Art of the Kiesch-knock

August 20, 2013

Of Roger Kieschnick’s 15 hits this season, 11 of them have been to center field.

That includes three Tuesday night, as the Giants came from behind to down the Red Sox 3-2. It was Kieschnick’s leadoff single in the ninth amid a 2-2 tie that set the stage for the win. The Giants went on to load the bases before Marco Scutaro drew a four-pitch walk to force home Kieschnick with the game-winning run.

Since being called up from Triple-A Fresno on July 31, Kieschnick had settled into a platoon with journeyman outfielder Jeff Francouer. With Francouer being designated for assignment Tuesday though, Kieschnick stands to see more playing time until Angel Pagan returns from the disabled list.

Tuesday marked Kieschnick’s third multi-hit game of the season, and the first three-hit game of his big-league career. And as he is quickly refining the art of the “Kiesch-knock” with his compact approach back up the middle, the left-hander is making a case to be a viable option against southpaw pitching.    

“Yeah, there’s a chance (he can play against left-handers), sure,” Giants manager Bruce Bochy said. “He threw out some good at bats. It’s good to see him get some hits. It should help his confidence…. As far as the outfield though, we’re going to have to have a left-hander face some lefties sometimes. It’s a change that we made. He’s a guy, if you look at his numbers in Triple-A, he actually hit lefties a little better than righties.”

In fact, while hitting .273 at Fresno this season, Kieschnick maintained a .289 average against lefties, compared to a .268 clip against right-handers. However, his slugging ability greatly favors his approach against right-handers. Of his 13 home runs for the Grizzlies, 12 of them came against righties.

For fans that had never heard of Kieschnick before he joined the big club, it might seem he is a pure singles hitter. But he isn’t. Sure, he only has one major league extra-base hit to his credit, a triple on Aug. 16 in Miami. But Kieschnick has consistently been one of the most prolific power prospects in the Giants’ system since being drafted in the third round out of Texas Tech in 2008.

The big 6-foot-3 slugger had a breakout season at High-A San Jose in 2009, pacing the Giants with 23 home runs and 100 RBIs, en route to the winning team MVP honors. He has gone on to hit 71 homers over five minor-league seasons, while tabbing a .485 slugging percentage. And that includes two seasons at the pitchers’ paradise of The Diamond at Double-A Richmond, a level Kieschnick repeated after being grounded by a stress fracture of the L-5 vertebrae in 2010.

This season though, he is fully healthy. He has played at 117 games between Triple-A and the big leagues this season, and should easily play in 15 more to surpass his season-best 131 games (2009), so long as he keeps the Kiesch-knocks coming.


Magic & loss (& redemption)

August 18, 2013

Despite all the verve of the classic Giants-Dodgers rivalry, perhaps there should be no team that modern Giants fans enjoy beating more than the Miami Marlins.

Two of the Giants’ last three postseason eliminations have come at the hands of the Marlins. The first elimination came in 1997, a disheartening sweep, with the then Florida Marlins becoming the first National League Wild Card team ever to win a playoff series. In 2003, the Giants at least won their playoff opener against the Marlins, before once again dropping three straight to the Wild Card underdogs.

Both times, the Marlins went on to win the World Series. It was bad enough to be twice ceded at the hands of Wild Card teams. What made matters worse is it seemed the Wild Card was invented specifically to antagonize the Giants, with the format being introduced in 1994; while the Fish were introduced to Major League Baseball as an expansion team in 1993.

For a Giants franchise that came into being in 1883, and hadn’t won a World Championship since moving to San Francisco in 1958, the outcome felt like having one’s wife stolen by the bag boy at the local grocery store.  

I will forever equate the 1997 National League Division Series with Julian Tavarez. It has nothing to do with his performance, though he did play a pivotal role, pitching in all three games, while taking the Game 1 loss by yielding the walk-off run as the Giants fell 2-1. But the reason Tavarez, in my mind, is the face of the ’97 playoffs is because the night after the Giants were eliminated, he ate dinner in the restaurant where I was working.

