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8:45AM

April anything but cruel to the Giants

SAN FRANCISCO -- April is done for the Giants. The cruelest month. But not this April. Not these Giants. They’re where they never were last year. Not once. They’re even, at .500, 10-10, and heading into May.

There may not be a pennant, but there is progress.

In 2008, the Giants lost their first two games and never caught up. Never squared their record in the remaining 160. In 2008 the Giants were a bad team, a terrible team. Who knows what kind of a team they’ll be in 2009, but the possibility is encouraging.

They beat the Dodgers on Wednesday night. Again. Defeated the hailed and hated Dodgers, 9-4. Two out of three and a series win. “Beat L.A., beat L.A.’’ The chant reverberated through AT&T Park on a yet another cold but satisfying night for a crowd announced at 37,717.

The Giants had pitching, or so we wanted to believe. And indeed that’s what they’ve had with Tim Lincecum, who retired the first 10 Dodgers, who took a shutout into the eighth, who won his second game. They’ve had Matt Cain, Randy Johnson, Jonathan Sanchez, Barry Zito and in the bullpen Brian Wilson, who was a wobbly finisher but earned a save.

It turns out, to our surprise, they also have hitting. Not Yankee or Red Sox hitting. Not even Dodgers hitting, what with Manny Ramirez in L.A. But more hitting than we imagined.

Hitting from shortstop Edgar Rentaria, who had three singles and a double. Hitting from Bengie Molina who had a homer, triple, single and four runs batted in. Hitting from Juan Uribe, Nate Schierholtz and Emmanuel Burriss, who each had two hits of the Giants total of 15.

“I don’t know if we’ll be doing this all the time,’’ said Bruce Bochy, the Giants manager, of the offense. “We’ve got to pitch and catch the ball. We see ourselves having close games. But this was a good one.’’

It was one that closed a month that began with the Giants, after six straight defeats, at 2-7. “After our losing skid,’’ agreed Bochy, “this showed our resiliency. It was good for our ball club. These guys had some tough losses, but they bounced back.’’

You can’t get greedy. But the Giants did have a chance to win Tuesday night and sweep. And before the first pitch Wednesday, Dodgers manager Joe Torre understood that quite well. Losing to Zito in the opener on Monday and then a defeat Tuesday would have been big trouble for L.A., with Lincecum, the Cy Young Award winner, going for San Francisco.

“(Tuesday) night was huge,’’ Torre said. “We’re facing Lincecum tonight. He’s so good.’’

Especially against the Dodgers. Lincecum now is 3-0 when L.A. is the opponent. Wednesday night he struck out eight and has 33 strike outs in his last three starts, a span of 23 innings.

“This was big,’’ said Bochy. “Especially after a tough loss. We had Tim on the mound, and the offense was swinging the bats. It did look like one of our easier games, but the Dodgers are a very good team.’’

The Giants were ahead 7-0 after seven. Then Juan Pierre, in the ninth spot as Torre wanted to get cute with his lineup and put his pitchers batting eighth, singled. That was followed by Rafael Furcal’s single. Orlando Hudson doubled home Pierre, and when Ramirez walked on Lincecum’s 103rd pitch to load the bases, that was it for Tim.

“As a starting pitcher,’’ Lincecum said, “you go as deep into the game as you can, and you hand the ball over.’’

He handed it to Jeremy Affeldt who got Andre Ethier to hit into a double play, which did score Furcal, but the Dodgers had been stymied.

“He had gone far enough,’’ Bochy said of Lincecum. “Jeremy came in and got that huge double play. Tim had great stuff his last start, the start before that and this start. We won a series from the team in first after they swept us in L.A.

“It’s important for us to play well at home.’’

And to finish their April schedule the way they started it, even after 20 games as they were before a single game. This season could be very interesting.
9:17AM

SF Examiner: Bay Area in need of a new sports superstar

By: Art Spander
Special to The Examiner

Barry Bonds was in the stands. Manny Ramirez was on the field. Willie Mays and Willie McCovey were in the clubhouse. The buzz was back. And isn’t that what sports are all about?

We were spoiled around here, except not many understood. This was a place of superstars, of individuals who got headlines and grabbed our attention, athletes who were always a story, for better or worse.

Now the Bay Area is a wasteland. Or at best a wait-land. We keep looking for the next Joe Montana, the next Jose Canseco, the next Jerry Rice, the next Rick Barry, but where is he?

The issue is not merely talent. Tim Lincecum has a great deal of that. So seemingly does Kurt Suzuki of the A’s, hidden over there figuratively under the tarps of the Coliseum.

