Will Raider mess ever be cleaned up?

By Art Spander

OAKLAND — The question is not whether the Raiders are broken. We know they are. It’s obvious. It was obvious before they fell to 0-6 on Sunday.

They can’t stop anybody, and in football if you can’t stop anyone, can’t play defense, you have no chance. That’s understood.

But how can the Raiders be fixed? Can they ever be fixed? To look back and blame it on the late Al Davis doesn’t do any good, except maybe for some vindictive sorts.

If Al made some bad draft picks, if Al kept trying to play 1980s football in the 2010s, railing against him in 2014 doesn’t help the situation.

For the second game under interim coach Tony Sparano, in control only for two games, the Raiders hung in there, at times played effectively. But against a better team, which the Arizona Cardinals are — a very good team, at 5-1 — bits and pieces are not good enough. Oakland was beaten 24-13 at Coliseum.

What you need to succeed in football at any level are a defense and a quarterback. In rookie Derek Carr the Raiders very well may have that quarterback, the man who can lead them into the future. But they don’t have a defense.

They haven’t a defense for years.

“We put ourselves in position to win,” said Sparano. “But we didn’t win. In the 140-odd plays there are eight or nine that are critical. You’ve got to make those plays to win. We have to get better on third down. We have to get off the field.”

They have to stop the other team when it matters. The Cardinals had 15 third-down plays on Sunday. On nine they made first downs, 60 percent.

They never relinquished the ball. They had it for almost 37 minutes of the 60, and while possession time is not always a determining factor in this game — as was the case in last weekend’s against the Chargers — it certainly was.

The opposition just grinds up and down the field, holding the ball, holding the game. Is there an individual to blame?

Mark Davis, Al’s only son, is the one in charge, the team president. But he’s not really a football man as was his late father. Mark hired Reggie McKenzie to fill that role. It appears he hasn’t done it very well.

For two years Oakland and McKenzie were hobbled by the salary cap. Then, before this season, his third, he signed veteran free agents who have not done much, if anything, except earn huge salaries.

Do the Raiders start over? Does Mark Davis hire new executives? People with a plan? Or at least a plan that  might be better than the one installed by McKenzie?

Dennis Allen, a defensive specialist, was McKenzie’s choice as coach. He was fired at the end of September, four games into his third season.

Maybe he didn’t have the players. Maybe he couldn’t be a head coach. The team has been more competitive under Sparano.

However, Sparano is the interim coach. Who will replace him? And does Oakland replace McKenzie?

Where to begin? When to decide? Do you clean house? Do you stay patient?

Charles Woodson is in his 17th season. He played safety on Sunday as he has forever, with the Raiders after he was the fourth player picked in the 1998 draft, then with the Green Bay Packers where he helped them win Super Bowl XLV, then in 2013 back to the Raiders.

He’s old. He’s still competent. In the second quarter, Charles Woodson, 38, 1997 Heisman Trophy winner, intercepted a pass thrown by Carson Palmer, 34, 2002 Heisman Trophy winner.

The Cardinals probably will have Palmer for a while. Woodson’s days are not so certain. He does provide good quotes.

“I think it’s pretty much snowballed on us,” said Woodson of a season that supposedly had promise and now at almost the halfway point doesn’t even have a single victory.

“We had a close game that first game (a 19-14 loss to the Jets) and it felt like we were on the right track. We just weren’t able to capitalize on that first game. We haven’t been able to put four quarters of football together. But again, third downs, on both sides of the ball, are really killing us.”

Not as much on offense as on defense. If you rarely have the ball, you’ll never have any rhythm. If the defense is ineffective, you’ll rarely have the ball.

“We didn’t do the job on third downs,” repeated Sparano. “Some of that we have to look at scheme. Some of that we may have to look at players.”

Some of whom were signed by McKenzie, who was signed by Mark Davis, who got the team as a legacy. They’re all in it together, and what they’re in is a mess that some way needs to be cleaned up.


Ishikawa’s shot brings Giants a pennant, and memories

By Art Spander

SAN FRANCISCO — Always the Giants, in New York, in San Francisco. Always the miracle workers, bending reality, banging dramatic home runs, winning pennants.

This one, on a Thursday night by the Bay that will cling to the memory, wasn’t exactly Bobby Thomson homering off Ralph Branca, and the great Red Smith writing, “Truth has overcome anything fiction could envision.” But it will do.

