Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Still unreal: The Giants win the pennant

There was no way I was going to write on this game last night. As spectacular as every moment of the Game 7 was, it was all a messy hodgepodge by the time I got back to my house, like the infield dirt of AT&T Park or the carpet in the clubhouse following the champagne celebration. There wasn’t one defining moment in that game; instead, being in China Basin was one big party from the 3rd inning on, with all 43,000-plus attendees patiently awaiting the grand finale.

Is there anything more poetic that baseball? The skies opened up in the 9th inning and set up a cinematic finish to a spectacular series. Game 2 provided the underlying story line in Matt Holliday’s slide, so everyone knew what had to be the final out – an infield fly out (Mwa-ha-ha-ha-ha, irony) from the antagonist to the hero, effectively ending the Cardinal’s postseason run and sending 3rd and King into hysteria that it hasn’t seen since 2010.

I doubt if there is a place better than San Francisco in October. Aside from the torrential downpour last night (which was glorious, by the way), the weather is usually fantastic. (Thanks to global warming, perhaps) It’s rarely raining in the Bay Area in October, but instead clear with gorgeously colorful sunsets and a nip in the air that reminds you of sitting by a crackling fire or trick-or-treating as a kid. It’s nostalgic, and last night was without a doubt reminiscent of our childhoods and, perhaps more significant, a magical 2010 Fall for folks all over the Bay Area.

The last minute decision to be at the game molested my pockets, but it was so worth it:

- Sometimes god looks out for you, like when you break 17 traffic laws between Marin County and 2nd Street in San Francisco without seeing one cop. I left work about 10 minutes before first pitch and got to the left field bleachers by the bottom of the 2nd inning.

- There aren’t many feelings better than screaming like a mental patient at your car radio, then looking left to see the guy in the car next to you fist pumping in approval. That happened about five times on Van Ness last night.

- 40 dollars to park seven blocks away!?!?!? Whatever, worth it.

- During the regular season, the bleachers are a pretty annoying place to sit, but during the postseason, there isn’t a better place to be. Big shouts to the blackout-drunk guy in front of us with a nonfunctional wrist, smacking my buddy in the face with his rally towel all night long.

- Matt Holliday needs a DNA test, because the left field bleachers are officially his daddy. That was the most relentless heckling I’ve ever been a part of, and the struggle for Holliday was very real.

- Standing out in the bleachers, looking up into the sky and catching raindrops in my mouth made me feel like I was seven again. If I didn’t save my ticket from every sporting event, I would have made last night's into a boat and floated down a gutter for old time's sake.

- God bless the extra sweatshirt I left in my car, or else I may have driven home shirtless. I was soaked through and probably on the verge of catching pneumonia, but I haven’t felt that good in a long, long time.

- Even after an elbow injury ended his season, Brian Wilson has still been fantastic for the Giants. He’s a great presence in the clubhouse and dugout, not to mention he’s good for a .GIF, oh, I don’t know, everytime a camera is nearby.

-That being said, Sergio Romo has fully taken over that role of “the closer that makes everyone in the park go nuts.”

- The pitching staff may not be what it was in 2010 or 2011, but they were absolutely nails when the Giants needed them. It all started with Barry Zito, and it probably will for Game 1 of the World Series too. Imagine that.

- Hugging complete strangers is only acceptable on nights like last night.

And that’s why this city is amazing. No matter how decidedly pro-Cardinals Joe Buck is, even he couldn’t concede in his broadcasts that there is a better setting for postseason baseball than San Francisco. AT&T Park is a sparkling example of how a city and a team can work together to build a magnificent ballpark and rejuvenate an area at the same time. The Giants' fan base is an example of how a city – hell, an entire region – can come together, regardless of their differences, and celebrate a common bond. The team on the field is proof that heart and hard work pay off, though there’s still work to be done. Tomorrow we’ll turn our attention to the Tigers, but today we all wake up, decidedly hoarse, and relish in the magic that is Giants baseball.

Friday, October 19, 2012

Giants playoffs make fans completely lose their minds, create #RallyZito

Okay, so this is why Twitter is so much fun. Anybody checked out Facebook lately? Me neither. It's probably filled with a bunch of political status updates, pictures of puppies lying in beds of flowers and people posting on Lil Wayne's wall urging him to donate money to a charity if the post gets 200,000 likes. Twitter is the place to be right now, especially if you're a Giants fan looking for cheap entertainment while you anxiously prepare for the team's possible elimination. 

I'll be accepting the award for "strangest season in the history of baseball" on Barry Zito's behalf, and the first person I'd like to thank is whoever came up with the idea of #RallyZito avatars last night. I'm sure it started somewhere in that circle of Giants fan tweeps that frequently bitch about anything from Brandon Belt's body language to Hank Schulman's loathing for advanced statistics. Either way, it was brilliant and it caught on like wildfire. I don't check "What's Trending" very often because most of the time it's filled with topics like "Why she ratchet" or "10 reasons why I miss my ex," but the fact that #RallyZito has been trending for over 12 hours shows just how daffy Giants fans have truly gone.

It had to be Zito.

How boring would changing our avatars be if we were depending on Madison Bumgarner to stave off elimination? The only awesome picture of MadBum that exists on the interweb is that one of him holding a penguin and @GiantsNirvana has been rocking that for at least a year, maybe longer. #RallyZito has been made possible by the fact that somehow the guy has had more embarrassing pictures taken of him than any celebrity in recent memory, and ALL of them ended up in the Google image vault. Here are a few of my favorites:

Okay, I just found that last one and I'm not gonna lie, it's the most amazing of them all. If you're looking for added entertainment, go ahead and search #ReplaceSongLyricsWithBarryZito and ReplaceMovieQuotesWithBarryZito on Twitter.

"You had me at 'Zito.'"

Quite frankly, I'm completely sick of writing about Zito. I started off this season comparing him to Alex Smith and basically rode that out for the entirety of his lucky year, where batters constantly made loud contact and somehow hit it right to his defense. Then I covered one of his starts in a press box and he almost pitched a complete game shutout. Now we'll all sit back and watch him attempt to play the stopper in his second straight elimination start in two weeks - a game he'll probably win.