You don’t get to the big leagues or the NFL or the NBA or NHL without talent. What our teams need, what they once possessed, is pizzazz. What our teams need are superstars.

Whether the Niners and Raiders were successful in the NFL Draft — especially the Raiders with their picks so heavily criticized — won’t be known for a year or three. But what already is known is the New York Jets’ first selection, quarterback Mark Sanchez, would have been exactly what either local team could have used. If not necessarily to win games — and the prospect of that taking place is more than likely — but to get noticed — to have people talking and watching.

Sanchez is the next Joe Namath, already media savvy coming out of the Hollywood element at USC and about to compete for the back pages of the New York tabloids with A-Rod, Eli Manning and CC Sabathia.

McCovey was in his usual chair in the office of Giants equipment manager Mike Murphy at AT&T Park the other night, facing Mays a few feet away. “Hey, Willie,” someone suggested to Mac, but it could have been either, “there’s more star power in this room than the rest of the whole park.”

Of course, that was before Bonds showed up to sit next to managing general partner Bill Neukom.

“Yeah,” McCovey agreed. “That’s what’s needed.”

Down in L.A., there’s Kobe. Over in Boston, there’s Tom Brady — and Pedroia, Papi and Papelbon. Cleveland has LeBron. Does an evening go by when one of them, usually all of them, doesn’t get face time on ESPN?

Jim Plunkett was here. Steve Young was here. Baron Davis, practically a superstar, was here. Mark McGwire was here.

Mays, McCovey and Juan Marichal are honored with statues near AT&T. We need more athletes whose likenesses will be set in stone and bronze.

Maybe JaMarcus Russell fulfills the promise, although he seems reluctant to meet the obligation or the training regimen. Maybe Alex Smith, given a new chance, meets expectations, his and ours.

It isn’t if you win or lose, it’s how you play the media game. With a superstar, you’re playing it the best way possible.

Art Spander has been covering Bay Area sports since 1965 and also writes on www.artspander.com and www.realclearsports.com. E-mail him at typoes@aol.com.

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http://www.sfexaminer.com/sports/Spander-Bay-Area-in-need-of-a-new-sports-superstar-43934572.html
Copyright 2009 SF Newspaper Company 
9:33AM

Bonds back, Giants come back

SAN FRANCISCO – Empty seats, maybe 10,000 of them, a sign of the times. But one chair not empty was filled by the man who for the Giants was the sign – and the face – of better times.

Barry Bonds had come home.


He was a spectator, a guest of Bill Neukom, the guy in the bow tie who is the Giants’ managing general partner. It was Giants vs. Dodgers, on a chilly, windy Monday night. A rivalry renewed. And with Barry a hero/villain remembered.


In so many places, Barry was despised, even before the steroid stuff started. In this place, AT&T, the park that if Barry didn’t quite build he was in part responsible for, Bonds is idolized.


It’s the Dodgers who are despised.


“The Dodgers,’’ their manager, Joe Torre, conceded before the wildest of games Monday night, a Giants’ 5-4 win, “people either love them or hate them.’’


In 50 years, they’ve never been loved in the Bay Area. Not at Seals Stadium. Not at Candlestick. Not at AT&T.


Fans here rarely chant “Let’s go Giants.’’ Fans here always shout “Beat L.A.’’ Which Monday is what San Francisco was able to do, if not by the easiest of methods.


The Giants blew a 3-0 lead in the seventh and then came back with two in the eighth to win, 5-4, before a crowd announced at 31,091.


This indeed is a rivalry. “Not like it was in New York,’’ said Torre, who grew up back there cheering for the New York Giants against the Brooklyn Dodgers. “But it’s a rivalry. I think the younger players find that out quickly. I knew it before I came here.’’


Before that, Torre was with the Yankees, where the hatred is pitched at them by the Red Sox fans. Real venom. And when he managed the St. Louis Cardinals, he learned that across the Mississippi, downstate Illinois has more than enough Chicago Cubs partisans.


“The fans can get in a frenzy, which is OK,’’ said Torre. “That’s what sports are about. But it can wear you out.’’


The Giants wore out the Dodgers on Monday in the opener of a three-game series. Trailing 4-3, they scored twice in the eighth on a couple of line drives and a couple of dribblers.


It was a game the Giants needed. Not only because they were swept by the Dodgers in Los Angeles a couple of weeks back but because on Sunday, San Francisco couldn’t hold on to a 4-1 lead over the Diamondbacks and lost in 12.


