SF Examiner: Niners’ season could hinge on QB decision

By Art Spander
Special to The Examiner

SAN FRANCISCO — In May, we ask about September, about the 49ers, about the most important of positions, about  the quarterback. In May, we wonder who will be starting when the season is starting.

That’s the issue as the Niners hold a minicamp, or what in NFL newspeak is labeled an “OTA” (organized team activity).

That’s the issue, who plays quarterback for the franchise of quarterbacks, the franchise of Frankie Albert, John Brodie, Joe Montana, Steve Young and Jeff Garcia.

Mike Singletary is a defensive guy, a Hall of Fame linebacker.

Singletary is a slug-it-out guy, who played for the Chicago Bears, a slug-it-out team.

“We will go out and hit people in the mouth,” Singletary promised in October after his first game as the then interim coach.

Maybe that works here by the Bay, maybe not.

We’re used to passes, short or long. We’re used to offense. We’re used to a quarterback who does more than hand-off.

So who’s that quarterback? Shaun Hill, the undrafted overachiever who doesn’t so much win games as he does from keeping the Niners from losing them?

Or from off the scrapheap, Alex Smith, the first man taken in the ’05 draft who for various reasons — injuries, coaching switches — has done almost nothing?

Does Hill, who we’re told is more caretaker than offensive innovator, become Singletary’s choice to keep the game under control?

Or does Smith, healthy again, get the opportunity to show the reason he was selected ahead of every other player then available?

“We’re all communicating,” Singletary said of players and staff. “They’re going to tell us when that decision needs to be made. They’re going to compete.”

The Niners brought in free-agent Kurt Warner for a visit after the Super Bowl, even after Singletary fired offensive coordinator Mike Martz, who years ago with the St. Louis Rams built the offense, the “Greatest Show on Turf,” which made Warner a star.

Warner never was going to join the 49ers. He re-signed with the Arizona Cardinals, the NFC champions.

So do the Niners believe in Hill or in Smith? Or in neither? Do the Niners, with their seventh offensive coordinator in seven years,Jimmy Raye, feel confident Hill, who spent seasons on the Vikings’ bench or Smith, who got trashed by former coach Mike Nolan, can make a losing team a winner?

“They’re competing not so much against each other,” Singletary said in one of those coaching comments that bewilders more than it explains, “but against the best quarterbacks in the league.”

Not until one of them is named starter. Not until the games begin.

“Coach Singletary is a fiery guy,” Hill said about the coach’s displeasure with the way both he and Smith performed in the first day’s workout, “and he obviously holds the quarterbacks to a high standard.”

A standard maybe neither QB reaches, although one of them will be reaching for the football from behind center.

“At the end of the day,” Singletary said, “we’ll know when that decision needs to be made, and we’ll do it.”

And we’ll hope they’ve done it correctly.

Art Spander has been covering Bay Area sports since 1965 and also writes on E-mail him at

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Copyright 2009 SF Newspaper Company 

Giants needed a win against the Mets and got one 

SAN FRANCISCO – The Giants needed to win it. Nothing could have been more obvious. We didn’t need the observation from manager Bruce Bochy on that necessity, although we had it.

“Some games are bigger than others,’’ said Bochy, defying the baseball axiom that 162 times a season nothing varies, “and we needed to win this ballgame.’’

Which they did win. Showing poise. Showing skill. Showing the rest of us, the doubters, that while they’re not going to be winning any championships, as long as the Dodgers keep scoring runs in bunches, the Giants will be a presence. Four in a row they had lost, one to the Washington Nationals and then, through various methods, the first three of a four-game series against the New York Mets.

Four in a row, and Bochy sighing, “The last thing you want to do is get swept at home.’’

And because of Matt Cain, and a couple of double plays, one with nobody out and the bases loaded in the second inning that went first baseman Travis Ishikawa to catcher Bengie Molina to Ishikawa, it would be the last thing.

