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8:54PM

Giants still can’t hit

By Art Spander

SAN FRANCISCO — It’s impossible to dislike Bruce Bochy. He never belittles his players, never gives the press the slightest chance to find something wrong with the Giants.

Even when there is something wrong with the Giants.

They’re not hitting. Other than Angel Pagan (.377), Brandon Crawford (.311) and the new guy, Michael Morse (.306).

And since Pagan and Crawford didn’t start on Thursday, their day of rest after two night games and ahead of a trip to San Diego, the Giants couldn’t hit.

At least not well enough to beat the Dodgers, who won 2-1 Thursday before the usual sellout at AT&T Park after the Giants had taken the first two games of the series.

“Win two out every three,” said Madison Bumgarner, “you’re doing OK.” Absolutely. Win three out of three, you’re doing better.

Someone had the temerity to ask Bochy if this Giants team, as Giant teams of the past few years, was strictly dependent on pitching — which, of course it is.

“I don’t think so,” was Bochy’s answer. “I think we saw great pitching in this series (against the Giants).”

Is that why Hunter Pence is hitting .206, Pablo Sandoval .175?

“We’re not swinging the bats right now,” said the manager. “It’s hard to put runs on the board.”

Hasn’t it always been the last five years? A week ago Matt Cain held Colorado to one run. And lost, 1-0. Nightmares of the past, when Tim Lincecum went through the same problems.

Every game becomes agony, the bite-your-cuticles, hold-your-heart complications that Mike Krukow, the pitcher turned TV announcer, labeled “sweet torture.” 

Sweet if you win, that is. And how can the Giants win if they keep leaving men on base and Sandoval literally isn’t hitting his weight?   

Three times he came to the plate with Pence on base Thursday and never got a ball out of the infield.

In the last five games, the Giants scored a total 11 runs. That they won three of those is attributable to Sergio Romo, Jean Machi and others on the pitching staff.

Bumgarner started Thursday and made it only into the fifth before Bochy decided to change — even though Mad Bum had given up only one run. Then again, there were Dodgers on first and second when he was relieved by Yusmeiro Petit.

“The outside corner was hard to get today,” said Bochy of Bumgarner, who walked three and gave up six hits. Whether that was Bumgarner’s fault or the fault of home place ump Seth Buckminster can be debated.

Unarguable is the fact that Sandoval, the third-place hitter, is having a miserable time, most likely because this is the last year of his contract and he’s trying to make a big-dollar impression on whomever (Giants or any team) would sign him.

Bochy said that Sandoval should be thinking of hitting, that his agents are the ones who ought to be concerned with salaries and the like. It’s human nature, however, for a man to let the situation control his life.

“It’s got to be in his mind,” said a former Giants player.

Bochy said Sandoval, with only 11 hits, two homers and six RBI in 63 at bats is “really pressing. But it’s his job to play and not let anything else be a distraction.”

Dodgers starter Hyun-Jin Ryu was distracting enough for the Giants. He pitched a shutout for seven innings before leaving the game for a pinch hitter in the top of the eighth.

“We had the right guys up,” said Bochy, referring to when the Giants scored a run and had two more runners on, in the ninth against Kenley Jansen.

That would be Ehire Adrianza, who, taking over at second on a double-switch in the fifth, had three hits, one of those driving in Brandon Belt with San Francisco’s only run.

That would be Crawford, who pinch-hit for Joaquin Arias and flied out to end the game.

Bochy was not distraught. “The pitching,” he said about the series, “was really good for us.”

It had to be. Because the hitting was really bad for them.

“There’s not a guy out there I don’t have confidence in,” said Bochy, the general in support of his troops.

Statements such as that always are appreciated and admirable. A single at the proper time would be just as appreciated.

9:20AM

Sad September song for the Giants

By Art Spander

SAN FRANCISCO — A sad September song at AT&T Park. An autumn with nothing but memories, an autumn of dreams as faded as the leaves.

Something new for the San Francisco Giants and their fans, a final week of a season that went so awkwardly wrong that on Tuesday night the Giants again had to face the pitcher who once was their savior.