Regardless of how he plays, one thing is for certain: my assertion that San Francisco fans are forgiving creatures has pretty much proven to be true. Is this entire #RallyZito movement coated in sarcasm and the kind of nervous laughter that is usually heard in the 5150 ward? Absolutely. But somehow, someway, we've all learned to love Barry Zito - win, lose, or no decision.

Friday, September 21, 2012

Melky Cabrera, the batting title and MLB's vivid imagination

Melky Cabrera seemed to be aboard a runaway train towards winning the NL batting title until Andrew Baggarly of CSN Bay Area broke the news that he has been ruled ineligible to win the award. Giants fans may be happy about the decision for two reasons: One, Cabrera winning the batting crown would have been yet another reason to ridicule a team whose history has the clear rubbed all over it, and two, this now gives Buster Posey an outside chance to catch up and win the title himself.

But the true result of this batting paradox is an endless back and forth over the minutia of statistics, rules and traditionalism. Sometimes following Major League Baseball feels like being in a really strict math class where everyone is expected to solve trigonometry questions with an abacus or else they’ll get beaten with a ruler. I digress.

Two types of people read this blog (I hope people read this blog, anyway): Those who follow me on Twitter and friends or family members that aren’t completely obsessed with sports like I am. The following is a breakdown of the situation for the latter group. If you already know the story, bear with me.

Why Melky could have won the award

Cabrera was hitting .346 at the time of his suspension, a batting average that remains the highest in the National League. At first it appeared that he was out of the running for a batting title because his 501 plate appearances were one short of the 502 that are required to win the award.

Of course the MLB has a rule for that. Of course they do.

Rule 10.22(a) states that if a player is short of the necessary plate appearances to win the award, and adding those plate appearances doesn’t lower their average enough to take them out of contention, then those plate appearances will be added. In laymen’s – Melky gets a free 0-fer, his plate appearances magically jump to 502, his batting average remains .346 and the batting title is his.

Why Melky won’t win the award

Cabrera actually reached out to Major League Baseball and asked to be removed from contention. Here is the statement that Cabrera made to the Associated Press:

''I ask the Players Association to take the necessary steps, in conjunction with the Office of the Commissioner, to remove my name from for the National League batting title. To be plain, I personally have no wish to win an award that would widely be seen as tainted, and I believe that it would be far better for the remaining contenders to compete for that distinction. So too, the removal of my name from consideration will permit me to focus on my goal of working hard upon my return to baseball so that I may be able to win that distinction in a season played in full compliance with league rules. To be plain, I plan to work hard to vindicate myself in that very manner.''

Commissioner Bud Selig is granting Cabrera’s public relations maneuver request, thus rule 10.22(a) will not be enacted on his behalf and the NL batting title is now a race between Andrew McCutchen (.339) and Buster Posey (.335).

Why this whole situation is completely absurd

Rule 10.22(a) exists for a pretty admirable reason. Tony Gwynn was on his way to winning his third straight batting title in 1996 but when all was said and done he was four plate appearances short of 502. They created the provision for Gwynn to win the award; he took an 0-for-4 and his average remained the highest. The reward was his. The added plate appearances are for players who lacked them due to shortened playtime or injury (but testosterone kept Melky relatively healthy, I’m sure). That same rule would have aided Cabrera in winning a tainted award, and yet some are outraged that the league is changing the rules in the middle of the game to avoid it.

But it’s true that the batting title isn’t actually an award – really, it’s a statistical fact. Even without him being crowned, his batting average will remain the highest in the NL. He who has the highest batting average in a minimum of 502 plate appearances wins the crown. If that’s true, then it is a statistical fact that Tony Gwynn didn’t have enough REAL LIFE plate appearances to be awarded in 1996. The same can be said for Melky Cabrera, who doesn’t have enough REAL LIFE plate appearances to be eligible for the award now.

Amendments will surely be made this offseason. Players who test positive for performance enhancing drugs will not be eligible for rule 10.22(a) or the batting title at all, most likely. But the real enemy here isn’t Bud Selig or Melky Cabrera or even PEDs. The real enemy is imagination, because without that, Melky’s 502nd plate appearance wouldn’t exist in the first place. 

Monday, September 17, 2012

49ers continue to flash their dominance in defeating Lions 27-19


Two weeks into the NFL’s 2012 season, and the 49ers have already won two games in which the score is no indicator of how dominant they’ve been. The 49ers beat the Lions 27-19 at Candlestick Park last night, but the game wasn’t nearly as close as the score indicates. Up until the waning moments of the fourth quarter the lions had only mustered four field goals. Had it not been for a deep completion to Calvin Johnson thanks to a missed offensive pass interference call, the Lions probably would have turned the ball over on downs and the game would have been over.
San Francisco will surely get a lot of credit from the media now. Several sports personalities, including Jim Rome and Michael Irvin (who predicted four touchdowns for Calvin Johnson last night), have become “believers” in Alex Smith. Everybody knows about the 49ers defense and their run game. But I want to talk about all aspects of the win last night, not just those “sexy” angles from ESPN.

Random bits of Ruthlessness

- Aldon Smith is a phenomenal pass rusher and he looked stout against the run, but watch for teams to exploit his inexperience in coverage during the course of the season. He looked really raw in coverage last night and gave up some big chunks of yardage on swing passes. With Parys Haralson out, the 49ers will need to coach Smith up quickly.

- Mario Manningham has quietly become one of the best additions this offseason. He split reps with Randy Moss last night and shined when the ball came his way. Three catches for 28 yards and a 29-yard pick up on a reverse are not too shabby for a guy who isn’t playing every down.

- How long is Randy Moss going to be cool with seeing such limited playing time and targets? He was only thrown to one time, so unless they’re planning on trying to get defenses to forget about him (and I don’t think they will), he’s been a non-factor so far.

- Delanie Walker is going to have to really step his game up. From memory, he has four drops on the season of easily catchable balls. He also got called for holding to negate a big Alex Smith run in the fourth quarter.

- Speaking of drops, Smith would probably have a completion percentage over 80 had it not been for receivers dropping balls. Last night’s game featured drops from Walker, Frank Gore, Michael Crabtree, Bruce Miller, Manningham and Vernon Davis. None were poorly thrown balls.

- Vernon Davis had another two touchdown catches last night. With so many weapons on the field, it’s going to be hard to key on Davis every play. He might just take his touchdown record back from Rob Gronkowski this year.