Against a team that had scored 24 runs in the previous three games, against a team that starting back in 2008 had beaten them eight consecutive times, the Giants on Sunday evening stopped the Mets, 2-0, before a third straight sellout crowd, this announced at 43,012.

They tell us you never know what you’ll see at the old ballgame. What we saw was the Mets getting no runs while their pitcher Mike Pelfrey got called for three balks, the most by any pitcher in the big leagues in 15 years. The first two balks were in no small part responsible for each of the Giants’ runs.

“That was a break for us,’’ said Bochy.

So for two consecutive weeks, the Giants have been at .500 or above. That wouldn’t have been the situation with another loss. They were 18-18 before the first pitch. Now they’re 19-18. Now closer Brian Wilson’s nightmares are squelched. Now the Giants once more can believe in the pitching upon which they must rely. Or haven’t you seen the batting averages?

Yes, Pablo Sandoval, who had a first inning single, was balked to second and scored on Bengie Molina’s single, is at .314. And Molina, the rock, is hitting .304. But Eugenio Velez, who led off and played second, is at .111. And Nate Schierholtz is .217. And Ishikawa is .236. And Aaron Rowand .248. And Randy Winn .255.

If it is to be done, it will be done by pitching, and so Sunday, when the game-time temperature was 76 degrees and ESPN was carrying the telecast, it was done by pitching.

Mostly by Cain. Then Bob Howry. Then Jeremy Affeldt, who stopped a possible eighth inning rally by striking out Gary Sheffield and forcing pinch hitter Angel Pagan to hit into a double play. Then, at last, by Wilson, who after disintegrating on Thursday and Friday had a perfect ninth.

“We dodged a couple of bullets,’’ agreed Bochy. “Couple of huge double plays saved us. We played well defensively. Matt worked hard the first couple of innings, and he got through it. He kept his composure and made pitches. I wasn’t sure in the second we were going to get six out of him.’’

In the second, you couldn’t be sure you were going to get two out of Cain. He walked the bases loaded with nobody out. Then the double play. Then a groundout by Pelfrey. Then a sigh of relief.

Cain had thrown 49 pitches by the time the inning closed. “But he’s a horse,’’ said Bochy.

Rachel Alexandra? Mine That Bird? This was Cain’s Derby and Preakness. If he couldn’t go wire-to-wire, he could go 119 pitches, go through six innings, go far enough and strongly enough to improve his record to 4-1 with a 2.65 earned run average.

“This game was huge for our team,’’ said Affeldt. “Matt did everything. His pitching kept us in the game, and he had a big hit.’’

That came in the fifth. Rowand was on third after a single, Pelfrey’s second balk and a groundout by Ishikawa. Bochy, knowing Cain is good bunter, called the suicide squeeze. Rowand took off, but Pelfrey’s pitch dove so severely that Cain could just knock the ball foul.

With the count 3 and 2, Cain had to swing, not bunt. He swung and lined a single to left, bringing in Rowand.

“Matt Cain doesn’t panic,’’ said Affeldt. “When you needed what we needed, he gave it to us.’’

Cain said he tried to keep his emotions in check. “When you get into the situations I put myself in,’’ he said, “you have to stay calm. It worked out great.’’

After four straight losses, it was about time.

Newsday: Sheff leads Mets' hit parade to support Santana

Special to Newsday

SAN FRANCISCO -- The story keeps getting better, for Gary Sheffield, for the Mets. The man who was unwanted the first day of April now is described as the man who has given character to a team criticized the previous two years for lacking it.

Three in a row for the Mets over San Francisco. Yesterday, when the fog was absent and the temperature reached the high 70s by the bay, the Mets pounded the Giants, 9-6, before another sellout of 41,336 at AT&T Park.

Three in a row, 11 out of 13, and Mets manager Jerry Manuel talking not about what but how, about the "little things,'' primarily from Sheffield.