Brian Wilson out there on the mound in a Dodger uniform, throwing against the Giants the crackling, snapping, unhittable balls he once threw for them. The Dodgers, the division-champion Dodgers, getting a couple of home runs and beating the Giants, 2-1. How mortifying. How depressing.

Two of Matt Cain’s pitches were driven halfway to Oakland, one by Yasiel Puig, a couple of innings after Cain presumably hit Puig intentionally, and another by Matt Kemp. And the way the Giants can’t hit — they scored only three runs in three runs against the Yankees over the weekend — that was enough.

They’re playing for pride now, and nostalgia. Barry Zito, for the last time, was to pitch Wednesday for San Francisco. A reward. A farewell. A what-the-heck, why not?

It was supposed to be Madison Bumgarner’s turn, but Giants manager Bruce Bochy was thinking of the future — and the past. MadBum will sit out the rest of this disappointing year, having pitched one inning short of 200, while Zito gets his final chance before heading into the sunset. Or onto the roster of another team.

A seven-year contract of $127 million, which became bigger than anything Zito did or couldn’t do with a baseball. A contract of hope and controversy. Boos and jibes, but through it all Zito stood tall, acted the gentleman until the end, and in 2012 helped pitched the Giants to their World Series win.

"There were a lot of things I would have liked to go better,” Zito told the San Francisco Chronicle, “but when it's all said and done, I'll always know I helped the team win a World Series. That's huge for me."

And it remains huge for Bochy and the front office. They’re bringing Zito on stage once more, a victory lap if you will in a year when victories have been rare, for Zito (4-11 record, 5.91 ERA) and the Giants (72-85 after Tuesday night).

“I wanted to see him have one more start,” said Bochy, who deals in sentiment as well as anyone in baseball. “This is the best time. He’s done a lot. We know what he did last year for us. He has done everything we asked.”

The days dwindle down to a precious few. Such poignant lyrics. It is up to the Oakland Athletics alone to play October baseball by the bay this year. The A’s came through. The Giants are through.

There was a sequence in the top of the eighth on Tuesday night that was perfectly representative of this imperfect year for the Giants. With Kemp on first for the Dodgers and two out, reliever Jean Machi struck out A.J. Ellis. Buster Posey, the MVP, dropped the ball, which happens, but his routine throw to first for the out was short of Brandon Belt, and Ellis was on first and Kemp on third with the error.        

That rarely happens. Fortunately, for the Giants, Mark Ellis grounded out.

The Giants’ defense has been terrible this season, devastating for a team that has trouble scoring runs. The middle of the order, the big guns offensively, have failed with men on base. In the three games against the Yankees and one against L.A., the Giants got four runs total.

“We’re cold right now,” affirmed Bochy, talking as if San Francisco had a few months remaining rather than only a few games. “The series in New York, we didn’t swing the bats very well either.”

Zito will pitch then depart. That’s a given. What then happens to Tim Lincecum, who has been occasionally brilliant — the no-hitter — and frequently erratic. Do the Giants re-sign him?

What they must do is sign a power hitter, presumably to play left. What they must do is somehow persuade or order Pablo Sandoval to get into shape. He will be in his contract year in 2014. Pablo has only 13 home runs — and three were game in one game.

What they absolutely must do is pick up ground balls and throw them into a glove, not into right field or center field.

Bochy, not unexpectedly, insisted Cain pitched well, and Cain did pitch well. But the slightest mistakes, the two balls hit for home runs, are critical when a team can’t get runners home — and except for a solo homer by Tony Abreu in the fifth, the Giants couldn’t get runners home.

“We couldn’t get much going,” said Bochy.

When have they ever in this 2013 season?

6:37PM

Zito deserved a better ending

By Art Spander

SAN FRANCISCO — He deserved a better ending. Maybe not red-carpet, but not red-faced either.

Barry Zito should have been able to walk away with a smile, with the cheers of thousands ringing in his ears. That’s the way it happens in the movies. The way it happens in reality was played out on a depressing Wednesday at AT&T Park.

The guess is that the game Zito pitched against the Boston Red Sox, the game the Giants in this what-else-can-go-wrong season would lose 12-1, was his last start for San Francisco, his farewell in a year during which neither he nor his team fared well.