In 1951, the Giants came from more than a dozen games behind the Brooklyn Dodgers to tie, and Thomson’s “shot heard ‘round the world,” gave them the playoff series. That was forever.

This was for now, and yet still for a lifetime. “What a story,” said Giants manager Bruce Bochy.” Indeed.

Travis Ishikawa, once a Giant, then a castoff, returned to hit his own Thomson-esque three-run blow in the bottom of the ninth Thursday, giving San Francisco a 6-3 victory and the pennant.

The Giants won the best-of-seven National League Championship Series from St. Louis, four games to one, and for the third time in five years march on to the baseball’s ultimate, the World Series.

For four games the Giants did the little things, racing the bases, forcing the issue, riding key hits and a bit of luck. But in the fifth game they went big, breaking loose after six postseason games without a home run to get three homers, including the game-winner by the most unlikely of heroes, Ishikawa.

Joe Panik, the rookie second baseman, had a two-run shot in the third. Then off the bench, Michael Morse, pinch-hitting, tied the game, 3-3, with a ball into the left field bleachers in the eighth. After that, it was a given somehow the Giants would get this game.

But no one figured on Ishikawa, a first baseman forced to play left field where in the second he misplayed a fly ball that allowed the Cards to score. “It was a terrible read on my part,” said Ishikawa. “I ran a tough route.”

His teammates wouldn’t let him suffer. “I told him don’t worry,” said Jake Peavy, the pitcher San Francisco got in a trade from Boston. “We’ll get it back. That’s the way this team is, so spirited.”

And so intriguing. Ishikawa was a backup on the Giants’ 2010 World Series champions, but he ached to play. What he did, however, was move, not play, joining four major league and numerous minor league franchises. The worst season was 2013 when he was with teams in four eastern cities and rarely saw his family in San Jose. He thought about quitting.

Instead for 2014 he signed with Pittsburgh, but when early in the season the Pirates wanted to ship him to Triple A, he requested his release. He joined the Giants — who sent him to the minors.

“I remember calling a buddy of mine halfway through the year,” said Ishikawa, “crying in Texas. No matter what, I was 0-for-4 and just didn’t look like I could hit a ball off a tee. He continued to encourage me.

“And after the All-Star break I was able to do just enough to allow the Giants to bring me up, which I wasn’t expecting ... I came up, just thinking I was going to be a pinch-hitter, and obviously Bochy, with his mastermind of intuition, just throwing me out in the outfield and giving me this opportunity. It’s unbelievable.”

A phrase that describes the first home run to decide a pennant for the Giants since, yes, Thomson’s six decades earlier.”

Not that the 31-year-old Ishikawa thought it was clearing the bricks in right field when he connected. He believed it would be off the wall, still enough to bring home Joaquin Arias, running for Pablo Sandoval, from third with the winner.

“It was a 2-0 count,” said Ishikawa. “I knew (Michael Wacha, who had been brought in to pitch the ninth) didn’t want to go to 3-0. I was just trying to be aggressive, put the barrel of the bat on the ball.

“When I first hit it I thought it was going to be a walkoff hit, so I was throwing my hands in the air, and then I just heard the crowd going crazy. So my thought was, ‘OK, if this gets out, it’s going to be fantastic.’ “

Which it did, and which it was.

All this way, and no mention yet of the wonderful Madison Bumgarner, who started and allowed only five hits, but because two were home runs, one each in the fourth by Matt Adams and Tony Cruz, left after eight innings trailing 3-2.

“That was as fun a game as you can have,” said Mad Bum, chosen the MVP of the NLCS for shutting out the Cards in the first game and keeping them under control in this fifth game.

“I don’t know I’m 100 percent deserving of it,” said Bumgarner. “We’re just excited to be moving on.”

Probably no less excited to get out a clubhouse where for a half-hour the Giants had doused each other, and trapped media, in Mumm’s sparkling wine. “It’s time to celebrate,” confirmed Bochy.

Not surprisingly when the Series begins Tuesday against the Royals in Kansas City, Bumgarner will be the Giants pitcher. “Yeah, definitely,” said Bochy.

And the guess is Ishikawa, the out-of-position first baseman, will be in left.

“I’m sure he’s going to wake up and realize what just happened,” said Bochy. “He’s such a great kid. ... You know it’s all about perseverance, and he didn’t give up. He said there’s a time or two he thought about it, and I’m sure it’s all worthwhile now.”


