Strop dazzles for first ‘W’

July 27, 2013

At the World Baseball Classic, I had the opportunity to sit with former Chronicle columnist Gwen Knapp. And during the Dominican Republic’s championship win at AT&T Park, we had a fun conversation about relief pitcher Pedro Strop.

Strop was electric that night, entering the game in the seventh inning to protect a 3-0 lead with two on and no outs. The right-handed fireballer proceeded to notch back-to-back strikeouts of Puerto Rico’s Carlos Rivera and Pedro Valdes, before inducing a weak pop out by Jesus Feliciano, only to walk off the mound after 13 pitches without so much as allowing a base runner to advance.

It was one of the most impressive innings I’ve seen from any pitcher this year, after which I declared to Gwen that within two years, Strop would be one of the most dominant relievers in the Major Leagues. Although she was sitting in my periphery, I sensed she rolled her eyes.

Well, Gwen, I hope you remembered my statement fondly after Strop’s remarkable eighth inning comeback against the Giants Saturday night.

Overall, Strop hasn’t faired well in the 2013 regular season, entering into play Saturday with an 0-3 record, and a 5.23 ERA.

In fact, it has been a rough season for the entire backend of a bullpen which carried the Dominicans to a WBC crown. Setup man Santiago Casilla, as Giants fans well know, recently returned to action after spending nearly two months on the disabled list. And Dominican closer Fernando Rodney, who saved all eight WBC games for manager Tony Pena, has been less than dominant for Tampa Bay, posting a 4.01 ERA despite 25 saves.

But after tanking in the first half of the season in Baltimore, Strop has seen a resurgence since being acquired by the Cubs last month along with starter Jake Arrieta for veteran Scott Feldman. And while he hasn’t surrendered a run in 11 appearances for the Cubs, Saturday’s performance was Strop’s pinnacle performance thus far.

After loading the bases due to two of his own fielding blunders, Strop locked up with Buster Posey for a dazzling nine-pitch battle. Strop quickly jumped in front of Posey 1-2, before the reigning National League MVP went to work, fouling off an array of filthy offerings, as Strop cut up the corners of the plate. On the eighth pitch of the at bat, Posey had his best pitch to hit – a blazing 96-mph heater up in the zone – but just missed hammering it, instead fouling the heater straight back.

It seemed Strop would have to challenge again, but instead he pounded the inside corner with a 97-mph cutter, sawing off Posey to induce a broken-bat grounder to shortstop, which, with a drawn in infield, allowed Starlin Castro to easily cut down the go-ahead run at the plate. From there, Strop made quick work of Pablo Sandoval and Hunter Pence, ultimately ripping through the heart of the Giants’ batting order to quash a bases-loaded, no-out rally.

Thanks to a Nate Schierholtz solo home run off closer Sergio Romo to lead off the top of the ninth, Strop earned his first win of the year. And now, 2013 numbers aside, I’m comfortable in declaring – Gwen, at this moment, Pedro Strop is one of the most dominant relievers in the Major Leagues.


Bad call costs Giants

July 21, 2013

“That cannot happen.”

These were the words of TV color commentator Mike Krukow Sunday, after Giants rookie Kensuke Tanaka was thrown out at second base on a didn’t-have-to-advance situation, down 3-1 in the ninth inning.

Krukow was right, albeit supremely inconsistent. What also cannot happen is Buster Posey getting thrown out at home plate in the sixth inning.

Trailing the Diamondbacks 1-0 in the sixth, Pablo Sandoval followed a leadoff walk to Posey by lacing a double up the left-center gap. Instead of settling for runners at second and third with no outs and Hunter Pence coming up, however, Giants third base coach Tim Flannery played the situation over-aggressively by waving Posey home. The Giants’ catcher got cut down at the plate by a perfect relay from Diamondbacks shortstop Cliff Pennington, as pointed out by manager Bruce Bochy in the postgame press conference.

“[H]e just made a great relay throw, I don’t know what else to tell you,” Bochy said. “It obviously looked like Buster was going to make it, and the shortstop came up firing and made a great throw. You hate to see that happen, but give them credit for executing.”

