The unsung influence behind the Giants' pitching dominance

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The unsung influence behind the Giants' pitching dominance

DETROIT Long before Ryan Vogelsong went to Japan, beforehe had his elbow cut, before those years of misery in Pittsburgh or those twosets of Triple-A walking papers that forced him to look up to find the end ofhis rope

He went to lunch. With Mark Gardner.

Gardy and I were teammates, said Vogelsong, on the eve ofhis first World Series start. Thats how we met for the first time. I was justa young pup then, and Gardy was one of our starters and he took me under hiswing right away.

He was one of those guys I bounced questions off a lot, andnot just about pitching but making sure I was in the right place at the righttime in spring training, and going through the drills and everything.

Recalled Giants GM Brian Sabean: Looking back, Gardy shepherdeda lot of the younger guys, whether it was taking them to lunch or dinner. Youcould tell he was someone who would stay in the game after he was done playing.

Vogelsong still calls Gardner a friend, but not a teammate. Theformer right-hander from Fresno is the Giants bullpen coach now, although inpractice he is nearer to being a co-pitching coach along with Dave Righetti.

Righetti is getting another national upwelling of well-deservedaccolades, now that the Giants starting pitchers are punching up theirperformance once again with the baseball world watching. The Giants rotation is5-0 with a 0.55 ERA and a .195 opponents average over the past five games three elimination victories against the St. Louis Cardinals to burglarize theNL pennant, and then a pair of tone-setting wins at home against the DetroitTigers to set the tone in the World Series.

Barry Zito, Vogelsong, Matt Cain, Zito again and MadisonBumgarner have combined to issue just six walks and strike out 30 in 33innings. They havent allowed a single home run over that span.

Its a dominant run that club officials worried wouldnt bepossible, given the way so many of their arms lagged through September.Vogelsong was as lost as any of them, posting a 10.31 ERA over a seven-startspan from mid-August to mid-September in which opponents hit .366 against him.

But Vogelsong kept after the flaws that had crept into hisdelivery, and after finishing the regular season by flashing power stuff in hislast three starts, he has parlayed his hard, moving arsenal into a tremendouspostseason. Vogelsong is 2-0 with a 1.42 ERA in three playoff starts, includinga dominant effort against the Cardinals in Game 6 of the NLCS that kept theGiants alive.

He credits two people who have known him since the first dayhe stepped in big league camp as a wide-eyed kid.

I think they balance each other well, said Vogelsong, who rejoined the Giants on a minor league deal last year to begin his inspiring renaissance. Gardy,hell get into a lot of the mechanical stuff with you, and Rags is more on themental side. He does some mechanical stuff as well, but Rags is more of hesbeen through everything in this game that you can do as a pitcher. Hes closed,hes started, middle relief. Theres nothing as a staff we are going toencounter that this guy hasnt done in the game. That goes for Gardy as well,who relieved and started.

You know, I think they bounce things off each other all thetime, and they come up with what they think is the best solution if theres aproblem going on. I know I go to both of them because I want to try to get asmuch information as possible. They do a tremendous job with our staff.

Theyve been doing it a long time. How many bullpen coachesare on their third manager, instead of vice versa? And Righetti, with 13seasons, ranks as the longest tenured pitching coach with his current club, nowthat Dave Duncan has taken a leave of absence from the Cardinals.

Sabean is frustrated that Righetti, andbench coach Ron Wotus, have not received more interest on the major leaguemanagerial carousel. Then again, its not like he wants to see either man go.

On the pitching side, we have two guys who are verypatient, theyre good at their craft and also aggressive when need be when theyfeel adjustments need to be made, Sabean said. The players trust them. Theyhave confidence in their acumen in helping to turn them around, and the managercooperates and goes with their lead.

That was never more evident than this postseason, whenRighetti told Bochy that Zito would give them a chance to bring them back fromGame 5 in St. Louis. The left-hander responded with 7 23 shutout innings.

The Giants had to extend themselves to a seventh game tobeat the Cardinals, so they didnt have the luxury to set up their rotation forthe World Series as the Tigers did. The Giants faced a soft spot for Game 2,and Bumgarner already had been yanked from the playoff rotation after gettingbattered for an 11.25 ERA in two starts, including 15 hits and three homers injust eight innings.

But Gardner worked with Bumgarner on shortening up his torsorotation, Righetti helped him sharpen his slider just enough and the results inthree bullpen sessions were encouraging enough.

Righetti recommended that Bumgarner take the ball. Justbased on numbers alone, it would be like driving the jet fuel truck into astructure fire. But Bochy acted with faith, and Bumgarner rewarded it. TheTigers managed two hits in seven innings against the left-hander.

EXTRA BAGGS: Giving rope to Bumgarner, etc.

Now Righetti is getting the laurels. But save some forGardner, too.

Gardner is just happy he's seeing the starters perform to their capabilities.

We knew going into the playoffs the starting pitching wouldbe so important, Gardner said. You only go as far as they take you. AndSeptember, yeah, it was rough on them and you knew that going in. But therewere times the bullpen stepped it up for them, and now you see theyre doingit.

What gives Gardner such an eye for mechanics? Well, perhapsits because he was a shortstop at Fresno State who was learning pitching fromscratch. He didnt have to unlearn bad habits.

They had us work with another guy and watch them, observe,and I think it started then, Gardner said. You learn early on that everybodyhas their own style, but there are parts of a delivery you need to do. You haveto have an eye for it and try to pass it along.

Balance. Stride. Release point. Where you are when your foothits the ground. When your hands separate, and where they are at every point inyour motion.

