giants fans. And he topped off his triumph by getting two hits! He also allowed no runs in two relief appearances in the Division Series.

 

The thing is, Cain has not pitched badly in his four starts for the Giants this year. He has two wins and a 2.42 ERA – the lowest in the Giants rotation. His fastball may have decreased from 95 down to 89 or 90, but it’s still effective and he’s got a great changeup. Last night he had a terrific start against the Dodgers, exiting with hamstring tightness after throwing 70 pitches and allowing 1 run in 6 innings.

 

But whether Matt does or doesn’t falter at some point – ominously, that same hamstring sent him to the bench last year – there may be another need for Blach as a starter this year. Bunmgarner’s injuries might take a bigger toll than anticipated. Or Matt Moore or Jeff Samardzija, both of whom are prone to erratic outings, may stumble down the stretch. Or, with the way the Giants’ luck is going, Johnny Cueto might well sprain his lumbago during one of his trademark mound gyrations.

 

We need another starter in the wings.

 

So I, for one, am looking forward to watching Blach on the mound tonight. He’ll be facing Kershaw again. A repeat performance would be just delicious.

Boys by the Bay 04/15/17

boysbybay

Something’s gotta change – and soon – in left field for the Giants.

 

The Giants jettisoned left fielder Angel Pagan and backup outfielder Gregor Blanco after the 2016 season ended, and left field has been a haven for underperformers ever since.

 

Blanco was let go because his previously reliable offensive numbers tanked in 2016. He ended the year batting .224, although over his four preceding seasons with the team he’d hit .264 with 18 homers and 69 stolen bases. And certainly, as it turns out, the Giants have no regrets, because he’s now on a minor-league contract with the Arizona Diamondbacks after having suffered an oblique injury.

 

Paul Kitagaki Jr., AP

Paul Kitagaki Jr., AP

Pagan actually had a decent year in 2016 after being intermittently plagued with injuries throughout the previous three seasons. A switch-hitter, he batted .277 last year and played in 129 games. I don’t know what management’s concerns were about him. It could have been his age (35), his propensity toward injury, or even his seeming lack of camaraderie with the other guys in the dugout. Maybe his annoying habit of saluting every time he got a hit turned them off.

 

It could be, too, that Giants execs were hoping to groom a home-grown guy for the position. With the exception of third base, the team’s infielders have all come straight from the Giants farm clubs.

 

So, management pinned their hopes on their two homies, Jarrett Parker and Mac Williamson, whom they intended to platoon in left. But Williamson injured his quad in Spring Training – a problem he dealt with last year as well.

 

No problem – Michael Morse could be available to step in. Morse had played for the Giants in 2014, hitting .279, slugging 16 homers, and tying game 5 of the NLDS with an 8th-inning pinch-hit home run. Not officially retired, he was coaxed by general manager Bobby Evans in the offseason to try to come back and make the club. He’s not a defensive standout, so he’s probably better at first base than in left field, but he had a decent Spring – that is, until he pulled a hamstring. So he’s back in limbo-land now, most likely cursing the gods every day because he was THIS CLOSE to making the roster this year.

 

Neither Morse nor Williamson has been able to get into a game in extended Spring training yet.

 

Enter Chris Marrero, a nonroster invitee who’d mainly bounced around in the minors over the last five years. He clobbered 8 home runs and 8 doubles in the Spring, and because three of his homers were ninth-inning game-winners, he seemed to be a surprise ray of hope.

 

But players with unusually hot Springs often fizzle out, and sure enough, Marrero has been no exception. As of this writing the right-hander has a grand total of one hit this season.

 

Parker, meanwhile, has shown only a modicum of promise. Or make that a scintilla of promise. He’s batting .150, with 3 hits in 20 at-bats. Last year, in 63 at-bats for the Giants, he at least hit .236 with 5 homers and 14 RBIs.

 

And Gorkys Hernandez, who typically subs in center field when Denard Span is being rested against lefties, is hitting .080.

 

Gad!

The problem is, right now the Giants really don’t have anyone game-ready who can do any better.

 

Because they’re in a bit of a desperate spot, the Giants have now acquired outfield veterans Melvin (formerly B.J.) Upton and Drew Stubbs, both of whom will be trying to work their way through and out of the minors.