"Our biggest at-bat'' is what Manuel said of Sheffield at the plate in the first. There already were two runs in, Carlos Beltran having doubled home Luis Castillo and Alex Cora.

"Sheff gives himself up,'' Manuel said. "He went the other way, to the right side. He got a base hit anyway, but I thought that set the tone for us for the whole game.

"If we're able to play that type of game and run and have occasional power, then we can be a pretty tough team.''

They've been a problem team for the Giants, taking eight straight from San Francisco dating to 2008.

This one was supposed to be a battle between historic lefthanded pitchers: the Mets' Johan Santana and the Giants' 45-year-old Randy Johnson, with his 298 wins. "It was special to go against him,'' said Santana (5-2, 1.36 ERA), who finally allowed an earned run after 221/3 innings.

For the Mets - who had 16 hits, 11 off Johnson (3-4) in four-plus innings - it was special the way they went after the 6-10 lefthander.

With Carlos Delgado on the disabled list and Jose Reyes still nursing a sore calf, the rest of the Mets finally gave Santana some support. Beltran had three hits and three RBIs. David Wright had three hits and three RBIs. And Sheffield, who was released by the Detroit Tigers on March 31 and joined the Mets on April 3, had three hits.

"Leadership?'' Manuel asked rhetorically after someone tossed in Sheffield's name. "When he does what he did today, when he's the number four hitter and sacrifices himself, that's what you're looking for in leadership.

"I think this is where he's been all his life, handling responsibility. But the thing I have to be careful of - he's kind of in the evening of his career, so to speak - is to give him days off, make sure he's fresh. That's going to be a big key for us.''

Wright has nine RBIs in the series, which ends Sunday. He said he's getting good pitches to hit. That's because of the guy who precedes him in the lineup: Gary Sheffield.

"He's got some huge hits for us,'' said Wright, who has 27 RBIs, one fewer than Beltran. "He provides a presence in the middle of the lineup, provides a presence against lefthanded pitchers - and righthanders, too. One swing of the bat if the pitcher makes a mistake, and he knows the ball is going to leave the yard.''

Through a career that has taken him to Milwaukee, San Diego, Florida, the Los Angeles Dodgers, Atlanta, the Yankees, Detroit and now the Mets, the 40-year-old Sheffield has hit 501 home runs, two in 2009.

"But seeing a number four hitter, a future Hall of Famer, trying to advance a runner,'' Wright said, "makes us understand we should expect that type of play from everybody.''

The Mets, who have scored 24 runs in the series, led 3-0 after one inning. The Giants got an unearned run in the third and two runs, one of those unearned, in the fourth to tie. But 10 men batted for the Mets in a four-run fifth in which they had six hits, including an RBI double by Beltran, a two-run double by Wright and an RBI single by Ramon Castro. Castro had another RBI single in the ninth, and even Santana had a hit.

Said Manuel, "We've gotten everybody involved.''

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Copyright © 2009, Newsday Inc.

Lakers: Plenty of talent, very little heart

Here are the conceivable excuses available for the Los Angeles Lakers, reputedly a basketball team of championship caliber, if not championship character.

* The game in Houston started at 9 p.m., past the Lakers’ bedtime.

* But 9 p.m. in Houston is only 7 p.m. in Los Angeles, so maybe the Lakers hadn’t awakened from their afternoon naps.

* The Lakers lost concentration because Yao Ming, unable to play, was a spectator, and rarely had been watched by anyone taller than an even 7 feet.

* The Lakers were so amused by the Nike commercial with Kobe and LeBron as Muppets characters, they couldn’t stop laughing until the Rockets were ahead 17-1.

* The Manny Ramirez situation has everyone in the L.A. area so distracted, nobody can think about anything else, Lakers included.

    Yes, the Lakers will win Sunday and will take the series and move on to face Denver. But they shouldn’t. Not the way they stood around in Game 6 for the first six minutes.

