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.


USF looks to go the distance

June 1, 2013

It’s tough enough to come back from an opening-game loss in a Regional playoff tournament. But USF is facing the toughest test of all, having played 24 innings over its first two games at the University of Oregon.

The Dons have twice gone to extra innings – first in a 3-2 loss to Rice in 11 innings Friday, then in a 4-3 win over South Dakota State in 13 innings Saturday – and now USF ‘s best-case scenario is to win three games in two days.

With no margin for error, USF has its sights set on a Sunday doubleheader. The Dons are set to play an elimination game Sunday at 2 p.m. against the loser of the Rice-Oregon matchup. Should the Dons win, they will play the winner of the Rice-Oregon matchup Sunday at 7 p.m. in a doubleheader nightcap. If the Dons sweep Sunday’s doubleheader, they will play for the Regional championship Monday at 7 p.m.

“If we can get our offense going just a little bit, we can win games right now,” Dons manager Nino Giarratano said. “Because we’re pitching well enough to do it.”            

USF just hasn’t been able to break through with the bats. With the exception of a half an inning on Saturday after taking a 2-0 lead over South Dakota State in the second, the Dons have played within one run of the opposition throughout the tourney. Four times they have led by one run, and have relinquished three of those leads. The only lead to hold up was Sunday’s 4-3 final.

“Offensively our guys haven’t given us a comfort level ever, the entire [24] innings we’ve played,” Giarratano said. “So it’s been rough.”

USF’s pitching has been exceptional, however. The Dons have used six pitchers in each of the first two games, but still have their most electric arm, right-hander Alex Balog, available to start Sunday. After that, the Dons will likely turn to senior Andrew Pulido and freshman Thomas Cox to anchor the rotation.

“I think we’re going to be fine with pitching,” Giarratano said. “We haven’t overused anybody. We’ve got a couple guys, [Haden Hinkle and Christian Cecilio], will be down. But the rest of those guys are still pretty good.”

Despite reliever Abe Bobb taking the loss Friday against Rice, the USF bullpen didn’t surrender an earned run through four innings of work. Rice runners reached in each of the final five innings, but Dons relievers neutralized the Owls offense out of the stretch. Rice eventually won by plating an unearned run in the 11th on a routine fly ball to left field that got lost in the sun. And this came after Geoff Perrott reached on a passed ball after striking out on what would have been the third out of the inning.

“We made two really bad mistakes back-to-back,” Giarratano said. “We were disappointed. But it was time to pick up and move on, and our guys did a great job of doing that.”

USF bounced back Saturday, winning on a manufactured run by virtue of some defensive miscues by the opposition. Deadlocked in the top of the 13th inning, Bradley Zimmer reached on an error by South Dakota State second baseman Al Robbins. Zimmer stole second, and after a walk to Zack Turner, both runners advanced on a passed ball. Then after a walk to load the bases, Bob Cruikshank lifted a sacrifice fly to left to score the go-ahead run.

But with runners at first and third and one out, USF still failed to go large, as Harrison Bruce grounded into a double play to end the inning. And when South Dakota State’s Daniel Marra reached base in the bottom of the frame, it seemed as though one run might not be enough.

“I was frustrated,” Giarratano said. “We had bases loaded, no outs, and we scored one run. Then all of a sudden they get the second hitter on and then he gets to second base, then all of a sudden here we are in another high-stress inning.”

USF called upon Bobb once again though, and this time his defense came through, as the junior right-hander induced two groundouts to end it.

“Our [relievers] came out and did their job,” Giarratano said. “They’ve been doing that all year. They’ve been coming out and throwing strikes as soon as they get to the field. And they’ve been getting big outs for us all year. So it was really nothing different.”

This year marks the third time in program history USF has advanced to the postseason. The Dons previously did so in 2006 and 2011, and have never advanced past Regional play. Now they are faced with having to win three games in two days to do so. Despite his team playing too tight and not being able to keep the ball out of the air in the spacious confines of PK Park, Giarratano remains optimistic. 

“I think we’re going to be inspired,” Giarratano said. “The kids are here, they’re resilient, they’re tough enough. I’m really proud of how they’ve played and how they’ve responded. I don’t think anything will change [Sunday]. I think they’ll respond great.”

Appel’s final bow at Stanford

May 25, 2013

Mark Appel’s eight-inning performance Friday night is being called a masterpiece by some. By Appel’s standards it was just a day in the life.

What has made Appel such a tough competitor through four legendary years at Stanford is not just the sheer velocity or the outstanding stuff. It’s the sharp command that makes the man the most anticipated pitching prospect to emerge from Stanford in some years.