 

I have a soft spot in my heart for Drew Stubbs because the man has some speed and, when I picked him up for the last game of my fantasy league one year because the only way I could beat the usual winner was to eke out a victory in stolen base stats, Stubbs came through, stole a base, and made me league champion. The 32-year-old center fielder has always been a great base-stealer and hit his share of home runs but also struck out an inordinate number of times – 205 times in 2011 alone. After about six years playing in the majors for four different teams, finishing with an overall .244 average, he’s been bouncing around in the minors since 2015. He’s played in one game at AAA Sacramento as of this writing, and he went hitless in four at-bats, striking out three times. Sigh.

 

Melvin Upton is also 32 years old, is also a great base-stealer, and, like Stubbs, played for four different teams before coming to the Giants system. While with his initial team the Tampa Bay Rays, on at least three different occasions he was confronted by either his coach or his teammates about laziness on the field. Generally the Giants try to steer clear of guys who don’t have a good reputation in the clubhouse, but Upton’s infractions were seven or more years ago, so maturity may have changed his habits since then. The bigger problem may be that in the 57 games he played in 2016 with his last team, the Blue Jays, he hit .196. He did hit 20 homers and steal 27 bases during the full 2016 season, however, so he still has power and speed, and his defense has always been good. For now, though, he’s still playing in extended Spring Training.

 

 Eric Risberg, Associated Press

Eric Risberg, Associated Press

So, the Giants are in a pickle. Even if he starts hitting, Parker is still notoriously ineffective against lefties, so he has to be platooned. Marrero and Hernandez are out of options, and the Giants might be skittish about losing them on waivers unless Stubbs or Upton shows tremendous promise in the minors.

 

My guess is that the Giants stick with Parker a while longer. Or maybe they can send him down to the minors at some point to unlearn his penchant for undulating in the batter’s box like a snake on acid. Maybe if he stayed still enough, he wouldn’t be so late with his timing. And maybe he could manage those low, big-league curveballs a little better.

Boys by the Bay 04/10/17

boysbybay

Diamonds are Forever

 

“Son of a BITCH!!!”

 

Well, how odd. That was the entire, precise Facebook message, including caps and exclamation points, that suddenly appeared on my new smartphone at 3:15 p.m. on October 3, 2014.

 

Now I just had to figure out why in the world my friend Mona, whom I hadn’t seen in a few years, had sent a message out of the blue shouting “son of a bitch!” at me without so much as a greeting or an explanation. How does one respond to such a thing? What did it mean?

 

Mona and I had gotten to know each other back in the 1980s, when she decided to sponsor my softball team. Other than my move to San Francisco in the 1970s, that team was the single most significant influence in my life. The lessons I learned, and the powerful friendships I made, informed my life’s course at a time when I most needed direction. And I have been blissfully bound in the mesh of those relationships, filament by filament, ever since.

 

As time went by, after Mona married and had a couple of children, we’d just naturally lost touch for a few years. She and I are very different in a million ways. She owned the first female-run network telecommunications company in the country and has been a serial entrepreneur ever since. She’s energetic, gregarious, and progressive. I’m more reticent and conservative, and I prefer the back of the stage rather than the front. She has a warm voice and a beautiful crinkly smile and she wears her feelings on her sleeve, while mine are often deeply concealed. But at our essence we’re both passionate and emotional, culturally similar. And as with all old friends, the bonds between us have abided.

 

Anyway, that October afternoon I was glued to the television watching a baseball game. When the “son of a bitch” message popped up, I’d been digging around in a wooden bowl for old maids. You know what they are – those partially popped kernels of popcorn at the bottom of the bowl that are so crunchy and satisfying. I’d just finished eating a sports meal, or at least my definition of one. A Paula Bocciardi sports meal consists of three items: a hot dog, popcorn, and a beer. I prefer Hebrew Nationals, Pop Secret Homestyle, and Sam Adams Boston Lager.

 

As I sat on the couch, crunching on the last of those old maids, I racked my brain for some kind of meaning to Mona’s expletive. At first I figured it was a mistake. Maybe she hadn’t meant to send it at all. And why no explanation? Did she really expect me to understand what she meant, especially since we hadn’t spoken in so long? It must have been meant for someone else. Maybe she was sitting in a boardroom somewhere, seething about something, and she’d fired off the message to the wrong person.