Giants' clubhouse sign says it all: ‘Never Unprepared’

By Art Spander

SAN FRANCISCO — This was the game they should have lost. Well, could have lost. Their starting pitcher couldn’t make it into the fourth. The other team, the Cardinals, was banging balls off fences and, like that, was in front, 4-1.

Yet once again, the Giants found a way.

Once again the Giants pecked and pestered, getting great work from the bullpen and great movement from base runners, pressing the issue until the Cardinals were forced into making wrong decisions.

“Never Unprepared.” That small sign is posted on the Giants’ clubhouse door. Always ready. Always willing. To take the extra base. To take the mound, if only to face one batter.

“Whatever we need,” said Javier Lopez, the lefthander who was the fifth of the seven San Francisco pitchers. “We’re not flashy.”

Who needs flashy? The Giants beat St. Louis, 6-4, Wednesday night at AT&T Park, where the music pounded and the rally rags waved. They’re up three games to one in the best of seven National League Championship Series. They’re one game away from making to the World Series for the third time in five years.

But they’re also wary. Two years ago, 2012, it was the Cardinals who had the 3-1 lead in the NLCS. And the Giants won three in a row. They know what’s possible. Even with Madison Bumgarner pitching in Thursday’s Game 5.

“Great win, great comeback,” said Giants manager Bruce Bochy. “We’ve won three. But we have work to do.”

The work they’ve done in the first four games has been outstanding, if understated. Once more, no home runs — for the sixth straight game of the postseason — but beautiful defense and capable offense, waiting out a walk instead of flailing at a pitch, knowing what to do if there’s a deep fly or a soft grounder.

“It has to start somewhere,” said Bochy.

It started everywhere. It started when Yusmeiro Petit came in to pitch the fourth inning after Ryan Vogelsong, who had been so effective in his previous five postseason games, was so ineffective.

Petit, who would get the win, went three innings, allowing only one hit. Then Jeremy Affeldt went two-thirds of an inning. And Jean Machi one batter. And Lopez one-third of an inning. And Sergio Romo one inning. And finally Santiago Casilla one inning, the ninth, if one in which he gave up his first hit since September 11, a stretch of 10 games.

It started with pinch hitter Joaquin Arias singling to begin the third, Buster Posey singling, Pablo Sandoval walking and Hunter Pence singling. Now the score was 4-3. Now the momentum had switched.

The sixth was classic Giants less-is-more baseball. Juan Perez, pinch hitting (well, pinch walking), got to first. Brandon Crawford singled. Pinch hitter Matt Duffy sacrificed. Gregor Blanco grounded to first, but Matt Adams, after fielding the ball, couldn’t get Perez at the plate. The game was tied.

Not for long. Joe Panik also grounded to first, but Adams stepped on the bag, removing the force, and when he threw high to second to try for Blanco, Crawford dashed home from third.

Fundamental baseball. “Never Unprepared” baseball.

“I had talked to (third base coach) Tim Flannery,” said Crawford. “He said if there was a throw to second to take off for home. That’s what happened. We’re putting the pressure on.

“A big reason for our success is we’ve been getting on base and playing defense.”

Said Bochy, “Great base running by Crawford. If you’re not hitting the long ball, you have to find ways to manufacture runs.”

Neither team made an error that would be recorded in the box score in the a game that was just seven minutes short of four hours, but the Cardinals made the sort of botches that are the difference in playoff baseball.    

“We found a way to score a couple of weird ones there,” said Posey, the Giants' leader. He drove in three runs and scored one.

“I can speak as a catcher. Sometimes those two-out RBIs can be big in shifting momentum.”

The runs in the third, the ones that brought the Giants into the game, as they also did the unsettled sellout crowd of 43,147, were scored with two outs. You sensed then the Cards might be in trouble.

“You have to do the little things,” said Bochy in a message repeated more than once of late. “Granted we’ve gotten a couple breaks, but at the same time, we’ve done some good things, little things. Arias pinch hits, and we find a way to get him across. Now you’re getting a little bit closer, and the hope starts to build up and the momentum starts to change, and that’s what happened.

“I’ve always said, to win a game you need pitching and you need timely hits. And tonight we got them.”

And got to within a game of another World Series.


Giants are lucky — and good

By Art Spander

SAN FRANCISCO — Oh, those lucky Giants. Oh, those remarkable Giants.

