Panda: Breaking Up Is Hard To Do

Pablo Sandoval, Ben CheringtonI’m over it, and you should be too. I admit, it wasn’t easy at first to read about the Panda being courted by the bean counters in Beantown. An outsider might look curiously at how young and old, male and female Giants Nation came to embrace a rotund man in his twenties, turning him into a warm, cuddly and lovable creature they called the Panda. But I think I can explain that.

Pablo Sandoval was one of us, a lunch pail worker, even if sometimes he needed two lunch pails to fill the frame. In a sport with wheelers and dealers, he was a portrait of innocence. He reminded us of why we fell in love with baseball in our youths. He hopped, skipped and jumped into the batter’s box with that one-of-a-kind ritual that would look idiotic if tried by 99 percent of the players, yet was accepted because he was the Panda. He blew bubbles with his bubble gum while fielding the ball. His policy as a batter was no pitch would be left behind as he swung at everything but intentional walks, and rapped a number of hits that were not only well off the plate but barely in the same zip code. While some of the game’s combatants played with a sneer, he operated with a smile. He was a big leaguer with a passion for the game of a little leaguer. He wasn’t a superstar, but did you ever ignore him when he was at bat?

Of course, all that would be meaningless and silly except for one thing: the Panda produced.

The Giants and Dodgers were locked in a classic pennant race in August 2012, and entered a three-game series at Dodger Stadium with first-place Los Angeles leading San Francisco by a half game. The Dodgers were coming off a three-game sweep of the Giants in July, and looked to get a jump on the Giants with ace Clayton Kershaw on the mound. Kershaw was a Giant killer, having beaten them five times in 2011. The Giants needed someone to step up.

Madison Bumgarner did his part, battling pitch for pitch with Kershaw. But could anyone provide the offense? Sandoval took on the challenge, driving in both Giants runs with a sacrifice fly and a single off Kershaw for a crucial 2-1 victory. Fans will point to Sandoval’s record-tying, three-homer explosion in game one of the 2012 World Series as his most memorable moment as a Giant. But without those season-changing clutch at-bats against Kershaw, which propelled the Giants to a series sweep of the Dodgers, there might never have been a World Series that year to showcase Sandoval’s magic.

Sandoval cemented his legend as a Giant with that World Series big fly binge. I’ve seen a lot of baseball. I’ve never seen or felt anything like what happened that day.

Based on the press reports, there was doubt the Giants would even show up for the series opener as they faced the dominant Detroit Tigers and their all-world pitcher Justin Verlander, who had won the MVP and Cy Young the previous season. Poor physical conditioning and a big offensive drop off had made Sandoval a spectator in the Giants post-season championship run of 2010. But Sandoval had gotten himself in shape, and was lighting up the 2012 post season. His first-inning homer triggered a burst of cheers and applause. His second off Verlander in the third set off a wild celebration in the stands. But it was his third blast, off reliever Al Albuquerque in the fifth, that provided the incredible chilling moment. The shock was such that there was a split second of silence where raucous cheers would usually take over, as the crowd came to grips with what they just saw. Around my section, people stared silently at each other, before erupting into screams, hugs, high fives and maybe even some tears. It was the most powerful moment in the 15 years at the Giants downtown ballpark.

Sandoval played a key role in the Giants 2014 post season and eventual championship. He was a free agent, but the Giants boasted that they never lost a free agent they really wanted.

But they apparently didn’t know that the Panda wanted to run free.

The press conference in Boston to officially introduce Sandoval as a new member of the Red Sox was weird. It was one thing for Giants fans to know their Panda was being courted. Now they were watching the wedding, with Sandoval wearing a Red Sox cap and shirt. The Red Sox brass seemed so proud they pulled this off, but I kept wondering that if they were so smart, why did they have Sandoval sitting in front of a wall filled with logos for Dunkin Donuts? Couldn’t they have found a sponsor who sold low-calorie salads?

When the officials quit droning on and let reporters ask Sandoval questions, he was superb. He was classy, and said all the right things. I really believe that Sandoval simply had a seven-year itch after his seven-year career with the Giants. Maybe there were some issues with the Giants that will eventually surface, but he seemed truly excited to become part of the Three Amigos, as a Boston website called them, to be joining Red Sox godfather David Ortiz and former Dodger Hanley Ramirez. Sandoval saw the challenge of taking on a new job, and is that wrong? If you’re truly looking for something to be irritated about, it is how the American League has an advantage over the National League in signing players such as Sandoval because they can entice the player as a potential designated hitter toward the end of the contract.