It was in this restaurant where I went crazy while listening to the legendary Brian Johnson home run game on the radio earlier that year. It was in this restaurant where I watched the first two playoff games on television, while being lambasted by my boss, who had lived in Miami for a time, and was subsequently rooting for the Marlins.

So, it turned out to be a sweet solace when Tavarez sat down in this very building for a light meal. He dined with his father, and had clam chowder with Tabasco sauce. As  a pitcher, Tavarez was known for his somber demeanor, but he was downright miserable at dinner that night. He didn’t smile once – a profound expression that resonated deeply with me – and this may have as much as anything in my adult life to do with my heartfelt fandom of baseball.

Then there is the 2003 postseason, which, in my mind, will always belong to Jason Schmidt. Sure, Marlins ace Josh Beckett went on to win World Series MVP honors. (And of course, the iconic figure of the ’03 postseason will forever be Steve Bartman.) But it was Schmidt’s shutout in Game 1 of the NLDS to defeat Beckett that affected me profoundly.

The Giants’ playoff berth of ’03 was their second in as many years, having been defeated by the Anaheim Angels in the World Series the previous season. As difficult as that World Series loss was to digest, in retrospect, my biggest regret was I watched every game on TV, and didn’t listen to any of the games on the radio as announced by the Giants’ local broadcast team. So, I tuned in to Game 1 of the ’03 NLDS with the television broadcast muted, opting to listen to the local KNBR radio broadcast.

It was the strangest way I’d ever enjoyed a baseball game. With the mandatory TV delay, the radio audio was several seconds ahead of the picture. It was difficult to multitask the two timelines at first, but by the second or third inning, I was in the zone of zones. And with the way Schmidt was dealing, it seemed as if there was some serious magic working with the balance I had struck between the TV and radio, while the Giants’ ace threw a three-hit gem.

Of course, it was another seven years before the Giants returned to the playoffs. But the magic endured. They say veteran players have an advantage in the postseason because they know what pressures to expect. Well, as a veteran fan, I was entirely prepared to forego the TV audio … if I had to.

While I relied solely on the TV when the 2010 postseason began, by the time things got cooking in the National League Championship Series, I was switching over to the radio feed quite a bit. And during the decisive Game 6 against Philadelphia, I enjoyed the entire radio broadcast; and in my mind can still replay Juan Uribe’s game-winning home run – my surrounding environs, Jon Miller’s play-by-play call, and all – to a tee.

So, while the thought of twice losing to the Marlins in the playoffs still stings, I can appreciate that they played a key role in my enjoyment of the World Championships of 2010 and ’12.

Moral-victory postscript: I am now Facebook friends with my former boss who so vigorously and visibly rooted for the Marlins back in the day. Seriously, in 1997, how many expat Marlins fans could you find in the world? One? And she just happened to be my boss? But I’ve enjoyed watching her post photographs of her beautiful family in recent years. I’ve especially enjoyed seeing her lovely kids often wearing Giants hats. And my favorites are the occasional photos in which she is wearing one too.

Panda lives up to name

August 17, 2013

Don’t ever forget the “Kung Fu” part of the nickname Kung Fu Panda.

The Giants won their third straight game Saturday with a 6-4 victory in Miami, and credit Pablo Sandoval’s superhero alter-ego with getting the Giants on the board. With Matt Cain and Henderson Alvarez setting the stage for what was shaping up to be a classic pitching duel, it was Sandoval who ultimately beat Alvarez, by legging out an infield single with two outs in the fourth inning.

On an in-between bounder to Marlins first baseman Logan Morrison, Sandoval smelled a hit when Alvarez was late covering first base. Sandoval went from an all-out sprint to a headlong dive into first, beating Morrison to the bag. But with Morrison trying to get the force with a hurried kick-slide, the big first baseman ended up spiking Sandoval flush on the right elbow.

All’s well that ends well though, as Sandoval proved true to his superhero persona by laughing off the injury and staying in the game. And oh yeah, not only did Brandon Belt score on the play to break a scoreless tie, the Giants went on to plate four runs in the inning, with a balk to score Buster Posey, a walk to Roger Kieschnick, and a clutch two-run double by Gregor Blanco.