As the svelte right-hander earned his 10th win of the season, he didn’t have quite the command that has become synonymous with his heralded Friday-night outings. Appel threw 123 pitches Friday, 79 strikes. He hasn’t labored as much in over a month – since April 19 when he threw 124 pitches, 77 for strikes – in earning a 4-3 win over Arizona.

But Appel knows how to play ‘em close. All but two of his starts this season have been decided by a scoring differential of two runs or less. A historic night in which he overtook Kyle Peterson and Justin Wayne to become Stanford’s all-time strikeout leader was no different. The Cardinal triumphed 2-1 over UCLA in what was essentially a must-win situation, and in comeback fashion no less.

With the win, Appel also matched his single-season career high, after posting a 10-2 record last year. The win also moved him into a tie for sixth all-time in Stanford history with 28 career wins. Whether or not he gets a shot moving further up the list is now in the hands of his teammates; as well as the NCAA selection committee. The Cardinal entered into their final regular-season series with their backs against the wall, needing to take the series from No. 8-ranked UCLA in order to have a chance at earning a berth in the postseason field of 64. A series sweep wouldn’t hurt.

What’s all but certain tough: Stanford won’t be hosting any postseason baseball this year. With the Cardinal sitting on the cusp of fourth place in the Pac-12, Sunkenn Diamond certainly won’t be considered for a Regional tournament bid. If the stars align, there’s a remote chance Stanford could host a Super Regional.

For all intents and purposes though, the Cardinal know they are winding down their home schedule with their regular-season finale against UCLA. By virtue of this, Friday’s game carried the weight of being viewed as the final home appearance of Appel’s career.

And whether or not the numbers matter to Appel, the emotion of winding down one of the most storied pitching careers in Stanford history certainly does.

“This one’s I guess a little different,” Appel said. “Honestly, I shouldn’t be approaching games any different. I should play every one like it’s my last. But this one very well might be my last. So it definitely did hold a little extra value. Every game is important. But I’m just glad we won.”

‘Cats win college crown

June 25, 2012

            University of Arizona baseball has always been synonymous with powerhouse offense. This season, the Wildcats touted the fourth best offense in the nation, hitting .329 as a team. All but one of their regular starters hit below the .300 mark. And, they outscored opponents 756-577 throughout the year.

            Yet, the story of Arizona’s epic postseason run is its pitching.

            Monday night, Arizona capped a clean sweep through the postseason to win its fourth ever College World Series crown, and its first since 1986. The Wildcats also won National Championships in 1976 and 1980.

            Sure, Arizona’s championship-series opponent South Carolina was not renowned for its offense. The Gamecocks hit just .265 as a team this season. But, regardless of who its opponent was, Arizona’s starting pitching was nails throughout the postseason, getting 85 innings out of its starters in 10 games, including five complete games.

            Sophomore right-hander Konner Wade hurled three of those complete games, including the championship-series opener Sunday night in a 5-1 win over South Carolina.          

            Sophomore right-hander James Farris pitched into the eighth inning Monday in the clinching 4-1 victory. Farris also won the Regional playoff clincher with a complete-game shutout to eliminate Louisville on June 3, the last time he pitched previous to Monday’s championship finale.

            The most pivotal postseason outing, however, came in the Super Regional round, when junior right-hander Kurt Heyer went 9 1/3 innings to take a no-decision in an eventual 7-6 win over St. John’s in 10 innings.

            The reason this is such an astonishing achievement is because Arizona has never been known for its pitching. Much of this is in part to Arizona’s Tucson home being a desert paradise for hitters. All you have to do is look at Gil Heredia’s 1986 season to understand the modern dynamic of being a Wildcats pitcher. Heredia set the Arizona record for most home runs surrendered by an Arizona pitcher in a single season with 19, but still won 16 games that year – the second winningest season in Wildcats history.

            While there have been some Wildcats pitchers to go on to good major league careers – Heredia, Scott Erickson, Joe Magrane, and Craig Lefferts, to name a few – only one Arizona alumnus has gone on to become a great big-league pitcher; former closer extraordinaire Trevor Hoffman. However, Hoffman didn’t pitch at Arizona. He was a shortstop who actually led the Wildcats in hitting with a .371 in 1988, outhitting his teammate J.T. Snow by 35 points that season. It wasn’t until Hoffman’s third year as a professional that he converted to the mound.

            Otherwise, the only Arizona pitching great to transcend the mythos of legend while wearing a Wildcats uniform is softball icon Jennie Finch.