- People are calling it “the Moss effect”: Michael Crabtree is coming of age. He had three catches on the 49ers’ final touchdown drive, all for first downs. His hands look fantastic, his routes look clean. He could be in for a 90 catch, 1,000 yard season if he stays healthy.

- The 49ers have by far the most complete defense in the NFL. Fantasy owners are still sitting their running backs when they play the 49ers, and now they might want to sit their quarterbacks too. Kevin Smith had 53 yards on 16 carries, and Matt Stafford had under 200 yards passing and no touchdowns before the garbage time scoring drive. The defensive backfield looked better than ever – flying around, hitting hard and keeping yet another elite quarterback in check.

- Frank Gore is forever young. I wrote in the offseason about how Gore might have another productive season in response to fantasy experts that said players should stay away from the 29 year old back. The way he’s running right now, he might have even more than that left in the tank. He’s so patient, so savvy and so explosive when he hits the hole. He showed some ankle breaking cuts last night, and it seemed like every time he touched the ball he ran for a first down. He may not have the home run speed that he had in years past, but he definitely seems to be benefitting from Kendall Hunter.

- Anthony Davis might be one of the chippiest players on the 49ers. He got into it with the Lions’ Cliff Avril on Twitter following the game last season and dominated Avril last night. You’d like to see him put a muzzle on the extracurriculars during the game, but as long as he continues to keep Alex Smith clean it doesn’t really matter what his attitude is. Check out BASG's postgamer for some more hilarity from the guy who made #StopCohn possible.

- Alex Smith, Alex Smith, Alex freaking Smith. I don’t want to swoon too much, but I’ve got an unbelievable man crush on this guy. I used to feel like the whole “never had two years with the same offensive coordinator” excuse was a complete cop out; now I’m not so sure. Jim Harbaugh has done a fantastic job of coaching up Smith, who almost quarterbacked his way out of the NFL completely two years ago. Smith had a revival last year by being safe and getting the job done when he needed to, but Smith looks like a completely different quarterback in his first two games than he did last year. Don’t just watch the highlight reel on Sportscenter; check out every play that Alex Smith dropped back for on Sunday. He’s setting his feet, going through his progressions, showing pocket awareness and throwing accurate balls. He used to look like Colt McCoy dropping back. He’s starting to look like Tom Brady now.

If there’s one complaint I have about Alex it’s that he’s not looking downfield and finding the open receivers deep. That, of course, doesn’t matter if Smith is completing passes and moving the chains, but you’d like to see more big plays for this offense. Nevertheless, I’m going to go ahead and say it right now: he may not be recognized for it, but in terms of quarterback rating and completion percentage, Smith will be one of the top five quarterbacks in the league when all is said and done.

- One more thing: check out this dude photobombing Smith's postgame interview with NBC. I don’t know who you are, or how you got on the field, but I respect you, photobomber. You’ve got gusto. You’ve got swag.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

A closer look at Alex Smith's incompletions in Green Bay

Scott Warfe (East Bay Sports Guy) footed the bill for BASG writers to have access to NFL Rewind, an online package for watching any NFL game. I took the opportunity last night to rewatch the 49ers game, focusing on the offense, so I could see why San Francisco was so effective moving the ball.

One of the best parts about the package is the coach's film option: it allows you to see the whole field on every play instead of following the ball like the national broadcasts force you to. You can really understand how plays develop from that angle. I paid close attention to Alex Smith's pre-throw reads to better understand his decision making process.

Smith finished his day 20-26 for 211 yards, two touchdowns and no interceptions. His completion percentage was an astounding 76.9. Compare that to Aaron Rodgers, who went 30-44 with 303 yards, two touchdowns and one interception. Rodgers may have passed for 89 more yards, but he also threw the ball 18 more times. His completion percentage: 68.1.

Smith had six incompletions on the day. Three of them were passes intended to Delanie Walker, two were passes to Crabtree, and one was targeted for Vernon Davis. What I discovered about these incompletions make Smith's day that much more impressive.

The three Walker passes

With the exception of left tackle Joe Staley (who struggled with Clay Mathews after splitting his nose open on the first play), Walker had the most disappointing performance of any 49er on Sunday. He ended up absent from the box score despite being targeted on three different throws. Two balls were thrown right into his numbers, bouncing off of his chest incomplete. The last pass saw Walker covered pretty soundly; Smith hit him with an outside shoulder throw that was a little high, but Walker tried to catch it with one hand and the pass fell incomplete. It was a fairly accurate throw, not an uncatchable ball by any means.

Two passes to Crabtree

As the second quarter neared closing, the 49ers inserted Colin Kaepernick for a designed run that netted 17 yards. Smith was put back in the game and he attempted two passes before they brought David Akers in for what ended up being a NFL record-tying 63-yard field goal. They ran the same play on both downs: Michael Crabtree ran sideline routes and Smith, seeing that the cornerback had Crabtree well covered on both plays, threw the balls high and well out of bounds. He took the safe route; it didn't get them any closer to the uprights, but it also ensured that the ball wouldn't be turned over. And besides, Akers didn't end up needing the extra yardage after all.

The Vernon Davis pass

Smith's last incompletion came early in the third quarter. Davis ran his route out of a three point stance, cutting between the two inside linebackers and underneath the Packers' safety. While running his route, Davis got bumped by both linebackers, interfering with the timing of the pass. The safety fell in to cover Davis while Smith threw the pass to a location slightly ahead of where Davis could catch it. The ball hit off of the tight end’s hands while another Packers' defending was bearing down on him; he likely would have been crushed had he caught it. Nevertheless, this represented the sixth and final incompletion on Smith's stat line.

The quarterback was bailed out by a couple of nice catches by receivers when he threw balls high – a pass to Mario Manningham on the sideline and one jumping first quarter catch by Randy Moss come to mind. This is something to consider – as good as Smith was, he did still had some flaws in his game. But as a whole, Smith had an excellent day under center; both on the throws that were caught and those that weren't.

Sunday, September 9, 2012

49ers grate the cheese in Green Bay, defeat Packers 30-22

The 49ers came in to their monster Week 1 matchup with the Packers in Green Bay as 5-point underdogs, but if the court of public opinion was in charge of setting the line it probably would have been a touchdown. Even I – in all of my fervent, fanboy optimism – had a sinking feeling that the 49ers would get picked on by Aaron Rodgers and the Packers’ offense. It mattered not – the 49ers walked out of Lambeau 30-22 victors in the opening week of the 2012 season.