Yes Virginia, baseball is a business, and that is not breaking news. There’s nothing new about that. The Giants gave the boot to Willie Mays, Willie McCovey, Orlando Cepeda and Juan Marichal. But baseball also is a fascinating game, and Sandoval as a member of the Red Sox will be one of the most interesting stories of 2015. So will the moves the champion Giants will consider now, as we assume the nearly $100 million being reserved for Sandoval is now available to buy a top-flight pitcher or leftfielder.

If your little Virginia also wants to know what to do with her treasured Panda hat, refer her to this comment about the hats from a woman who reviewed one on Amazon.com, and tell her to wear it proudly. “Since it doesn’t have a team logo, if you’re more of a Panda fan than a Giants fan, you can take it with you if he happens to go somewhere else.”

So let the Panda move on, cherish the thrills he provided, and welcome him back when the Giants hold some big World Series reunion in future years. Or better yet, pull for a Giants-Red Sox World Series in 2015: MadBum vs the Panda: Could baseball get any better than that?

Remembering Giants Manager Alvin Dark (1922-2014)

Alvin DarkThe Giants, heading into just their fourth season  in San Francisco in 1961, had quite a shopping list as they searched for their third manager since moving West. The names included legends such as Leo Durocher, Casey Stengel and Yogi Berra. They eventually passed up on the legends and other notable names, and turned to the scrappy Alvin Dark, a tough, hardball-playing shortstop who toiled for the New York Giants from 1950-56. Dark would get the Giants to the World Series one year later.

The news today that Alvin Dark had died at the age of 92 in Easley, S.C., jolted me. My exposure to baseball began in 1958 when the Giants arrived, and I remember following just about every at bat, every game, every series of the epic 1962 season. A remarkable pennant race between the Giants and Dodgers went down to the last day of the regular season, when the Giants tied the Dodgers for first place to force a three-game playoff. The Dark-led Giants took two-of-three to win the pennant. And just like that, Alvin Dark was a San Francisco baseball hero for beating the hated Dodgers. That was no fluke. In the third game of the 1951 playoff against the Dodgers, Dark’s single in the bottom of the ninth started the Giants shocking comeback from a 4-1 deficit that ended with Bobby Thomson’s pennant-winning home run.

Dark’s success should not have been a surprise. He was an exceptional athlete, a star football player at LSU who was talented enough to be drafted by the Philadelphia Eagles in 1945. He chose baseball and was rookie of the year with the Boston Braves in 1948 when he hit .328. He was traded to the Giants in 1950. He hit .417 in the Giants loss to the Yankees in the 1951 World Series. He hit .412 in the Giants World Series sweep of Cleveland in 1954. He played with four other teams after leaving the Giants, and finished with a .289 batting average and three All-Star appearances. The Giants let Dark go after 1964, and he went on to manage four teams, including the World Series champion Athletics in 1974. Dark the manager had 994 wins with a winning percentage of .526.

But Dark’s measure as a ballplayer wasn’t about stats. He was all-out competitive, and that football mentality he carried from his college days was never more on display than the day he went one-on-one against Jackie Robinson.

Early in the 1955 season, the Dodgers were upset that menacing Giants pitcher Sal “The Barber” Maglie had given some of the batters a close shave. Robinson responded with a bunt to the right side, and he delivered a punishing blow to Giants second baseman Davey Williams, who was covering first base. Dark charged from his shortstop position to confront Robinson but was restrained. In the next inning, Dark crashed into Robinson while advancing to third base, jarring the ball loose.

That fiery attitude on the diamond marked his time with the Giants.

After losing the first two of a four-game series against the Dodgers in September 1961, Dark revealed that he had fined seven players a total of $1,000 for missing a curfew in St. Louis two weeks earlier. Dark also revealed he had a sense of humor, and told the players to stay out as long as they want to see if that might change their luck against the Dodgers. It didn’t, as the Dodgers swept.

Dark tried another way to shake up his team in 1961, which seems startling in today’s era of pitch counts and specialty relievers. Dark was frustrated at the inability of his top starter trio of Juan Marichal, Jack Sanford and Mike McCormick to throw complete games, so he instituted a no-bullpen rule. The starters were told they had to go the distance. Sanford and McCormick delivered complete games, and Marichal, pitching with a sore finger and bruised foot, managed to throw two shutouts. Finally, Dark called off the experiment.

During the tense Giants-Dodgers 1962 battle, the Dodgers were aghast to discover a huge pile of sand had been placed at first base at Candlestick Park  as a means of slowing the Dodgers running game. An upset Dodgers manager Walter Alston referred all questions to Dark, “the guy who put it there.” In a denial that would have made Richard Nixon envious, Dark theorized that the strong Candlestick winds had picked up this mound of sand and delivered it right there at first base.

