Tuesday, August 31, 2010

This Game Can Eat You Up

Pennant races in baseball bring a delicious level of tension. Every pitch has meaning, and the true fan juggles the home team's action with what's going in on in several other cities.

That's what made last night's 2-1 Colorado win over the Giants so painful to San Francisco fans. The Giants eked out a run off Colorado's funky left-hander Jorge De La Rosa in the 4th inning, and Giants starter Jonathan Sanchez pitched his best game of the season, holding the Rockies scoreless through 8.

Meanwhile, the three teams that matter to the Giants in the race for the playoffs--San Diego, St. Louis and Philadelphia--were losing. A perfectly taut and thrilling evening in the heat of the pennant race.

And then they played the 9th inning.

Sanchez got two quick strikes on Colorado's Dexter Fowler and then lost it. Four straights balls. Fowler at first, Sanchez headed for the dugout, Brian Wilson headed to the mound, and a sense of foreboding settling over AT&T Park.

Nobody could have guessed what would happen next. Colorado's Carlos Gonzalez, the league's leading hitter, shatters his bat on a ball hit into right-center. Giants rightfielder Cody Ross does what instinct tells him to do on a broken-bat play: he breaks in. But the ball is actually crushed and gets past him. A triple. Tie ballgame.

But wait. Ross hustles the ball down and gets it to second baseman Freddy Sanchez, who thinks he has a shot at nailing Gonzalez at third. His throw (he would later admit he never got a good grip on the ball) hits Gonzalez, eludes everyone, and ends up in the third-base camera well. Out of play. Gonzalez, on his belly, pounds his fist in joy as the umpires direct him to trot home with the go-ahead run.

The Giants hit three balls hard in the bottom of the 9th--but all are right at Rockies fielders. It's over. A ghastly, painful one-run loss in the heat of a pennant race.

God, I love baseball.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Lefty Is Right

We've all had a pretty good laugh at Jim Furyk's expense. He's the pro golfer who missed his tee time at the Barclays pro-am after the battery on his cell phone died (he'd used the phone as an alarm clock).

But the episode exposes a serious flaw in the way the PGA Tour does business. When Furyk failed to show for the 7:30AM shotgun start, he was DQ'd from the Barclays tournament itself. That's a serious matter, because the Barclays is part of a big season-ending series of tournaments that lead to the FedEx Cup and its $10 million bonus. Furyk was in 3rd place before his goof; now, he could fall as low as 19th.

Suddenly at issue is a PGA Tour rule aimed at preventing the pros from blowing off the Wednesday pro-am events. These hit-and-giggle "tournaments" are a big part of the Tour's marketing-and-money machine. Amateurs pay as much as $5000 to join a four or fivesome: one pro and three or four "ams", playing a best-ball round (with full use of the amateurs' score handicaps).

You can imagine how much a guy like Tiger Woods looks forward to staggering around the course with a crew of hackers. There are many stories of churlish behavior on the part of the pros: barking at amateurs to hurry up or play better. Worse, some pros have been known to give the eager amateurs the silent treatment--18 holes' worth.

A few years ago, the Tour imposed a rule requiring that pros who skip a pro-am be disqualified from the weekend tournament. The idea was to keep the PGA's money-and-marketing machine rolling: a fully-subscribed pro-am can generate well over $1 million in proceeds for charity, helping burnish pro golf's image.

Furyk's disqualification may be a punchline for comedians, but his fellow pros aren't laughing. Phil Mickelson, for one, is outraged. Lefty thinks the rule is, well, stupid: "I cannot disagree with it more. I have no idea how the commissioner let this rule go through. It's ridiculous."

Part of Mickelson's dismay is the inherent unfairness of a rule that only applies to the pros who have slots in the pro-am. In the case of the Barclays, that was 72 pros out of a tournament field of 125. It's refreshing to see a star like Mickelson stand up and speak out; he could easily have laughed Furyk's mistake off since it didn't impact him.

