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10:24PM

Giants trying to take two steps forward without a step back

By Art Spander

SAN FRANCISCO — These Giants are different, certainly from those of the championship years, even the years when they weren’t champions but were successful. Different, they believe, from last year, when the bottom fell out and the fans’ faith fell off.

These Giants are trying to take two steps forward without more than one step back, a team in which every situation evolves into an incident, good or bad.

A win, in a game or more notably in a series, is large. A defeat, such as that 15-2 debacle on Wednesday afternoon at AT&T Park, is taken as a sign that it’s going to be another awful season.

Already, a baseball expert from ESPN, Buster Olney, has suggested that by early summer if the Giants are out of the pennant race, which could happen, they trade Madison Bumgarner, which won’t happen. Hey, it’s not even May, and while San Francisco is down in the standings it’s only two games below .500.

The Dodgers and Padres come to AT&T consecutively, and in the post-game presser Wednesday someone asked Giants manager Bruce Bochy if it was time to make a move. On the field, not the roster.

Bochy pointed out that, despite being routed by the Washington Nationals, the Giants won the series two games to one, as they did the previous series against the Angels at Anaheim.

“Well, I think it’s early to make our move,” said Bochy. “We won two series. There’s no being content with that, and we got a good team (the NL champion Dodgers) coming in. Yeah, we do need to be more consistent here. We got to get more runs up there. But with the exception of today, we’ve been pretty good on the mound.”

But Wednesday, with Jeff Samardzija making his second start after spending time on the disabled list, they were not good at all, the Nats scoring three runs in the top of the first and bunches thereafter.

“It’s important we have a good home stand before we hit the road,” Bochy said.

Mac Williamson, who had homered in the previous two games against the Nats, didn’t play Wednesday. “He had a stiff neck, and we scratched him,” Bochy said. “He should be back Friday against the Dodgers.”

Not that Williamson’s presence would have meant much. “It was one of those games that started rough,” said Bochy, doing his Stephen Colbert routine, “and got worse.”

And with Cy Young winner Max Scherzer pitching for the Nats, even if a bit imperfectly — but only a bit — the Giants had no chance in this one.

Samardzija only made it into the fourth. He was charged with six of the 15 runs. “Just one of those days,” said Samardzija. “No explanation for it. Yeah, a pitcher wants to get that good rhythm going. When you get a chance against a good lineup, you want to get guys early and often.”

He barely got them late and infrequently.

Good pitchers, indeed, have bad days. On another team, a contender such as the Dodgers, the Red Sox or the Diamondbacks, it wouldn’t matter. But on the Giants, everything matters.

Such as the very ineffective pitching of lefthanded reliever Josh Osich (four hits, four runs, 1 1/3 innings Wednesday). Osich was sharp during the exhibition season, but he has an 8.10 earned run average in the games that count this spring.

“They’re not on track,” Bochy said about Osich and Corey Gearrin, who although not allowing a run has a 6.14 ERA. ”Osich had some good moments today. Corey is just battling himself instead of going out there and attacking the strike zone.

“This game is all about confidence. You get shaken, you don’t throw with as much conviction. Just let it go. For these guys, there’s a fine line when the other team gets in run-scoring position. You want guys to expand, but there’s a fine line there in turning it up a notch with men on base.”

The Giants are hovering, they need a strong bullpen. They need Mac Williamson to continue his hitting. What they don’t need, after he’s healthy once more, is to trade Madison Bumgarner.

That would be dozens of steps backward without any forward.

 

9:43PM

Giants: Glass half full, bleachers half empty

By Art Spander

SAN FRANCISCO — So we deal with that question of whether the glass is half full or the bleachers are half empty, which they were again Wednesday at AT&T Park when the Giants played well enough to tease but not to win.

These are new times for the San Francisco nine. You lose nearly 100 games, you’re not thinking of championships — unless your brain is half empty — but of progress.

And although the home stand ended with a 7-3 loss to the Goldschmidts, a.k.a., the Diamondbacks, the Giants seem to be improved.

They are 5-6 in this young season. A year ago after 11 games they were 4-7. One small step for the Giants, one big leap for, well, not Hunter Pence, who has lurched and swung (and missed) his away to a .194 batting average so far.