Remembering these colorful moments brings joy to me, but in deciding to write this piece, I also knew I would have to address the painful part. Dark was quoted in a 1964 interview as saying “the Negro and Spanish-speaking players on this team” didn’t have the same ‘mental alertness” as white players. Latin players from that time said he asked them not to speak Spanish in the clubhouse out of some belief it would hurt team unity.

Time has a way of healing, and Giants slugger Orlando Cepeda, one of the Latin players of that time, said upon learning of Dark’s death that his former manager apologized for his words and ignorance of Latin players everytime their paths would cross. Even Jackie Robinson would express respect for Dark in later years, saying of his clash in that 1955 incident, “I admired Al for what he did after I had run down Williams.” Willie Mays, who played for Dark, called him a ‘mentor” and “a very nice man” as news of his death spread. Dark had Mays’ safety in mind in 1962, when he talked his star into wearing a batting helmet for the first time instead of the protective liner he always wore under his baseball cap. The move worked immediately as Mays homered in his first at bat in 1962. Still, Dark acknowledged in later years that the episode of those unfortunate comments would be part of his obituary.

So much time has passed now.

The words of Cepeda and Mays are good enough for me to toss those unfortunate comments into the waste bin of the times when many others of that era were saying the same thing with much more venom.

So I’m going back to where I was when I first heard word today of Alvin Dark’s passing. We lost a good Giant. We lost a good baseball man. And I hope Giants fans everywhere take a few moments today to appreciate that.

Giants Aren’t a Dynasty — Yet

Madison BumgarnerI hate to rain on the Giants parade, but there’s not enough sound evidence to call them a dynasty. Not that they or their fans care, because it actually did rain on their parade, and about a zillion people showed up anyway to soak in their third World Series championship in five years. The faithful would just as soon whack me with a soggy umbrella than hear reasons why it’s not a dynasty yet, but such debates are one of the big reasons many cherish the game.

I embarked on this mission as a serious researcher, but I began by creating this simple test about whether the Giants qualify as a dynasty: If it looks like a duck, walks like a duck and quacks like a duck, then it must be a duck. So I Googled this theory and ended up with a bunch of articles about Duck Dynasty. Now, I have never seen the popular reality TV show, but I am aware that some of the characters have beards longer than many major league players, which is quite impressive right there. I quickly discovered that the Duck family made its money by producing things like duck calls for hunters. It got me to wondering whether their family made those duck calls that Dodgers fans brought to a game in 1962 in response to the Giants flooding the infield to stop the Dodger speedsters. Probably not. I also learned that ratings for the Duck Dynasty are finally slipping after three years, so this show may be heading for the designation of Lame Duck Dynasty.

The last National League team to win three championships in five years was the St. Louis Cardinals in 1942-44-46. That club, led by Hall of Fame legend Stan Musial, isn’t even on anyone’s dynasty list. The numbers show that if those Cardinals didn’t achieve dynasty status, the Giants don’t have much of an argument to make for themselves. In six seasons, from 1941 through 1946, the Cardinals won four pennants and finished second twice. They went to the World Series four times in that period, dropping the 1943 Series to the Yankees. They won 106 games in 1942, and 105 games each  in 1943 and 1944.

In the six-year stretch from 2009 to 2014, the Giants finished in first, second and third twice. They got to the post season this year as the low seed. The Cardinals won 606 regular season games in those six years, while the Giants won 524. If there was a wild-card in the 1940s, the Cardinals would have gone to the post season all six years. If the Cardinals of that time haven’t earned dynasty status, the Giants don’t qualify either.

Merriam/Webster defines a dynasty as “a family, team, etc. that is very powerful or successful for a long period of time.” The Imperial House of Japan is used as an example of a dynasty because it has been around since 660 BC. The Holy Roman Empire is another that gets mention because it held on for 2,214 years. The Giants are going to need to build a far deeper farm system if they expect to be mentioned in the same breath as those two powerhouses.

So how high is the bar to reach dynasty status? The Yankees of 1949-1964 won 14 pennants and nine World Series championships in 15 years. The Yankees of 1996-2003 reached the post season all eight years, winning seven division titles, six pennants and four World Series crowns.  The Big Orange Machine might have passed the Big Red Machine this year. The Cincinnati Reds of the 1970s dominated over six years, but only won two World Series titles. The A’s get dynasty consideration because they won three consecutive World Series, while winning their division during the five-year stretch from 1971-1975.

The Boston Celtics established themselves as a dynasty by winning 11 NBA championships in 13 years from 1957 to 1969. The Los Angeles Lakers won five championships in a 12-year-run from 1979-1991, which included nine conference titles and 12 winning seasons. The Chicago Bulls won six titles in eight years from 1993 to 1998. Those sound like dynasties.

The Green Bay Packers won five titles in seven years in the 1960s, including the first two Super Bowls. The 49ers captured four Super Bowls and eight division titles from 1981-89, and the Steelers won four Super Bowls in six years in the 1970s for dynasty status.

