The World Series Champion San Francisco Giants (nope, I'm still not tired of saying it!) show signs of improving slightly on the best pitching staff in baseball as they blaze through a sizzling Spring Training season. The biggest question mark — Matt Cain's elbow — was erased yesterday when he threw three complete innings against the Brewers and pronounced himself perfectly fine. The only real potential blemish is Barry Zito, who started strong in 2010 and faded badly after the All-Star break, so much so that he wasn't even on the playoff roster. But Zito's a class act and my guess is he'll conquer whatever demons had him lurching down the stretch last year. He'll probably never again be as good as he was with the A's before the G-Men acquired him, but I expect he'll improve on last year's performance.
Hitting will continue to be an issue, though perhaps somewhat less so with Buster Posey around from the start, and Freddy Sanchez, Pat Burrell, and Cody Ross all showing signs of strength and consistency in Arizona. I'm not looking for them to set any hitting records but with a pitching staff that gives them a legit shot to win every day they play, hitting only has to be up to the task of scoring 3 or more runs most of the time to produce another pennant-winning season.
Repeating as World Champs is tough. It's not yet clear how other contenders are going to do with major changes they've made to their rosters. But the NL West is clearly the Giants' to lose.
My good friend Tony Seton sent this early-morning creative piece to me one day recently because he thought I might be the only guy he knew who would enjoy reading it as much as he enjoyed writing it at 3:15 a.m. I disagree. I think a lot of you will like it. But he won't publish it so he gave me the green light to do so.
It wasn’t a unique pitch, not in the way it was designed or executed. But it was the wrong pitch, at least as far as what the batter was expecting. He was thinking fast ball. So was everyone else in the park, from the umpire to the hot dog vendors in the upper left field bleachers who were dreaming of catching the prize home run ball even if they had to climb over 20 fans to snare it.
Even the catcher didn’t know what was coming, except that he had an inkling, from what he saw in his pitcher’s eyes in that final glance home after his wind up and twist away from and then back toward the plate.
In fairness to the batter, he too got a glimpse of something – was it a corner of the pitcher’s mouth angling up instead of down? – but he didn’t know what it was that he saw and further contemplation was blocked by his near-drooling hunger for the heater that he expected to fly in his direction in less than another second.
Because the pitcher threw a slider on the classic three-and-two count. A perfect slider when the books and everyone who thought they knew the game were just sure a fast ball was the ticket. Especially to this hitter who was known for his long ball and just loved to end a game with a dinger over the left field fence in the bottom of the ninth. Loved it so much he could taste it.(One sports writer wanted to test his saliva but the league said know. They didn’t know what he would find.)
This was his glory setting. Two outs, man on first, down by a run. He could be a hero again.
So the ball left the pitcher’s hand sixty feet-six inches from the plate, minus his stretch, and while it looked like it had fire on it, that was really, like beauty, in the eye of the anticipatory beholder. Instead of burning in at maybe 97 miles per hour, which is what this pitcher was known for in his late inning relief appearances, this apple loped in at around 88.
It almost seemed to climb for a moment, but then it edged over away from the batter just a tad, before dropping a bunch of inches. The shifting around was insignificant in this case because by the time the ball arrived at the plate, the batter had already swung. The catcher had realized what was coming and shifted his expectations. The ball landed smack in the center of the pocket and he squeezed it with love.
The game was the headlined the next day as The Rise and the Fall of the Third Strike.
A new technology is making its halting debut this Spring Training season. It gives batters another new advantage that will likely result in artificially higher batting averages as well as prolonging careers. This is, it should be noted, the same effect (though perhaps to a lesser degree) as the use of steroids, a chemical way of increasing batting averages and prolonging careers that has resulted in one of the biggest brouhahas in the history of the game.
I speak, of course, of NBG, which stands for the New Batting Glove
. This apparel enhancement boasts the presence of a brand-new material called AIC (Advanced Impact Composite). This substance is said to reduce the pain impact on the hands of making contact — either with the bat or the hand — with a pitched ball by about 60%. SIXTY FREAKING PERCENT! Steroids, at their best, perhaps improved a hitter's bat speed and muscle mass something like 15-20%. And people are being banned for life for using it.
Of course, this glove has already been approved by Major League Baseball. Sure. Wonder if Non-Commissioner Selig is getting a commission on sales.
I'm calling for a temporary ban on the new glove while a scientific commission headed by MSNBC's Rachel Maddow and Keith Olbermann and made up of all admitted or convicted steroid users and The Science Guy can study the actual effect of this new gimmickry on our beloved and pristine national pastime which has never before allowed the admission of a new technology like this to screw up the pitcher-hitter relationship. Oh, except for all the new bat manufacturing tricks that have occurred since the 1930s. Oh, yeah, and there was that stupid idea of raising the pitcher's mound. Who came up with that one? And the well-known but always-denied "juiced ball." But of course those were all just "minor adjustments" right? Not like steroids that were fine, thank you, fine until someone had to open their big mouth and point out that even though they weren't banned from baseball they were illegal substances in some jurisdictions.
Crank up the asterisk machine, boys! We're gonna have a ton of new hitting records to flag when the dust settles from this one.
(Thanks to my buddy Tony Seton
for the pointage on this one.)
The San Francisco Giants ended their season with a record of 88-74. Only four teams in the entire National League had better records. Unfortunately for them, two of those teams were in their Western Division, so they missed the playoffs. But in a year when I frankly didn't expect them to do much better than .500, that's a pretty terrific season.
Meanwhile the San Francisco 49ers are 3-1 after a 35-0 shellacking of the winless St. Louis Rams. They could and probably should be 4-0 but for some inept late-game decision making in Week 3. But I'm still holding back from getting too
excited about them. Three of their wins have come in their undeniably weak division and today's W wasn't really much of a test. But it's worth noting from the big victory today that:
- The defense came into its own, not only shutting down the Rams and Steven Jackson (who was held to 79 yards on the ground and one catch for six yards), but scoring 14 of the points.
- Special teams accounted for another seven, which is great but it means the Niners offense, against a pretty pathetic Rams D, managed only 14 points. That's not encouraging. Shaun Hill was better than his stats (14/24 for 152 yards) indicated; he had at least three dropped passes that clearly should have been caught, one of them for an easy six.
- Playing without the backbone of the offense as Frank Gore continues to nurse his injury, Glen Coffee picked up 74 rushing yards, which is below fans' expectations for him but he shows steady improvement.
- The team attitude was really upbeat despite coming off an ugly and unnecessary loss at Minnesota last week. Coach Mike Singletary obviously has these guys thinking differently.
Next week's test is a little stronger as the Niners host the 2-1 Falcons who are coming off a bye week.