It’s fitting the game was decided by Sandoval’s football style of play on Jim Davenport’s birthday. Currently in his seventh decade in professional baseball, Davenport is a former All-Star and Gold Glove third baseman who went on to manage the Giants in 1985, before taking an executive position with the organization in 2006.

Two years ago, I was fortunate enough to get to talk with Davenport about Sandoval’s aggressive style of play. This was before the infamous play from the 2012 National League Championship Series, when Matt Holliday blew up Marco Scutaro on a ridiculous barrel-roll slide at second base in Game 1. While Giants’ fans were outraged at the play, myself included, the truth of the matter is Sandoval plays the game the same way, and has made many similar such take-out slides as the notorious Holliday incident. It was precisely these types of slides by Sandoval that Davenport and I discussed.

Davenport commented quick and to the point: “The game has changed.”

With the way Sandoval wore being spiked Saturday night, it is obvious why the game has changed. And Sandoval’s even-keel reaction is precisely how to justify it. Giants fans should know full well that Sandoval plays hard in all facets of the game. It isn’t just the barrel-roll slides. It’s being the first player to the field and getting loose by taking a hundred line-drive seeds from his knees at third base. It’s tumbling over rails and into dugouts. It’s inviting big-time collisions by blocking the third-base bag on tag plays in the field. It’s staying in good enough shape, despite his big-bodied frame, to be able to find the extra gear to make miracles happen on the base paths. It’s playing all-out hardball all the time.

All told, it’s a wonder how Saturday’s game-changing play is the worst Sandoval has ever been spiked. But hey, he’s a superhero. Being bulletproof comes with the gig.

Scutaro sparks big win

August 16, 2013

Well, if the Giants had been playing the Miami Dolphins in Super Bowl XIX Friday, they would have lost – but only because they missed a fourth-quarter field goal.

A surefire sign it’s going to be a fun one is when your pitcher gets to bat before he even takes the mound. God bless Chad Gaudin. He may not have pitched long enough to earn a decision, but his first-inning at bat was a championship effort. A helicopter bat into the Marlins’ dugout, then fouling off a two-strike 94 mph fastball to see another pitch, all while not wearing batting gloves.

But with the Giants opening a three-game series in Miami by downing the Marlins 14-10, the foremost tip of the cap should go to Marco Scutaro. It has been over a week since the Giants’ second baseman was moved to the leadoff spot. Entering into play Friday, he had struggled while hitting just .222 (8 for 36) through eight games at the top of the order.

Scutaro demonstrated his chops in his first at bat against Marlins starter Nate Eovaldi though, opening the game with one critical at bat that set the tone for the entire contest. In grinding out a nine-pitch battle, Scutaro helped ensure it would be a short night for Eovaldi, especially after cashing in for a leadoff single.

Next thing you know, Eovaldi surpassed the 50-pitch plateau with just one out in the second inning, and the Giants led by a touchdown by the end of the frame. The Marlins’ 23-year-old right-hander went on to last just three innings in his worst start of the season.

This is the importance of a leadoff hitter. Oftentimes, it take a pitcher just one good pitch to establish himself in a big-league game. So, if a team doesn’t have an effective leadoff hitter, a pitcher can take hold of the reins by the time he notches the first out, especially when he comes out throwing 95 mph with sharp curveball, as Eovaldi showed against Scutaro. But when a leadoff hitter can show patience, be selective, and take a dangerous pitcher to task, a pitcher can’t necessarily establish himself.

And Friday night, Eovaldi never did.

Gregor Blanco and Andres Torres both seem like prototypical leadoff hitters. But neither of them are.

Blanco is always a solid starting option because of his outstanding defense, but on the offensive side of the ball, he is much better suited for the bottom of the order. As a leadoff hitter this season, he has posted a mere .296 on base percentage. To Torres’ credit, he has been solid against left-handed pitching. The switch-hitter is batting .271 against southpaws this year. However, he too has been more valuable at the bottom of the order, getting on base at just a .303 clip as a leadoff man.  

The loss of Angel Pagan has shown just how important it is to have a top-of-the-order presence. In eight months with Pagan at the top of the order, the Giants won a World Championship, then proceeded to establish themselves as one of the most consistent offensive squads in baseball at the start of 2013.

