After breaking through late in 2016, Okert pushing for Opening Day job

After breaking through late in 2016, Okert pushing for Opening Day job

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. — Steven Okert made his MLB debut last April and walked the first batter he faced. The next batter taught him a valuable lesson. 

“The ball was smoked and (Brandon) Crawford is right there and he turns two,” Okert said Sunday. “It was like, ‘Wow. Don’t try to do too much. Use your defense.’ You’ve got Crawford out there making diving plays, and Joe (Panik) up the middle, and (Brandon) Belt scooping balls and (Eduardo) Nunez out there, and our outfielders. That takes pressure off any pitcher.”

Okert tried to keep that in mind throughout his three stints in the big leagues, and the late-season results showed that he was getting better and better at slowing the game down. When he returned in September, Okert allowed one run in nine appearances, with eight strikeouts in those eight innings. That put him in position to try and win an opening day job this spring. It would be natural for Okert to feel that added weight this month, but he said he has tried to ignore it.

“I try not to think about it at all, honestly,” he said. “Ultimately the decision is not mine. There’s nothing I can do other than show my best on the field. Me and (Josh) Osich are buddies and we hang out. It’s a weird position to be in, being buddies and competing, but I’m trying to stay within myself.”

Okert has tried not to look at the numbers. But if he were to sneak a glance at the stat sheet, he would see a young left-hander who has done everything necessary to line up at Chase Field on April 2. In seven scoreless innings, he has allowed just two hits, walked one, and struck out four. He entered after Jeff Samardzija ran into a jam in the fifth Sunday, getting two grounders and a harmless fly to center to strand a runner. 

“O has been good. He's done all he can,” manager Bruce Bochy said. “I don’t know what’s going to happen between those guys, but he certainly has pitched well.”

Early on, it looked like a big spring would make Okert an opening-day lock. Osich allowed runs in each of his first three outings and Will Smith missed the first few weeks of action with an irritated elbow. But Osich has settled in, with just one hit allowed over his past four appearances. Smith made his spring debut Friday and he’s set to ramp it up even more this week. 

If Smith is ready for opening day, the decision for the second lefty spot will be a difficult one. Okert has elevated his status in part by listening to those around him. He has taken advice from Jeremy Affeldt on how to deal with the mental part of pitching, and when Tim Hudson was in camp in February, Okert picked his brain about his changeup. The best advice may have come from a position player. 

“The first time he caught me, (Nick) Hundley noticed that sometimes I’m locked in on the target and sometimes I’m looking somewhere else,” he said. “Hundley and (Tim) Federowicz have gotten on me about looking in (at them) consistently. Everything with pitching is about being repeatable with your delivery, so I’ve been working on that.”

Okert has a fastball that regularly ran up to 94 last season, but he’s focusing on being less of a strikeout pitcher. He knows the best path through an inning with the Giants is often to let the Gold Glove-heavy defense take over, and he’s hoping he gets to test Crawford, Panik and others often. The September run last year showed that he belongs, but teammates made that clear long before Okert found his stride on the mound.

“Getting back up to the big leagues last year, when I walked in, right away it was: 'Congratulations. Make it about you being you. Make your pitches and you’ll be fine,'" Okert said. "And getting in a couple of big situations last year, that helped a lot."

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."

Giants spring training Day 38: Cain still on track for fifth starter job

Giants spring training Day 38: Cain still on track for fifth starter job

MARYVALE, Ariz. — After a series of questions the other day about getting extra rest between starts, Madison Bumgarner smiled and pointed at the personalized calendar taped to his locker. He said he simply operates by the schedule set out by pitching coach Dave Righetti.

A glance at the calendar in Matt Cain’s locker might show a reason why the longest-tenured Giant is still in a good position to win the No. 5 starter spot despite continued spring struggles. Because they have two off days sandwiching a two-game series in Kansas City in the middle of April, the Giants can potentially use their No. 5 starter just twice until April 25, a span of 20 games.

If there’s any concern about Cain’s ability to hold up during the regular season, the early slate could help. The Giants can throw Cain against the Padres and Diamondbacks to start the season, and if it's not working out, they can go a stretch with just their top four as they reevaluate. 

"We'll see once we get a little closer how guys are doing, but it certainly gives you some options," manager Bruce Bochy said. 

Cain has been preparing all along to start April 7 at Petco Park. That hasn’t changed.

“That’s what I’m looking at,” he said. “That’s the only thing I’m preparing for, to make sure I’m ready to go 100 pitches.”

Cain had another mixed-bag day against the Brewers. The first inning was full of loud contact and Cain was charged with three runs on four hits. But he settled down from there, allowing just one run over the next four innings. In all, Cain allowed four runs on seven hits and struck out four. He said he tried to change speeds more often after the early ambush. 

“I was maybe getting the timing different for them,” he said. “Those guys were getting balls where they could hit them. You’ve got to make a quick adjustment to that, and I had to do that.”

Cain threw 70 pitches, another sign that he’s locked in for April 7. His competition, Ty Blach, has not been fully stretched out this spring. 

TRAINER'S ROOM: Will Smith will head to Los Angeles on Thursday to get a second opinion on his left elbow strain. The Giants will then know if Smith needs Tommy John surgery, which would end his season. Eduardo Nuñez flew back to San Francisco with Smith earlier in the week to get a corisone shot in his sore right shoulder. He's back, but he'll be down a few days. 

GAME RECAP: Hunter Pence has been slumping for several weeks, but he got on the board in the sixth with a double that spun off the end of his bat and down the first base line. A classic Pence hit ... Jae-gyun Hwang hit a two-run shot to right-center ... Steven Okert did some nifty work to keep his spring ERA at 0.00. With runners on first and third and no outs, he got a double play and a fly ball to left.

ICYMI: Barry Bonds has arrived. Here is a story about his return to the Giants, and here’s video from his media session this morning. 

GOOD NEWS: First base coach Jose Alguacil returned to camp Wednesday morning, and he said he’s only a few days from returning to game action. Alguacil, who had surgery earlier in March after taking a line drive off the face, was cleared for full activity. Hensley Meulens, Dave Groeschner and Taira Uematsu also returned from a stint in the WBC. 

FLASHING THE LEATHER: Aaron Hill started the prettiest double play of the spring by snagging a Hernan Perez liner with a dive and making a perfect throw to second baseman Gordon Beckham. Hill later smashed a double into the left field corner. That dude is making the team. 

QUOTABLE: "I figured Barry is in town, so I'd show him how it's done." -- Denard Span on a very long two-run homer he hit to right.