Zito wasn’t very effective, not that anyone expected him to be, and the Giants, who can’t field and can’t hit, were even less so. A franchise in search of itself, and reasons for the decline, surely will try someone, anyone, other than Zito from here on out — unless injury demands otherwise.

So it is time to acknowledge the man, as opposed to the player, because Barry Zito was always a man no matter how poorly he threw or how miserably he was treated by the media or the fans.

Good times — and he knew those — or bad times, Zito was mature and in control. If not always in control of a fastball or curve.

I’ve dealt with the best and the rudest in a half century of sports journalism, athletes whose response to even the most harmless of questions could be an obscenity or a quick rush to a hiding place.  

Barry Zito took the blows. What he didn’t take was the criticism as personal. He accepted it as part of the job.

Sure he had the big salary, but that’s the nature of the beast. If you had won a Cy Young Award, as did Zito with the Athletics, and you were in demand in a seller’s market, the dollars would be there.

The Giants wanted this Barry to be a softer, more kindly face of the team than the other Barry, Bonds, so they spent and acquired him.

Zito didn’t pay off. Not until last season, 2012, when needed most.

In the playoffs, in the World Series, he pitched with guile and grace. The Giants don’t win a championship without Zito. Nothing could be more apparent.

Other than the fact his days with the Giants are numbered. They sent him to the bullpen briefly, then Wednesday, gave him the opportunity to start. “He could have come out better,” said Bruce Bochy, the San Francisco manager, who is marvelously protective. “He hung a slider...”

That was smacked into the left field seats in the second inning by Will Middlebrooks. Only 2-0 at that point, but the demons were hovering.

The night before, Tuesday, the Giants won their only game of the series from Boston, a game that in itself might not have meant much but could have been seen as a small step toward the respectability that had flown with the wind.

“The season hasn’t gone the way we hoped,” Bochy had said, as if the fact had to be verbalized. It hasn’t gone the way he hoped, the front office hoped and most of all the way the fans hoped.

“But we have some pride,” Bochy said. 

And almost out of nowhere, they had a 3-2 victory over the Red Sox at AT&T Park, because Ryan Vogelsong became the pitcher he had been — and surely has a chance to be next season — and because Brayan Villarreal walked Marco Scutaro with the bases loaded in the bottom of the ninth on the only four pitches he threw.

Such a disaster, the defending World Series champion Giants, with a lousy defense, a pathetic offense and pitching that at best could be called erratic.

The way everything went right in 2012 is the way almost everything has gone wrong in 2013.

Except the attendance, the Giants now with 229 consecutive regular-season sellouts. The fans keep coming because the tickets were sold and — because, as on Tuesday — they may be rewarded.

“We have a huge fan base,” agreed Bochy. “I was disappointed in the way we played Monday night (losing 7-0).”

He was even more disappointed Wednesday. “We drifted mentally,” he said. “That shouldn’t happen playing a good team like Boston. We had played well the night before.”

So Zito will be gone in 2014. As will Tim Lincecum. Matt Cain and Madison Bumgarner, as now, continue to be the main men of a franchise built around pitching. Vogelsong’s work Tuesday night indicates he should be No. 3. And then?

Maybe the Giants obtain another starter — without Zito or Lincecum’s salaries on the ledger, there will be room financially. More likely they go after a left fielder, someone with power.

Yet whoever is on the mound or in left, the fielding must improve. There are 30 teams in the majors. The Giants rank 29th in defense.

“It’s hard to explain,” said Bochy.

He didn’t need to explain his choice of Zito, who a month earlier had been pulled from the rotation.

“I think (Zito) has earned this,” Bochy said Tuesday. “He’s a guy who has done a lot for us. I know it’s been an up-and-down year. He’s been waiting for his turn, so he gets to go first. My hope is he goes out and throws the ball great and stays in the rotation.”

He didn’t. He won’t.

7:41AM

Giants' Bochy manages in every possible way

By Art Spander

SAN FRANCISCO — They call him a manager, don’t they? Bruce Bochy manages, in every possible way. Manages his players with grace and skill. Manages his own emotions with superb calm.
  
Baseball will drive a man crazy, but only if he lets it.
  