The UCLA basketball team from 1964-1975 is arguably the top all-time sports dynasty with 10 national championships in 12 seasons, including seven straight from 1967-1973, four undefeated seasons and a stretch of 88 consecutive wins.

Lance Armstrong appeared to have claimed the individual designation with his seven consecutive Tour de France titles, but his reputation has faded quickly from dynasty top die-nasty.

The Giants players aren’t the only ones facing tough competition to earn widespread dynasty acceptance. Lou Seal, their mascot and cheerleader, has given his all to rally the team and fans. But before he can become a dynasty mascot, he must surpass the hurdle of the Morehead State University coed cheerleading squad, which has won 19 titles in 22 years of sideline rooting.

But so much for the numbers.

Dynasties are usually feared and favored. For example, in their heyday, the Celtics, the 49ers and the Roman Empire were expected to push around the opposition in every battle. The Giants, meanwhile, get about as much respect as Rodney Dangerfield. It might be that in the era where finances and parity are changing the competition, a three-out-of-five post season domination is as spectacular and noteworthy as the traditional dynasties of years gone by, and we should all simply recognize and salute that. Those three World Series rings offer sufficient consolation if the Giants aren’t deemed to have reached the dynasty pinnacle, and the players who have been around for all of them are still thinking they’ve got enough fingers for seven more. Is anybody really prepared to make the case that this club won’t eventually be fitted to someday clearly wear the dynasty label?

World Series #7: Giants Champs Again

Madison Bumgarner ,Buster PoseyIt’s bad enough that Game 7 of the 2014 World Series is followed by Halloween for the folks in Kansas City. Royals fans are likely to wake up in the middle of the night screaming, haunted by the dominance of MadBum the Great, who led the Giants to a 3-2 win and their third championship in five years. But now, there is one more reason for those who proudly wear the Royals blue to have nightmares. It’s the realization that the Royals passed up on the chance to select MadBum the Great in the 2007 MLB draft where they had the second pick. The Royals instead chose Mike Moustakas. The “Moose,” as he is affectionately called in Kansas City, did well overall in this post season, slugging five home runs. But he did not become a World Series legend, and quietly went 0-for-3 in Game 7. It’s not like the Royals didn’t know about MadBum the Great before the draft. A scouting report on him at the time said of Madison Bumgarner, “He certainly looks the part with the body type and fastball of a professional pitcher. Lefties from the high school ranks with plus velocity like that don’t come around very often.”

The Royals scouts shouldn’t take it too hard, since eight other teams also passed him up, leaving MadBum the Great as the 10th selection of the Giants. He was in the majors in two years, making his debut on Sept. 8, 2009, as a replacement for an ailing Tim Lincecum. Today, MadBum the Great sits at the top of the baseball world, putting his name next to the pitching elite in the game’s history.

All hands on deck: That’s what we kept hearing from Giants manager Bruce Bochy, but it turns out it was a sham. Game 7 didn’t become a bullpen game as advertised. It became a Bumpen game. Pitch count? That’s so the 2014 regular season. Bumgarner threw 117 pitches in shutting down the Royals in Game 5. In Game 7, on two days rest, he threw 68 pitches in relief  while blanking the Royals on two hits. Overall, he pitched 21 innings in the World Series, allowing one run, while striking out 17 and walking one. Starter Tim Hudson only recorded five outs in quickly blowing a 2-0 lead, and reliever Jeremy Affeldt came on to keep the Royals quiet through four innings, extending his post-season scoreless streak to 22 innings. Bumgarner’s appearance in the fifth was largely seen at best as a bridge that might get to the back end of the Giants bullpen in the seventh. But those pitchers became awed spectators like the rest of us as we saw Bumgarner do his bulldog impression that reminded us of legendary durable performances by such names as Christy Mathewson, Walter Johnson, Sandy Koufax and Bob Gibson.

Defense, Defense! They don’t yell that chant at baseball games, but perhaps fans should start doing so at AT&T Park because it was the glove work  that had a lot to do with the Game 7 glory. In the second, with Affeldt trying to limit the damage, Nori Aoki hit a higher chopper that came down at second base just as runner Alcides Escobar was sliding into the bag. Shortstop Brandon Crawford timed it perfectly and grabbed the ball while simultaneously stepping on the bag for the inning-ending force. Eric Hosmer roasted a shot to Joe Panik’s right which appeared to be a sure hit. Panik speared the ball with a dive, and flipped the ball from his glove to Crawford who turned the double play. In Bumgarner’s first inning, Aoki hit a twisting liner down the left field line that Juan Perez snared on the run.

