Best Series Ever

Didn’t that all seem a little too easy?

The Giants scored in the first inning of the first game of this series, and never gave up their lead. They were never winning by a significant margin, but the way Madison Bumgarner was pitching, even two runs of support was enough to feel comfortable. Heck, even after Sergio Romo coughed up a solo homer to make it a one-run game, Javier Lopez came in and shut the door immediately. Just like that.

Last night’s game wasn’t entirely a walk in the park. But once again, the Giants got some runs up in the first inning, and never looked back. There was one moment in that game — one brief, isolated moment — that was cause for concern. Tim Lincecum was missing some spots in last night’s outing, so I was slightly worried when he worked himself into that sixth inning jam. Matt Kemp came up, representing the tying run. But in an instant, he smoked the second pitch into right field, and it was caught. And then there were two outs, and Jose Mijares came in to pitch against Andre Ethier — who is essentially Brandon Crawford when it comes to hitting left-handed pitching. Aside from that brief moment of tension with Kemp at the plate, it felt like the Giants were in total control the whole night.

And then the same happened tonight. Except tonight was a walk in the park. The Giants put three runs on the board in the first inning, and then Matt Cain took the mound. Cain retired the first seven hitters he faced, and then five of the next seven hitters he faced. Through five innings, the Dodgers were scoreless. And in the sixth inning, the Giants tacked on another three runs. By the end of the seventh inning, the Giants had a seven-run lead. Even when the Dodgers kept chipping away at that lead in the eighth inning, never did it feel like the Giants were actually in danger of relinquishing it. And Joaquin Arias, of all players, drove in five runs.

Not even a month ago, the Dodgers came to town and ripped the Giants’ collective heart out. The Giants had a three-game lead in the NL West before the series began, and by the time the Dodgers were gone, so was sole possession of first place. It was a gut-wrenching series, the kind that leaves a bad taste in the mouth for weeks. The first game was stolen by the Dodgers in the tenth inning, on a Hanley Ramirez home run off Sergio Romo — sound familiar? And in the subsequent two games, the Giants were shut out. The Dodgers scored 14 runs, and that was 14 more than the Giants. In that series as a whole, in their own home park, the Giants only scored three runs.

This was the polar opposite of that experience. There were runs, leads, wins. There were inconsequential homers hit by Hanley Ramirez off of Sergio Romo. The Giants waltzed into Los Angeles a second-place team, and they’ll exit with a modest first place lead.

Given how that last Giants/Dodgers series had gone, I was very nervous about the prospect of the Giants facing the Dodgers on the road. But it went well, shockingly well, and without much stress at all. It’s truly difficult to overstate how amazing this series was. Man, that felt good.

Madison Bumgarner Outduels Clayton Kershaw in 2-1 Giants Victory

We all came into this game expecting a pitching duel. Clayton Kershaw, reigning Cy Young Award winner, 24 years old, going up against the just-turned-23-year-old Madison Bumgarner. This wasn’t the first time the two had faced — they’d met once before, in April 2011. But that wasn’t much of a battle. Today’s head-to-head, unlike the previous one, did not disappoint.

Bumgarner scattered four hits across eight innings; each of those hits was a single, and Kershaw, surprisingly enough, had two of them.

That fourth inning sequence of events, in which Bumgarner breezed past the heart of the Dodgers’ order, just blew me away:

  • He worked around Matt Kemp for six pitches, mostly staying out of the strikezone, and eventually got him to ground out.
  • Then after falling 2-0 to Hanley Ramirez, he came at him with four straight sliders, freezing him on a high-and-inside pitch for a called strike three.
  • And then to top it all off, after Andre Ethier fouled off a few pitches, Bumgarner got him to swing right through the high heat.

Of course, Bumgarner was on top of his game all night long. And that was the most amazing part, really. Even with his pitch count running well past 100, and the Dodgers’ hitters having gotten to see him a couple times, he was still untouchable in those final two innings.

Kershaw himself dominated the Giants’ lineup, though he wasn’t able to keep them entirely quiet — thanks to some timely hitting. Angel Pagan led off the game with a double, and came around to score on a sac fly; and then with two outs in the sixth inning, the Giants managed to string together back-to-back-to-back singles for the second (and final) run.

The final pitching lines:

Kershaw – 8 IP, 6 H, 2 ER, 10 K, 0 BB.
Bumgarner – 8 IP, 4 H, 0 ER, 10 K, 0 BB.

Surely you notice the symmetry in the two lines. Both went eight innings, notching ten strikeouts with zero walks. How often do you see that?