Its all part of making a pitch, Gardner said. With theseguys here, all of them made 30 starts so you know every one of them is going tohave a rough spot. But weve been lucky with these guys. Theyve beenoutstanding and durable and they get their work done, so its easy to have guyslike that.

It wont be easy this offseason, though especially when itconcerns Tim Lincecum, who has been successful in a relief role this postseasonbut plummeted from one of the leagues most effective aces to a pitcher whoseshocking, 5.18 ERA was the highest among all qualified NL starters.

Itll be up toLincecum to tweak his mechanics and reinvent himself as a pitcher thisoffseason.

Hes just in transition, Sabean said. Hes going to have tolearn how to pitch with less velocity and hell have to get his arm or hisrelease point in a better spot to make pitches. Because its about throwingstrikes with consistency, and in his case hes not going to miss as many bats.So hes going to have to be resourceful and try to throw fewer pitches perat-bat and play to contact.

Lincecum tends to adhere to his own process and listen tohis own voices. But Righetti will lend his, and hell channel Gardnersthoughts along the way.

Who knows? Maybe a nice, leisurely lunch would help, too.

Instant Analysis: Five takeaways from Giants dropping series vs Braves

Instant Analysis: Five takeaways from Giants dropping series vs Braves

BOX SCORE

SAN FRANCISCO — The kid who raced The Freeze on Thursday night blew a tire as he hit center field, hobbled for about 50 feet, and then went down for good. He still had a better night than the Giants. 

They blew all four tires in the fifth, giving up eight runs in a nightmare frame that turned a two-run lead into a 12-11 loss. The Giants finished 1-7 on the swing through Denver and Atlanta, and they have lost 18 of their last 23 games. 

But, let’s face it, you’re here already. So here are five more things to know from the night … 

—- Matt Cain was hanging in there until the fifth, and then … disaster. The inning started with Brandon Phillips’ solo shot that cut the lead to one. Then it went single, single before Cain was relieved by Bryan Morris. After that, it was single, single, single, sacrifice fly, homer, flyout, walk, single, pitching change, single. 

—- Morris had to wear it in the fifth because the bullpen is short, and boy, did he wear it. Morris gave up five runs on five hits and a walk. His ERA jumped two full points in two-thirds of an inning. 

—- Kyle Crick made his MLB debut in that horrendous bottom of the fifth. The Giants surely did not want to bring him in with runners on, but Bruce Bochy had no choice when Morris blew up. Crick’s first pitch was a 95 mph heater. After giving up a hit in that inning, he pitched a perfect sixth and perfect seventh. Crick topped out at 97 mph. Pretty, pretty good stuff there. He needs to get a long look the rest of this year. 

—- In the second, Buster Posey hit a ball that went 311 feet and had a hit probability of just six percent. Cain hit a ball 357 feet. Posey got a homer that bounced off the top of the wall; Cain just got a double. Baseball is such an odd game.  

—- On a positive note, Javi Lopez, who calls Brandon Belt “Sparky,” repeatedly referred to Posey as Gerald. He’s going to be good at this job. 

Why you shouldn't freak out in June about Cueto's opt-out

Why you shouldn't freak out in June about Cueto's opt-out

SAN FRANCISCO — There’s a very important fact you need to keep in mind when talk of Johnny Cueto’s opt-out comes up, as it so often will over the next six weeks: The Giants always expected him to opt-out after this season, from the moment the ink was dry on the six-year, $130-million contract. 

When you sign at the top of your game and have a chance to hit the market at 31 years old and cash out a second time, you take it. Those are just the rules of professional sports. On the day Cueto was introduced, his agent, Bryce Dixon, said the two-year opt-out was important because they felt Cueto didn’t get a totally fair shot at free agency. 

“Johnny, a little bit unfairly, had a lot of questions about his arm,” Dixon said in December of 2015. “I felt we could reestablish his actual value … He knows he’s as good as (David) Price and (Zack) Greinke, but his situation was a little different.”

The Giants were fine with this, too. The flip side of the opt-out is that if you have the chance to pay a dominant right-hander $46 million over two years, and then escape his mid- to late-thirties, you do it. Every time. You don’t even blink. 

So, here we are, in June of the second year of that deal, with reports that Cueto will opt out. You should take a deep breath because you should have already expected this. But if you didn’t, take comfort in this: By all indications, Cueto has not made a decision, even with the Giants having an unimaginably poor season. 

First of all, Cueto can't make a decision in June. What if the blisters return and he repeats his April ERA a couple more times? What if his elbow starts barking? There are no guarantees with pitchers, and until Cueto gets through the second season, there will be no finality with his decision. 

Aside from the fact that he really can’t make that decision, though, sources insist Cueto hasn’t made up his mind or even thought much about it. People familiar with his thinking continue to say the focus has been baseball all season long, from spring training through his last start. 

Cueto is said to be happy in San Francisco and he enjoys pitching in front of the crowd at AT&T Park. His biggest concern has been wins and losses, and in that respect, this has been a disappointing year for all involved. 

That record has brought the Giants to a crossroads, and this is where it gets interesting. The easy solution is to trade Cueto next month, avoid the opt-out situation entirely, and add prospects to a system lacking them. But, it’s complicated. The Giants do not intend a full teardown, and if they’re going for it again in 2018 — with their core of Buster Posey, Brandon Crawford, Madison Bumgarner, etc. locked in, that’s the plan — they’ll want that second ace at the top of the rotation. And if Bumgarner doesn’t return to form after an injury, they’ll need Cueto’s presence. 

The Giants have until July 31 to decide what to do with Cueto. He has until three days after the World Series ends to decide what to do with his contract. Here in June, by all indications, those decisions haven’t been made.