All the reasoning behind why I believed the 49ers WOULD win proved true. Alex Smith indeed looked a lot more polished than he has in years past. The run game was revitalized and punishing with Frank Gore and Kendall Hunter sharing the responsibilities. The preseason defense that looked so suspect was really a mere pimple on the intricate face of Vic Fangio’s regular season game plans.

Here are a couple observations from the game.

- Although we saw a lot less Randy Moss than I expected, he had a big impact while he was in the game. He caught 4 passes for 47 yards and a touchdown – quite the contribution for a guy returning to an NFL field after over a year without playing.

-The 49ers ran the ball a total of 32 times for 186 yards and a touchdown. Although Kendall Hunter appeared to be a difference maker during the game, he only ended up with 9 carries for 41 yards (and a not-too-shabby 4.1 average). Frank Gore was the man yet again, toting the ball 16 times for 112 yards and a touchdown. The score was a 23-yard scamper late in the game that I’m sure Gore wouldn’t have finished off had he been the primary ball carrier for the entire contest.

- Vernon Davis showed some pretty good hands on his touchdown catch in the 3rd quarter, but the goal post wasn’t impressed by his celebratory dunk attempt. Watch SportsCenter’s “Not Top 10 Plays” this week for a highlight of Davis getting rejected.

- Colin Kaepernick only saw one play, but it looked like a designed run and it got the 49ers a good handful of yards. Looks like the 49ers will be getting Kaepernick involved this season after all. He got the 49ers close enough to attempt an end of the half field goal. More on that in a minute…

Role reversal: an ironic day for the 2005 draft

- Alex Smith finished his day 20-26 for 211 yards, 2 touchdowns and no interceptions; a stat line that resembled a lot of his starts last year. But Smith clearly outplayed Rodgers, despite the Packers’ QB throwing for over 300 yards. Smith made all the throws that needed to be made; all the while it was Rodgers who had the back-breaking mistake – an interception that resulted in Frank Gore’s touchdown run.

- Smith distributed the ball more efficiently than ever before: he hit six different receivers on the day and involved every wideout on the roster en route to the win. It was nice to see Smith hit Mario Manningham on a few different instances; Mario was pretty much MIA in the preseason, but he looked game ready today.

- The Packers sacked Alex Smith 4 times today and yet the 49ers’ quarterback never fumbled or threw an interception under duress. He still seemed to favor taking a sack over taking a risk, but he did show progression in his playmaking ability. One play that stood out: he rolled right and looked to run, drawing the linebacker off of Bruce Miller. He then dunked the ball right over the defenders head and into the hands of Miller for a first down.

- A 49ers fan member of Boyz II Men, who performed at the game today, made a bet with Aaron Rodgers before the game: If San Francisco wins, he has to wear an Alex Smith jersey.  I’m REALLY hoping a picture of that gets leaked. Heads will explode, I tell you!

- One more pretty significant stat: Alex Smith surpassed Steve Young today for the longest streak of consecutive passes without an interception at 185. Young threw 184 before getting picked off.

The 49ers defense doesn’t lose a step

- Aldon Smith spent a lot of his afternoon playing tag with Aaron Rodgers. His highlight of the afternoon was chasing Rodgers down in the backfield in the opening of the game; a play that got negated by an unsportsmanlike call for removing his helmet. I never liked that penalty much anyway, but this one was particularly auspicious. Aldon’s helmet was already halfway up his face before he pulled it off. Nothing celebratory about it.

- The 49ers ran a wide variety of different personnel sets to counter the Packers’ 4 and 5-wide receiver sets. They weren’t any worse for the wear, even when they had to pull NaVorro Bowman or Patrick Willis in favor of cornerback Perrish Cox.

- It’s clear that teams won’t have fun running against the 49ers again this year. Not that the Packers like clouds of dust to begin with, but Cedric Benson only had 18 yards on 9 carries. If you have a fantasy running back going against the 49ers this season, I suggest you start calling that a second bye week and planning for a replacement now.

The leg of Akers

Jim Harbaugh brought David Akers in at the end of the second half to attempt a 63-yard field goal and he nailed it. It doinked off the crossbar, but it had the right spin to fall on the winning side of the goal posts, tying Akers for the longest field goal in NFL history. Of the others that hold the record, two of them were kicked in Denver. Akers has had the word “record” mentioned following his name several times since coming to the 49ers; that’s definitely not a bad thing.

A few words on the replacement refs

There was an interesting situation that led up to the Packers first touchdown – it was a pass interference call on a throw to Jermichael Finley in the end zone (it looked completely uncatchable, from my couch at least). Clumsiness and chaos ensued in the end zone, and the whole scene got pretty ugly. I noted on Twitter that things probably wouldn’t have gone any better had the regular referees been in, trying to defend the scabs. Of course it all went downhill from there.

The most notable mistake by the crew today came on a Randall Cobb punt return that resulted in a touchdown. Cobb was sprung by a few questionable blocks, including one surefire hold on Larry Grant and a no-doubter block in the back on Anthony Dixon. The refs initially threw a flag for the block in the back, but then picked it back up and awarded the Packers the touchdown.

The other mistake that stuck out – and could have proved the most costly – was the no-call after a late hit on Frank Gore’s touchdown run. He got hit walking into the end zone, helmet-to-helmet, and sat on the ground looking dazed for several seconds afterwards. No flags were thrown. Gore could have been seriously injured, and the replacement refs did nothing to control it.

Ultimately, the adversity that the 49ers faced wasn’t enough to stop them from winning in Lambeau for the first time since 1990. The Packers 13-game home win streak ended. It was their first loss in a home opener since 2006. For San Francisco, it was a loud statement to the NFL – there's no regression here. The 49ers are going to contend for a championship again in 2012. 

Friday, August 24, 2012

My first press box experience: A night neither I - nor Barry Zito - will soon forget

Most sportswriters probably don’t write a cute little story about their first experience in a press box. My guess is they probably go about their business, furiously recording and taking notes, write their game stories and pretend like it was just another day.