Well, I dug through Baseball-Reference’s Play Index and the answer is: never. Only twice before, at least dating back to 1918, have two opposing pitchers in the same game tallied ten or more strikeouts while not walking anybody. The last occurrence was on April 9, 2003, with Mark Prior and Javier Vazquez doing the pitching. But Vazquez failed to go past the seventh. Before that, the only other occurrence was on July 12, 1997, in a duel between Roger Clemens and Aaron Sele. But again, Sele only went seven innings.

Shockingly, as I tweeted earlier: This was the first occurrence in baseball history in which both starters have gone at least eight innings with 10+ strikeouts and zero walks.

In other words, we just witnessed an historically great pitching duel.

And the best part is that the Giants came out on top. Although not before making things a little more interesting… Sergio Romo was one strike away from securing the win for the Giants, at which point Hanley Ramirez unloaded on a 1-2 pitch and promptly sent it into the left field stands. If anything, this should serve as a reminder that Hanley Ramirez is still a dangerous hitter, and has certainly channeled his younger self since coming over to the Dodgers. This was his fifth homer (and 12th extra-base hit) in 25 games with LA. Hanley is definitely something to be concerned about.

Anyway, following the home run, Javier Lopez came in and finished off Andre Ethier, giving the Giants the 2-1 victory. And just like that, they’re back in first place.

Well, That Didn’t Help

Tim Lincecum’s outing started in typically rough fashion today, as the Nationals tagged him for two runs in the first inning, and worked up his pitch count to 38. He was actually pretty sharp at times in today’s start, but by the end of the fourth inning, he was in the midst of his third go-round at the Nationals’ lineup and already up near 100 pitches. So that would do it for him.

There’s no question that today was all about Melky. But had Lincecum pitched well, and the Giants won this game (and the series), it would have been a heck of a lot easier to forget about Melky, even if only for a while. Today’s game was especially painful because five of Lincecum’s six second-half starts had been good — one more start like the one he had on July 14th, and I probably would have been ready to toss aside any concerns about Lincecum. Should we be as concerned about Lincecum as before?

In the later innings of this one, it looked like the Giants might be able to put together a comeback. They had runners on second and third with no outs in the eighth, but only managed to score one run. And in the ninth, when Pablo Sandoval appeared to have popped out to end the game, the ball dropped and Hector Sanchez came around to score. Suddenly, the Giants had Buster Posey up at the plate, representing the tying run.

And he struck out. And they lost. And that’s just how it goes sometimes.

There are a few silver linings though (not that they outweigh today’s unfortunate news). Among them:

  • The Giants scored four runs on a day that Stephen Strasburg started against them.
  • Brandon Crawford reached base a couple of times, and has now hit safely in eight consecutive games.
  • Gregor Blanco, taking over in left field for Melky, had a multi-hit game. He had gone 21 at-bats without a hit before his single in the sixth inning.
  • Pablo Sandoval went two for four with a walk.

Tomorrow’s a new day. A day off, in fact. Much needed.

Brief Thoughts on a 6-1 Giants Victory

  • Madison Bumgarner. Just a tremendous outing — the kind where he’s in complete control, mixing all his pitches well and working quickly through each inning. For the second time in his short career, Bumgarner tossed a complete game. The only damage came in the fourth inning, following a Jayson Werth “triple” that realistically could have been prevented. Hunter Pence got to the ball in time, but misplayed it at the last second; he told reporters after the game that he had flinched because he thought he was going to run into Angel Pagan. Oh well. The final line for Bumgarner was still marvelous: 9 IP, 5 H, 1 ER, 1 BB, 6 K.
  • A testament to how good Bumgarner was: the way he carved up Ryan Zimmerman, one of the better right-handed hitters in baseball. Zimmerman grounded into a double play in the first, and struck out swinging to lead off the ninth inning, but the real treat came on an 1-1 curveball to Zimmerman in the fourth inning. Check out the location on that pitch – right at the very bottom. Beautiful.
  • Brandon Crawford made a few great plays at short tonight (the two fifth inning grabs immediately come to mind) and drove in a run in the eighth inning. He’s continued to perform like a decent ballplayer — which is really all we could’ve asked for, right? And if that’s the weak link in the Giants’ starting nine, then I’m feeling very good about this lineup. As far as shortstops go, Crawford really isn’t too shabby.
  • Brandon Belt‘s baserunning misadventures tonight were ridiculous, but fortunately, they didn’t end up mattering much. On a positive note, Belt is starting to consistently drive the ball — with two near-homers on the night — and appears to be as confident as ever. As well he should. He’s been among the best hitters in baseball so far this month.

Buster Posey and the Plate Appearance of the Season

Fast-forward to the eighth inning. Buster Posey is up. The bases are loaded, with one out. The Giants are down by one run. The game is essentially in Posey’s hands. The leverage index (LI) of the situation is 7.59, the second-highest it’s been for any Giants batter at any point this season. And Rafael Betancourt, who has held right-handed hitters to a .196 wOBA this season, is on the mound.

