S.F. Examiner: Muffed punts & lost fumbles: What 49ers dreams are made of

By Art Spander
San Francisco Examiner

The man who operates the elevator to the boxes at Levi’s Stadium said he tried to console Trent Baalke on the ride down. Nice of him, but who consoles the 49ers fans — the ones who showed up Sunday to watch another debacle — and the many who had tickets but didn’t show?

Empty seats. Empty hope. Another Niner season is down the drain, and we haven’t even reached Halloween.

Read the full story here.

©2016 The San Francisco Examiner


Rain for Safeway Open โ€” what else can go wrong?

By Art Spander

NAPA, Calif. — All right. We surrender. What else can go wrong?  The Niners are awful. The Giants disintegrate. Tiger pulls a fast one. And now Mother Nature has decided to punch us around.

We wanted rain, we've been complaining about a drought that’s lasted, what, 50 years? But not this weekend. Not for the first PGA Tour event of the new season.

When it was the Frys Open, weather for the tournament the last two Octobers at Silverado Country Club was exactly as autumn is supposed to be in Northern Cal, warm and most importantly dry. Then Safeway takes over and splish, splash, we were taking a bath.

When does it rain in Napa in the fall? When does it rain in Napa ever? But stage a golf tournament, and the place turns into Scotland. More umbrellas than birdies — and there were dozens of birdies. Not enough fans, certainly, but who wants to spend a Saturday getting soaked?

Johnson Wagner spent it taking the lead in a third round of the Safeway that came to an abbreviated end with darkness encroaching, greens being squeegeed and starting times for Sunday’s scheduled final round moved up some two and a half hours to escape yet another storm.

This has turned into one of those to-be-continued episodes of not so much hand-wringing drama but towel-wringing ennui. The second round, which started on Friday, finally finished on Saturday morning, Scott Piercy playing six holes to stay in first at 15-under-par, a shot in front of Wagner and Paul Casey. It was dry. But not for long.

And so the third round began — and so did the rain and wind. Wagner, 36, a three-time winner on Tour, was on Silverado’s par-5 16th hole when play was suspended.

He was at 15-under-par after going 12-under for the first 36 holes. Piercy, also through 15, and Patton Kizzire, through 16, were 14-under. Casey was 13-under through 15 holes.

The main man for attention, not competition, Phil Mickelson, did finish 54 holes, if hardly the way he or the fans — his gallery was three times the size of anybody else’s early on — had wished. 

Phil did come in with a third straight 69, and his round included an eagle three on the par-five fifth. But he closed with a bogey-six on the 18th, also a par-five. His three-round total of 207 is a tentative eight shots out of the lead.

“I did hit a lot more good drives,” said Mickelson. “The last couple of holes, when it got wet, I got stuck. I didn’t match up my speed on the greens. They’re in perfect shape and rolling true, and you can get hot on the greens. I just haven’t done it yet.”

If he doesn’t do it Sunday, he won’t do it at all. Not at the Safeway, at least. And not for a while. His next scheduled tournament is the Career Builder Challenge in February in Palm Desert, the former Bob Hope tournament. There shouldn’t be rain there.

Wagner, along with the others, had started the week on a course that was fast, the ball flying. Then came the downpour.

“It was primed to be a firm, fast, awesome event,” said Wagner, “and Friday I hit my first shot to the green and it plugged out of the rough. I couldn't believe how much water we had had overnight.”

Those who have been taking quick showers or were hesitant to water the back lawn surely are pleased with all that water. The golfers, while recognizing California’s situation, would have preferred the rain didn’t arrive until, say, Monday.

“It was so brutal out there the last few holes,” said Wagner, “I was hanging on, hitting balls to the green ... getting up and down and making par putts and really just trying to survive and make as many pars as I could — just tick them off hole by hole, okay, two more to go, let's just get this thing in."

Which they couldn’t.

“So I think it had an effect on the other players. I don't know how anybody else played, but it was difficult.” 

And very, very wet.