That’s not going to be me. What can I say? I guess I’m a romantic for this kind of stuff. Growing up, I was the kid that loved to write. I would walk down to Long’s Drugs after a 49ers win to buy a copy of the morning newspaper and read the articles over 10 times before tacking them on my wall. I would have rather been the “PA announcer” for the recess stick ball games than actually play in them (I really did that, several times). Last night was special for me.

I was scheduled to meet Steve in front of the Dugout Store at 4 PM, so naturally, I decided that traffic would be terrible and left around 2:15. Of course I got to China Basin around 3, so I spent a good half an hour looking for a parking spot that was free. I settled for a metered spot in one of the more questionable neighborhoods about ten blocks from the park despite only having 40 cents in change. I said prayers that my car would still be there didn’t have a ticket when I got back.

My walk took me down to the Embarcadero, past the famous Red’s Java House and to the corner of 3rd and King, where I watched a gaggle of Braves fans stand around, waiting for a chance to see the team bus pull up. I stood there awkwardly, eavesdropping on their chatter until Steve arrived.

Pregame adventures

Once he showed up he led me to the room where we picked up our media credentials, then through the security gates and right into the bowels of AT&T Park. His gait was a little too fast for me; I was the guy with the hand that trembled when security checked my press pass. This was a lot to take in. I followed as we weaved our way through the halls, trying to remember my way (I accidentally forgot my breadcrumbs at home). The first place we went was out onto the field.

Stepping out onto the diamond was surreal. We made our way behind home plate, where we stood and chatted, waiting for manager Bruce Bochy to come out for his pregame question and answer. Madison Bumgarner hung out by the batter’s box conversing with Dave Righetti. Ryan Vogelsong emerged from the dugout, followed by Tim Lincecum. I did a great job at not staring, I have to say.

Eventually we went down into the dugout and settled in for Bochy’s interview. I stood behind Steve while the manager talked, gaining respect for those that cover the game with every word spoken. There was so much going on around me that it was hard to absorb what he was saying. At one point my focus drifted from the manager to Hunter Pence, who was talking to a young fan on the top steps of the dugout. He asked the kid if he grew up in “San Fran,” at which I cringed.

After Bochy was done talking to the media we made our way up to the press box, where Steve pulled something out of an otherwise bland interview and wrote his pregame post. I tinkered with my old, rusty laptop’s internet capabilities for nearly an hour, wishing I owned a Macbook. Once it was finally working we celebrated with a trip to the media’s dinner room, where I served myself way too much quinoa and tried not to stare at Duane Kuiper. He was standing with someone by the TV, commenting on the Little League World Series. Steve served himself seconds, trying to kill time before first pitch, but I set out by myself to head back down to the press box, an adventure that was chock full of nervous and awkward interactions.

Game time

It didn’t take long for me to make my first gaff as a member of the press. At the end of the Star Spangled Banner, I allowed myself to applaud. It lasted probably three seconds, but felt much longer; it wasn’t until I looked around, noticing that everyone in the press box had already returned to their respective workloads that I quickly stopped clapping. Hopefully no one noticed. I’m sure someone did.

Thankfully, that would be pretty much it for my struggles with celebration as a member of the media. Occasionally I’d let it slip – a fist pump here, a reactionary jump there; watching thousands of games as a fan makes cheering a part of your muscle memory.  It’s harder to turn off than you’d think.

The game was filled with weirdness, from Atlanta’s defensive gaffs to Pagan’s continued bonfire at the plate and even a “BAR-RY” chant in the 8th inning (without Mr. Bonds in attendance).  If you’re interested, BASG handled the game, and naturally I handled the ode to Zito.

Ultimately the Giants won, which according to Steve boded well for my clubhouse experience.  We quickly abandoned our laptops in the press box and made our way downstairs.

So about those postgame interactions…

First we headed to the room where Bochy’s postgame press conference was held. We sat silently awaiting Bochy’s arrival. I always expected that the manager would be ushered in by team cronies, but instead he just walked in by himself and sat down, immediately fielding questions from the surprisingly small crowd. The way these interviews ended was the oddest part – once there was a short period of silence, Bochy just nodded to the crowd, uttering the words “alright, then,” and suddenly everyone cleared out.

From there we entered the clubhouse. Steve told me that it would be pretty lively, but that wasn’t the case. Joaquin Arias was making his way out the door as we walked in, and there weren’t many players around as we swarmed Barry Zito.

The lefty gave us a look like we were about to sandpaper off his cheeks as we approached, but he answered every question pretty graciously nonetheless. Once we were done with Zito, we stood around in a circle with other members of the media, quietly pondering who to talk to next. Steve grabbed Javier Lopez for a one-on-one interview, which I observed from the side. Matt Cain and Ryan Theriot both bombed the interview, running by and making faces to the camera as they passed. I stood in for interviews with Hector Sanchez and Pablo Sandoval, but I didn’t ask anything. It wasn’t until we talked to Sergio Romo that I spoke up.  Romo was wearing one of those “creepy guy” 49ers hats, which Steve asked him about. I spotted a 49ers jersey in his locker, so I asked him about that too. He said it was a “Joe Mon-Tanya jersey… greatest linebacker in the NFL – just kidding.” Romo was a good interview. I felt comfortable in his presence.

After the clubhouse we headed back up to the press box, where all the writers sat at their laptops, furiously working on their write-ups. At one point the lights went out on the stadium, leaving a dark backdrop for my newest workspace. I met that with surprise, but everyone else was used to it. It was nothing new to them.

I didn’t end up finishing my post and packing up my laptop until around 11:45. I spent the next 15 minutes wandering around the halls of AT&T Park, testing several different exits to no avail. God bless the friendly vendor who showed me my way out; if he hadn’t, I’d probably still be there.

Then it was just me and the cool San Francisco night.  My brisk walk back to my car lasted about 15 minutes and ended with me finding my car unscathed and ticketless. I listened to the midnight replay of my first covered game on the way home, but really it was just background noise. I kept replaying the surreal evening in my head.

Hopefully the novelty of an experience like that never wears off for me, though I’m sure it will at some point. Eventually I’ll be that jaded guy, completely unfazed by Buster Posey walking by me in the clubhouse, or Duane Kuiper passing me in the hallways, nodding hello. Returning home, I put my press pass in a safe place; I don’t want to lose it. That pass will always be a reminder I won’t need, of a night I will never forget.