The San Francisco Giants have done things the hard way for several seasons now. “Sweet Torture,” it was labeled by TV announcer Mike Krukow. Sweet because somehow the Giants make all the gnawed nails and deep breaths worth it.
   
As they did Wednesday at AT&T.
   
The Giants couldn’t hold a two-run lead in the ninth but as normal held their composure, and then won in the 10th, beating the Phillies, 4-3, and avoiding a sweep.
  
Not what Bochy desires, but almost what Bochy has come to expect.
   
“I’m used to it,” said Bochy. He looks more grizzled every game, but after this game, after the halt of a two-game losing streak, he also looked satisfied, a twinkle in his eyes.
   
What doesn’t break a man makes him laugh, right?
    
“These guys are entertainers,” Bochy said. If he was being sarcastic, and the possibility existed, it was hard to detect.
    
“I enjoy the game.”
    
He might have enjoyed it more if Sergio Romo didn’t give up a couple of runs in the ninth, but that’s baseball. Imperfection is everywhere. If you lose 62 times during a major league season, you’ll be a winner. It helps to be philosophical, maybe even fatalistic.
    
“Sergio’s been so good,” said Bochy. Which, certainly, he wasn’t on this afternoon by the Bay, but you’re not going to hear Bochy rip his players. You’re more likely to hear him credit the opposition, as he did with the Phils. “They’ve got a good club too,” he pointed out.
  
A club that beat the Giants on Monday and Tuesday.
    
What Bochy wanted was for his starting pitcher, Barry Zito, to get deep into the game, giving an overworked bullpen a rest. Zito responded, giving up only one run in seven plus innings and even adding a run-scoring single.
   
But Philly scoring twice in the next inning, off Romo, meant for a third straight game, after the Padres, after the Dodgers, Zito was not involved in the decision, even if in a larger sense, walking none, giving up only four hits and one run, he was very involved.
  
His control was a reason the Giants never trailed. It’s considerably easier when a team isn’t always playing from behind
  
“What a job Barry did,” Bochy said with emphasis. “He was throwing strikes. We’re not clicking on offense. It’s too bad he didn’t get the win, but it was a quality start.”
   
After the squandered lead, there also was a quality finish. Buster Posey was hauled out of the dugout on what was supposed to be his day of rest and opened the bottom of the 10th with a single. Then, after moving to second on a sacrifice and third on a wild pitch, he scored the winning run on a single by Andres Torres, who also had begun the game on the bench.
  
For Torres, who was with the Mets in 2012 before returning to San Francisco this season, it was the fourth walk-off hit of his career.  It also was the Giants fifth walk-off win of the season and — time to exhale — their third in the last six games.
  
“I just tried to be aggressive,” said Torres. “I was looking for a slider. I just reacted. I think it was a fastball.”
  
Torres was buried under celebrating teammates, as was Buster Posey on Friday night and then Guillermo Quiroz on Saturday night after game-winning home runs against the Dodgers.
   
“This type of win is a confidence booster to us,” said a magnanimous Zito, “to get it done in the bottom of the 9th or 10th when the other side battles back.”
   
Zito’s performance had to be a particular boost to a franchise built on starting pitching but in the past two weeks rarely getting the starting pitching it needed.
   
Matt Cain did achieve his first win of the season Sunday, and Tim Lincecum, after a wobbly beginning, lasted seven innings on Tuesday night, if in a loss.
   
“It was important for me to be aggressive,” said Zito, “to make those guys swing their bats so I could keep my pitch count down.”
   
He met that requirement, lasting 101 pitches, the last one smacked into left for a single by Carlos Ruiz. Santiago Casilla took over for Zito but hurt his knee and two batters later was replaced by Jeremy Affeldt.
   
“We’re going to have a hiccup now and then,” said Bochy.
     
The cure for hiccups is water sipped slowly, we’re advised. Or in a game as this one, a run-scoring single by Andres Torres.
    
Entertainment? Whatever Bochy wants to call it is fine with the fans if it’s a win.

4:29PM

The waiting ends for Tim Lincecum

By Art Spander
 

GLENDALE, Ariz. –- It was baseball with a history, out here in the suburbs of Phoenix, Giants vs. Dodgers. An exhibition, but for Tim Lincecum, seeking reassurance, more like an exhibit, of himself.