Hits over-rated: The Giants continued their trademark of bringing runs home without hits by scoring their first two on sacrifice flies by Michael Morse and Crawford. Morse drove in what would turn out to be the winning run in the fourth with a base hit that scored Pablo Sandoval.

Speed bump: Much of the pre-Series hype focused on the Royals speed. Would Giants pitchers be able to keep their runners from getting big jumps, and could Buster Posey throw them out? Most conceded this would be a mismatch in favor of the Royals. So how did it work out? The Giants and Royals tied with one stolen base in two tries. The other storyline concerned the Big Three in the Royals bullpen. They allowed just two earned runs in 14-2/3 innings, so they did their job. But, it’s the way baseball goes that the only reliever anyone will remember from this Series is Bumgarner.

MVP: Bumgarner, who won the NLCS MVP, was the obvious World Series MVP, but Hunter Pence and Sandoval deserved honorable mention. Pence was 12 for 27, a .444 average, with seven runs and five RBI. Sandoval was 12 for 28, a .429 average with six runs and four RBI. Crawford hit .304 and Brandon Belt .303. Speaking of MVP, when the Dodgers Clayton Kershaw is likely awarded the National League MVP trophy, won’t that ceremony now seem very hollow after Bumgarner might have just grabbed the unofficial title as the game’s greatest pitcher?

Panda’s farewell? If Sandoval ends up elsewhere in free agency, his final image as a Giant will be cherished forever. As he grabbed the popup for the final out he flopped down on his back for a couple seconds as celebrating teammates ran onto the field. While the Giants are figuring out whether they can pay the Panda, should Bumgarner get a raise? He is on a five-year, $35 million contract, and was paid $3.75 million this year. Can you imagine how much he could demand if he was a free agent now? The Giants shrewd move in locking up Bumgarner until 2020 might be one of the greatest front office signings in sports today.

Title tracker: So, that means the Giants franchise now has eight World Series titles and the Dodgers franchise has six. The Dodgers haven’t won one since 1988, the year before Bumgarner was born.

The skipper: One of the fun parts about following baseball is to second guess the manager, as the fans and press like to do, over decisions such as bunt or hit away, the batting order, pitching changes and such. Giants manager Bruce Bochy is taking all the fun out of this, because he’s mostly right and we’re mostly wrong. Bochy’s third World Series win makes him a Hall of Fame lock, and it will be hard to find fans or media who will second-guess voters on that.

Mr. President: This means the Giants will be meeting at the White House again with President Obama. Last time they were there Obama announced the Giants plans to establish a garden at the ballpark where there would be fresh-picked greens, vegetables and fruit at the site just beyond center field. Both Obama and the health-diet devotee Hunter Pence were featured on a video about the garden. I can’t wait for the moment when the assembled players stand at attention while Obama walks in the room while Pence leads the White House band in a greeting of “Kale to the Chief.”

World Series #6: A Giant Loss of Biblical Proportions

World Series Giants Royals BaseballThe Giants approached Game 6 of the World Series like a bunch of heretics. None of them could see the Second Coming. But by the time the 34-minute second inning had come and gone, the Kansas City Royals had staged an outburst of Biblical proportions, scoring a stunning seven times on the way to a 10-0 trouncing to force a deciding Game 7. And despite what the Bible tells us, nobody is going to rest on the seventh day.

That apparently includes Madison Bumgarner, the most interesting man in the World Series. Stay off the bases, my friend. Fans caught up in MadBum-mania were pushing for him to follow up his 117-pitch gem in Game 5 by starting Games 6 and 7 if necessary, bat cleanup, hit a couple of grand slams, take a few months off, and then pitch all 162-games next year. At least it seemed that way. Manager Bruce Bochy, with a proven Hall of Fame type mastery in handling pitchers, will be tested in how he goes to Bumgarner in Game 7. It doesn’t seem realistic that the Giants ace would pitch more than two innings in relief, but when those would come is uncertain. Early in the game if starter Tim Hudson falters? The sixth and seventh if the Giants need to hold down the Royals?  As the closer? But the Giants can’t assume that Bumgarner in this unusual two days rest situation would pitch with the same dominance he has shown during the post season.

The anticipation of what Bumgarner might do is nearly irrelevant if Hudson lets things get away like starter Jake Peavy did in Game 6. Peavy was on a short leash, but you wonder whether they should have ever taken him outside to begin with. He has not been ready for a prime time start in either of his World Series appearances. The Royals went to work on him in the second with singles by Alex Gordon and Salvador Perez. A crucial play in the inning came with runners on second and third with one out. Alcides Escobar rolled a ball to the right of the pitching mound. First baseman Brandon Belt ran to field the ball, second baseman Joe Panik ran to cover first, while Peavy pointed to the plate as if the runner was breaking for home. Belt got ready to throw home until he realized the runner wasn’t coming, and then had to spin back to try to beat the batter to first. Peavy was the air traffic controller on this play and he had three planes landing on the same runway. As taught in Spring Training 101, he should have ran immediately to cover first at the crack of the bat.  His confusing and poor directions to Belt had the Giants first baseman staggering around so much I thought security would demand a breathalyzer be taken.