No Tiger, but plenty of Phil โ€” and Scott Piercy

By Art Spander

NAPA, Calif. — So he’s not here. That’s the way it goes. Sport isn’t always what we would wish. Tiger Woods withdraws. The Giants blow a ninth-inning lead.

You can’t always get what you want, the Rolling Stones lyrics advise. Life goes on. The games go on.

Woods was one of a kind. Still is, although he hasn’t played a tournament round in more than a year. In a sport dependent on personalities, Woods was a transcendent personality.

He reached the ultimate status, known by people who don’t know much — if anything — about golf. The way Pavarotti was known by those who didn’t know anything about opera.

The method of Woods’ withdrawal, pulling out the three days after making a formal commitment, was vexing to some, irritating to others. Too much about someone among the missing? Probably, but that complaint was lodged back in the ‘70s and ‘80s when the issue dealt with Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus.

“Why are you always writing about people who aren’t playing?” wondered unhappy executives from the PGA Tour. “Write about the others, then people will want to watch them.”

As we know, that’s a false hope. It’s the Steph Currys and Buster Poseys — and Tiger Woodses — who, through success and charisma, draw the fans.

That said, the first Safeway Open is under way at Silverado Country Club. (First, because the event previously was sponsored by Frys). And in the opening round Thursday, Scott Piercy, who if he’s not Tiger also isn’t anonymous, shot a record 10-under-par 62 on the North Course.

The slogan, “These guys are good,” is an understatement. The guys who play the Tour are great — even though Silverado isn’t Oakmont or Olympic, a 62 is a 62 — and in a way Tiger’s fame helped others come to the understanding.

If the fans bought tickets because of Woods, well, they were privileged to watch somebody else, Piercy, go seven-under-par on his first 10 holes and finish with 12 birdies out of the 18 holes. Remarkable.

The Safeway is the first tournament of the Tour’s rather confusing wrap-around season. The calendar may read 2016, but the schedule says 2017. The idea is to make the autumn tournaments seem important, even if they’re lost somewhere among the baseball playoffs and college and pro football.

“Oh man,” said Piercy of his spectacular round, “I think I made more feet of putts than I did all last season.” Last season, of course, ended only two weeks ago, as if it matters. There’s a course. There’s a tournament. Play on.

Phil Mickelson has his own schedule, but fortunately the Safeway is on that schedule. This is Phil’s farewell until the Career Builder Challenge, the former Bob Hope Desert Classic, in January. Maybe there’s no time off for the Tour, but there will be for Mickelson, now 46.

He began the Safeway with consecutive bogies but came in with a three-under 69 and, although it was 5:21 p.m., with the day’s largest gallery. And why not? As Tiger has, Mickelson earned the following. Five majors and a lot of smiles gain anyone a high degree of respect and approval.

“I have to be careful energy-wise,” said Mickelson of his slow start, “because it’s been a very emotional and long year, ending and culminating with the high degree of the Ryder Cup.”

Mickelson led the British Open at Troon in July, then finished second behind Henrik Stenson. Two weeks ago, he was the de facto leader, and as a competitor he was a major factor in America’s first Ryder Cup victory since 2008. His presence at the Safeway should not go unappreciated — and it hasn’t been.

“I didn’t have much time off,” said Mickelson after the Ryder Cup triumph, ”so I’ve got to maintain energy. I got off to a slow start. I wasn’t as focused as I need to be, but I put myself in position where (Friday) I can get hot on the greens, get perfect greens in the morning, get it going, shoot six, seven, eight-under-par and get right back in it for the weekend.”

No Tiger at the Safeway, but plenty of Phil and Scott Piercy. It could be worse. Much, much worse.


Giants end was so painful โ€” and appropriate

By Art Spander

SAN FRANCISCO — So painful. And so appropriate. The perfection of imperfection. A team that had bullpen problems all year, that had blown so many leads, blew its final game of the season, the one that couldn’t afford to be lost.

A big lead in the top of the ninth. So reassuring for the Giants. So worrying for their fans. A team built on pitching didn’t have the pitching when needed. Again and again, it happened in a season now at its end. The relievers could provide no relief.