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

A Melk-pun free reflection on Cabrera's suspension

Pre-Blog Note:  I haven’t written anything for this site in a while (I know, I know, what a tragedy) – what can I say?  I’ve taken on a larger role at Bay Area Sports Guy and have really been enjoying it.  Life doesn’t always allow me to spend large portions of everyday blogging about sports, so I write when I can, and what I write I put on BASG. 
Given both the severity of this situation, and the fact that BASG (a 5-tool blogger in his own right) was already at the park and on the case when the suspension came down, I really didn’t have anything more to add on his site.  Nevertheless, I have some thoughts on the situation, so consider this my triumphant (but probably brief) return to the Ruthless Sports blog.

Okay, let’s get to it

The shockwaves of Melky Cabrera’s 50-game suspension for a positive testosterone test have surely reached anyone reading this blog by now. It is the biggest news in the sports world today – especially in the Bay Area.  Cabrera was the fasted rising star that San Francisco has seen in years, not only because of his immediate production but because of how he sustained it.

Melky’s on-field performances were not of the Gregor Blanco variety – that is, fun but short-lasted.  Cabrera started hitting immediately and kept right on hitting.  The movement for resigning Cabrera was large, loud and rabid.  There were concerns that the Giants couldn’t even afford him after the 2012 season that he’s had.

So much for that

Giants ownership – a group larger than the headcount in my community college statistics class – is already a hard bargain when it comes to shelling out money for players.  To make matters worse, nearly every risk that ownership has taken in signing free agent players to big contracts has resulted in disaster (see: Rowand, Aaron).

This is obviously speculation – as no one except Melky really knows how long he has been using performance enhancing drugs – but Cabrera’s numbers definitely indicate a questionable spike in his 2011 turnaround season with Kansas City.  His OBP/SLG/OPS jumped significantly - .317/.354/.671 in 2010 (ATL) to .339/.470/.809 in 2011.  The numbers were even better with the Giants in 2012 – Cabrera was hitting .390/.516/.906.

Knowing what we know now, signing Cabrera to anything longer than a one year deal would be a ridiculous risk.  We know that he was a player that underperformed and had issues with his weight early in his career.  We know that he got in shape and turned his game around in eyebrow-raising fashion.  We know that, at some point in time, he used a performance enhancing drug to get better.  The question remains – will he revert to his post-2011 form when he returns from his suspension and PEDs are no longer an option? The risk may be too large for Brian Sabean – or more importantly, Giants ownership – to take.

The ripple effect

Hopefully most savvy Giants fans (and I’m assuming that if you’re reading this, you’re savvy) avoided shelling out 150 bucks to buy a Melky jersey.  Of course, some fans did.  Oh, the humanity.

The effects of this suspension will be felt from the luxury boxes all the way out to the parking lots. As I predicted, the Giants marketing staff went nuts with the word “Melk” and produced a ton of gear catering to Cabrera’s following.  The Melkmen, the group of Cabrera fans that became a staple at the ballpark, will have to look for new employment a new player to get behind.  And the small companies making a name for themselves through the Melk movement (like LND Apparel) will have to find something to do with those creative clothing options that probably won’t sell now.  This suspension was an enormous blow to this franchise and its fan base, and we haven’t even talked about the team yet.

Moving on from Melky

Cabrera’s absence in the lineup doesn’t leave it completely devoid of pop, but it is a major blow.  Alex Pavlovic reported on Twitter that the Giants will be optioning Dan Otero to AAA Fresno and calling up two hitters tomorrow.  The names of those players have yet to be announced, but you have to assume that OF Justin Christian will be one of them.  Brett Pill is another option; they just love to call up Brett Pill. 

In the meantime, Gregor Blanco will be seeing a significant amount of play in left field.  Although it will have to do, it won’t replace the production that Cabrera was providing.  Blanco went 2-for-4 in the Giants loss to the Nationals today, but he was 0 for his previous 20 at bats.

Beyond Blanco, the Giants will need Hunter Pence to start producing, Pablo Sandoval to stay healthy and Brandon Belt to keep his newfound poise at the plate alive (and maybe start running the bases a little smarter, too).  As for Buster Posey?  He’s the guy who’s had to put the team on his shoulders more than a few times in his still-young career.  It looks like he’ll have to do it again.

Speaking of the Giants’ catcher – how does Posey feel about Cabrera’s suspension?

“It was just a bad decision,” Posey said.  “I’m not really going to say more than that.”

Friday, June 22, 2012

Territorial Pissings - Previewing the Bay Bridge Series

Oh, how quickly things can change.It was only yesterday that I flipped on 95.7 The Game just in time to hear that Yoenis Cespedes walked off the Dodgers with a 3-run shot in the 9th inning to complete the sweep.  This was sweet news to my ears - after all, the Giants had all kinds of trouble getting anything going against the Angels, and they need all the help they can get trying to catch the Dodgers.Giants fans wake up today with a much different feeling.  As if all the "You're welcome, Giants fans" posts on social media weren't enough to grind gears, tonight is the first game of the final 3-game set between the two Bay Area squads and, quite frankly, this one feels like it has a little more juice than in years past.

Here's what I see

 A's fans are feeling mighty cocky after sweeping the Giants' interstate rivals, and as well they should be.  They did the Giants a favor and they looked good in the process.  They're also a little critical of the Giants, who pretty much got owned by the Angels this week and by the AL West as a whole in 2012.

Giants fans know that they need every win they can get their hands on if they're going to give the Dodgers a flat tire on the way to the playoff chow line.  It doesn't matter who they get the wins from, but hey - if they come from the Athletics, that's all the better.
Then there's the whole issue of territorial rights, something that probably pisses off the teams' respective ownership groups more than their respective fan bases.  Giants fans could probably care less one way or another where the A's play.  My guess is that most A's fans would rather not see their team moved to San Jose, in which case they're most likely rooting, not necessarily for the Giants ownership, but more against Lew Wolfe & Co.  Regardless of your feelings on the territorial battles, there's bound to be some added tension, as both teams are in conflict with one another - more so off the field than when they're actually playing.
The Giants took 2 out of 3 from the Athletics when they showed up at AT&T Park in May, which means that it's the A's turn to show what they got in their own digs.  Sitting 9 games behind the first place Texas Rangers, it's hard to imagine the A's roaring back to win the division.  But Oakland is only 2 games under .500, meaning they aren't just playing for bragging rights anymore (especially with the extra wild card now in place).  Should the A’s complete a sweep, they’ll pop out on the other side of this series with a winning record.
The Giants would be leading the NL West easily if it weren't for the high-flying Dodgers, so there's no mystery what's at stake for them.  There's no way to paint a June series as monstrous, but this one just FEELS more important.