That bizarre scene on the bases reminded me of a song performed by the legendary Danny Kaye during the 1962 Giants-Dodgers pennant race. Kaye linked Giants pitcher Stu Miller, second baseman Chuck Hiller, catcher Tom Haller, first baseman Orlando Cepeda , Dodger batter Maury Wills and umpire Jocko Conlan to a similarly awkward play. “Maury bunts. Cepeda runs to field the ball and Hiller covers first, Haller runs to back up Hiller, Hiller crashes into Miller, Miller falls, drops the ball, Conlan calls safe.” The inning got worse from there. The Giants tried to spin it that Peavy was just getting bad breaks, but the fact is the Royals were getting some real comfortable swings against him that paid off in the seven-run second. The Giants pitching woes in this game might have been moot anyway. The Royals 23-year-old rookie Yordano Ventura was superb, shutting out the Giants for seven innings on three hits.

Game for the ages: Hudson, 39, will be the oldest pitcher to start a Game 7 of the World Series. The Giants will probably be happy with four solid innings. The Game 6 rout means both teams have their late-inning bullpens ready, setting the stage for a fascinating number of key pitcher-batter battles. The blowout allowed the Giants to use ineffective relievers Jean Machi and Hunter Strickland while saving the best for the last game. Left-handed hitter Mike Moustakis drilled his fifth home run of the post season off Strickland in the seventh. It was the sixth big fly against Strickland in 8-1/3 innings of the post season. It’s still not clear why Bochy has stuck with the inexperienced Strickland on the biggest baseball stage. It’s been like teaching someone to drive during the Indy 500.

MVP: The Royals could win Game 7 and not have a legitimate MVP candidate. Right now, it’s between Bumgarner and Hunter Pence. Pence leads both teams in average (.435), hits (10), runs (6) and RBI (5). Bumgarner’s two sterling starts make him a contender, and he might seal the deal if he comes in late to shut down the Royals in relief.

Game 7: There is no more dramatic game in sports. The end of a long, grueling season comes down to one game. My first experience of a Game 7 came in the 1962 World Series between the Giants and the Yankees. My Dad and I took the bus to the game to avoid parking and traffic hassles. The Giants hadn’t won a World Series since 1954 in New York, and now had a chance to win their first championship in San Francisco. The outcome is well known, as Willie McCovey lined out to Yankees second baseman Bobby Richardson for the final out with the tying and winning runs at second and third. What I still remember from that day was the bus ride home. It was so quiet, it was so sad. Fifty-six years later, in 2010, the Giants finally won a World Series. As friends were noisily celebrating inside my place, I took a minute to go outside on the deck with my glass of champagne, and I silently raised a toast to my fellow fans who were on the bus that deeply disappointing day in 1962. I knew that time meant that a number of those on the bus had passed on, including my Dad, but that others who were kids like me at the time were partying elsewhere right now. A friend came out and said  “what are you doing out here all alone when everyone is inside partying?” I didn’t know how to tell him that I wasn’t alone, that for a few sweet moments I was back on that bus, but that this time we were turning onto 3rd and King, and being showered with confetti as we passed the Giants ballpark. Game 7 memories. Which ones will we take with us from tonight?

World Series #5: Believe in Bum

World Series Royals Giants BaseballRoyals manager Ned Yost still doesn’t believe. He has seen it with his own eyes twice, once in Kansas City in Game 1 and again in San Francisco in Game 5. But he doesn’t believe. Poor Ned is so alone. The delirious orange and black faithful at AT&T Park, the quiet upper-deck section reserved for Royals fans and the nation itself that  watched on TV certainly believe. They all believe in the power of MadBum the Great.

For nine innings, Madison Bumgarner totally baffled the Royals in a 5-0 victory to put the Giants one win away from continuing their even-year domination of the World Series. This was no fluke. Bumgarner’s masterful four-hitter, with 84 strikes in 117 pitches, was the first complete game World Series shutout since 2003. His World Series ERA in four starts is 0.29. His victims have been the Texas Rangers, Detroit Tigers and the Royals. Omar Infante, who doubled in the fifth, was the only Royal to reach second base. The Royals third base coach was lonelier than the Maytag man. Bumgarner is the first Giant to toss a World Series shutout since 24-game winner Jack Sanford blanked the Yankees 2-0 in Game 2 of the 1962 World Series with the help of a solo homer by Willie McCovey.