“I would like to think you’re going to get three outs there,” sighed Giants manager Bruce Bochy. “We couldn’t do it.”

They couldn’t even come close to doing it.

Losing is never fun. Losing as the Giants lost Tuesday night was awful.

Ahead 5-2, after a beautiful eight innings from starter Matt Moore. But games last nine innings. Or more. And so Giants manager Bruce Bochy brought in Derek Law to replace Moore.

Then after one batter, Javier Lopez replaced Law. Then after one more batter, Sergio Romo replaced Lopez. Then after one more batter, Will Smith replaced Romo. And not one of them could get an out. Eventually, Hunter Strickland, the fifth Giants reliever, was throwing when Javier Baez — yes, him again — singled home Jason Heyward with the run that would give the Cubs the 6-5 victory and the National League Division Series, three games to one.

And before you knew it, there were the Chicago players dancing on the mound at AT&T Park, the Giants’ home. And before you knew it, some 500 to 800 Cubs fans were standing behind the first-base dugout, the Cubs' dugout, in an otherwise empty ballpark chanting and cheering for their Cubbies, their winners.

That Giants slogan, based partly on history and mostly on hope, “BeliEVEN,” was now only a reminder of a dream destroyed and a year gone haywire. The team with the best record in the first half of this “even” year flopped to the worst record in the second half. That they were in the playoffs at all was only because of a hot finish and two players, the remarkable Madison Bumgarner, who shut out the Mets in the Wild Card game, and Conor Gillaspie, who drove in the only runs that game with a homer.

Right after that, sure, anything was possible, but Giants manager Bruce Bochy knew what he had — and what he didn’t have. “We’re playing with house money,” Bochy mused before the playoff opener against the Cubs, who won 16 more games than San Francisco during the regular season.

Anything is possible in the postseason when baseball is distilled to a few games, and pitching is dominant. But that includes relief pitching, which the Giants lacked.

In a very quiet Giants post-game clubhouse, with teammates exchanging farewell hugs and handshakes, there stood Santiago Casilla, who had squandered his role as closer as August merged into September. He couldn’t hold a lead — what did he blow, seven games? — and neither could those who Bochy, in desperation, used as replacements.

The natural question was whether he thought Moore, who had thrown 120 pitches in his eight innings, could throw just enough more to get the victory that would send the series to the fifth game. He was willing. Bochy, obviously, was not.

“That was a lot of work he did,” Bochy said of Moore. “At that point where he was at, he did his job. We were lined up. We had all our guys set up. Everybody there. We just couldn’t get outs.”

Not one. Until it was too late.

“Sure, we can look now and say, ‘Hey, push him even more,’” Bochy said, “but we had confidence that these guys we put out there would get outs against that lineup, that we could get the matchups we wanted, and it didn’t work out.”

So the Giants are out. Done until spring training, when this even year will only be a distant memory and maybe Gillaspie, who hit so well in the last few games, finds a full-time place in the lineup and maybe somebody, anybody, develops into that much-needed closer.

“With the way the ball bounced in that ninth inning,” said Bochy, “I hate to use the word ‘destiny,’ but (the Cubs) had a great year, and that’s quite a comeback they mounted there. They got a break there on the throwing error (by Gold Glove shortstop Brandon Crawford) that set up the winning run.

“That’s frustrating when (Kris) Bryant beat the shift, and he hit the ball where the shortstop normally is ... But that’s baseball. You've got to get those last three outs, and that has been a problem for us.”

A huge, heartbreaking, season-ending problem.


S.F. Examiner: So much happened in Game 3, all that matters: Giants stay alive

By Art Spander
San Francisco Examiner

Yes, it’s an Even Year. What else needs to be said?

Except Conor Gillaspie and Joe Panik are the new Miracle Workers. And there will be a fourth game in a National League Division Series that for most of a somewhat unbelievable and totally hysterical Monday evening seemed destined to end in three games.

Read the full story here.

©2016 The San Francisco Examiner