26 August 2009

The End of the Beginning of the End

Took a long time to write this one up. I wanted to be sure I didn’t taint my words with hatred and frustration, so I gave it a day. My head’s still sore, but at least now my hands aren’t shaking too much to type...

Friday, August 21st
Giants 6, Rockies 3

WP: J. Sanchez (6-10); LP: Cook (10-6)
HR: SF - Rowand (11); COL - Smith (10)

This is the Facebook status I posted in the hours after this game:

Butch Husky is ceaselessly amazed at the ability of his baseball club to rebound from potentially morale-crushing defeats to win absolutely crucial games.

I stand by that emotion. Chalk it up to the ignorance of youth or the influence of a core of seasoned vets or the steady hand of “The Shaman,” but this team knows how to forget quickly the events of the past and focus on the present. This makes a lot of sense since it closely resembles approach of many Giants at the plate: thinking only of this pitch, the game within a game and nothing more.

How I wish we could have one without the other! The slow burn of the baseball season and the endless string of statistics it produces have the tendency to overwhelm the mind, to make it race when it should be still, to make mental mountains out of mole hills. A short memory is critical to a successful team.

But inside the batter’s box is not the time or place for short memories. Hitting a 95 mph baseball is hard enough when you’re not wearing blinders. To be successful at the fundamentals of hitting is to possess an healthy awareness of the situation: inning, number of outs, runners on which bases, your history with this pitcher, time of day, time of year, your team’s place in the standings, oh yeah, and the score.

You can see all of those factors running across the backs of the eyes of players like Freddy Sanchez, guys who can place a ball like they’re shooting trick shots on a billiards table. The Giants don’t have a lot of those guys, and they don’t even have Sanchez for the time being. But I can’t hate. The man apologized to the fans for being hurt. Ever heard of that before?

Regardless, someway, somehow, this group of guys manages to stay right there in the Hunt for October. (God, if you’re out there and you have any say in it at all, please don’t let Fox bring back those horrendously annoying Dane Cook commercials.)

Give a game ball to Aaron Rowand, who seems to be catching one of those waves he rides to the .300 mark just often enough to make it worthwhile to keep him in the lineup. If you’ve got one left, hand it to Jonathan Sanchez, who’s 2-1 with a 2.25 ERA in four August starts, with both wins coming on the road.

I’m gonna throw a curve tonight and flip the script in honor of Jeremy “Soul Patch” Affeldt...

Quote of the Night
"When he hit it back to me, I'm going to say I was probably more overwhelmed with joy than anything else. That guy, I have a lot of respect for him as a hitter, as a man, as a player of the game. I'm glad I won that one." - Affeldt, on getting former batting champ Todd Helton to ground into a 1-2-3 double play with the bases loaded in the bottom of the seventh
Stat of the Night
Affeldt’s 16 induced double plays are the most of any reliever in the game.
Saturday, August 22nd
Rockies 14, Giants 11

WP: De La Rosa (12-8); LP: Miller (2-2)
HR: SF - Schierholtz (5), Garko 2 (13), Rowand (12), Sandoval (19); COL - Stewart (19), Helton (12)

This year’s version of your San Francisco Giants haven’t had many five-run leads, and they certainly haven’t come out of the gates like this against a top-of-the-line starter who hadn’t lost in 11 straight decisions and always seemed to give them fits. But that was precisely the case right around the time everything fell apart in this game, and this series.

I understand that it’s Coors Field, but after a while, it becomes like Chinatown, more of an attitude of fear than a truly frightening place. After all, this is only baseball, and these are only the Rockies, and they’re not perfect at home (their 33-24 record ranks 5th in the National League). Remember that team that lost all 13 of its games against the Braves in its inaugural season of 1993 when one victory would have dropped Atlanta into a tie with the Giants atop the division, triggering a one-game playoff that might have helped us all forget the name Salomón Torres? No matter how many wins they rack up, how many unlikely Wild Card victories and N.L. pennants they collect, they’ll still be that po dung expansion team that’s never done us any favors.

If the current Giants had any concept of the history between these two clubs, they might fight a little harder to defeat them, might play these games as though this bunch of young cocky pricks were their true arch rival in the West, not that blue-wearing tribe from Echo Park. Instead, they roll over, and simply blaming poor pitching doesn’t hold water.

Joe Martinez is in over his head. He was never expected to make the team, let alone return this year from a gruesome line drive to the head, let alone start meaningful games down the stretch in the first playoff race by the Bay in three years (counting the A’s). Justin Miller has given his all this season and turned in a career effort, posting an ERA under 2.00 up until this shocking display of ineffectiveness. Merkin Valdez is still struggling to find himself and would never have found himself in this game had the pitchers before him maintained any semblance of a lead.