This was, as I noted, the second-highest LI of a Giants plate appearance this season. The highest was an at-bat by Gregor Blanco. That at-bat lasted one pitch. Posey’s lasted ten pitches. This was tense, folks.

The sequence: ball, taken strike, ball, ball, foul, foul, foul, foul, foul, and then…a sacrifice fly to tie the game. And you can bet Posey had at least something to do with how the rest of the inning went. Following that ten-pitch adventure, Betancourt served up a three-run homer to Hunter Pence — which ended up being the difference in the game — and to top it all off, a double to Brandon Belt.

How about that Posey? He’s sure something, eh? This was his most important contribution at the plate today, and arguably the plate appearance of the season, but he actually reached base the other four times he came to bat. An update on his numbers: .332/.406/.547, .404 wOBA, 158 wRC+. Wowza.

There were lots of stories today. Among them: Hunter Pence’s first homer in a Giants uniform, which couldn’t have come at a better time. Angel Pagan, who has continued to put together a strong August, after looking lost at the plate for a couple months. And Pablo Sandoval, who I believe is set to return tomorrow.

But you know who I’m actually going to talk about. I’m going to talk about Brandon Belt.

Brandon Belt came to the plate five times today. He reached base every time. Twice via the double, twice via the single, and once via the walk. When he was struggling in July, I’d have to dig deep for positives. I’ve remained cautiously optimistic about Belt all season long, but when he was struggling, I’d have to cling to the little stuff. “He made hard contact on this pitch.” “He looked patient in this at-bat.” I haven’t had to do that this month. Belt is swinging a hot bat, and the results are there.

And here’s where I digress. Today was my sixth time in the press box. Either my fifth or sixth, actually — I can’t remember for sure, and I’m too lazy to confirm. I’m going to be there on Tuesday and Wednesday as well. Anyway, the whole “bloggers getting access” thing seems to be a hot topic these days, so I feel obligated to chime in — especially since I’m one of the lucky ones. As I understand it, very few teams do this. I’ve given all of this a lot of thought, and…well…I don’t really have anything substantial to contribute to the discussion; but I will say, having media credentials has been an overwhelmingly positive experience.

A recap of my day: This morning, right down the hall from the Giants’ broadcast booth, I sat down to a brunch buffet with Steve Berman (Bay Area Sports Guy) and Alex Pavlovic. We discussed — you guessed it — the San Francisco Giants, and the food (eggs, sausage, oatmeal) was delicious.

After that, I went back down to the press box where I sat — for the majority of the game — next to Steve, a guy I really admire. I struggle to produce insightful commentary on the Giants. He manages to do it while staying on top of 19 other sports as well. I owe a debt of gratitude to him, too — not only has he constantly helped me with things, but he’s also put up with hours upon hours of my boring, pointless observations as he’s sitting there next to me. If you think this blog is boring, keep in mind that you don’t get the stuff that I filter out.

(With all these positive comments about BASG, I don’t want you to get the wrong impression; he’s not perfect. He went 0-for-4 on Brandon Belt home run predictions today).

Anyhow, I enjoyed my Sunday. It’s been cool hanging out with Steve, and getting to know Pavlovic.

At some point in the game, I began to wonder what the return of Pablo Sandoval would mean for others’ playing time. And so at the post-game press conference, I asked Bruce Bochy that very question (to which he responded that he’d be mixing it up a lot). It occurred to me that this is the real luxury of having this kind of access, at least for me: I’m curious about something, and I have the opportunity to simply ask Bochy myself.

After I left the press conference room, I headed back up to the press box. As I walked down the hall, Brian Sabean and his little kid walked by. I waved hello. They waved back. This has all been quite surreal.

Giants Defeat Rockies, 9-3

The Giants, at least for now, have regained sole possession of first place, thanks to — well, everybody…

Matt Cain, in the nine-game stretch between his perfect game and today’s start: 57.1 innings, 46 K, 16 BB, 10 HR, 4.40 ERA. He hadn’t been awful. He hadn’t even been bad, really, by normal standards. By Cain standards, of course, he’d been a disappointment. The glaring problem: those ten home runs; he allowed nine in all of 2011.

But anyway, in six of those nine starts, he allowed three earned runs or fewer. In each of those nine starts, he lasted 5+ innings. His average game score over that span: 51, where a 50 is generally considered average. You could say he’d been really good in a couple of those outings, even — the Oakland and Houston starts, specifically.

But never was he outstanding. He had ventured past the seventh inning just once, and even in that start, he surrendered five runs.