My colleague John Madden has no sympathy for Furyk; his view is that a pro who makes a commitment to play in the pro-am should be held to it. I agree with John--but only to a point. Punishments are only valid when they're proportionate and relevant. It's hard to see how depriving Furyk of the chance to play in the Barclays (and also deprive paying customers and TV viewers of the chance to watch him play) serves anyone well.

The PGA Tour needs to re-think its pro-am rules. Find a way to incentivize the pros to show without creating the sort of nightmare scenario Jim Furyk is enduring because he overslept.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Hope Springs Eternal

So after two weeks of the NFL's exhibition (sorry, preseason) schedule, the Bay Area teams are a combined 4-0. The 49ers have beaten the Colts and the Vikings; the Raiders have dispatched Dallas and Chicago. So what?

It's hard to know. These games don't count, and it's dangerous to draw any conclusions from what you see. But: it's better to be undefeated than the other way around.

The 49ers' opening-series drive against Minnesota was impressive and clearly gave quarterback Alex Smith a shot of confidence. The Raiders defense went all sack-happy on Bears' QB Jay Cutler, led by Tommy Kelly and Kamerion Wimbley.

I happened to be in a favorite watering hole during that Raiders game and watched as Raider Nation watched. Remember, these are fans who haven't had much to cheer about in recent years. It started with Kelly's sack of Cutler on Chicago's second snap of the game, and as the Silver and Black built a lead, I kept hearing variations on the Butch Cassidy theme: "who are those guys?"

The Raiders seem to find ways to beat themselves in recent years, and huge questions remain about the offense. But it's not too big a stretch to see this as a team that can win a few 13-10 games and surprise a few people.

The blitz by the Niners' Patrick Willis that knocked Brett Favre out of the game is another of those meaningful moments in a meaningless game. The fact that San Francisco was blitzing Favre says coach Mike Singletary means it when he talks about toughness. The 49ers were an 8-8 team last year and it's not too far-fetched to see them as a playoff team this year.

Again, it's early. These games don't count. But there's a spring in the step of Bay Area football fans this week, and that beats the alternative.

Friday, August 13, 2010

Pat the Bat Is Back

If the Giants reach the promised land known as the playoffs this year, some of the credit will go to a big guy with a nickname that sounds like it might have come from a children's book: Pat the Bat.

That would be outfielder Pat Burrell, who's been reborn in his native Bay Area after his career cratered in the dismal confines of Tampa's Tropicana Field. Burrell signed with the Rays after spending 9 years in Phillies pinstripes. He was a steady source of Philadelphia power: over 9 seasons in Philly, Burrell averaged 28 homers and 87 RBI a year.

After the Phillies' World Series title in '08, Burrell was cast adrift. He headed south to Tampa Bay, and his career went south, too. His 14 home runs last year marked the lowest total of his career. And when he started this year with more wimpy numbers, he was gone. The Rays cut him in late May and the Giants grabbed him.

Since then, Burrell has been huge for the Giants. He's hitting right around .300, has homered once every 15 at bats, and has a whole slew of big RBI's. He's a capable outfielder and by all accounts, a good clubhouse guy. His old college buddy Aubrey Huff nearly decapitated Burrell with a smack to the helmet after Burrell's grand slam against the Cubs. That's how ballplayers show their love.

Who knows what went wrong in Tampa? It might have been the designated-hitter role. Burrell practically never played defense during his Tampa Bay stay. Sure, his nickname is Pat the Bat, but maybe Pat likes to use his glove, too.

At any rate, Burrell's emerged as an enormous piece of the puzzle as the Giants face a fascinating
final seven weeks of the season. To paraphrase Dr. Seuss, Pat the Bat is back.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

A Study In Confusion

Tim Lincecum is in trouble.

Sure, most big-league pitchers would be thrilled to be 11-6 with a 3.41 ERA and 163 strikeouts in 155 innings pitched. But none of them are The Freak, the frighteningly-gifted two-time Cy Young Award winner.

When I say Lincecum is in trouble, I don't mean to say he's finished. He may well be able to figure this out. But for now, his aura of invincibility has gone "poof" and vanished, and he knows it.

