Leake spectacular for Cinci

April 9, 2014

I tuned into the Reds-Cardinals game Wednesday to watch Cards phenom Shelby Miller pitch. Ultimately, the reason I kept watching was because of Reds starter Mike Leake.

The first time I ever saw Leake pitch was on a breezy April 24, 2009 game at Cal. Then a college junior, Leake was the ace of an Arizona State team that would go on to advance to the College World Series semifinals. Leake dealt at Evans Diamond that Friday, limiting Cal to one run on five hits to earn his 10th win of the season.

Even at the collegiate level, Leake demonstrated only moderate velocity. What immediately impressed me about him was the command of his secondary stuff. Leake could absolutely throw darts with his curveball and changeup, which made his fastball seem electric. He struck me as a young right-handed version of Kirk Rueter. And what he’s done since that day five years ago has made me feel really good about that evaluation.

Leake went on to post a Pac-10 best 16-1 record that season as the Sun Devils advanced to Omaha only to be eliminated by Brandon Belt’s Texas Longhorns. Leake was named the American Baseball Coaches’ Association National Player of the Year for his performance, proceeding 2008 winner Buster Posey.

With the Giants drafting sixth overall that June, I had hoped they would select either Leake or Vanderbilt left-hander Mike Minor, but instead opted to go the high-school route with Georgia-born Zack Wheeler. Within the next two overall draft picks, Minor and Leake went off the board, with Minor being selected seventh overall by the Braves and Leake eighth overall by the Reds.

At the time, that draft order seemed about right to most prognosticators. And I’ve long since learned not to quibble with the way the Giants evaluate amateur pitching prospects. But with Leake’s first win of the year Wednesday, he improved his career major league record to 43-30. Mike Minor, already solidifying himself as a top-of-the-rotation talent, entered play Wednesday with a career record of 32-24. Wheeler, of course, was traded by the Giants to the Mets in the notorious Carlos Beltran deal of 2011, and has amassed a 7-5 record since being called up by New York last season.

Wednesday against the Cardinals, Leake was even more dominant than he was five years ago against Cal. The 26-year-old right-hander delivered eight shutout innings while allowing just four hits, needing just 100 pitches to get the better of the Cards’ Miller, who falls to 0-2 on the year.

So, while many may spotlight Wednesday’s performance by Reds’ rookie leadoff man Billy Hamilton — the speedster went 3 for 4 with two steals and two runs scored, including his turning a pop-up off the bat of Jay Bruce to very shallow right field into a sacrifice fly by essentially swiping home — it was Leake who emerged as one of the cornerstone players upon whom the 2014 Reds will build.

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Hudson a perfect choice

April 8, 2014

It turns out Tim Hudson was the perfect choice to start opening day.

The reason isn’t that he’s now the ranking veteran on the Giants’ staff or that he’s pitching as well as anyone in baseball through the first week of the season. It isn’t because it’s his Bay Area homecoming. All these certainly only add to the right-hander being the obvious choice. But the reason it had to be Hudson is even closer to the heart.

Entering into his 15th full year in the big leagues, Hudson’s first opening day on a major league roster was in 2000 — the same year AT&T Park (then called Pac Bell Park) opened.

It was one of the monumental events in the history of the city of San Francisco. It inaugurated the beginning of the 21st century in grand style. It signaled the gentrification of the Embarcadero. With the grand opening of the Giants’ new yard, after playing in Candlestick Park for four decades, it unveiled what would soon be renowned as the premier venue in all of professional sports.

The 2000 season was also the most prolific in the career of Hudson, at least in the sense that he won a career-high 20 games. After spending a portion of the 1999 season in Oakland as a midseason call-up, Hudson accumulated a career record of 31-8 through 2000. He was also named to his first of three career All-Star games and would rank second in the American League Cy Young voting, finishing behind only Pedro Martinez who won the award for the third time in four years.