Of course, one of the new guys in town, Evan Longoria, is — yikes —hitting .132.  What’s with these free agents who changed teams and leagues? Longoria and the guy the Giants wanted but didn’t get, Giancarlo Stanton, about to strike out more in two weeks than Joe DiMaggio did in a season?  

Yes, the Giants need power, as verified again by losing to Arizona. On Tuesday night, slumping Paul Goldschmidt of the D-backs hit a ball nearly to Alameda, although the Giants managed to win.

On Wednesday, he hit another just as far for another homer and one far enough for a double, prompting a journalist to semi-seriously ask Giants manager Bruce Bochy whether Goldschmidt ought to be walked at every at bat, as opponents once did with Barry Bonds.

“He was one of the coldest hitters when he came here,” Bochy said of Goldschmidt, who still is only at .190 with two homers. “He took advantage of some mistakes, some pitches up in the strike zone. But the guy behind him (A.J. Pollock) has been swinging the bat pretty good (now .283), and you don’t want to start putting a lot of guys on right away.”

The Giants had their own guys on, early, and Buster Posey hit a two-run homer to tie the game, 3-3, in the fifth. But San Francisco is missing its three top starting pitchers, Madison Bumgarner, Johnny Cueto and Jeff Samardzija, forcing new kids to start and everyone to work in relief.

The new kids, Tyler Beede on Tuesday night and Andrew Suarez on Wednesday, both making their major league debuts, weren’t bad at all. The bullpen? Can we talk about the attendance (35,041)? Yes, a new era.

In six of their 11 games, the Giants have scored two runs or fewer. So after the Wednesday defeat, someone asked Bochy about the offense, as it were. “These guys are too good,” he replied, implying the hitters will hit eventually.

On the trip, the Giants play the Padres, the Diamondbacks (yes, again) and then the Angels. Scoring a run or two against Los Angeles or Arizona won’t be enough.

“Hunter Pence’s timing is off,” said Bochy, still believing his outfielder can overcome the years and the injuries. “He’s pulling out a little bit. Maybe he’s trying to hit home runs.”

He doesn’t have a single one.

What Sam Dyson is trying to do as a relief pitcher is get batters out when runners are on. In the top of the sixth, he failed. Replacing Suarez after Ketel Marte doubled, Dyson faced Goldschmidt, who banged one off the left field fence for his own double, an RBI and a D-backs lead.

“He’s been up and down,” Bochy said of Dyson. “He’s a guy with experience. We put him in a tight ballgame. We’ve got to get him on track. I’d like to think he’s going to find his game here. That pitch to Goldschmidt was nowhere near where he wanted it.

“This bullpen has been taxed quite a bit. He knew we needed him.“

That they do. They need everybody. They also need a man who can hit home runs like Paul Goldschmidt.

 

9:05AM

Only an exhibition game? Not Giants-Dodgers

By Art Spander

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. — Only an exhibition game? Not when the Giants play the Dodgers. Not with the image of Marichal and Roseboro still hovering in the mind. Not with the memories of Reggie Smith climbing into the stands at Candlestick to try and attack a fan. Not with the Dodgers finishing 40 games ahead of the Giants last season.

“You wake up,” said Giants first baseman Brandon Belt, “you know you’re playing the Dodgers and everything changes inside of you.”

What didn’t change was the Dodgers pummeling the Giants, 9-3. Wait, a week ago the Giants pummeled the Dodgers by the same score, 9-3. So that’s it. They end the Cactus League at 1-1. But in truth that’s not it.

Not when a century of history, beginning back when they were the Brooklyn Dodgers and New York Giants, shadows them. Not when tales of Bobby Thomson’s pennant-winning home run, the “shot heard ‘round the world,’ are revived. Not when thoughts of the brawls and the boos never die.

Steven Duggar, the rookie centerfielder, who may or may not be on the roster when the Giants break camp, who Sunday, with Scottsdale Stadium packed to the extreme (12,141) hit his third homer of the spring, sensed that this was no ordinary exhibition.

“There was more buzz,” he said. “You could feel the vibe.”

Once they were in neighboring boroughs in New York City. Then they shifted to California, some 400 miles apart. But for spring training, ever since the Dodgers moved into their complex at Camelback Ranch in Glendale, the clubs are probably separated by only 25 miles.