 

 Chuck Solomon /Sports Illustrated/Getty Images

Chuck Solomon /Sports Illustrated/Getty Images

But then I started laughing. I figured it out. It was right in front of my eyes. I was watching game 1 of baseball’s Division Series between the San Francisco Giants and the Washington Nationals. The Giants were ahead 3-0 going into the 7th inning when coach Bruce Bochy pulled out starting pitcher Jake Peavy – who had a shutout going – and brought in the ever-erratic reliever Hunter Strickland, who allowed back-to-back homers by Bryce Harper (whom I loathe anyway) and Asdrubal Cabrera.

 

It was after the homer by Cabrera, when the score was suddenly 3-2, that Mona flew into a baseball rage and messaged me.

 

The beauty of the whole thing was the fact that someone knew me well enough to correctly assume what I was doing at a particular moment in time. And to assume that I would know exactly what she was talking about, despite the years since we’d last talked. Within seconds we had effortlessly relinked ourselves. That kind of friendship is a precious gift.

 

***

 

I probably have hundreds of ballpark memories, but my most cherished are those that were shared with friends whose hearts beat with the same love of sports. In the first season the new Giants ballpark was open, tickets were nearly impossible to get, but my good friend Julie and I developed an elaborate scheme to score some seats, part of which involved my cozying up to a workmate whose boyfriend had season tickets. Armed with a couple of his unwanted seats, Julie and I went to our first day game at what is now AT&T Park on June 14, 2000. What made that day almost unrivaled in San Francisco history is that the temperature was 103 degrees. For San Francisco, that means you have practically entered the gates of Hell.

 

In any case, Julie and I were not to be deterred from seeing that game. We were intrepid sports fans and we were not going to let the heat get to us, even if we boiled to death. Our seats were, of course, in the blazing sun; they were very close to the field, along the third base line. We endured the conditions as long as we could, but after an hour and a half, with sweat cascading off of us, we decided that our hearts were racing dangerously fast and we needed to seek shade. Only when we turned around did we realize that no one else in the stadium was sitting in the sun. And I mean no one. It was 111 degrees on the field, we had heard, and I believe that we were possibly close to death at that point. Plus we hadn’t had a thing to eat; as Julie later said, “My mouth was so dry I couldn’t swallow.”
The fans, it seemed – at least, those who were still there – had crowded into any empty spots they could find in the shade. There was very little shade left for us, but we eventually managed to spot four seats under an overhang, and we quickly grabbed two of them. Shortly afterwards, however, along came the season-ticket seat owner. He was with only one companion, so we asked him if we could use his other two seats. It was then that we realized that he was drunk as a loon. He was stumbling and slurring, his zipper was half-down(!), and he declared that we could use his seats only if Julie gave him a hug! (She ended up being the one next to him, thank God.) So the typically reticent Julie had to close her eyes and reluctantly hug him. It was hard for me to control my laughter, and at the same time I was utterly relieved that he wasn’t sitting next to me. Anyway, whenever the Giants did something good, he would sort of put his arm around Julie, but she was sweating so much that he would then draw it back in revulsion. He did this repeatedly because he kept forgetting that he’d tried it earlier! Luckily, he left before the game was over and we were able to enjoy the rest of the afternoon baking in peace.

 

Whenever either of us recalls that game, we burst out laughing. It’s just a funny, funny memory that can never be replicated.

 

***

 

Temperatures exceeding 100 degrees at AT&T Park are, as one might expect, rare. In my estimation, the ballpark had to have been designed by a meteorological genius, because no matter how chilly and windy the San Francisco days and nights might be, inside the park it’s usually fairly temperate, as if you’ve entered another town altogether. The team’s former stadium, of course, was Candlestick Park, which was not so temperate and had a worldwide reputation for its blustery, howling winds. Longtime rumors have it that Giants pitcher Stu Miller was blown clear off the mound there during the 1961 All-Star game. Witnesses agree. Miller, though, claimed that he merely “waved like a tree” in the sudden gust.