This is all beside the point that Bochy made it abundantly clear before game time that he would be forced to stick with his hurlers, even if they were getting lit up like the White House Christmas tree. This has already been a long, hard roadie, and even though one more victory would guarantee a winning trip, the pitching staff has been taxed by extra-inning nail biters and grinding at-bats from teams like the Mets and Reds trying to play out their seasons with a sense of dignity. One could easily look at Martinez and company as sacrificial lambs. This was the one game in the series the Giants could afford to lose.

But when you hit five homers and plate 11 runs, you expect to win, and even in the house of horrors that is Coors Field, there’s no one to blame but the pitching, right?

Stat of the Night
The Giants hadn’t hit five home runs in one game since August 7, 2006, when they hit six at the BOB (now Chase Field) in Arizona.
Quote(s) of the Night: A Tale of Two Managers
"This is a park where you can't just go get your pitcher any time. You have to be a little more patient. You'll go through your 'pen there real quick. Both sides have been using their 'pens. You've got to stay with them a little bit longer and hope they figure it out. I can't bail everybody out or I'm going to run out of pitchers." - Bruce “The Shaman” Bochy

"The team that I've been managing since the 29th of May showed up in about the fifth inning. I know the type of baseball team we've had since the end of May, and for the first game and a half of this series, it wasn't that team. But the last half of this game, it is the team that I've been managing." - Rockies manager Jim Tracy, quite the little prognosticator
Sunday, August 23rd
Rockies 4, Giants 2

WP: Jimenez (12-9); LP: Lincecum (12-4); S: Street (33)
HR: SF - Renteria (3); COL - Smith (11)

There’s a pattern developing here, and it’s one the Giants would be wise to avoid in Monday’s series finale: The starting staff shuts down a potent Rockies offense for one or two trips through the lineup, and just when the starter is losing some juice and the bullpen is primed to take the reins, suddenly the Colorado bats come to life and everything goes to hell in a Rocky Mountain minute — not quite as fast as the New York variety, but close. (See the above Jim Tracy quote from the previous night.)

Today’s victim was Tim Lincecum, who has given just about everything he’s got to the Giants’ improbable run. But as the dog days wear on and the heat picks up, you can see Timmy’s fastball losing some life, you can see his tank run dry just a little earlier than usual. He’s never done particularly well against the Rockies, and the mile-high air does absolutely nothing to help his breaking stuff or his endurance, but this is still the reigning N.L. Cy Young Award winner, and gosh darn it, we expect him to go out there every time and shut things down. We expect him to stop the bleeding started by the fifth starter. We expect him to be lights out, every time. And even though his peripherals are still well above average, he has not been the same lights-out Timmy that we’ve come to know and love.

This time out, he was likely done in by Bochy’s hesitation to tax his relievers. It was obvious Lincecum was on his last legs in the seventh, clinging to a one-run lead in a park that generates a fair amount of crooked numbers. But Bochy stuck with him to face the lefty Seth Smith, even though lefty Jeremy Affeldt was primed and ready in the Giants ‘pen. That’s not to say things would’ve turned out differently if Affeldt had entered the game to pitch to Smith. There’s a reason Bochy was hesitant to make the change, after all. Affeldt had also lost a bit of the dominance we’ve come to expect this season, and he’s been worked a lot. Best to squeeze as many outs out of every arm you’ve got and try to win games one batter at a time. It’s good managerial training for the playoffs, when one batter — one pitch — can change the entire landscape of a series.

That the best laid plans of mice and the Shaman fell awry this time out is no reason to condemn the philosophy. After all, I’d take Tim Lincecum at 75% over just about any pitcher in baseball at 100%, especially a specialist lefty out of the bullpen, no matter what kind of numbers they’re putting up. But there’s no way to deny that this loss hurts.

The Giants have held an early lead in every game in this series, but they’re still one up and two down with one more to go. At three games out, this is the largest deficit they’ve faced since the middle of May and certainly since it became trendy to talk about the Wild Card “Division.” With a victory on Monday, the G-Men would make the series a wash and end the most grueling road trip of this or any season with a winning record. They’re been turning the other cheek all season, and now more than ever they need to keep their memories short and their fly balls long.

Butch’s Btw

Major props are due to Juan Uribe, who made the play of the game while riding the pine.