Yet, Ned does not believe.

The Giants were leading 2-0 after four innings. Bumgarner had already retired 12 of the first 14 batters, five by strikeouts. There was no sign that was going to change. In the fifth, after Infante’s one-out double, the Royals suddenly had some life with Jarrod Dyson coming up and starting pitcher James Shields due to follow him. Time to get the bullpen going so you could pinch-hit for Shields assuming there would be at least one runner in scoring position when his turn came, right? Nope. Dyson struck out. Yost allowed Shields to bat, and the expected result occurred as the Royals pitcher also struck out. Bumgarner would go on to retire 12 of the next 13 batters. The Royals had their one threat, and Yost did nothing.

In his post-game news conference, Yost said all the right things about Bumgarner, but almost seemed to resent a question about whether he should have pinch-hit for Shields. Sure, it would mean going to the middle-relief part of the bullpen early, a scary idea for Royals fans after that unit’s Game 4 meltdown, but this is the World Series and the pitcher in the other dugout didn’t look like he’s going to give up another run until his first tune up in the 2015 Cactus League.

Of course, Bumgarner likely would have mowed down the pinch hitter anyway, but believe it or not, this was no time for the Royals to give away an out.

Drive for show: There is that golf saying “Drive for show, putt for dough.” It means that if you are to win in golf, the booming blasts off the tee might get everyone’s attention, but the winner is probably going to be the one who makes all the putts. The Giants offense was sort of like that in Game 5. The guys who could drive it for show like Buster Posey, Pablo Sandoval and Hunter Pence didn’t drive in any of the Giants five runs. None had a bad game, with each reaching base twice. But on this night the guys who sank the putts batted in the less glamorous seventh and eighth spots in the order.

Eighth-place hitter Brandon Crawford drove in three runs with a groundout in the second and singles in the fourth and eighth. Seventh-place hitter Travis Ishikawa had a key single in the fourth that moved Sandoval into scoring position for Crawford. In the eighth, Sandoval and Pence singled, and after Brandon Belt struck out, Ishikawa replacement Juan Perez came up. With the crowd wildly waving their orange rally flags in hopes the Giants could get at least more run, Perez did them one better.

Highs and lows: A player mainly used for his defense, Perez crushed a pitch off power set-up man Wade Davis that crashed high off the wall in centerfield, scoring Sandoval and Pence for a 4-0 lead. Crawford’s single made it 5-0. But what none in the crowd knew was that Perez learned early in the game about the death of his close friend Oscar Taveras, a St. Louis Cardinals rookie outfielder who had been killed in an auto accident. In the locker room, Perez had to field alternate questions about his heroics and his personal loss, and he showed great class in humbly describing his big hit while softly recounting his friendship with Taveras. While just 22, Taveras is not a stranger to Giants fans. He hit his first major league home run against the Giants’ Yusmeiro Petiit in May, and struck a pinch-hit homer against the Giants in Game 2 of the National League Championship Series.

The unthinkable: The Big Three in the Royals bullpen were about as powerful as the Great Oz, as the Giants got to Kelvin Herrera and Wade Davis in the three-run eighth. It might have taken a combination of brains, heart and courage, but the Giants certainly exposed the prized bullpen’s  frailties for one night. The Royals were supposed to own the seventh, eighth and ninth because of that bullpen, but the Giants made them look like they were just renting.

Now what? Bumgarner won’t be pitching at all in Game 6 (I don’t think), but he will still be a big factor because he gave the Giants bullpen two days of rest Sunday and Monday because of his complete game. That is critical because Jake Peavy appears to be about a five-inning starter at  the most. The rested bullpen should give manager Bruce Bochy no reservations about dipping into the bullpen quickly.

Till we meet again: Sunday night marked the final party of the season at the Giants ballpark, with fans heading for home still not knowing how the season will end despite the joyous finale. This a pattern. The Giants are gunning for their third World Series championship in five years, but they once again can’t clinch at home. Well, at least that gives them something they can work on next season.

World Series #4: Giants Sink Royals

World Series Royals Giants BaseballComing from Kansas City, the Royals can’t be expected to know about the oceanic phenomenon known as killer waves. So you can’t blame them for figuring it looked like smooth sailing after they posted a four spot in the third inning to take a 4-1 lead in Game 4 of the World Series. If they could tread water for just four more innings, skipper Ned Yost could turn over command of the final three innings to his brilliant crew of relievers.

The first sign of a killer wave begins building far out at sea, and can go undetected. So the Royals saw little danger ahead when the Giants answered in their half of the third with a run-scoring single by Buster Posey to make it 4-2. Those far-out rogue waves aren’t the biggest ones, but my quick Wikipedia research found that “strong currents cause waves to merge to create  exceptionally large waves.”  So the Royals again did not see any reason to go for the lifeboats when the Giants drew even with them in the fifth at 4-4, still drifting along with the comfort of their shutdown bullpen ready to take the oars. Then, without warning, the rogue waves struck.

