Now the bullpen's veteran, Kontos picking up where Core Four left off

Now the bullpen's veteran, Kontos picking up where Core Four left off

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. — On a rainy morning early in camp, George Kontos walked through the clubhouse at Scottsdale Stadium with an oversized envelope in his hand. Often times that’s bad news, the sign of a player who has been handed MRI results. For Kontos, it was a sign of his standing in the bullpen.

With the Core Four era officially over, Kontos has picked up where his longtime teammates left off. He has taken over for Javier Lopez as the Giant who organizes spread pools, squares, team golf tournaments and bullpen dinners. He has at times taken on Jeremy Affeldt’s role as a target of clubhouse jokes. When the Giants return home, it will be Kontos who takes Sergio Romo’s spot as the catcher for the first pitch.

“I wouldn’t mind doing that, so I’m sure that’s something I’ll do as well,” he said, noting that he caught Draymond Green and Metallica last season. “Whenever Sergio wasn’t available for some events they would ask me to do it.”

For the rest of the responsibilities, Kontos won’t have to be asked. With Lopez and Affeldt retired and Romo and Santiago Casilla pitching elsewhere, Kontos is all of a sudden the longest-tenured member of the bullpen, and it’s not particularly close.

Mark Melancon and Will Smith are in camp for the first time. Derek Law and Steven Okert are coming off rookie seasons. Josh Osich and Cory Gearrin have two seasons with the Giants and Hunter Strickland has three. Kontos is entering his sixth season in San Francisco. Not bad for a pitcher who shuttled repeatedly between San Francisco and Triple-A Fresno from 2012-2014. 

“I think it goes to show that hard work and doing your job and following the example of the guys who were here actually works,” Kontos said. “If you keep your head down and work hard and do your job, good things tend to happen.”

When Kontos first showed up in 2012, he was put between Lopez and Affeldt in the clubhouse. Every spring thereafter, Kontos was asked if he wanted to move to a different locker. He never did, and as Affeldt neared retirement, he saw in Kontos a player who could one day pick up the leadership baton for the bullpen.

“Most guys don’t really want that role, even if they have time. A lot of guys just want to pitch, but there’s so much more to a team than just pitching,” Affeldt said. “George has kind of always shown leadership in different ways. He was the guy that ran the hardest or worked out more than anyone else, and we always ripped on him for it, but that’s also a part of his drive to be the best and it shows the discipline that leaders have.”

At a recent event for sponsors, Kontos found that the ribbing isn’t limited to the clubhouse. “I guess I’m the new Affeldt,” he said, laughing, after taking a series of jabs during speeches from other members of the organization. That’s not a bad thing, not after a second-half slide during which Giants coaches and executives privately lamented the lack of energy and joy in the clubhouse. The original Affeldt believes the role is a key one.

“The reason you want to be able to be ripped on is that you want to show that to the younger guys,” Affeldt said. “If I don’t talk to you, I don’t like you. If I’m making fun of you, we’re just having fun. We’re ribbing like brothers.”

The back-and-forth can help a team get through the 162-game grind. While Kontos has grown comfortable in that respect, he has found new ways to grow on the field. 

“When he first got here he was predominantly a four-seam guy, and he two-seamed it a little and threw a lot of sliders,” pitching coach Dave Righetti said. “He can cut it now. He can still use his slider. He’s got a changeup and he threw a nice curveball last year. He’s adapted. He can keep pitching, and if he stays in shape, for quite a while. A lot of hitters are one-way type of guys now and George is able to do different things now to different guys. He’s done a hell of a job doing that.”

Kontos threw his four-seam fastball 44 percent of the time when he broke into the big leagues, but that dropped to 12 percent last season, per BrooksBaseball.net. He threw his two-seamer a career-high 22 percent of the time last season, and his cutter — a pitch he didn’t prominently feature until 2014 — 33 percent. In his first full season with the Giants, 51 percent of Kontos’ pitches were sliders; last season it was 22 percent. Throw in the curveball and changeup and you’ve got a starter’s repertoire coming out of the bullpen. 

Kontos came into professional baseball as a starting pitcher, but he has quietly been one of the more effective relievers in the National League over the past three seasons, ranking 15th among NL relief pitchers with a 2.49 ERA. Over the past two years, he ranks in the top 20 in the league in relief outings (130) and innings (126 2/3).

That durability has put Kontos in an odd spot. The pitchers he learned from were late-innings guys, but Kontos has been viewed as a better fit for the sixth and seventh. He often comes on with a starter’s runners on base, and Bruce Bochy knows he can ask Kontos to warm up multiple times without worrying about him being down for the count. 

“He’s been a staff-saver,” said Righetti. 

That has led to a long career in orange and black. With tenure comes added responsibility, and in a rebuilding bullpen, Kontos is ready to fill in for role models who have since departed.

“With Javi gone now, it’s one of those things that whether you want it or not, you’re going to be one of the guys,” Affeldt said. “And he has the background to step up and do that leadership stuff.”

Team USA dominates Puerto Rico to win 2017 World Baseball Classic

Team USA dominates Puerto Rico to win 2017 World Baseball Classic

LOS ANGELES -- Marcus Stroman tossed six hitless innings, Ian Kinsler slugged a two-run homer and the United States routed Puerto Rico 8-0 on Wednesday night to win its first World Baseball Classic in four tries.