Stat of the Day
Edgar Renteria accounted for both Giants runs with an opposite field shot into the right field bullpen in the top of the second. It was his first home run since April 24 at Arizona, a span of 342 at-bats.
Quote of the Day
"I know sometimes that's what things do here. Balls do weird things, and the changeup was left up and it cut right back to his bat." - Lincecum on the decisive home run he served up to Seth Smith in the bottom of the seventh
Monday, August 24th
Rockies 6, Giants 4 (14)

WP: Eaton (3-5); LP: Miller (2-3)
HR: COL - Spilborghs (7)

There’s this funny ass scene in a Mamet flick called “State and Main.” Alec Baldwin plays a spoiled Hollywood actor run amok on a small town location shoot. Late one night, he gets drunk, picks up an underage girl, and flips his car in the middle of Main Street, right in front of Phil Hoffman, who plays the screenwriter. Baldwin’s character climbs out of the car, bloodied but not broken, turns to Hoffman and smiles...

“Well, that happened,” is all he says before walking calmly away from the scene.

When Ryan Spilborghs’ hope-crushing grand slam landed in the Rockies bullpen around midnight in Denver, two things flashed across my mind:

The first was standing in the living room of an old bandmate who happened to be from L.A., watching the Giants blow a three-run lead at Chavez Ravine in the second-to-last game of the 2004 season. I didn’t speak a word to another living soul for days after Steve Finley’s season-ending grand slam put us in our coffin. Watching another team celebrate a victory they didn’t earn — a victory my team handed to them on a silver platter with a side of caviar — is always a moment of such pain that it cuts right to my very core and chills my soul. It’s easier to accept defeat when you’ve simply run into a better team.

The second image that came to mind was that Baldwin line after the car wreck. I felt like Julia Stiles, who played the underage girl riding shotgun with Baldwin at the time of the crash. Up to then, she was having the time of her life, cruising her boring hometown where nothing ever happens, diddling with a handsome celebrity who had been the god of her idolotry — to borrow a line from Shakespeare’s Juliet. The world was a blooming flower, and anything was possible. But in an instant, everything came to a screeching halt in a mess of metal and smoke.

“Well,” I said to myself as I switched off the postgame show during the fifth or sixth replay of the walk-off winner, “that happened.”

Butch’s Btw

With all the pain and frustration erupting in the heart of Giants fans all across the country in the wake of this tremendous defeat, it would be very easy to forget that Brandon Medders very nearly earned himself an immortal place in the lore of our club. Had his line shot in the top of the 13th found a way to curl around the glove of Ian Stewart, the 14th-inning heroics of Eugenio Velez and the subsequent disaster might never have occurred. As it stands, Medders didn’t have the energy to finish the game, and his woulda-been line drive will linger in my mind far longer than Spilborghs’ slam.

And I’d be remiss if I failed to mention that Barry Zito continued his streak of dominance in the second half, allowing just an unearned run through six strong innings. Of course, if he hadn’t walked in that run, this game might have ended in regulation, but the what if’s from this game could drive a man to drink. Speaking of which, it’s about that time...

Stat of the Night
Prior to Velez’s two-run triple in the top of the 13th, the Giants had been 0-for-9 with runners in scoring position and had left 11 men on base.
Quote(s) of the Night: ‘Cause you can’t say enough about this one
"I told Adam Eaton that if they walked Tulowitzki, don't swing. I don't care if he throws three right down the middle, don't swing because I want Spilborghs to have a shot with the bases loaded. If Justin Miller throws three pitches for strikes, [Eaton would have] struck out. But we're not going to let him take a swing and hit a ground ball and end the game." - Rockies manager Jim Tracy

"It almost hurts sometimes when you're in the 14th inning and you're up by three. That intense focus that you've had every inning with zero margin of error, now you could say that you have a huge margin of error and you let a team in the door and they blow it wide open." - Zito
Series debrief

Time will tell if this series marked the start of something miraculous or the beginning of the end. A cynic would lean toward the latter. Who am I to disagree?

All I know is:

• Once again this team came out the night after a horrendous loss and managed to scrape out a win by the skin of the popcorn kernel wedged between their front teeth. They just refuse to let the season die, and if they’re not giving up, neither am I.

• They still have six games with the Rockies, all of them at 24 Willie Mays Plaza, a place that has not lacked for miracles this season. They also play 22 of the final 37 at home.

• The Hated Ones are falling apart in an even bigger way than the Giants. They rallied last night to force extra innings at Coors, but the Rocks eventually pulled out another walk-off win that put them within two games of first place. The Giants trail the Dodgers by 6, and the way things are trending, they may soon be chasing the Blue Crew in the “Wild Card Division.”

Let's go Giants!

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