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6:40PM

Giants offense may be as good as they hoped

By Art Spander

SAN FRANCISCO — Only one game, but what a game. A game that might lead to a trend and, at the least, stopped a three-game losing streak. A game in which the offense that the Giants hoped they had, an offense the Giants needed, was alive and well.

This Giants lineup is supposed to be good, perhaps outstanding. Buster Posey, Brandon Belt and Brandon Crawford already were there. Then they added Andrew McCutchen and Evan Longoria, and the days of losing 2-1 or 3-2 — or, worse, 1-0 — were supposed to be over.

Technically, they were, but in the previous three games before Saturday the Giants scored, in order, three runs, three runs and one run, a total of seven. And they lost all three.

But finally, everything clicked. Balls were flying into the corners. Players were flying around the bases.

Brandon Crawford had a home run, double, single and four runs batted in. The other Brandon, Belt, had two hits and an RBI. McCutchen had two doubles and a single. Miguel Gomez, the fill-in second baseman (and in the ninth inning, an outfielder), had two hits and two runs scored.

And most importantly, the Giants had a 9-4 win over the Rockies at AT&T Park, where the wind was reminiscent of Candlestick Park and the victory reminiscent of those World Series years.

“It takes time,” said Giants manager Bruce Bochy of the team's hitting. “These guys are good, but this is what we were expecting. They’re good hitters.”

In the early part of this ’18 season, Belt has been an excellent hitter. He has 10 home runs. He’s hitting .308. He has 26 RBI.

“I thought this is where I could be,” said Belt, 30, in his eighth season with San Francisco. “But until now, it hasn’t been the case. I feel comfortable at bat.”

Belt worked on his swing during spring training. He’s always been a patient hitter, as that record 21-pitch at bat against the Angels showed recently. Now he’s more aggressive.

Surely having Buster Posey (.307 after two hits Saturday) ahead of him in the lineup and Even Longoria after him (although Longoria so far has to match what people were hoping) has aided Belt.

You look at the Dodgers, Joc Pederson, Yasmani Grandal, Cody Bellinger, Yasiel Puig and once again Justin Turner, and you find power and consistency, what seemingly the Giants lacked and a reason L.A. finished 40 games ahead of San Francisco a year ago.

But now, the Giants have some punch.

“We’re better this year,” said Bochy, “and we’re not there yet. We haven’t hit our stride.”

Crawford, the All-Star shortstop, is hitting his — and hitting the ball. He was 3-for-5 Saturday with a home run and four RBI.

Nothing is permanent in sport. A kicker may change his steps on field goals, a golfer the angle of his swing. Unintentionally, of course. Crawford said he got advice from teammates, including Pablo Sandoval, and raised his bat ever so slightly. His batting average has been raised more than slightly, to .302.

“And our bullpen has been really good,” said Bochy, knowing full well in the end that pitching wins games. On Saturday, Will Smith, back after a year following Tommy John surgery, Pierce Johnson, Sam Dyson and Tony Watson didn’t give up a run after they followed starter Chris Stratton, who went five innings and gained the victory.

After Sunday, the Giants go on the road. They’ll be around the .500 mark. Madison Bumgarner is throwing again. Jeff Samardzija appears to have regained his touch. 

Maybe there’s a summer of success on the horizon.

7:57AM

Bochy has a new view of McCutchen and Longoria

By Art Spander

SAN FRANCISCO — The thinking last year, misled as it might have been, was that the Giants would sign Giancarlo Stanton, the free agent with the big bat. But of course he went to the Yankees, so San Francisco ended up trading for Evan Longoria and Andrew McCutchen, who, well, aren’t Giancarlo Stanton.

But as Giants manager Bruce Bochy explained, they have attributes that, from the opposing dugout, were not as apparent as they have turned out to be.

Numbers were only part of the equation, said Bochy on a Monday night when the Giants returned from an awful road trip — they were almost zero for Pennsylvania — and, in un-Giants-like style, got home runs, doubles and a 10-7 victory over the Cincinnati Reds.

McCutchen, obtained from Pittsburgh, had a couple of those doubles, his 1,499th and 1,500th hits in the majors. Longoria, who came from Tampa Bay, had the other and a single.

After the victory that pushed the Giants back to .500 (21-21), Bochy gave a baseball man’s observations about skills that a fan or journalist may not understand.

“When you watch those great players with tremendous talent, from the other side,” said Bochy, “you are hoping they don’t hurt you and beat you in some way. But you do appreciate the talent they have. Until you have a chance to see them on an everyday basis, to work with them, you don’t appreciate how good they are.

“Five-tool players (hit, run, throw, field, hit with power). The ball (McCutchen) hit in center would have been out of every other ballpark. He’s got speed. Doing a great job in right field. You watch those guys every day and have a basis on how good they are.”

They had company. In the eighth inning of a game that would feature 27 hits, Brandon Belt hit his seventh home run of the season. Earlier shortstop Brandon Crawford, who would have been rested if so many infielders weren’t injured, had two doubles and drove in two runs.

The evening was unusual. The small crowd (36,156 announced) seemed just as interested — maybe more interested — in the Warriors' playoff victory over the Houston Rockets.