Hudson wasn’t the opening-day starter for the 2000 A’s. That honor fell to one of a trio of veterans in the Oakland rotation, Kevin Appier, who took the loss at then Network Associates Coliseum. However, Hudson took the ball in Game 2 of the season and absolutely dealt, firing seven innings of one-hit shutout baseball to lead Oakland past Detroit 3-1 in the A’s first victory of the year.

The dominant debut was the signpost of an epic era of A’s baseball, as the 2000 season would see the dawn of the Oakland Big Three. Two weeks after Hudson’s season debut, left-hander Mark Mulder made his major league debut, earning the win in a 6-3 victory in Cleveland. Just over three months after that, Barry Zito was called up to make the first start of his career, earning the win in a 10-3 victory over the Angels.

While the Billy Beane era was getting underway in Oakland — Hudson was actually the A’s first-round draft pick in the same year, though previous to, the hiring of Beane as general manager, with Mulder and Zito being the initial first-rounders, respectively in 1998 and ’99, under the now legendary front-office chief — across the Bay the Giants were off and running in beginning a fantastic era of their own in the House that Barry Built.

And as the Barry Bonds era ended with the addition of Barry Zito, now too the new World Championship era of Tim Lincecum and the pitching staff that has changed the way major league baseball teams build pitching staffs, there is no more perfect addition to the 2014 San Francisco Giants than Tim Hudson.

As for Hudson landing the start in the home opener, even with four other brilliant choices manager Bruce Bochy could have lined up for Tuesday’s start, it couldn’t really have been anyone else.


Biagini lands in San Jose

April 7, 2014

Joe Biagini describes the personality of the 2014 San Jose Giants’ pitching staff as more of a college team. That’s high praise, being as Biagini hardly got to enjoy his college career.

As a sophomore at College of San Mateo in 2010, Biagini underwent Tommy John surgery which effectively ended his tenure with the Bulldogs. By the numbers as a junior transfer at UC Davis, he didn’t have much fun, posting a 7.47 ERA over 13 relief outings.

Something peculiar happened during that 2011 season though, as the right-hander experienced a sever spike in velocity. A self-described weak kid growing up, Biagini topped out at 88 mph with his fastball on a good day while at CSM. By the end of his junior year at Davis though, he was touching 94 mph.

It was then Biagini — who was born in Menlo Park but moved to Santa Clara at age 4 — started getting some serious attention from major league scouts. And it was the team for which he grew up rooting that landed him, as the Giants selected Biagini in the 26th round of the 2011 draft.

“It didn’t really hit me right away. It was kind of a surreal experience,” Biagini said. “I felt honored to be worthy of playing for the Giants.”

After spending two seasons in Giants Low-A affiliate Augusta, Biagini was promoted to High-A San Jose to start the 2014 season. He made his debut with the minor-league Giants Monday at Lancaster, dealing to the tune of two hits through six shutout innings. Departing with a 1-0 lead, he ultimately took a no-decision as Lancaster rallied for two runs in the bottom of the ninth against reliever Tyler Mizenko to walk off on a two-run double by cleanup hitter Rio Ruiz.

Opposing teams figure to be hard-pressed to score against San Jose’s pitching staff this season though. San Jose is composed of most of the staff from last year’s Augusta team which ranked fourth in the South Atlantic League with a 3.45 team ERA and finished with best overall record in the league. The headline act in San Jose this year is 2012 first-round draft pick Chris Stratton, who earned his first win of the year in San Jose’s 7-1 opening-day win at Rancho Cucamonga.

“You can tell when you watch [Stratton] pitch that he just has something that throws hitters off,” Biagini said. “He is very unique.”

Biagini said he is in awe of many of the pitchers with whom he has come up through the ranks of the Giants’ farm system. Nine hurlers on the current San Jose staff pitched for the 2012 Short-Season Salem-Keizer team with which Biagini began his professional career.