He had to show us, show baseball, that he wouldn’t be the same as last year.
   
Tim had been the man for the Giants, two Cy Young Awards, a World Series win. Then things went haywire in 2012, until the postseason when, as a reliever, he came through. Still, he had to be a starter, not a reliever, not at $20 million per.
    
Giants against Dodgers, Lincecum against his fears. His first start of spring training on Tuesday. More acutely, the first time he would face live batters, even in practice. A rainout prevented even that bit of normal preparation.
   
He was waiting. Giants Nation was waiting.
   
Lincecum threw 38 pitches in 1 1/3 innings, as stiff a workout as allowed in his situation. Though he would be charged with three runs in a game that would end tied, 8-8, after San Francisco got consecutive two-run homers in the ninth from Brock Bond and Brett Pill, Timmy was not at all displeased.
   
On the contrary. The doubts have fled.
   
No worries about mechanics. No thoughts about what had been, only what is.
   
“It wasn’t a question of whether I was going to throw strikes,”  said Lincecum, who at times last season could not. “It was a question of how I was going to throw those strikes. I didn’t feel out of whack.”
    
Camelback Ranch, the complex that serves as home for the Dodgers — “Whole new team. Whole new 'Tude” — and Chicago White Sox, has a beautiful stadium of rust-colored steel that blends perfectly with the desert. It seemed a proper place for a renaissance, if only partly filled — attendance, 5,019, and of that total numerous Giants fans.
    
The afternoon began long before the first pitch with a recording over the public address system of the Eagles’ “Hotel California,” hardly inappropriate with the state’s two National League powers about to face each other. Then, came one of the Giants’ AT&T Park anthems, Journey and “Don’t Stop Believing.”
    
Which, through his season of 2012, when Lincecum was 10-15 with a 5.18 earned run average, he never did. He had lost too much weight, which observers said led to him losing his fastball and all those games.
  
For 2013, he gained pounds and trimmed his shoulder-length locks. Hard to know if the hair style had any effect, but Lincecum was effective.
 
“I missed only a couple pitches high,” said Lincecum. “I was thinking about a spot and hitting it, My timing was good.”
  
He will be 29 in June, an age when a pitcher should be at his best, still youthfully strong but also well experienced. His No. 1 place in the rotation has been ceded, unintentionally, to Matt Cain, who emphasized his brilliance with a perfect game. Add Madison Bumgarner, Ryan Vogelsong and the comeback of Barry Zito, and Lincecum may have to battle for a start.
   
Unless he’s back to 2008 or 2009, and those Cys.
  
“It was really good to have the atmosphere of being in a game again,” said Lincecum. “It was nice to face hitters again. I was kind of locked in. Other than the slider to (Jeremy) Moore (resulting in a two-run double in the second, Lincecum’s last pitch) I wasn’t too bad.”
   
For manager Bruce Bochy, still laughing about playing a second straight tie — it was 9-9 against the White Sox at Scottsdale on Monday — “wasn’t too bad” is an understatement. Bochy was more than satisfied.
  
“I thought Timmy did real well,” said Bochy. “He had good rhythm with his pitches and threw strikes. He looked very comfortable, and I thought he had good stuff.”
   
A former catcher, Bochy offers a keen eye on pitching, one of the reasons the Giants’ staff has been so strong — and one of the reasons San Francisco has won the World Series twice the last three years. He and general manager Brian Sabean fully understand that pitching dominates a game.
  
“What I saw,” Bochy said of Lincecum’s performance, “was a consistent delivery and good rhythm. Last year, he got out of sync. He knows it. He fought hard to get it back.”
   
Last year, with fans and teammates watching nervously and expecting the worst, which too often came, Lincecum would do well for three or four, or maybe five, innings, and then, bam. A walk, a double, a single, another double. So quickly it would come apart, and there would come Bochy taking the ball to hand to a reliever.
    
“Today was different,” said Bochy. “He looked very consistent.”
   
What the manager nearly said, but did not, was that Tim Lincecum looked very much as we expected Tim Lincecum to look: a great pitcher.

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