Giants 2012 -- Baggarly digs in

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Giants 2012 -- Baggarly digs in

For my first blog post at Comcast SportsNet Bay Area, Im going to tell you about Derin McMains.If youve heard of him, congratulations. Hes a former minor league middle infielder in the Giants system who scrapped through an incredible amount of injuries before he retired in 2007. He only played 17 games at Triple-A. He never made the majors.During his playing career, McMains was a real-life version of Archie Graham: Baby faced, excitable, fast-talking, self-effacing, incredibly eager. Archie, you might remember, held out his thumb and stepped in Ray Kinsellas van on a dark Midwestern road in Field of Dreams. McMains probably didnt hitch his way from his hometown of Oskaloosa, Iowa, to play ball at Arkansas State. But I bet you he wouldve. When youre around the game long enough and meet someone like McMains, you instantly know theyll breathe baseball all their lives.

Sure enough, a few months after injuries forced McMains to retire, he became a 27-year-old third base coach in the Giants organization. This year, hell make his managerial debut for the Giants rookie-level affiliate in the Arizona League.Recently, I came across the Giants news release about their minor league coaching staff and saw McMains name. It conjured a spring training memory that Im sure he hasnt forgotten.It was 2006 and he was invited to big league camp a big deal for a fringe prospect who wasnt on the 40-man roster. It doesnt happen often, but club officials sometimes hand out one of these invites to a kid who impresses them, by his dedication in rehabbing an injury, or never-ending hustle. McMains qualified on both counts. He spent six days a week in Arizona all through the 115-degree summer, grunting his way back after surgeries to reconstruct his shoulder and repair a ruptured wrist tendon.Not everybody has the dedication to do that, said Stan Conte, the Giants trainer at the time. That's what makes him one of our favorites."Said Felipe Alou: "That kid is one tough cookie.In 2006, it was McMains good fortune that the inaugural World Baseball Classic was being held that spring. Four of the Giants starters were taking part. They were light on players, and so McMains got a locker amid the big leaguers.The spring of 2006 was an especially busy time in Scottsdale, but not for the WBC. Barry Bonds was marching on the all-time home run record and to say emotions were conflicted would be an understatement. It was the height of the steroids scandal. Baseballs most hallowed record was about to intersect with one of its most disgraceful periods. The media descended on Barry, and because he wasnt talking to anyone, his teammates took the brunt of it.This was the clubhouse into which unassuming young Derin McMains entered. And in one of the first exhibition games, he got an at-bat in the late innings. He got ahold of a fastball and sent it over the fence.A couple days later, he received another late-inning at-bat. This time, he faced Trevor Hoffman. The all-time saves leader. Future Hall of Famer.He took him deep. Three-run shot.It was the moment of Derin McMains baseball life, and of course, it was a good little notebook item for the beat writers myself among them. Our small contingent approached him in the clubhouse, a vision of dirt and eye black and grinning teeth.All of the sudden, the rest of the media moved in, a cocoon of cameras and microphones, and our small group all began to laugh at the absurdity of the scene. McMains was totally befuddled. He hadnt been to big league spring training before. He thought he just made the national news for hitting a Cactus League home run.The reality: the media cocoon didnt know who Derin McMains was. They had no idea he wouldnt make the team. They didnt understand the story. They just saw someone in a Giants uniform, and they needed one of those guys to talk about Barry Bonds.McMains wasnt offended when the first question was about Bonds. He homered off Hoffman. He just realized for the first time in his life that a 165-pound kid can stand on a cloud. He didnt care.It felt like 1,000 pounds lifted off my shoulders," he said. I just wanted to make sure I didn't trip in front of my parents and my wife. The rest was a blur. I couldn't even tell you whose hands I shook.And what about taking Hoffman deep?Shoot, I've faced him enough times on video games, McMains said with a laugh. I knew he had a good changeup.At the time, that scene energized me, and now I understand why. Its because Derin McMains offered a baseball story to cover amid the sludge of the Bonds years. Not even the drudgery of that time could knock the shine off it.It also represents what I love most about spring training. Sure, there are positional battles and health updates and lineup configurations to write about every day. Thats the important stuff. But spring is also the slowest time of the year in what already is a slow sport. Its a time to reflect and to be hopeful.The clubhouse is half-full of promising rookies. And everyone is in first place. Even the Cubs.So as I get ready to begin the two-day drive to cover my ninth spring training in Scottsdale, and my first for Comcast SportsNet Bay Area, Ill be sure to watch every time Brian Wilson throws off a mound. Ill ask Buster Posey how his ankle responded after his first game. Ill watch Freddy Sanchez take infield. I might even ask Tim Lincecum whether hes fallen off the diet wagon and made an In-N-Out run.But Ill also hope to encounter another Derin McMains.If you followed my reporting in the San Jose Mercury News and clicked refresh often on my Extra Baggs blog, youll know I tended to write rather voluminous posts after games. Here on Giants Talk, those might get broken up into multiple posts. But I plan on bringing my same voice to this space, and now I wont have to embed links to game stories and notebooks from the paper. Youll find everything right here.So I hope youll bookmark Giants Talk and check back often. In addition to my coverage as a full-time, traveling beat reporter, we have a hardworking team of young, energetic producers who will be providing new content about all aspects of Giants baseball. Plus youll see a lot more images, graphics and videos than I could manage with a Flip Cam and half a clue.This is going to be exciting. Hope you enjoy.
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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.