 

In any case, my favorite Candlestick wind story was not Miller’s. My friend Erlinda and I were there for one of the rescheduled 1989 World Series games, and she told me about an acquaintance who had brought a little boy to the park for his very first game. When it was over, the boy gushed about what a great time he’d had, and she asked him what his favorite part of the game was.

 

“The flying napkins,” he answered.

 

***

 

Another only-in-San Francisco moment of a totally different nature came during a game in August of 2002. Barry Bonds hit his 600th homer that night. Julie and I were sitting in a good seat down the third-base line. A yo-yo sitting in the row on front of us, and slightly to the right, was constantly standing up and blocking my view of home plate. I could have stood up, too, but then I would have been obstructing the people behind me. It was very frustrating, and these two young guys beside me asked me if I could see. “Not at all,” I said glumly. They were peeved on my behalf. They shouted to the guy a polite request to please sit down, but he belligerently told them that he was going to do what he damned well pleased.

 

Their furious San Francisco response? “Well, that’s not very mature!!”

 

The next day, I ran the situation by my friend Carl – a Yankee fan and consummate New Yorker. I asked him what would have happened had a similar situation occurred at Yankee Stadium. His answer was that the scenario would have progressed thusly:

 

Man stand up and blocks people’s view.

Someone: “Down in front!”

Man does nothing.

Someone else: “Hey! Sit the f— down!”

Man does nothing.

A fight ensues and the man gets beat up.

 

***

 

These days, I still go by myself go to all the Giants weekday afternoon games. I’m a loner, so that’s just fine with me. But sharing the games with others is so much better.

Last year, Mona treated me to a seat at the ballpark on Opening Day against the Dodgers. When Hunter Pence hit his grand slam, I believe I actually crawled up Mona’s arm. She paid me no mind. She also participated in one of my fantasy leagues last year, drafting an all-Latino team as her “strategy.” It was not a particularly successful strategy, but I wished I’d thought of it nevertheless.

 

***

 

My mother became a hardcore Giants fan in her later years, and I took her to a handful of games at AT&T Park, where she always insisted on having a glass of (bad) red wine with her crab sandwich on sourdough. She thought Brandon Crawford was a hunk. Those are some of my most beautiful memories.

 

During the 2012 playoffs, Mom was in the hospital recovering from cancer surgery, so we watched the Division Series together in her hospital room. When Buster Posey hit his grand slam against the Cincinnati Reds in game 5, we tried to maintain quiet and dignity so as not to disturb the other patients on the floor. Then we heard the whoops erupting from the other rooms and echoing along the hallways.

 

***

 

Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

When the San Francisco Giants finally won the World Series in 2010, it was their first title since they’d arrived in the city in 1958. A lifelong fan, I wept for three days after that Series. My emotions partially sprang from the happiness I felt for the ragtag group of players who pulled off that improbable victory – especially for Andres Torres and Cody Ross, good-natured and grateful guys who had been put out to pasture until the Giants picked them up. But mostly I cried for the fulfillment of my 50 years of hope and longing.

 

That night Julie and I took the bus down to the Civic Center, where a celebration was brewing. But it turned out to be mostly a bunch of drunken college girls who may or may not have had any idea how the game of baseball is even played. We came home quickly, dejected. But the next day I was listening to Gary Radnich, one of my favorite Bay Area sports show hosts, on the radio. And he launched into a speech about how the lingering euphoria in the air was most decidedly not for the youngsters. It was not for the bandwagoners. It was not for the casual fan. It was, he said, for the battle-scarred veterans. Like me.

 

***

 

People wax poetic about baseball all the time, and they often talk about the concept of renewal. Spring Training is a metaphor for that. It’s a way for the team to rebuild and refresh itself, and for the fans to revive their sense of optimism for the coming months. Everything starts all over again. I look at friendship that way. Sometimes it waxes and sometimes it wanes, but it can always be renewed. The ties, they bind.

 

The Giants take the field at AT&T Park today for their 2017 home opener. The ticket prices were just ridiculous, so Mona and I decided to go to a sports bar instead and watch the game from there. It’ll be the two of us, then, throwing back some Boston Lagers and cheering our way through a 3-hour ballgame, tethered gently by 30 years of friendship and the beautiful, delicate filaments of memory.