            The legend of Arizona’s 2012 season belongs to head coach Andy Lopez, though. All the talk of timeless achievements in this year’s College World Series was South Carolina’s push for a three-peat. But all along, Lopez was in a position to make history. And, in capturing the National Championship, he becomes just the second coach in history to do so with two different teams, previously leading Pepperdine to the title in 1992.

            And, it was the manner in which Lopez managed his pitching staff that drove Arizona to an undefeated 10-0 postseason run, culminating in the 2012 National Championship.

Florida cheesed at CWS

June 18, 2012

            What a way to go out for No. 1-seed Florida.

            Trailing 5-4 in the ninth inning of Monday’s College World Series elimination game, the Gators did what a team is supposed to do when the opposition implodes. They let them. Unfortunately, home plate umpire Phil Benson went with the sympathy vote on a strike call that effectively ended Florida’s season.

            With Kent State going into the ninth leading 5-4, things went buggy for the Golden Flashes’ bullpen. Kent State reliever Michael Clark didn’t throw a strike in walking back-to-back hitters to start the inning. Josh Pierce came on in relief, but after a sacrifice bunt, hit Daniel Pigott to load the bases.

            Pierce also lost the strike zone, throwing three straight balls to Casey Turgeon before pouring in a strike to set the stage for a fateful 3-1 pitch. Pierce’s next offering was nearly a foot off the outside of the plate. ESPN’s K-zone verified it. Yet, instead of forcing home the tying run, the pitch was called a strike by Benson, prolonging the at bat, which ended controversially on a check-swing strike-three call that saw Turgeon – thinking once again that he’d walked – jogging half way down the first-base line before getting rung up.

            The game, and Florida’s season, ended on the next pitch when Justin Shafer lifted a lazy fly out to right field.

            Kent State clearly outplayed Florida through the first eight innings. The Golden Flashes’ offense generated four runs in the first two innings, knocking out Gators starter Randall Hudson after the first, before touching reliever Jonathon Crawford for a slew of unearned runs in the second.

            Florida’s offense wasn’t exactly getting shut down by Kent State starter Ryan Bores, though. The Gators were hitting the ball hard from the get-go, but consistently found Kent State’s gloves through five innings. In plating a run in the sixth, and two more in the seventh, Florida inched within striking distance to set the stage for a ninth-inning comeback, only to have it nullified by a terrible call at the most critical moment.

            So, the epic career of Florida catcher Mike Zunino ends on a downer. The slugging junior was 2 for 4 with two RBIs in the game, and 8 for 25 with three home runs and 11 RBIs throughout the postseason. As the third overall pick in the draft by Seattle, however, Zunino will almost certainly be going pro.

            And so, Kent State advances through the College World Series bracket as the newly dubbed Cinderella team, after Stony Brook was eliminated Sunday. And, home plate umpire Phil Benson undoubtedly need be dubbed Kent State’s Prince Charming.

CWS Cinderella overmatched

June 16, 2012

            It’s Omaha tradition. Each June, the Nebraskan locals “adopt” an underdog team for which to root at the College World Series. This year there were two contenders for the “Cinderella” moniker – Stony Brook and Kent State – and both ran into dominant pitching to fall in the opening round of the CWS bracket.

            Omaha decidedly adopted Joe Nathan’s alma mater Stony Brook. Good choice. But, the city should seriously consider adopting UCLA ace Adam Plutko as their Cinderella pitcher.

            In 2011, Plutko emerged as a Freshman All-American, though he was wildly overlooked as UCLA’s Sunday starter due to the Bruins’ legendary one-two punch of junior right-handers Trevor Bauer and Gerrit Cole. Measuring their respective sophomore seasons, though, Plutko certainly stacks up.

            In 2010, Bauer led the nation in with 165 strikeouts while posting a 12-3 record with a 3.02 ERA. Cole was 11-4 with a 3.37 ERA, while ranking third in the nation with 153 strikeouts. Plutko hasn’t been the strikeout king his predecessors were, but he has proved their equal in this his sophomore season with a 12-3 record, while dazzling with a 2.48 ERA. 

            Stony Brook ran up against Plutko in Friday’s CWS opener, falling 9-1 to No. 1-ranked UCLA. And, Stony Brook never had a chance.

            Even before UCLA erupted for five runs in the bottom of first inning, Plutko commandeered the game. The right-hander made a statement by making quick work of the top of Stony Brook’s lineup, setting the side down in order, including strikeouts of the America East Conference’s two top hitters Travis Jankowski (.416 average) and William Carmona (.393 average).

            After escaping unscathed from a bases-loaded jam in the second, Plutko went on to dominate, allowing one run on five hits over seven innings, while striking out seven against two walks.