    You can’t call the Lakers gutless. They did rally to get within two points in the third quarter on Thursday night before losing, 95-80.

    But you can call them heartless. No team with that much talent, with that much momentum, the Lakers having beaten Houston by 40 points on Tuesday night, should play that badly.

    And you can call them clueless.

    They were baffled by the Rockets’ Louis Scola, who scored 24 points, many of them on baskets about four inches from the rim. Scola’s from Argentina, so maybe the Lakers were looking for a guy with chaps and a Gaucho hat singing about Eva Peron.

    The Lakers and Boston Celtics both have Game Sevens at home. The Celtics, the anti-Lakers, a team that scraps and hustles, earned that seventh game, showing more than enough fight in the loss at Orlando. No Kevin Garnett. Guys in foul trouble, but the Celts kept trying.

    The Lakers earned a sneer. The Rockets were not only without Yao but also Tracy McGrady. And they had lost, 118-78, two evenings earlier. They had the right to, as Sinatra sang, roll up into a big ball and die. Instead it was the Lakers who were in a funk.

    Phil Jackson, the Lakers coach, has nine NBA titles (six with Michael Jordan), so seemingly he understands not just the technical side of basketball but the psyches of the men who play it. Yet as Houston kept making points and L.A. kept making mistakes, Jackson was no more adept at making corrections than Madonna.

    After the game, Jackson said that the Lakers play on the road “concerns me, but what are we going to do about it now? We can’t stew on it.’’

    Others can. There’s the issue of pride. Champions – and hasn’t everyone all but conceded the finals will be between the Lakers and Cavaliers? – play like champions. That doesn’t mean necessarily that they’ll win. It does mean necessarily that they don’t embarrass themselves.

    Or pro basketball.

    You win by 40 points and 48 hours later lose by 15? Just because Jack Nicholson isn’t sitting courtside? Something is wrong.

    “You know what, you’ve just got to grind these things out, man,’’ Kobe Bryant told the media after the game. “The key now is to win by any means necessary.’’

    Not to question Kobe, who got his 32 points (if on 11 for 27 shooting), but isn’

    t that the idea every time a team takes the floor or the field or the ice, to win?

    To show up and show some courage. You’ve heard more times than needed that defense is simply hard work. Maybe the shots don’t fall, but there’s no reason you can’t do everything possible to keep the opponent’s from falling. The Lakers early on did nothing of the sort.

    Scola was scoring. Aaron Brooks, 26 points, was scoring. Who would you rather have, Kobe and Pau Gasol or Louis Scola and Aaron Brooks?

    Houston, the town, had given up. “Pulse faint for Crutch City Rockets,’’ was the headline in Thursday’s Houston Chronicle, a reference to McGrady and Yao. Houston the team had not given up.

    Los Angeles the team? We can debate that.

    Phil Jackson said he was “looking forward to Sunday’s game.’’

    Coaches always talk like that. What happened in the past, even the very recent past, is never discussed openly (although you can bet there were some aggressive conversations in private.)

    In a way, the Rockets are also looking forward to Sunday’s game. They never figured to get that far. Not with the Lakers having beaten them four straight in the regular season. Not with the Lakers holding the home-court advantage. Not with Houston losing star players.

    “We play differently on our home court,’’ Kobe Bryant insisted.

    Is that an explanation? Or an excuse?

    RealClearSports: Ryan Zimmerman Brings Thoughts of Joltin’ Joe

    By Art Spander

    The best part is we may understand how good Ryan Zimmerman is going to be. The second-best part is we may again understand how good Joe DiMaggio was.

    Zimmerman, the kid from the Washington Nationals, caught our attention there for a month. He hit in 30 consecutive games.

    The streak ended Wednesday against the Giants. The streak ended with a standing ovation. From fans of the visiting team.

    The streak ended with greater appreciation for Joe DiMaggio.

