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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    The City That Knows How, and knows baseball

    SAN FRANCISCO -- They call it The City That Knows How. Ryan Zimmerman wouldn’t disagree. It’s also the city that, despite the digs about fans on cell phones or wandering about the park looking at the bay, knows baseball. And knows Ryan Zimmerman.

    The streak, Zimmerman’s streak, came to an end Wednesday. It was halted at AT&T Park by several Giants pitchers, most notably Barry Zito.

    In 30 straight games, Ryan Zimmerman, at age 24 one of the great young ones, had at least one base hit. Until Wednesday.

    Zimmerman’s Washington Nationals finally beat the Giants, after nine consecutive defeats, two this season, whipped them, 6-3. And that softened some of the disappointment. After all the basis of sport is to win. But next to that, there always are numbers.

    The Giants fans, and attendance was announced as 30,120, wanted a win. That didn’t happen. They also wanted Ryan Zimmerman, of the Washington Nats, to go on hitting. That didn’t happen either.

    So, when Zimmerman in the top of the ninth hit a grounder, which San Francisco shortstop Edgar Renteria turned into a force play, when the hard reality had hit that Zimmerman would end the game without getting a hit, the crowd rose and applauded.

    A standing ovation for a visiting player. A standing ovation for a rare achievement.

    “They’ve got very knowledgeable fans out here,’’ Zimmerman said later in the clubhouse. “They know baseball. They love baseball, and it was special. Anytime you get people on the road telling you good luck and are cheering for you, it means something. It was pretty cool.’’

    For more than a month, starting April 8, Zimmerman hadn’t played a game without getting at least one hit. Until he went 0-for-3 with a couple of walks. One of those walks, in the seventh inning with Nats on second and third, was intentional, but neither Zimmerman nor his manager, Manny Acta, was bitter about the tactic.

    “I understand completely,’’ said Acta. “I would have done the same thing.’’

    Ryan was the 26th player to hit in 30 consecutive games or more. Pete Rose got to 44 in 1978, which sounds like a lot until compared to the iconic mark of 56 straight by Joe DiMaggio in 1941.

    DiMaggio was a San Franciscan, of course. Grew up here, as did his younger brother Dom, who died only the other day. A lot of these young athletes are unable to reference the legends of their sport, but Zimmerman knows full well who and what about his game, about our game.

    “I almost snuck one through there in the ninth,’’ he said in reflection. “They made good pitches on me today. It’s tough to get hits. Thirty games makes you realize how much better 56 is than 30. But this was fun. I enjoyed it. I learned a lot going through the experience.

    “You don’t usually have people on the road saying they hope you get a hit. It’s cool. I think that’s one of the best parts of sports. Fans actually appreciate the game whether you’re on their team or not.’’

    They appreciate the game in the Bay Area. The garlic fries and the big glove in left and across the bay the world championship pennants flying at the Oakland Coliseum may be worthy of conversation. But the ones who show up in the stands are not merely spectators, they’re fans in every sense of the word.

    They’ll cheer a well-placed sacrifice bunt as much as they will a double to left. They love hanging the letter “K’’ on the wall after every strikeout by a home pitcher. And they understood what Ryan Zimmerman was doing. His uniform didn’t matter. It was his play, his hitting, that counted.

    “We want to thank the Giants fans,’’ said Acta, the Nats skipper. “What they did, the standing ovation, was very classy. You don’t get that everywhere you go.’’

    The Nationals, the former Montreal Expos, have the worst record in the majors. The only time they had been mentioned was in the punch line of jokes, such as the one borrowed about the old Washington Senators built on George Washington: “First in war, first in peace, last in the National League.’’

    Then Ryan Zimmerman started hitting. And until Wednesday didn’t stop.

    “I think we’ve gotten a little of attention because of him,’’ Acta said. “It puts us on the map, what he did.’’

    What he did was stunning, even for Zimmerman.

    “To get a hit every single game, there’s got to be a little bit of luck involved,’’ said Zimmerman, “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.’’

    Zimmerman did it for 30 straight games. It was worthy of a standing ovation from The City That Knows How.