“I feel pretty comfortable with most of the guys. Most of the other pitchers and I were together in Short-Season [in 2012]. I immediately noticed how close the team was. … This team definitely has a close-knit group.”

While Biagini has had his ups and downs throughout his career — he currently owns a 9-14 career record with a 5.16 ERA — the big 6-foot-4 right-hander owns what may just be one of the best senses of humor in the minors. When asked what he brings to the table amid a pitching staff with so many talented weapons, his response was an immediate laugh and a questioning tone as he said: “A smile?”

Playing in the Giants’ system is the second time in Biagini’s life he has pitched for the same organization as his father, Robert. Not only was his dad a minor-league pitcher for the Giants in 1981 and ’82, but he also played at CSM. While his father having played for CSM wasn’t the bottom line in his decision to enroll there, it was Robert who recommended the program to his son after Biagini graduated from The Kings Academy.

“I’ve never wanted to say (I went to CSM) just because he went there,” Biagini said. “But he knew the program. He knew the legendary John Noce. … But it was more of a baseball decision. It felt like the right place for me at the time.”

Now recovered from the arm injury which derailed his career with the Bulldogs, Biagini is having more fun than ever.

“I was excited about being in with this group,” Biagini said. “If you ask anybody, [the camaraderie] is actually more like a college team.”


Cap is armed and dangerous

April 5, 2014

Jesse Orozco and Greg Gonzalez stood upon the bullpen mound and watched as their alma mater Capuchino took on Burlingame in a classic Friday night matchup at Washington Park.

It couldn’t have been more fitting for Cap to showcase the best one-two punch to pitch at the school since Orozco and Gonzalez’s sensational senior season of 2005. The Mustangs marched out junior left-hander Joe Galea for five innings then turned to fireballing senior right-hander Rory McDaid in the sixth.

Even though Burlingame went on to win 4-3, it’s clear that Capuchino means business this season. And it will be the arms of Galea and McDaid which decide how far this Mustangs team will go.

Behind Orozco and Gonzalez in 2005, Cap advanced to the Central Coast Section Division II semifinals. To put that into perspective, only two other times in school history has Cap baseball advances as far. In 2003 the Mustangs reached the Division III semis; and in 1981 they advanced to the championship game only to lose 4-0 to St. Francis. Since 2005, they have not surpassed the CCS quarterfinals.

Orozco and Gonzalez both went on to prestigious careers. After both pitched at Skyline College, they took different paths. Orozco became the first of four Skyline players to transfer to Oklahoma Baptist, which has since become one of the most dominant NAIA baseball programs in the nation. Gonzalez transferred to Fresno State where he threw a no-hitter before being drafted by the San Diego Padres in 2011.

And Capuchino manager Matt Wilson, who coached both the 2005 and the 2014 Mustangs, knows precisely what he’s got in Galea and McDaid.

“I’d say this is the best pitching staff I’ve had since the ’05 team with Orozco and Gonzalez,” Wilson said.

Capuchino’s 13-4 overall record corroborates that statement. And before Friday night, the Mustangs — playing out of the b-league Peninsula Athletic League Ocean Division this season — had won six straight non-league games. They have beaten both West Catholic Athletic League St. Ignatius (9-6) and PAL Bay Division Half Moon Bay (8-6) thus far. And their four losses have come across some tough customers in Leland (9-6), Pinole Valley (7-4-1), rival Mills and Burlingame.

“I scheduled a tough schedule on purpose because that’s the kind of character I want these guys to have,” Wilson said. “No matter who you play you play at a high level. And going into league, how tough our league is, you’ve got to play those tough games.”

Galea, after taking the loss Friday, falls to 4-2 but leads the Mustangs in ERA (1.44), innings pitched (39) and strikeouts (47). McDaid paces the team with a 4-1 record while trailing just behind his southpaw counterpart with 33 2-3 innings pitched and 45 strikeouts. The tandem also ranks one-two in the Ocean Division in strikeouts.