    We don’t know much very about Joltin’ Joe these days. He came before ESPN and CNN and Twitter. He retired 58 years ago. But Ryan Zimmerman, age 24, knows all he needs to know about DiMaggio.

    “Thirty games,” said Zimmerman, “makes you realize how much better 56 is than 30. What he did is pretty remarkable.”

    What Zimmerman did, in his fourth season in the majors, also was remarkable. Not Joe DiMaggio remarkable, however. Not 56-game hitting streak remarkable. Not May to July remarkable. Not never-to-be-equaled remarkable.

    “I don’t think that will ever be touched,” said Rich Aurilia. He is 37, a long-time member of the Giants, with 13 plus years of service. Been there, seen that.

    “Too many different pitchers in a game these days,” said Aurilia. “You’ll face four different guys.”

    The Giants, on Wednesday, indeed used four pitchers. Zimmerman faced only two. Starter Barry Zito got Zimmerman on ground balls twice and walked him twice, the second time, in what was thought to be Zimmerman’s last plate appearance, intentionally.

    Then, because the Nats -- finally about to beat the Giants, 6-4, after nine straight defeats, two this season -- scored three times in the seventh, Zimmerman had one final chance, against Pat Misch in the top of the ninth.

    But he grounded to shortstop Edgar Renteria for a fielder’s choice, and what had started April 8 was now finished, more to the distress of the 30,120 fans at AT&T Park than Zimmerman himself.

    As he headed to the dugout, the spectators stood and applauded and cheered. For a visiting team’s player. For the game of baseball. The gesture was not unappreciated.

    “They’ve got knowledgeable fans here,” Zimmerman said of the crowd’s response. “They know baseball. They love baseball, and it was special. Anytime you get people on the road telling you good luck and cheering for you, it means something. It was pretty cool.”

    Pete Rose had a 44-game hitting streak in 1978, and there was one of 41 games by George Sisler in 1922. Paul Molitor of Milwaukee made it to 39 in 1987 and only a few years back, in the end of 2005 and start of 2006, Jimmy Rollins had 38 in a row.

    So Zimmerman had a fine run. He made us recognize both his consistency and potential. “He helped put us on the map,” said Manny Acta, manager of the forlorn Nationals. Zimmerman also made us comprehend what DiMaggio accomplished. And he did it in San Francisco, DiMaggio’s hometown.

    Watching from the press box Wednesday was 85-year-old Charlie Silveria, who grew up here, who as a 10-year-old watched DiMaggio, then with the San Francisco Seals, hit in a Pacific Coast League record 61 straight games in 1933.

    Silveria joined Joe on the Yankees in the late 1940s and was Yogi Berra’s backup catcher. They talked about the old days. They didn’t talk much about streaks. “He was private,” reminded Silveria.

    We never learned what DiMaggio thought of hitting in 56 straight major league games. We did learn what Ryan Zimmerman thought of hitting in 30.

    “It was fun,” Zimmerman insisted. “I enjoyed it. I learned a lot going through the experience. To get a hit every single game for a month, there’s got to be a little bit of luck involved. But not wasting at bats, not swinging at bad pitches is hard to do. Every game, to put four good at bats together is not easy, especially against the talent you’re facing on the mound.”

    Streaks sneak up on us and the individuals involved. A team wins three or four in a row, and it doesn’t mean much. But all of a sudden it’s 15 in a row, and everywhere you look a clubhouse is filled with cameras and reporters.

    “I wasn’t really conscious until the media started following, about 20,” said Zimmerman. “I tried to keep it a secret as long as I could. I would have liked to keep going. I guess it will be nice to get back into the routine and not have to worry about it every day. But it was a lot of fun.”

    For himself and everybody else.
    As a reporter since 1960, Art Spander is a living treasure of sports history. A recipient of the Dick McCann Memorial Award -- given for his long and distinguished career covering professional football -- he has earned himself a spot in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. And he has recently been honored with the Lifetime Achievement Award by the PGA of America for 2009. 

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