They can’t hit a home run. They squander first-inning leads. They score on bloop hits. They score on wild pitches. They score when a bunt is thrown into right field. Is that luck or what?

“It’s a great thing to have,” said Giants manager Bruce Bochy, of the black magic and good fortune. “But you don’t get this far by being lucky. You have to be good.”

You have to have players who are tough, talented and most of all resilient.

You have to have players who can go through the fifth through ninth innings as they did Tuesday against the St. Louis Cardinals, with only two base runners and one hit, and remain unfazed.

You have to have players who appear as if they’re going to blow another game as they did on Sunday night when the Cardinals rallied again and again and won on a walkoff home run.

And then, as a sellout crowd at AT&T Park stops gasping and starts screaming, you have to have players who do the little things that turn out so big and win in what seems the most unlikeliest of fashions — but to the Giants is, yawn, the norm.

In the bottom of the 10th, Brandon Crawford, hitless in three at bats, leads off with a walk. Ninth-place batter Juan Perez fouls off two balls attempting to bunt, swings away and singles. Gregor Blanco lays down a bunt, which reliever Randy Choate fields and flings into right field for an error as Crawford dashes home to give San Francisco a 5-4 win and a 2-1 lead in the best-of-seven National League Championship Series.

“I’m a little delirious, I guess,” said a half-joking Bochy when asked what it’s like to manage this team in these games. “Man, these are hard-fought games. We don’t do anything easy.”

When have they ever? Sweet Torture is how the broadcasters Mike Krukow and Duane Kuiper labeled Giants baseball back in 2010, when the torture sweetly climaxed with a World Series triumph.

The template was created, and it’s being followed once again — chomped cuticle by chomped cuticle.

“I’m not sure if I assume something is going to happen,” said Bochy, “but it couldn’t have worked out better. Perez, he couldn’t get a bunt down and gets a base hit. Now you’re playing with house money.”

Now you’re playing Giants baseball, making the easy difficult, making the absurd reasonable. The Giants had a homer (by Crawford) in the wild card game at Pittsburgh. The Giants had a homer (by Brandon Belt in the 18th) in the second NL Division Series game against Washington.

That was six postseason games ago. They haven’t had one since.

“It’s kind of our way,” conceded Bochy of the scrambling. "We play a lot of tight games ... We didn’t get a lot of chances with men on, but we took advantage of them. Ishi with the big hit. Pence that first inning, two outs, two strikes and he hits the ball down the line.”

Hunter Pence, not unexpected. Travis Ishikawa, reacquired during the season after seasons in the minors,  quite unexpected.

Two outs in the first, none on. Buster Posey singles, Pablo Sandoval singles, Pence doubles, Belt walks and then Ishikawa hits it deep and high to right center, where the ball is blown around by wind that would have done Candlestick proud. Ishikawa has a double, two runs batted in, and San Francisco has a 4-0 lead.

“One of the toughest winds I can remember,” said Pence, who despite being the Giants regular right fielder misjudged a shot by the Cards’ Kolten Wong in the fourth that ended up a two-RBI triple. “I started to my left and it blew over my head to the right.”

The subplot in this one was the tale of Giants starter Tim Hudson, who at age 39, in the majors since 1997 with Oakland, Atlanta and now San Francisco, had never pitched in a league championship game.

He made it to the seventh, then with one out gave up a home run to rookie Randal Grichuk. The 4-0 lead was now a 4-4 tie, and Hudson was relieved by Jeremy Affeldt.

“One thing that can kill you,” sighed Hudson, “is giving up a homer right there to the number eight hitter, and you know they are going to pinch-hit for the pitcher after him. It was probably the worst cutter (cut fastball) I’ve thrown all day ... Obviously it was a tough one for me to swallow. But the guys battled and picked me up as they have all year.

“That’s our personality as a team. We have guys who scratch and claw and do whatever it takes to get some runs across and keep the game close at times, and try to find ways to win in the end.”

Which, when the other team turned a simple bunt into a mammoth mistake, is exactly what they did.

“It doesn’t matter how we score our runs,” said Ishikawa. “It’s been a big topic on how we scored on wild pitches and passed balls and things like that. Somebody asked me if there’s another way we can score a run other than a non-conventional way. I said, 'If there is, we’re going to find a way.'”

Call them lucky. Call them resourceful. Call them remarkable. Call them winners.