Without further ado, here's what we're looking forward to

Tonight: Tim Lincecum vs. Jarrod Parker
7:05 PM
What to watch for: The fate of Tim Lincecum rests on this start tonight. With a ballooning ERA of 6.19 and confidence at an all time low, Major
League Baseball's eyes will be on the two time Cy Young winner.  Should he have another bad outing, manager Bruce Bochy may look to skip Lincecum's spot in the rotation, or worse.  It will be interesting to see how Timmy handles facing Yoenis Cespedes, the Cuban defector that has exceeded expectations for the Athletics this year.  The Giants avoided facing the A's most dangerous bat the first time around, but they won't be so lucky this time, as Cespedes is healthy and raking.  Will Timmy be able to bottle up Cespedes, or will we see a Paul Goldschmidt redux?

Saturday: Madison Bumgarner vs. Tyson Ross
4:15 PM
What to watch for:  Madison Bumgarner will look to build on a spectacular 2012 resume vs. a very unfamiliar A's offense.  Only three players in the Athletics' line up have faced Bumgarner in the past - Seth Smith (0-3), Brandon Inge (0-2), and Jonny Gomes, who is 1-5 - with that 1 being a 3-run homer.

Sunday: Matt Cain vs. Brandon McCarthy
1:05 PM
What to watch for: The A's will trot Brandon McCarthy and his 2.54 ERA (4th in the AL) out to the mound to take on Matt Cain in his second start since the perfecto.  Considering that neither team is really destroying the baseball right now, perhaps this is a good time to throw 100 bucks on the under and sit back, prepared to watch a pitcher's duel. Both McCarthy and Cain have been excellent in 2012 - there's no reason to think that it won't continue on Sunday.

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Matt Cain - The perfect guy for perfection

It started with a guy flying a hydraulic jetpack over McCovey Cove and ended with a riot on the pitcher’s mound. What most of us thought was going to be another ho-hum Wednesday night match up with the Astros will without a doubt go down in the annals of San Francisco folklore.
Matt Cain pitched a perfect game - only the 22nd in MLB history and the first in the Giants 128-year existence.

Too much awesome

Cain's big day started out long before first pitch, as the US Open prompted an unusual pregame change of pace for the Giants' ace. Several hours before first pitch, in front of a gaggle of cameras and reporters, Cain, Rory McElroy and others turned AT&T Park into a driving range, launching golf balls from a tee at home plate into McCovey Cove. Cain took one swing - a beautiful one at that - and hit a shot that sailed further than any ball hit into the Cove since Barry Bonds still swung the sticks. I'd say that Cain should quit his day job and take up golf but, hey, he proved last night that he's a man of many talents.
The scene at AT&T Park only got better from there. At some point in the first inning, a guy flying a hydraulic jetpack emerged in McCovey Cove, turning the usually serene landscape of China Basin into a scene out of "The Avengers." This sight nearly melted Twitter in the Bay Area, but it would turn out to be an afterthought when all was said and done.

That wasn't the only afterthought of the night. What was also left in the dust of Matt Cain's perfection was the outburst of Giants offense in a home park that has been anything but kind to its hometown hitters. Melky Cabrera was 2-for-5 with a 2-run homer in the bottom of the first. Gregor Blanco was 2-for-5 with 3 RBIs and a homer. Pablo Sandoval was 3-for-4 with 2 RBIs, and the #FreeBelt movement pushed right along as Brandon hit his second home run in as many nights, finishing the evening 2-for-3 with 3 RBIs.

But offense-shmoffense. Let's talk about what really owned the evening.

Just how perfect was Matt Cain?

According to ESPN Stats and Info, Matt Cain pitched possibly the best perfect game ever. Cain's 14 strike outs tied Sandy Koufax for the most in the history of perfect games; it was also a career-high.  His game score, 101, tied Koufax for the highest in perfect game history (an average game score for a pitcher is around 50). His velocity increased as the game wore on, from 90 to around 94 in the later innings, and he struck out 11 of the 14 on fastballs. His command was immaculate all night, painting corners with his fastball and letting his curveballs tumble out of the zone gracefully all game long.

Getting high with a little help from his friends

It's been said that there is at least one amazing catch in every perfect game, and in Matt Cain's case that catch came from Gregor Blanco. It was the 7th inning when the Astros' Jordan Schafer scorched a ball to deep right-center. Everyone watching, Cain included, probably thought that it was the end of the perfect game bid, as the ball was quickly sailing to that no man's land on the warning track in between the range of Angel Pagan and Blanco. But the White Shark had enough fuel in his tank, and enough sense of the moment, to track it down in spectacular fashion, successfully wrangling a diving catch that will go down in history as one of the greatest grabs in San Francisco sports lore.
Blanco wasn't the only one to help out Cain Wednesday night. Melky Cabrera made a spectacular catch on a Chris Snyder ball that got crushed to the warning track in left field. And the Giants' infield, a group that's faced its hiccups over the course of the 2012 season, found a way to rise to the occasion as the game wore on and the mercury rose. We can't forget Buster Posey either, as he was the man who quarterbacked the perfecto. Posey, who said it was the most nervous he had ever been on a baseball field (and he caught the final out of the Giants 2010 World Series victory), somehow managed to find a rhythm with Cain and keep Houston batters off-kilter for 27 perfect outs. He may be the most underrated performer of the night.


Perhaps the most symbolic aspect of the night is that THIS was the game that turned Cain's career win-loss record into a winning 76-75. Cain got an anomalous 10 runs of support, but he wouldn't need a single one of them. With not just a team, but an entire city behind him, Cain rose to the occasion and showed the sporting world just what a special player he is. Because after all, Cain has always been a special player, but last night he was perfect.