His most recent start (6 earned runs, 4 innings pitched in an AT&T Park loss to the Cubs) marked the third time in his last ten starts that Lincecum has failed to even pitch 5 innings. He's been fiddling with his delivery, even going to a windup he hadn't used since college. You can see the frustration etched on his face and hear it in his voice.

I've written this before and anyone familiar with baseball knows it: baseball is a game of adjustments. But usually, players have to adjust to external factors. A hitter learns to lay off inside fastballs. A pitcher learns to avoid a power-hitter's happy zone. A base-stealer studies that left-hander's tricky pickoff move.

In Lincecum's case, the required adjustments are internal. He's like a golfer trying to get his swing back. He's lost his groove, and as golfers know, it can be hell trying to find it again. Ask Tiger Woods, another guy who isn't having much fun right now (of course, he has other things on his mind, too).

What Giants fans can hope is that Lincecum is able to scuffle through this and find that groove again. At his best, he's dominant. Right now, he is well short of that. His epic success early in his career will mean nothing if he can't make the adjustments.

Friday, August 6, 2010

Upon Further Review

Florida Marlins manager Edwin Rodriguez called it "the worst call I've ever seen in my 30 years of professional baseball." If that's true, Rodriguez may have led a pretty sheltered existence.

I'm talking about the call third-base umpire Bob Davidson made in the 9th inning of a Phillies-Marlins game. The ground ball off Gaby Sanchez's bat appeared to be fair, and the base hit would have given the Marlins a 5-4 win.

But Davidson called the ball "foul" and stood his ground against a furious argument.

Before you jump on the bandwagon calling for video replay, take a look at the play. And remember the rule: on a ground ball, the ball must cross the bag in fair territory to be considered fair. Watch this play a few times, and note where the ball hits just before crossing third base. It looks like it's in foul territory. The fact that the ball hits in fair territory behind the bag is irrelevant (though it's clearly what enraged the Marlins).

Davidson is a veteran umpire who was in perfect position to make the call. It's possible he got it wrong. It's also possible that the view we get from the television cameras is misleading (or inconclusive) and that Davidson got it right. Anyone who's watched the replays and is sure it was a blown call may be guilty of a little extrapolation.

Until baseball adopts something like the Hawk-Eye system used to arbitrate line calls in tennis (and cricket), these calls will be tricky. Video replay won't always settle the arguments; it's a comforting thought to those on the wrong end of a close call but it's no panacea.

Monday, August 2, 2010

The Dodgers Is Dead

It's one of baseball's most memorable lines, uttered in 1951 by Dodgers manager Charlie Dressen: "The Giants is dead." Dressen's ungrammatical epitaph was delivered in early August, after his Brooklyn Dodgers had swept the New York Giants to widen their National League lead to 12 1/2 games.

Of course, by October, it was Dressen and the Dodgers who were dying a thousand deaths, as Bobby Thomson's "shot heard 'round the world" ended a playoff series. Back then, there were no divisions and no wild card slot.

Fast forward to now. The shoe is on the other foot (and the teams are on the other coast). The Giants have just swept the Dodgers and though you won't hear anyone in orange and black say it, let me write it: The Dodgers is dead.

I'm not alone in seeing a lifeless bunch of underachievers wearing Dodger blue. Read T. J. Simers in the Los Angeles Times. Or check out the hilarious (and often vulgar) rants of a hardcore and long-suffering Dodgers fan at DodgerBlues.com.

The just-concluded sweep of L.A. left the Giants 6 1/2 games ahead of the Dodgers, who wallow in 4th place in the NL West. It's not just that they're losing. The Dodgers look lost. Outfielder Matt Kemp getting picked off right after plate umpire Joe West used Casey Blake's bat to remind Blake of the dimensions of the batter's box was a perfect capsule of the series. Kemp is a magnificently-talented specimen who seems to find a way to lose.

The Giants may or may not win the division or make the playoffs (I still think they're a better-than-even shot to do it). But put a fork in the Dodgers. They're done.