A 3.5 earthquake centered across the bay in Oakland was felt in the stands. And the Giants, after losing six in a row at Philly and Pittsburgh, won their second in a row.

“We played well tonight,” affirmed Bochy, who was less happy with the performances on the road. “It’s tough travel coming back from Pittsburgh. But we were ready to play. I just loved the energy.”

And the runs. Every time it appeared the Giants would break things open, going in front 6-1 in the third, then 10-4 in the eighth, the Reds, who were on a six-game win streak and had swept the Dodgers in L.A., got close — if never in front.

“It was important we got those runs,” said Bochy. “Important to start a home stand this way.”

Chris Stratton was the Giants' starter, but he came out after five innings, having been battered for two homers and four runs.

“We’re fortunate we hit tonight,” said Bochy, “because they were scoring runs too. Those are the things that win ballgames, clutch hitting. Really through our lineup, we have professional hitters who know how to drive in runs. They have a nose for an RBI.”

On the 4-6 trip (which started with three wins in Atlanta, followed by four losses in Philly and two more in Pittsburgh), the Giants had a nose for the strikeout. Then Sunday, they beat the Pirates 5-0. Exhale.

Everything that went wrong suddenly went right. On Monday, catcher Buster Posey threw out Rosell Herrera trying to steal in the sixth, halting a Reds rally.

“To me, that was on one of the turning points of the game,” said Bochy. “That was a beautiful throw.”

9:04PM

Giants ahead of last year — and ahead of the Dodgers

By Art Spander

SAN FRANCISCO — Bruce Bochy had his own vision. ”We’re not where we were hoping to be,” said the Giants manager. But they’re ahead of last year and ahead of the Dodgers, which isn’t all that bad.

Especially considering the start — two weeks ago, they had lost four more games than they had won. Especially considering the injuries — no Johnny Cueto or Jeff Samardzija for a while, and still no Madison Bumgarner.

But there they are after Sunday’s 4-2 win over the Dodgers, winners of three straight series, winners of six of 10 from Los Angeles — ridiculous that two teams play each other 10 times in April, even historical rivals — and at .500 for the season as May approaches.

Oh yeah, for those whose vocabulary consists of two words, “Beat L.A.,” a chant heard frequently among the sellout crowd of 42,020 at AT&T Park, although a sizeable percentage was heard cheering, “Let’s go Dodgers,” the Giants, supposed also-rans, are 14-14, compared to the 12-15 of the defending National League champion Dodgers.

It’s early. That’s the baseball mantra whether you’re off to a good start or a poor start. But this start has to be encouraging, with Evan Longoria doing what was needed when they got him in a trade over the winter, and Brandon Belt showing patience (that 21-pitch at bat against the Angels) and power (a run-scoring double Sunday and six home runs).

The Giants are getting the long ball. The Giants are getting solid pitching, Ty Blach going six innings, giving up six hits and two runs; then competent work by Sam Dyson and Tony Watson, and then Hunter Strickland, the closer, going 1-2-3 in the ninth.

That’s what the Giants couldn’t do a year ago, burst with a big home run, then cut off an opponent’s rally. You’ve got to hit the ball out of the park these days. You’ve always had to shut down the other team if you’ve had the lead in the ninth.

On Saturday, the Giants and Dodgers had a long day’s journey into night, a makeup of a rainout and then a scheduled game, a day-night doubleheader. And in the afternoon, the Giants gave up 15 runs for the second time in three games.

The argument could be made then that the win in the second game, a true nightcap as the announcers used to call them with play not starting until 7:30 p.m., was San Francisco’s biggest game of the spring.

Down early, the Giants won. They had a chance Sunday to get to .500, and they made good use of the opportunity. Being even is so much bigger psychologically than being one game below.

“Both teams were tired,” said Bochy of the Saturday marathon. “Longoria’s homer gave us a jump start. We wanted to get on the board first. You always want to score early. That home run was big.”

So was Blach, who had that opening-day shutout of the Dodgers, then lost to them and has now beat them again.

“One of those things,“ said Bochy of Blach’s effectiveness against L.A. “I’m sure he gets caught up in the tension. The fans get into it, here or down there. He just seems to pick it up against them. He’s getting back to who he is.”

So is Longoria, who was struggling, perhaps trying too hard to prove that the Giants made the right deal in acquiring him. He was fifth in the batting order Sunday, behind Buster Posey, who was third, and Belt. In the first inning, with two outs and nobody on, Posey doubled, Belt walked and Longoria hit his sixth homer of the young season.

“It’s always up to the heart of the order over the course of a season to drive in runs,” said Bochy. “That’s what they’re there for, what they’re paid to do. Sure the table-setters get on, but those guys ... you lean on those guys.”

Those guys give the other guys, the pitchers, the ability to throw the ball without worrying that every run will be critical, even thought with the Giants it’s usually the situation.

“When we have a lead, like we had, we can attack,” said Blach. “We don’t have to be as fine. A lot of guys are contributing. There’s depth in the lineup.”

And success, if minimal, on the field.

 

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.