Meanwhile, Capuchino didn’t sit on its Friday loss very long. The Mustangs woke up for a 10:30 a.m. Saturday game and promptly walloped Balboa 12-3.

After a one-week Ocean Division layoff due to spring break, league play resumes Tuesday and gets interesting in a hurry for the Mustangs. Currently tied for first place with Hillsdale at 3-1 in Ocean play, Cap begins a two-game series at third-place Sequoia Tuesday. The Cherokees own the second best overall record in the Ocean after Cap with a 9-3-1 mark. Next week, the Mustangs clash with Hillsdale in a two-game series.


Angel in the center field

April 4, 2014

Angel Pagan is batting .421 to start the season. He hit safely in each of the Giants’ first four games in Arizona.

The most pivotal contribution Pagan has made so far? His splendid outfield defense in support of Tim Hudson’s Giants debut Wednesday.

Coming off Tuesday’s loss, and two unimpressive starting pitching outings to start the year by aces Madison Bumgarner and Matt Cain, the Giants looked to Hudson to perform like he is still one of the best pitchers in baseball.

He did.

Not only did the three-time All-Star impress. He dazzled en route to career-win No. 206 with the same under-the-radar dominance with which he has always persevered.

But Hudson’s 7 2/3 innings of three-hit shutout ball would not have been if not for the exceptional center field defense of Pagan.

The highlight-reel play came in the fourth inning amid a scoreless tie when Pagan robbed Martin Prado of an RBI single, and denying the Diamondbacks the lead. With Gerardo Parra on second base and two outs, Prado flared an 0-1 offering from Hudson into shallow center. Pagan was shading towards right in the spacious outfield of Chase Field but got a tremendous first step off the crack of the bat. Racing in and to his left, Pagan sprinted into a tumbling catch — losing his hat and showing off the rock-star quaff in the process — to keep Hudson’s gem in tact.

In the eighth, Pagan again preserved the gem by making a less spectacular but equally important running catch. With one out and the speedy Cliff Pennington at first base, A.J. Pollock drove a shot into right-center. Once again, Pagan was shading toward the opposite side of the field but the center fielder got on his horse to make smooth on-the-run grab for the second out of the inning, while keeping Pennington from advancing, at least, into scoring position.

The second of the two catches prompted a reciprocal gem from Giants’ television color commentator Mike Krukow.

“I know one thing,” Krukow said as the replay cued up. “Tim Hudson is in love with Angel Pagan tonight.”

We all are, Kruk. We all are.

What’s not to love? Pagan also had what proved to be the game-winning hitting with an RBI single in the fifth to drive home Ehire Adrianza, giving the Giants a 1-0 lead. Thursday, of course, Pagan was 3 for 5 with a dramatic three-run blast in the eighth to give the Giants the lead for the second straight game. The switch-hitting leadoff man is currently 8 for 19 on the season while leading the Giants with six RBIs, despite Brandon Belt’s three home runs over the course of the four-game series.

Thus far, the Giants’ outfield defense has been a game-changer though. Hunter Pence has shown that a player need not necessarily be hot at the plate to impact a game. Despite a 1-for-16 start for Pence at the plate, the right fielder kept the Giants’ opening-day win in check with his arm by gunning down Mark Trumbo at third base in the second inning.

And following Pagan’s defensive heroics Thursday, Giants fans should be reminded that in playing beside one another, Pagan and Pence stand to be one of the best defensive shows in baseball this season.


Posey flexes MVP talent

April 1, 2014

Remember in the old days when people used to talk about baseball during baseball postgame shows? Those were good times.

In lieu of the April Fool’s joke that is instant replay currently sweeping Giants’ nation, let’s rewind 24 hours to a postgame conversation that was worth having — Buster Posey’s majestic two-run blast Monday to cap an epic opening-day comeback.