It was a game closer Brian Wilson needed, since he was the man at fault on Sunday, giving up the game-tying homer. But Monday, in the ninth, Wilson struck out the side for the save.


Maybe it was a game Barry Bonds needed. This was his first one in San Francisco this season, and the time he didn’t spend waving at the fans when next to Neukom or in the row behind him he spent talking to Mike Krukow and Duane Kuiper on the Comcast telecast.


All of a sudden, Barry is the charmer. All of a sudden the Giants, after a 2-7 start, are 9-9.


All of a sudden, the other Barry, Zito, is the pitcher of old. He went seven shutout innings last Wednesday. He went 6 1/3 shutout innings Monday night before giving up a walk and a home run. Zito still doesn’t have a win in 2009, but he does have back-to-back impressive performances.


“He did a great job,’’ Giants manager Bruce Bochy said of Zito, “but he was getting it up and not where he wanted. That’s why the change was made.’’


After 109 pitches, Zito was replaced by Merkin Valdez who after a walk to Rafael Furcal and a single by Orlando Hudson challenged Mr. Dreadlocks himself, Manny Ramirez. Manny won, singling in the go-ahead run. Yet in the end, the Giants won it all.


“Exciting game,’’ affirmed Bochy. A rivalry game, a game that teased and irritated but, for Giants fans, finally satisfied.


“It was good to see Barry,’’ Bochy said of Bonds. “He came to the clubhouse. I know the guys were happy to see him. He was sitting there watching. It was an exciting win and a great win for us.’’


Against the Dodgers, a team people either love or hate. Except in the Bay Area. Where it’s only hate.

7:00PM

Zito: ‘Back to doing what I do best’

SAN FRANCISCO –- He said he was fed up. No more than the fans were with him.

Barry Zito became the symbol of the San Francisco Giants’ failings, the big-ticket item on a medium-budget team who was tainted by a huge salary and doomed by a tentative fastball.

There were more things wrong with the Giants than Zito. When a team has four straight losing seasons, it isn’t because of one player. Yet Barry cost $126 million, and so at AT&T Park, he was treated roughly by spectators known mostly for their kindness.

Zito’s start Wednesday was going to be closely scrutinized, especially the way other pitchers in the rotation had performed on a successful home stand.

Four games preceded Barry, two of them shutouts, three of them victories. This was what the Giants had promised in the spring.

What Zito promised was open to skepticism. He knew it.

“Yeah,’’ agreed Zito, “I guess you could say it was important to have a good one, but it’s important to have a good one at all times.’’

Zito had a brilliant one, perhaps his best in two plus seasons with the Giants, although he begs to differ. Barry went seven innings without allowing a run or a walk. Eventually, the Giants got a pinch-hit single from Bengie Molina in the 10th to win, 1-0, over the San Diego Padres.

Reliever Brian Wilson picked up the victory. No less importantly, Barry Zito picked up the cheers. Although at 0-2 he still doesn’t have a victory, he does have his reputation. And considerably more respect. From the crowd.

His teammates insist Barry always had theirs, even when he dropped his first eight games last year and finished with a 10-17 record. Even when boos descended from the tiered stands alongside the Bay.

“It’s kind of tough when you’re in the limelight,’’ said Wilson, alluding to Zito. The two of them spent the offseason working out together.

“Today was the Zito I know,’’ Wilson continued. “The Zito I grew up watching. I’m pretty sure we can expect the same thing from all his starts now. His velocity is up. You can see the way he snaps his wrist. The hitters are a little behind it now.’’

What Zito had been behind was the eight ball. He had won a Cy Young Award in 2002 with the Oakland A’s. He seemed perfect to accept the role both as the Giants’ No. 1 pitcher and as the face of a franchise trying to escape the connection with Barry Bonds.

The problem was that Zito either couldn’t get the ball over the plate or got it over without velocity.

Thoughts of trying to justify the salary invaded his concentration. He’d make a mistake and suddenly three runs scored. It was not so much humiliating as bewildering.

“I was just trying to get back to what I do best,’’ said Zito, “which is pitch. I was getting fed up, pitching below my potential. But you just have to realize it’s not how many times you get knocked down, it’s how many times you get up.’’

He will be 31 in less than a month. He is starting his 10th major league season. He has never missed a start. For a long while, the spectators never missed a chance to start after him.

“I have to be aggressive and attack guys,’’ said Zito, who struck out seven including three in the fourth. “That’s something I did early in my career. I’m still healthy. I’m more than capable of having the same stuff I had earlier.’’