A two-run double by Pablo Sandoval and RBI-single by Brandon Belt in the sixth suddenly made it 7-4. In the seventh, Gregor Blanco put down a bunt that pitcher Tim Collins threw away, allowing Brandon Crawford to score. Joe Panik delivered a two-run double and Hunter Pence came through with  an RBI double. It all happened so fast the Royals never had a chance to call the Coast Guard. The Giants sent 17 men to the plate in the sixth and seven innings, and the Royals ended up on the ocean floor as the Giants triumphed 11-4 to even the Series at 2-2.

Not a factor: The Royals’ one-two-three punch bullpen never got a chance in this one. The impressive trio of Kelvin Herrera, Wade Davis and Greg Holland are known in Kansas City as simply HDH. But unfortunately for the Royals, the five pitchers who surrendered 11 runs in Game 4 will forever be known as TNT, as the Royals staff imploded.

Team effort: The cliché came true for the Giants in Game 4. Eleven different Giants had hits. The top three batters in the order — Blanco, Panik and Posey — went 5-for-12 with three RBI, three walks and six runs. Panik had two doubles. But what might be more impressive was his sacrifice bunt in the sixth that set the stage for that big inning. How many veterans have you seen who looked like they didn’t even know how to bunt? Panik is a rookie with just months of experience, but he is already placing himself into Giants lore.

MVP: Pence did nothing to lose any votes as a possible MVP Series winner. Pence went 3-for-5 with three RBI, is hitting .467, and made a web-gem catch in right field. A strong outing by Madison Bumgarner in Game 5 will make the two of them leading candidates.

Secret weapon: How many teams have a legitimate big-time starting pitcher sitting around to bring order to a chaotic scene should the starting pitcher falter? Yusmeiro Petit did it again in Game 4 after Ryan Vogelsong’s early exit. Petit, after three scoreless innings, has now gone 12 post-season innings without allowing a run. He creates a whole different option for manager Bruce Bochy. The Giants manager can stick with the uncertain Jake Peavy as his Game 6 starter in Kansas City with the comfort that Petit can douse the flames if the fiery Peavy burns out early. It seems unlikely Bochy will change the rotation at this point, meaning Peavy in Game 6 and Tim Hudson in Game 7 if that is needed. It will be interesting to monitor Madison Bumgarner’s performance in Game 5. If he has a stress-free game, and comes out after around seven innings with the Giants in control, he could become a big factor in relief in Game 7.

Mirror, mirror on the wall: Who has the finest bullpen of them all? While HGH gets all the publicity for their dominance, the Giants are going for their third World Series in five years because of stifling bullpens of their own. The Giants relievers threw 6-1/3 innings of scoreless ball in Game 4. I knew Bochy would get hard-throwing and hard-hit Hunter Strickland back in a game, having him mop up with the Giants in control in the ninth. Bochy still sees value in Strickland getting a right-hander or two out in a key situation during the Series, and is determined to keep his confidence up. This might be the beauty of Bochy. Meanwhile, Tim Lincecum warms up and doesn’t get in. Crazy thought, but can you just imagine the maligned Strickland and the ignored Lincecum having some key role in a Giants World Series clincher? I wouldn’t count it out.

Water torture: I wrote in jest after Game 2 that the Giants might over-water the infield at AT&T Park in Game 3 to slow down the Royals running game. I cited the shenanigans by the Giants ground crew in the 1962 pennant race with the speedy Dodgers, in which the area around first base was turned into a swamp as the hose was aimed at the first base bag as if it was on fire. It got so bad that the umpires ordered the grounds crew back onto the field to soak up the moisture with sand. After Game 3, I couldn’t help but laugh when the Royals complained that the infield seemed to be over watered. “I thought it was a little bit wet around first,” said Royals manager Yost. The Royals have stolen only one base in this series, so they are clearly not having any joy in mudville.

About the book

book jacket

From New York to California

A celebration

Author Joe Konte celebrates the historic, 100-plus years of the Giants-Dodgers rivalry with a new book, “THE RIVALRY HEARD ’ROUND THE WORLD: The Giants-Dodgers Feud from Coast to Coast.” The book, which is scheduled for release Sept. 3, 2013, focuses heavily on the West Coast rivalry, starting with the arrival of the clubs in San Francisco and Los Angeles in 1958, and ending with an expanded look at the pivotal 2012 season. The book also reports on the East Coast rivalry, starting with the first official game played between the teams in 1889. The book will be available at Amazon.com and at Barnes Noble stores and online sites.

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