Raiders' best game still not a winning game

By Art Spander

OAKLAND — He’s a kid, a rookie, a cornerback on an NFL team that five games into a painful season has changed coaches and even though winless well into October perhaps on Sunday finally changed direction.

“We all feel like we did something today,” said TJ Carrie.

What the Oakland Raiders did, at last, was compete, keep a game in doubt, show they are anything but hopeless.

What the Raiders didn’t do was win. As they haven’t won this season. The San Diego Chargers came from behind and beat Oakland 31-28 at Coliseum. Even with professed Raider fan Tiger Woods in attendance.

It was the Raiders’ best game of the season, on offense. Quarterback Derek Carr, also a rookie, threw four touchdown passes. Darren McFadden ran for 80 yards. So encouraging.

But the Chargers, 5-1, as compared to the Raiders, 0-5, controlled the ball, had it 37 minutes of the total 60, gained 423 yards. It is a cliché that defense wins. In this case, for the Raiders, unable to halt Charger drives, especially the final one that climaxed with a Branden Oliver touchdown with 1:56 remaining.

A new coach for the Raiders, an interim coach, Tony Sparano, who was chosen to replace hard-luck Dennis Allen two weeks ago. An old result.

The players are the same. They seemed more spirited, more aggressive, more upbeat. But they were no more successful.

There are two requirements to create a winning football team, a defense and a quarterback. Without a defense, you virtually never get the ball — and when your time of possession is 15 fewer minutes, as it was for the Raiders, they virtually never had the ball. Without a quarterback, well, he touches the ball on every offensive play.

The Raiders appear to have the quarterback in Carr. He has started every game, and if Carrie, the cornerback, who got beat often enough, said he learned something, so did we about Carr. He’s poised. He’s aggressive. And he has a fantastic arm. Hey, on the third play from scrimmage he unloaded a 77-yard beauty to Andre Holmes for a touchdown. Shades of Peyton Manning.

“I thought our quarterback made some big plays,” said Sparano. He also made some mistakes, getting called for intentional grounding and then in the last minute, on a meticulous drive that seemed destined to produce a game-tying field goal, throwing a ball to the Charger 10 that was intercepted, ending not only a chance for victory but also a record.

Since the merger of the mid 1960s, the only rookies to throw four touchdown passes without an interception in a game were Robert Griffin III and Trent Edwards.

“He’s getting better and better,” said Sparano of Carr, who played collegiately at Fresno State. "On that first touchdown, they came with pressure, we expected the pressure, the guys handled it pretty well, but Derek kept through the progression and getting the ball to the right guy. That’s progress.

“The play at the end of the game, it’s second and very short (1 yard), we felt like we’d make the first down, took a shot and that kid (Jason Verrett, also a rookie, from Fairfield, about 35 miles from the Coliseum) made a great play.”

Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers, as expected, made a ton of great plays. He threw three touchdown passes and has 15 in six games, with only two interceptions.

“We thought about blitzing him,” Sparano said about Rivers. “We blitzed him a couple of times early. We got to him a couple of different ways, but with Philip, as I said earlier in the week, if you don’t tackle him he’s a guy that buys time. He’s going to hurt you in those situations, and he hurt us in one or two of those situations today. You have to pick your poison a little bit with him.”

They’ll find no antidote in Carson Palmer of Arizona, next week’s opponent. The Cardinals are 4-1, and Palmer, who was with the Raiders three years ago, has recovered from his injuries.

“That’s the best team in the league according to some,” Sparano said of the Cardinals, and then switching to San Diego, “That’s one of the best teams out there today, and our kids played hard. We have to be in these kind of football games and finally one of these kind of games. That’s how we turn this thing around.”

They turn it around by shutting down the opponent, by playing the sort of defense the Raiders have not displayed for years.

Carrie could be part of that renaissance.

“His impact,” Sparano said of Carrie, ”was in two areas. I felt him challenging the ball on defense. I felt him around the ball. And then on special teams, on kickoffs (3 for 85 yards) and the punt returns, he really did a nice job.

“Look at TJ. Look at (rookie linebacker) Khalil Mack flying around and Gabe Jackson and these kids. It’s a good place to be right now.”

Did he mean for the Raiders or, as was the case for the Chargers and their dominant time of possession, the opposition? For Oakland there weren’t enough stops. And at 0-5, there certainly aren’t enough wins.