Stroman dominated the tournament's highest-scoring team. Puerto Rico lost for the first time in eight games after outscoring the opposition 55-26. The U.S. territory finished runner-up for the second time, having lost to the Dominican Republic in the 2013 final.

Stroman, who was named the tournament's MVP, avenged his shakiness in the Americans' 6-5 loss to Puerto Rico during pool play. The right-hander from the Toronto Blue Jays retired the side on three grounders to open the game. In all, he gave up one hit, struck out three and walked one on 73 pitches.

He allowed just three balls past the infield until Angel Pagan's double in the left-field corner leading off the seventh, when Stroman departed to a standing ovation, having staked the Americans to a 7-0 lead.

Stroman walked Carlos Beltran leading off the second, but the defense helped him out. Yadier Molina hit the ball to shortstop Brandon Crawford, who started a double play before Stroman struck out Javier Baez to end the inning.

The U.S. pounded out 13 hits and finished with a 6-2 record while making the final for the first time in front of 51,565 at Dodger Stadium.

Kinsler homered off an 0-1 pitch from Seth Lugo into left-center field in the third, scoring Jonathan Lucroy, who singled leading off.

Lugo of the New York Mets allowed four runs and five hits, struck out seven and walked four in four innings. The right-hander won his first two starts of the tournament, including in the second round against Stroman and the U.S.

In that game, Stroman gave up six consecutive singles in a four-run first inning and took the loss against Puerto Rico last Friday in San Diego.

The Americans made it 4-0 in the fifth on RBI singles by Christian Yelich and Andrew McCutchen.

Fans wore flags of both countries as capes and decorated their faces in team colors. Puerto Rico boosters pounded cowbells, tooted horns and blew whistles early on before their team fell behind 4-0.

Fans were on their feet chanting "U-S-A" when the Americans loaded the bases in the seventh with two outs. They were rewarded with Crawford's two-run single that chased J.C. Romero, extending the lead to 6-0.

The U.S. tacked on another run on Giancarlo Stanton's RBI single off Hiram Burgos past diving shortstop Francisco Lindor.

Burgos' wild pitch moved runners to second and third before he walked Lucroy to load the bases a second time. Kinsler flied out to end the inning.

The Americans led 8-0 in the eighth on McCutchen's RBI single with two outs.

The U.S. defeated two-time champion Japan, while Puerto Rico beat the Netherlands to reach the final.

The three games at Dodger Stadium drew 109,892.

Puerto Rico in scarce supply of hair dye amid World Baseball Classic fever

Puerto Rico in scarce supply of hair dye amid World Baseball Classic fever

AN JUAN, Puerto Rico -- Pharmacies and beauty stores across Puerto Rico are running out of hair dye with even a top economist joining men going blond in support of the island's baseball players who bleached their hair ahead of the World Baseball Classic.

What began as a joke among team members playing in California has spread across the island in a trend that spiked Tuesday just hours after Puerto Rico beat the Netherlands in 11 innings to reach the championship game undefeated in the tournament, which is held every four years. Puerto Rico will play Wednesday night in the final against the United States, which defeated Japan.

"Ever since they began winning, this has not stopped," said Myrna Rios, a manager at a Sally Beauty Supply store in the capital of San Juan. "We have run out of the product in most of our stores."

Copper blond, platinum blond, golden blond - all shades of blond (even burnt orange) are turning heads in a U.S. territory where the majority of men have thick, dark hair. Bald men dyed their beards or goatees in a nod to Puerto Rico coach Carlos Delgado.

"We have been able to unite our country with our blond hair," said star Carlos Correa, who hit a two-run homer and scored the winning run against the Netherlands. "That's what we want as players to unite our country, our people, and give them the best."

Men ranging from news anchors to university students to professionals have embraced a trend that has sparked the rallying cry of "Team Rubio!" or "Team Blond" in Spanish.

Among them is civil engineer Christian Rodriguez, who dyed his beard Saturday after visiting four different pharmacies to find the product he needed. At first, he didn't dye his hair as well because he thought it would be too much at church on Sunday. But he noticed six male churchgoers had dyed their hair blond and decided to take the plunge, calling a hair stylist friend to help him go platinum.

Rodriguez complained of an intense burning sensation during the two-hour process and sent pictures to his wife, who responded with the emoticon of a monkey with its eyes covered.

"Anything for my island!" he said as he lifted his arm to cheer the team.

Rodriguez then sent a picture of his dyed hair to his mechanic, who responded with a selfie taken underneath a car of him smiling with a bleached beard.

Puerto Rico's undefeated run to the championship has boosted the spirit of an island mired in a decade-long recession that faces a rocky recovery amid looming austerity measures for its government. Even young students have been sporting blond do's, prompting public schools to suspend them until the island's education secretary stepped in and said in a letter made public Tuesday that they should be allowed to dye their hair during the tournament.

"We wanted to do this to unite the team, and then the people of Puerto Rico, they started dying their hair, too," pitcher Edwin Diaz said. "I saw that there were some students that were suspended from school. I think they shouldn't be doing that because it just means that we have united our nation."

Even the prominent Puerto Rico-based economist Sergio Marxuach joined the trend, sporting yellow hair as he walked into a seminar in Puerto Rico on Wednesday, drawing laughs.

"My youngest son asked me, 'Why did you paint your hair like Donald Trump?'" he recalled with a laugh. "If this team can give us hope, we're going to need it given what's coming down the pipe."