And their fans are everywhere, attired in Giants black or Dodgers blue — and aren’t those two colors symbolic of the brawling between the teams, and unfortunately occasionally between the fans?

“Beat L.A.” is the normal chant from a Giants crowd. You didn’t hear that Sunday at Scottsdale. What you did hear were boos when Yasiel Puig’s name was announced and after he doubled in the first inning to drive in a run for the Dodgers, one of his two hits.

You also heard, “Let’s go Dodgers.” How did those people get in?  

How Chris Berman, the retired ESPN announcer, a professed Giants fan — you don’t have to be impartial in television — got in was through the Giants. He was invited by team management and even went out to the mound to change pitchers in the seventh inning

“A bit of levity,” said Bruce Bochy, the Giants’ manager.

After last season, the Giants can use some. Last place. The Dodgers in first, en route to the World Series. Spring games are not supposed to mean much — other than Giants vs. Dodgers — but a study of the starting lineups for each team indicates L.A. is far superior.

The heart of Dodgers' order, three through six, is Cody Bellinger (who Sunday had a hit); Puig (who had two hits and an RBI); Yasmani Grandal (who had a home run and two RBI); and Joc Pederson (who was hitless). Puig is batting .400.

The Giants' strength, if they have one, is pitching. Jeff Samardzija started Sunday for San Francisco and was decent for his third start. He did yell at home plate up Mark Ripperger in the second after a pitch was called a ball. The crowd picked up his displeasure and hooted a bit, but that was about it. Other than Samardija’s three walks in the inning.

Samardzija said he enjoyed the reactions of the crowd, which lifted the game from the ordinary. “They had a good turnout,” said Samardzija, of the Dodgers fans, “and we had a great turnout. It gives the game a little more excitement when the fans are into it more.”

Most spring games, Bochy is unconcerned with what occurs. He cared about this one. “We didn’t play that well,” he conceded.

“The rivalry? Look at the sellout. We wish we had played better, but we did beat them at their place. There’s always added interest when these two teams play, a lot of noise.”

Baseball as it should be. The games don’t show in the standings, but they certainly do to the fans.

7:51PM

For Austin Jackson, a new team and old values

By Art Spander

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. — He was out there for the first time this spring training, and Austin Jackson, whose career includes a World Series — against the Giants, no less — and a catch so spectacular it’s a YouTube staple, went about it as the major leaguer that he is.

A new team, a new season, but old values. Only an exhibition game, but in effect a way of life. You’re always on display.

In his final season, 1951, Joe DiMaggio was asked why he played so hard when at his age, 36, and with a bad leg he could have eased up a bit. “There may be some kid who never saw me play before,” supposedly was DiMaggio’s answer.

Austin Jackson understands. His teams, a half dozen of them — the Giants, with whom he signed in January, are his sixth — have been winners. “I take a lot of pride in that,” he said. “Anytime you’re on the field, you want to win. You’ve got to have passion and respect for the game. It’s ingrained in us.”

In Jackson’s first Cactus League game of 2018, the Giants were not winners. They were beaten by the Angels, 11-4, in a game that was 0-0 in the fifth. Jackson, starting in center field, went 0-for-2.

“It’s kind of funny,” he said in the postgame clubhouse, “me signing with the team that beat us in the World Series.” That "us" was Kansas City in 2012. “But that’s how it goes. Every game, I think about getting back to the Series.”

Jackson turned 31 in January. He’s young, but at same time in experience and attention he’s old. Back in 1999, Baseball America named Jackson the best 12-year-old player in the country. Three years later, he was the best 15-year-old. At Ryan High in his hometown of Denton, Texas, he also played basketball and was ranked by Athlon Sports the No. 10 prep point guard in the nation.

Then, after being offered a basketball scholarship to Georgia Tech, he signed with the Yankees. A journey that took many by surprise has not changed his attitude. He’s doing what he wants to do.

“The first game,” he said of his play on Thursday, “is exciting, like the first day of school. It was difficult. My legs got heavy, because I hadn’t played for so long. But it felt good.”

Life, we’re told, is about timing, about being in the right place and then making the best of where you are. Jackson undeniably did that last August when, playing for the Cleveland Indians, he chased Hanley Ramirez's deep shot to the right-center bullpen wall at Fenway Park. He reached up with his gloved left hand for the ball, reached out with his right hand for the barrier and then flipped upside down into the bullpen.