Remember those slugging Giants of April and May? It’s no coincidence the offense started sputtering after Pagan went down. The Giants hit .283 as a team efore Pagan got injured while legging out a remarkable walk-off inside-the-park home run on May 25. Since then, they have hit .250, and that slide started immediately. In the final five games of May after the injury, the Giants hit just .260, and that includes two games in Oakland with the designated hitter.

Friday’s high-scoring win was a nice coming out party, with the Giants banging out 19 hits – their best single-game output of the season. Quite simply, it was Scutaro’s at bat that set the winning wheels in motion. And when Pagan and Scutaro once again establish a one-two punch at the top of the batting order, the Giants offense is going to take off, if it hasn’t already in moving Scutaro to the leadoff spot.

Way to wreck it, kid

August 15, 2013

Had you asked me when I woke up Thursday morning about the best ninth inning I’ve ever seen in my life, I’d have told you about my favorite – a cold Candlestick night in 1985 when the Giants came back from five runs down to beat the Reds on a walk-off home run by Dan Gladden.

But with one swing of the bat by Hector Sanchez, Thursday’s ninth inning shot to No. 1 with a bullet.

Perhaps no other player embodies the struggles of the 2013 Giants better than Sanchez. A surprise last year when he emerged as a solid backup to catcher Buster Posey, this season has been severely different for Sanchez. After dealing with some nagging injuries to start the year, Sanchez saw limited playing time in spring training. When the season started, the effects were obvious. Sanchez was so out of sorts both sides of the ball, he soon was optioned to Triple-A Fresno and replaced on the big-league roster with journeyman Guillermo Quiroz.

When he was recalled on Aug. 8, Sanchez immediately established himself behind the plate by catching Tim Lincecum’s gem in holding the Brewers to one hit through eight shutout innings in a 4-1 Giants win. However, the sophomore backstop still scuffled at the plate, entering a three-game series in Washington saddled with an 0-for-6 slump since rejoining the team.

With pinch hits against the Nationals in consecutive games though, Sanchez has swiftly put himself back on the map. Wednesday night, with the Giants trailing 6-4, Sanchez led off a ninth inning with a two-strike single. The Giants rallied to close the deficit to one run, and only an outstanding diving catch by center fielder Denard Span to rob Hunter Pence of extra bases preserved the win for the Nats.

On Thursday though, Sanchez came to the plate representing the go-ahead run. With two on and two outs, and the Giants trailing 3-1, Sanchez crushed a two-strike offering from Nats closer Rafael Soriano to give the Giants their first late-inning lead since an Aug. 10 win over Baltimore.

The blast ignited the Giants both sides of the ball. In the bottom of the inning, Brandon Crawford made a dazzling diving catch on a line drive off the bat of Bryce Harper to rob the reining National League Rookie of the Year of a leadoff single. Giants closer Sergio Romo ultimately retired the side in order to record his 29th save of the year.

But I still remember that Dan Gladden home run like it was yesterday. The Reds had closer Ted Power on the mound. Power would go on to have the best year of a decade-long career by saving 27 games that season, which at the time ranked fifth all-time among Reds single-season saves leaders. Had he saved one more game, he would have moved into a third-place tie with Ted Abernathy (1967) and Doug Bair (1978).

After trailing 6-1 to start the inning, the Giants sent Gladden to the plate representing the winning run. The spunky leadoff hitter had a signature style of choking up on the bat quite dramatically. Word was he ordered his bats extra long to accentuate this trait to allow him for better bat control. But with two on and two outs, Gladden went for broke, moving his grip all the way to the knob of the bat. And on a 1-2 pitch, Gladden drove a majestic game-winning homer to left to the sound of Candlestick Park’s signature home-run bugle anthem.

Note: The winning pitcher that night was Vida Blue, who was on the postgame in-studio anchor desk after Thursday’s dramatic win. His sidekick Bill Laskey and in-game color commentator Mike Krukow were also in the Giants dugout amid that epic ninth-inning comeback on April 26, 1985.