            Stony Brook is now on the brink of elimination, though its a familiar and seemingly favorable position for the first AEC team to ever advance to Omaha. The Seawolves are viewed as the epitome of the college baseball underdog. They were lauded as the only No. 4-seeded team to win in regional play this season. And, in both the regional and super regional tourneys, they had to play back from early loses, winning each round with consecutive victories while on the brink of elimination.

            Just because Stony Brook is garnering a long-deserved spotlight, however, doesn’t mean the small New York upstarts of the modern baseball era are new to the tradition of winning baseball. While it’s true the Seawolves are reveling in their first 50-win season, they have long been contenders in the AEC. Before surpassing the 40-win mark for the first time last season, Stony Brook posted an above-.500 record in all but two seasons (2005 and 2006) since joining the D-I ranks in 2000.

            Kent State was welcomed to its first CWS appearance in the same manner as was Stony Brook. No. 19-ranked Arkansas upended Kent State 8-1 Saturday, behind a masterful performance by junior D.J. Baxendale. While the Razorbacks’ ace isn’t nearly the caliber of UCLA’s elite starters of recent years, he solved a Kent State lineup that paced the Mid-American Conference with a .302 team batting average this season, scattering three hits over 6 1/3 strong innings to earn his team-best eighth win.

Stanford falls in Florida

June 10, 2012

            The 2012 Stanford Cardinal seemed like a team of destiny.

            At the outset of the season, the Cardinal were ranked as one of the top teams in the nation. They carried a No. 2-ranking through most of non-conference play, and after an 8-0 start, even spent a week at No. 1.

            Pac-12 conference play had a swift hand in altering Stanford’s destiny, however.

            The Cardinal ultimately had their national-championship hopes dashed this weekend, falling in Super Regional play for the second straight season. No. 3-ranked Florida State not only swept Stanford in Tallahassee, Fla. The Seminoles administered a thrashing, outscoring Stanford 17-1 in Game 1 Friday, before advancing to Omaha with an 18-7 win in Game 2 Sunday.

            Certainly, there were factors aplenty that caused Stanford’s downfall. The most significant factor heading into play in the best-of-three series, though, was the home-field advantage. Both teams were powerhouses on their respective home turf this season. Stanford produced a 27-7 record at Sunken Diamond; Florida State a 32-5 record at Dick Howser Stadium.

            And earlier this year, while on the precipice of conference play, the Cardinal were in the driver’s seat of navigating this factor – a direct course from Sunken Diamond to Omaha theirs for the taking. Then the Cardinal plummeted in Pac-12 play. Stanford lost two of its first four series this season – being swept in Arizona, before dropping two of three to Oregon.

            Stanford would rebound by going 12-5 in conference thereafter, but the damage was done. The Cardinal had fallen out of the top eight, never to return – by virtue of which, they were no longer guaranteed home-field advantage in a potential Super Regional.

            While the Cardinal swept their regional last weekend, all eyes were on Florida State. When the Seminoles swept their regional as well, the writing was on the wall. Stanford would be forced to travel to a humid climate that couldn’t be more different than that of their West Coast home, to play a Florida State team that couldn’t be more acclimated and poised to capitalize on such a home-field advantage.

            Leaving behind a picturesque weekend of sunny blue-skied baseball weather in the Bay Area, Stanford played in the sweltering and sticky Tallahassee heat, with thunderstorms wreaking havoc on the Super Regional schedule.

            Ace right-hander Mark Appel came undone Friday while uncharacteristically being drenched in sweat throughout his abbreviated four innings of work. Play was suspended Saturday because of heavy rains. Sunday, Florida State never looked like a team that could lose – with the exception of one at bat in the seventh inning when Stanford junior Stephen Piscotty came to the plate representing the tying run with the Cardinal trailing 10-6.

            Coming up to bat with the bases loaded amid a four-run rally, it seemed the stage was set for a poetic date with redemption for Piscotty. Now an outfielder, it was Piscotty’s erratic third-base defense last season throughout the Super Regional at North Carolina that cost Stanford so dearly en route to a two-and-out sweep at the hands of the Tar Heels. Piscotty, however, could not write the unthinkable story of redemption, instead rolling over for an anticlimactic groundout to – of all places – third base.

            And so, the 2012 Stanford Cardinal finished two crucial victories short of their first trip to Omaha since 2008, and a shot at their first national championship since 1988.

            It was a season to remember, with Stanford posting a 41-18 record, the 21st time in history a Cardinal baseball team has eclipsed the 40-win mark.

            Only, it was not a team of destiny.