Friday, June 8, 2012

San Francisco Giants - Pleasant (and important) 2012 surprises

We have almost reached the 60 game mark of the 2012 Major League Baseball season, and that means that by now we should be getting a better idea about how each team is composed.
Some teams are not difficult to judge - their lineups stay, for the most part, intact.  There isn't much shuffling in the batting order or the pitching staff, meaning that most fans know what they're going to get when they walk in the ballpark for Opening Day.
For Giants fans, who have seen their team go through more fung shway rearrangement than a college dorm room, this is not the case.  As the Texas Rangers come into town to gear up for a rematch of the 2010 World Series, it is more evident than ever that these are not the World Champions that we fell in love with two years ago.  Much has changed in the land of the orange and black, so at the 1/3rd mark of the season, they stand to be evaluated.  Let’s take a look at some of the players who have been not only pleasant surprises, but actually paramount pieces in the Giants’ success:

5.). Gregor Blanco
Are you ready for a right field rant?  Good, ‘cuz here goes: I have some kleenex ready for anybody still crying over the Giants letting Carlos Beltran walk.  Sure, Beltran has been tearing it up for the Cardinals, but make no mistake about it - things wouldn't have been the same if he stayed in San Francisco.  Asking him to stay in the oft-perceived pitcher friendly confines of AT&T Park would have meant much more money than what the Cardinals are paying for him.  They would have had to pay him top flight money, meaning that they would have needed to design an offense with him as the centerpiece. Beltran didn't want that kind of pressure.  He wouldn't have been happy here, and quite frankly, I'm not sure he was happy here after the Giants traded for him in 2011.
I digress.  A Beltran-less lineup left a big question mark in right field, and it's become clear that Nate Schierholtz isn't the answer.  Nate has a cult hero to some in my circle, what with his propensity for the clutch at bats and surprising power in the past.  But Schierholtz was more than underwhelming in Spring Training and just as lackluster when given opportunities early in the regular season.  He has been terminally inconsistent throughout his career, and that is poison for a Giants lineup that must click in order to score runs.
Gregor Blanco has been the remedy. Plugged into right field and the leadoff spot, he's provided an invaluable shot of energy to the team. His .288/.390/.468 (Batting Average/On Base Percentage/Slugging Percentage) clip rivals some of the best leadoff hitters in baseball right now, and he has flashed some unexpected power on top of it.

4.) Angel Pagan  
All credit due to Bochy here, who found a way to quiet some of his doubters by dealing Andres Torres to the Mets for Pagan.  I knew very little about Angel when he came to the team, and I expected even less.  If he could provide just a little more than what Torres brought to the Giants in 2011 I’d be happy.
He had a terrible Spring Training and an equally ugly start to the season, but Pagan has settled in nicely ever since, especially after moving out of leadoff and into the five hole.  He has now enjoyed 3 hitting streaks of 10 games or more, and he's batting at a .321/.358/.473 clip.  Probably overshadowed by the out of control season that Melky Cabrera has been enjoying, Pagan already has 72 hits on the season and isn't showing signs of slowing down.  Perhaps most important of all - Pagan seems to have become one of the more outspoken leaders in the clubhouse, bringing a consistency that Andres Torres failed to provide.

3.) Ryan Vogelsong
I heard Vogelsong described as possibly being the Andres Torres of the pitching staff during the off season, but at this point that couldn't be further from the truth.  Even with Vogelsong’s injury concerns early in the season, he has been every bit as lights out as the rest of the pitching staff.  Given Barry Zito's long documented history of getting shelled and Tim Lincecum's sudden frailties, it has been paramount for the Giants to have 3 solid starters in their bullpen.
Solid is really the only way to describe Vogelsong.  Through 10 games, he is 4-2 with a 2.38 ERA.  He's averaging 6.8 innings per start with a WHIP in line with 2011 (1.211, compared to 1.252 in 2011).  The Giants never needed Vogelsong to be spectacular, but he has far exceeded expectations up to this point.  Although it probably won’t end up happening, Vogelsong has been pitching well enough to deserve another look for the All Star Game.

2.) Barry Zito
You could call me a full-fledged Barry Zito fanboy at this point in time.  During the offseason I decided to spitball and explore the possibility of Zito making an Alex Smith-like comeback on Bay Area Sports Guy.  I had no idea that he would actually do it, and through 11 games he has far exceeded what I ever thought he was capable of doing.  He has already pitched more innings than he did in 2011 (66.1, compared to a total of 53.2 in 2011), and almost all of his numbers are better.

*Zito has pitched 12.2 more innings in 2012
**ERA+ refers to adjusted ERA.  It adjusts the pitcher’s ERA according to the pitcher’s ballpark and the ERA of the pitcher’s league.  An average ERA+ is 100, so obviously Zito was far below average in 2011, and is above average in 2012.
***WAR stands for Wins Against Replacement.  WAR represents how many more wins a player would earn a team versus a “replacement player.”  Obviously, Zito’s negative WAR in 2011 shows that he was actually contributing negatively to the Giants in 2011 (as if I needed to tell you that).  His positive WAR value in 2012 shows that he is contributing positively.
These numbers speak for themselves.  Again, given Lincecum’s struggles, Zito’s 2012 successes have been a huge bonus.  Whether or not this can continue for an entire season, we’ll find out.  But believe me, this Zito fanboy will be keeping a close eye on it.

1.) Melky Cabrera
I don’t think I need to explain myself much here.  If you’ve been watching the Giants at all then you know how invaluable Melky has been to the offense this season.  His 87 hits lead the majors and his .364 BA leads the NL.  His 2.6 WAR is 5th in the NL, his 7 triples are 1st in the NL and .934 OPS (On Base Percentage plus Slugging Percentage) is 10th in the NL.  His value is only compounded by how much weight he’s pulling on the team – his 58 games played and 258 plate appearances rank 2nd in the NL respectively. 
All this from a player whom the Giants acquired in a trade for Jonathan Sanchez, currently on the DL with an elbow injury for the Kansas City Royals.  Whatever your expectations for Melky were during Spring Training, hardly anyone could have foreseen him providing this kind of pop.  Sure, Melky has been on another planet, and they say that players’ statistics always progress back to the mean over the course of 162 games.  But if you’re a Giants fan, you have to be impressed and hoping that Mr. Cabrera never comes back down to earth.