A week ago the Giants arrived home with six straight defeats and an ERA of more than seven. The suspicion was that their season was finished. Not quite.

They beat the Diamondbacks, 2-0. They lost to the Diamondbacks, 2-0. They again beat the Diamondbacks, 2-0. They beat the Padres, 8-3. Then Wednesday, to end the series, they beat the Padres, 1-0.

Five games, five runs allowed. “Pitching is what we’re built on,’’ confirmed Giants manager Bruce Bochy. “Zito hadn’t pitched well in day games here, but I think he put that all behind. He came in today and said he was going to be fine. He did the job.’’

Which is what a player is supposed to do, no matter how much he’s paid.
6:52PM

EXCLUSIVE: Lincecum is back. Giants already are far back

SAN FRANCISCO – The curious contradiction of the Giants was never more in evidence than on a Saturday in April. The reassurance of Tim Lincecum’s beautiful pitching, now that he once again is healthy, was countered by the unnerving reality of another San Francisco defeat.

Tim Lincecum is back. All the way. He tied a career high with 13 strikeouts. He didn’t allow a run in eight innings against the Arizona Diamondbacks. The Giants also are back, in another definition of the word.

They are far back, 5 ½ games behind the Los Angeles Dodgers, and the second week of the season is not yet completed.

It’s axiomatic if the other team doesn’t score you can’t lose. Conversely, if your team doesn’t score you can’t win.

The Giants, with the Diamondbacks taking advantage of Lincecum’s departure and some incessantly depressing relief pitching, got a couple in the ninth and beat San Francisco, 2-0.

Ballplayers are quick to remind us not to dwell on one game. This one game, however, seemingly was indicative of the future. One game, in which the Giants acknowledged strength, pitching, proved ineffective because of the Giants acknowledged weakness, a lack of hitting.

In both the first and third innings the Giants couldn’t get a runner home from third with one out, not that for some inexplicable reason in the first Emmanuel Burriss didn’t try by ridiculously attempting to steal home only to be thrown out by 20 feet.

Of the four Giants infielders who started Saturday’s game -- including first baseman Travis Ishikawa (.172), shortstop Edgar Renteria (.189) and third baseman Pablo Sandoval (.195) -- only Burriss, the second baseman (.220), is hitting above the dreaded Mendoza Line of .200.

San Francisco now has lost seven of eight. It is not a reach to suggest the Giants may be out of contention by May. Starting Friday evening, the Giants shut out the Diamondbacks for 17 consecutive innings and lost one of two games.

“You’ve got to execute,’’ said Bruce Bochy, the Giants manager. Or to turn that around a bit, we steal from the late Tampa Bay Buccaneers coach John McKay who, after yet another defeat, was asked about his team’s execution and replied, “I think it would be a very good idea.’’

But what if the Giants are executing as well as they can? There’s no Albert Pujols or Manny Ramirez in the lineup. There’s no punch. There’s no pizazz. Every game is like walking atop slippery rocks through a stream, a lot of deep breaths and invariably a misstep.

It doesn’t get any better than Lincecum, the ’08 Cy Young Award winner, after being weakened by what was called lingering bronchitis. He was brilliant. It doesn’t get any worse than not being able to get a run and posting a team batting average of .239 for the season.

“He is so big for this ball club,’’ said Bochy. “That is no question. It is going to make us a better club having him healthy. With that being said, we have got to get some runs on the board. We are sputtering offensively. We had our opportunities the first three innings, and we couldn’t get a big hit.

“This is not a case where there is no hope.’’

One wonders. The Giants haven’t had a winning season since 2004. They are in a supposed process of rebuilding, advising that the organization’s minor league teams all are strong. Who cares? These are the major leagues.

A few weeks ago, the media was brought to AT&T Park to be told of the team’s environmental awareness. One garlic fries concession stand recycles its cooking oil. “We’re conscious of being very green,’’ said team president Larry Baer.

The rest of us are conscious of the ball club. It’s also quite green. Also not very good and offering no indication it will improve without large changes of the roster, and that is not going to happen.

“Sandoval is not going to hit what he’s hitting,’’ was Bochy’s contention. “Ishikawa... There are a lot of guys in the league that haven’t gotten going yet.’’

Too many of them are on the Giants, a team that needed to begin well both for its own confidence and in this year of the recession to keep the fans coming to games.

The hole in which the Giants can be located grows deeper. The forecast for the season grows all the more depressing.

“It’s tough for the team to take a loss like that,’’ said Lincecum of what transpired, “after a game like that. I was throwing strikes, and good ones.’’

And the Giants still couldn’t win.
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