For five innings today, Cain finally looked outstanding. No walks. Just a few hits. Three swinging strikeouts in the third. Lots of flyballs scattered around the outfield — most of them routine flyouts, a few hit well; none was hit well enough, though. Through five, Cain had faced 16 batters and recorded 15 outs.

And that was the story…until Cain found himself in a no-outs bases-loaded jam. With the heart of the Rockies’ order set to bat, no less. But he pitched through it. After a fielder’s choice at third and a lineout that was fortunately hit right at Brett Pill (and frankly, should have been ruled an inning-ending double play, as Pill beat Carlos Gonzalez to the bag), Cain struck out Ramon Hernandez to end the threat.

Cain went out for the seventh, and had a pretty quick 1-2-3 inning. Then the eighth came, and he sort of lost his rhythm, despite a relatively low pitch count. D.J. LeMahieu hit his first career homer, and the Rockies’ 1-2 hitters each collected singles. That was it for Cain.

The final line: 7.1 IP, 2 ER, 6 K, 1 BB, 7 H, 1 HR. Perhaps not his best start since the perfect game, but a very good outing nonetheless. Oh, and he just so happened to drive in the second run of the game.

Alas, the Giants didn’t even end up needing that much out of Cain, as the offense exploded for nine runs. Every player who batted for the Giants in this game collected a hit…except for Brandon Belt — who walked in his lone at-bat.

Notes:

  • Buster Posey’s day: 2 for 5 with a single, an intentional walk, and a two-run homer (following a bunt single by Melky Cabrera); and to top it all off, he gunned down a runner at second.
  • On a similar note, is there a better 1-2 punch against left-handed pitching  than Buster Posey and Melky Cabrera? Before today, they stood at a 228 wRC+ and 207 wRC+ against southpaws, respectively.
  • As much as I complain about Joaquin Arias, he’s done a bang up job as Brandon Crawford’s platoon partner. Would you believe that he came into today with a .313/.349/.384 line against left-handers?

Melky Cabrera and 200 Hits

A couple days ago, Jon Heyman published an article noting that Melky Cabrera and the Giants will put aside contract talks until after the season is over; the article inevitably started up another wave of speculation and discussion on what kind of money Cabrera should and/or will receive this offseason. But oddly enough, I’m not concerned with that — at least for the time being. The Giants don’t seem to be, either. Once the season has come to an end, we’ll all have an even clearer picture of what Melky is. For now, I’m inclined to just sit back and enjoy what Melky is doing.

We’re four months into this thing. He’s come to the plate nearly 500 times this season. And he’s currently rocking a .352/.395/.527 slash line. What’s more, he’s got a pretty comfortable major-league lead in the hit column, at 154. Andrew McCutchen, who stands second in the majors in hits, trails by six.

Melky is just 46 hits away from 200. The 200-hit mark is a frivolous milestone, for what should be fairly obvious reasons: it’s a counting stat, so it’s largely dependent upon opportunity — sheer quantity of at-bats; and secondly, it doesn’t account for important factors in a player’s production, namely walks and power. As such, “200 hits” doesn’t automatically mean “good season.” Juan Pierre compiled 204 hits in 2006, a year in which he posted an 82 OPS+.

But the frivolities in baseball are fun. That’s part of what makes the sport enjoyable. I mean, hitting for the cycle is a frivolous feat, but that doesn’t mean it’s not fun to watch a player accomplish it.

Assuming Melky remains healthy, he’s all but guaranteed to reach 200 hits. There are 50 games left in the season, so he’ll likely get another 200 or so plate appearances. ZiPS projects 182 at-bats for him over the rest of the season. If that’s the case, Melky would need to hit .253 from this point forward. He’s hit .352 so far. He’s hit .285 over his career. ZiPS projects him to hit .308 the rest of the way. Even in his notoriously terrible 2010 campaign, he hit .255. Melky essentially has this locked up.

A complete list of every San Francisco Giants player to eclipse 200 hits in a single season:

Rk Player Year H Age Tm Lg G PA AB BA OBP SLG OPS
1 Rich Aurilia 2001 206 29 SFG NL 156 689 636 .324 .369 .572 .941
2 Bobby Bonds 1970 200 24 SFG NL 157 745 663 .302 .375 .504 .879
3 Willie Mays 1958 208 27 SFG NL 152 685 600 .347 .419 .583 1.002
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Play Index Tool Used
Generated 8/10/2012.

 

Not only is Melky set to join an exclusive group of Giants hitters, but at this rate, he looks like he could best each of them in terms of hit totals. Willie Mays holds the San Francisco Giants’ single-season record for hits, at 208. He’s held that record since the Giants’ very first season in San Francisco. Cabrera needs just 55 hits over the final 50 games of the season in order to overtake Mays. Pretty cool, eh?