He traveled a reported 97 feet, probably got as much TV time in replays as imaginable and became a part of what Major League Baseball declared “the play of the year.” It was one of those plays that no matter how many times you view it — and Jackson said he has seen it maybe 100 times — seems impossible.

“Most people talk about the catch,” Jackson said, “but my friend noticed I was hanging on to the wall for dear life. I just kind of flipped over and landed on the ground, my arm still on the wall.”

He won’t be able to do that at AT&T Park, where the fences are higher, but what he can do is bring the skills that help a team.

“I’ve learned a lot being with great players,” he said. ”When I’m out there, I want to trust the guy beside me.”

The way teams have put their trust in Austin Jackson.

 

4:24PM

Of Samardzija, Mays and strawberries in the wintertime

By Art Spander

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. — Baseball still gets down to one person throwing a ball — pitching — and another trying to hit it. As it has been for 150 years. Before analytics and metrics.

When scouts saw a kid who could do it all and told management, “Sign him.”

A kid like Joe DiMaggio. Or Stan Musial. Or the man who was holding court in the Giants spring clubhouse, Willie Mays.

In an hour or so, Jeff Samardzija would make his first start of the exhibition season, work what he thought was effectively, at least to a point of self-satisfaction, an inning and third, allowing four runs Tuesday in a game that San Francisco would win, 14-12, over the Diamondbacks.

Then Samardzija would head to his locker, at the opposite end of the clubhouse from the table where Mays sits anytime he chooses, and Samardzija would lament the trend to replacing pitchers by the book, not on how they were performing, and the obsession in the sport on items such as launch angle and spin rate.

Whatever angle Mays launched balls at during a Hall of Fame career never will be known. But he hit 660 home runs, and missed two full seasons, 1952 and ’53, when he was in the Army — “I probably would have hit 40 each year,” he said unpretentiously. He also played home games for 23-plus seasons at cold, windy Candlestick Park.    

Oh, was he special. From the start. “We got to take care of this kid,” Garry Schumacher, the publicist of the New York Giants, said in the 1950s. “We got to make sure he gets in no trouble because this is the guy — well, I'm not saying he's gonna win pennants by himself, but he's the guy who'll have us all eating strawberries in the wintertime.”

At this moment, at his table, the top autographed by Mays — “They sell it for charity,” he pointed out — Willie was eating a taco and, between bites, asking for a Coke.

“No Cokes,” he was told. “They want the players to cut down on sugar.” So Mays settled for water.

Willie will be 87 in May. His vision is limited. “I’m not supposed to drive at night,” he said to a journalist who also has eye problems. “But I feel good.”

It has been said one of the joys of baseball is that it enables different generations to talk to each other. A grandfather and his grandson, separated by 50 or so years, may have little in common. Except baseball. The game is timeless.   

Three strikes and Mays was out. Three strikes and Buster Posey’s out. Batters still are thrown out by a step. “Ninety feet between bases is the closest man has come to perfection,” wrote the great journalist Red Smith.

The closest any ballplayer has come to perfection is Mays. We know he could hit. He could run, steal any time wanted, third base as well as second. Defense? The late San Francisco Chronicle baseball writer Bob Stevens said of a Mays triple, “The only man who could have caught it, hit it.”

On Tuesday, writers were hitting it off with Mays when rookie pitcher Tyler Beede, the Giants’ first pick in the 2014 draft, sat down next to Mays. They were separated by some 62 years — Beede is 24 — but instantly they began a conversation.

“Where you from?” Mays asked Beede, a star at Vanderbilt, who is from Chattanooga.

“You play golf? Mays asked. Beede said he did. “Twelve handicap,” he added.

Mays laughed. “Got to watch you 12-handicap guys. Pitchers, they’re always playing golf. They have the time between starts.”

Willie was a golfer until he no longer could see where his shots landed. He started the game at San Francisco’s Lake Merced Golf Club, struggled for a while — “I can’t believe I can’t hit a ball that’s just sitting there, not moving,” he said when learning — but became accomplished.

Then Pablo Sandoval dropped by, almost literally, practically sitting in Mays' lap and wrapping Willie in a bear hug. “I need some money, I’m broke,” said Pablo. The two laughed.

Willie is rich. In memories and friends.