I have to take the blame for the ineptitude to follow, because I wasn’t there to ask the obvious follow-up question: Was sending Posey home the right call in that situation?

The obvious answer: Absolutely not.

Flannery blew it. It’s improper baseball to risk making the first out of the inning at home plate in a 1-0 game with one of the team’s best RBI men due up. Sure, everybody makes mistakes. But it was a mistake. And the collective ability of the Giants’ broadcast team to flat-out bullshit its audience is a shame, which only serves to highlight the difference between ethics and entertainment. And Sunday’s broadcast is a prime example that television – as entertainment – is not burdened by a responsibility to tell the truth.

By not properly analyzing the situation, Krukow blew it. Then during the postgame commentary, in-studio co-anchor Shawn Estes also blew it. So did play-by-play commentator Duane Kuiper. They all protected Flannery by not scrutinizing the coaching decision. Only in-studio anchor Greg Papa questioned the call. That’s an important distinction, as Krukow, Kuiper, and Estes are all ex-players. I usually try to keep my opinions about the boys club that continues to overtake the baseball media to myself. But not today.

Granted, a half hour of spin control later, Sportsnet got Flannery on TV scrutinizing the play himself.

“That can’t happen,” Flannery said. “I feel responsible for the game. I feel responsible for [Madison Bumgarner] not getting a win, and getting the loss. It comes with the territory over there. There’s days you have a moment where you help win games, then occasionally you’re in the middle of helping lose a game. And that’s how I felt today.”

An interview followed with Bumgarner, in which the losing pitcher defended his coach – as it should be. But that’s where the boys club should end. When it carries over to the media, that’s a problem.

I love Kruk & Kuip as much as anyone. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: Giants baseball is one of the best shows on television. But today I’m calling bullshit. The Giants broadcast team covered up a terrible call today. And they know it.


Key ABs back Timmy’s no-no

July 13, 2013

Requisite Timmy props. But Tim Lincecum’s no-hit gem hinged on two key at bats to spark a four-run rally in the fifth inning, which, I can say with all certainly, stands as my favorite inning of the year so far.

With all due respect to Lincecum’s timeless performance, that fifth inning deserves its own highlight film, complete with narration by iconic NFL Films voice John Facenda, and should serve as a compelling argument against the designated-hitter rule.

Let me explain. With Lincecum cruising on the mound, he led off the top of the fifth with an unlikely walk. While it’s possible Padres starter Edinson Volquez simply overthrew a 3-2 fastball to issue his only walk of the game, it seems more like an intentional strategy on his part to mess with the opposing pitcher’s rhythm by making Lincecum run the bases.

But oh how Volquez’s gamesmanship backfired. After cashing in two quick outs by striking out Gregor Blanco and Marco Scutaro respectively on three pitches each, Buster Posey went to work with a valiant six-pitch at battle which ended with the reigning NL MVP rapping a single to left.

And what seemed to start as an elementary attempt at taxing Lincecum, resulted in Volquez himself getting worn out. The Padres’ right-hander was so gassed by the time Pablo Sandoval batted with two on and two out, Volquez ultimately hung a sinker, which Sandoval drove back through the middle for a single that not only loaded the bases, but almost took Volquez into center field with it.

The aftermath was a bases-clearing triple by Hunter Pence, followed by an RBI knock by Brandon Belt. But the artistry of the inning was exemplified by the Posey and Sandoval at bats. That’s baseball – along with a textbook example of why pitchers batting is essential to the sport.

Obviously Lincecum persevered, as he struck out 13 en route to a 9-0 win and his first career no-hitter. Perhaps what’s more impressive is he set a career-high with 148 pitches, harkening back to his college days with the Washington Huskies, when Lincecum threw 145 pitches in the final game of his prestigious collegiate career, just two weeks before he was drafted by the Giants in 2006.

Lincecum now joins Jonathan Sanchez and Matt Cain as one of three Giants pitchers to throw a no-hitter in the last five seasons. Posey has caught two of them – Cain’s perfect game last season, and Lincecum’s on Saturday night. Eli Whiteside caught Sanchez’s no-hitter in 2009, which also came against the Padres.