Sure, the distance of Posey’s home run that drilled the facing of the second deck at Arizona’s Chase Field was awe-inspiring. But even more impressive was how he hit it. There’s a reason guys win MVP awards in the big leagues. And during that fateful ninth-inning at bat Monday night, Posey showed the combination of pure baseball ability and sensibility that were the foundation of his MVP performance in 2012.

Posey had never before faced Arizona’s new closer Addison Reed. But with the fireballing right-hander just into the game to start the ninth, Posey seized the full benefit of seeing Reed work to Angel Pagan, Brandon Belt and Pablo Sandoval before him. During those three at bats, Reed threw six fastballs, each of them of the four-seem variety, each of them with the same lazy right-to-left cut.

With one on and two outs Posey spit on a slider to open his pivotal at bat. Then when Reed tried to ice down base-runner Brandon Belt by holding too long in the set position, Posey called time out. And with Reed noticeably rattled, Posey checked back into the batter’s box and overtly crowded the plate.

Reed took the bait and attempted to pound the inside corner with 92 mph heat. But Posey was looking for it and went with the natural front-door cut to do what great players do — smelling victory and taking over to seal a win — straight from Pg. 28 of the MVP handbook.

Seeing Posey fresh, raring and ready to go to start the 2014 season is an inspiring sight. As many Giants fans know, when all is right with Posey, he is one of the best — perhaps ever. He may just be the closest thing we’ll ever see to rekindling the talents of Willie Mays in the modern baseball era. So enjoy it, because with Posey being a catcher, the boyish vigor of the fully healthy legend in the making could be altered at any time by any one of a number of future foul tips that will inevitably take their toll on his arms, legs and head over the course of the season.

But while Giants fans scratch their heads in wondering what the heck has happened to the team’s starting pitching dominance over the first two games of the season, consider this: Sure, Madison Bumgarner and Matt Cain each lived high in the strike zone against a dangerous Diamondbacks lineup. In challenging hitters to put the ball in play, however, the Giants may just be winning the battle in that they are preserving the incomparable play of their invaluable catcher.


For the love of Bob Brenly

March 31, 2014

Mark Trumbo is wearing Bob Brenly’s number. I don’t know how I feel about that.

Not that No. 15 — the number worn by the only manager ever to win a World Series in Arizona — was ever beheld with reverence by the Diamondbacks. They gave it to backup catcher Koyie Hill less than a month after Brenly was fired midseason in 2004 for crying out loud.

In fact, 2013 was the first season in which someone hadn’t worn Brenly’s uniform number in Arizona. After Hill, it was dawned by Shawn Green (2005-06), Jeff Salazar (’07), Dan Haren (2008-10), Micah Owings (’11), Josh Bell (’12) and now Trumbo.

Don’t these guys know that if you’re going to take someone’s number you take it from the bench coach?

That’s what Tim Hudson did in joining the Giants this season. For most of his 15 years in the big leagues, Hudson wore No. 15. But instead of committing the same tactless blunder that Carlos Beltran once did by taking the number off of Bruce Bochy’s back, Hudson tapped the No. 17 of longtime San Francisco bench coach Ron Wotus.

Before Wotey’s fan club gets up in arms, it wasn’t exactly a storied number for the tenured coach. Wotus had already surrendered it for a three-year stint from 2010-12 when Aubrey Huff was with the Giants.

Beginning his 17th season on the Giants’ coaching staff, Wotus now has a more storied No. 23. Not only has it been worn by great Giants such as Tito Fuentes, Jose Uribe and Felipe Alou. It was the number worn by Bobby Thompson when he hit one of the most iconic home runs in baseball history with the Shot Heard ‘Round the World to send the New York Giants to the 1951 World Series.

As for the D-Backs’ digit situation, have at your No. 15 Mark Trumbo. It was worth the admission price of your historical faux pas to see you welcomed to the National League with a freakin’ laser beam of a throw by Hunter Pence to cut you down at third base.

And welcome to baseball season everybody. In the words of Bob Brenly’s era of Giants baseball — Humm Baby! It’s gonna be fun!