Urban: Champs to be tested in midseason stretch


Urban: Champs to be tested in midseason stretch

July 21, 2011


Mychael Urban

We'll know quite a bit about the Giants' chances of repeating of world champions by the end of next week, when the non-waiver trade deadline passes.We'll know even more, though, when the Giants wrap up a grueling 19-game stretch against legitimate playoff contenders that starts Friday against the powerful Brewers and ends Aug. 10 against the surprising Pirates.
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Essentially we're looking at nine days before the non-waiver deadline, and including deadline day we're looking at 11 days after it.Twenty days, 20 things to consider as the Giants either slog, thrive or tread water throughout what might end up being a defense-defining stretch.

1) Winds of change I: There was a time when GM Brian Sabean suggested that adding significant payroll to what's already a franchise-record tab of about 120 million was less likely than Barry Bonds making a comeback. Now? Not so much. You've been to the Dugout Stores, right? If the G's spend for a slugger, that's your sweatshirt dollars at work.2) Winds of change II: Sabean also has been adverse to "rental players" during most of his long tenure with the team. Now he's at least considering the notion, so your free-agents-to-be are very much in play.3) Dancing with your date: Perhaps you're among those with such great faith in the pitching staff that you don't feel adding offense is an absolute must. Sabean disagrees.4) Ditching your date: Aaron Rowand rode pine for not hitting last season, despite his big price tag. Ditto Barry Zito on the pitching side. This hasn't always been the way the Giants roll. It is now. They won a ring with that approach, and they can't win again without it. Thus, you're on notice, Mr. Huff. Mr. Belt, stay loose.5) Life is not fair. Neither is baseball: Three terrific starts and he's skipped for one bad one? Some people think Zito is being unfairly singled out. Not really. What's being spotlighted is the Brewers' bevy of right-handed power hitters.6) Skip one, skip another: As long as the Giants are skipping one Zito turn, it's curious that they aren't skipping another, i.e., keeping him away from hitter-friendly Citizens Bank Park and the Phillies next week. Two reasons for that. One, the Phils are not the powerhouse juggernaut they've been in recent years offensively. Two, the Reds -- Zito would face them were he skipped in Philly -- are. And they play in even more of a bandbox.7) Sanchez I: By the end of this stretch, if not before, Jonathan Sanchez will almost certainly be ready to return to the active roster. What's his role? That largely depends on Zito.8) Sanchez II: Also by the end of this stretch, the Giants likely will have decided what to do with Freddy Sanchez. He's eligible to come off the 60-day DL on Aug. 11. Not the end of the world if he's not ready by then, but if he's not even close to ready, surgery will be inevitable and it's Jeff Keppinger or bust from here on out.
URBAN: Scouts high on newest Giant Keppinger
9) Brew Crew comes calling: The Giants dropped two of three in Milwaukee earlier in the year. The Brewers entered Thursday's action holding a slim lead in the NL Central and they're playing high-intensity games almost daily because the division is so tight. It's crucial the Giants win this series so Milwaukee doesn't start feeling like they have the champs' number.10) Kid Crawford: The Giants' lone win in Milwaukee came in Brandon Crawford's grand slam game. Crawford isn't expected to see much time in the series that starts Friday, but he'll certainly get some time during this 18-game stretch. Can he be counted on when the division race tightens in late August and September? We'll know when this stretch is over.11) Meet the Prez: The Giants go to the White House on Monday. What does that have to do with the pennant race? Nothing. But it's pretty cool, and it'd be even cooler if Brian Wilson were to bust out a white version of his ESPYs outfit. At the very least, it'll save time in the security screening process. No secrets with that get-up.12) Philly awaits: Don't think the fans in Philly haven't had this series circled on their calendar all year. It'll be the most hostile road environment the Giants have faced this season.13) Seeing Red: Dusty Baker's boys have played uneven baseball all season. If they get right by next weekend, the Giants could be in trouble, because they simply can't bang with that team in that yard.14) Seeing Ramon: The Giants need a catcher. The Reds have two. One is Ramon Hernandez, a solid hitter and veteran handler of strong pitching staffs. Don't be stunned if Hernandez moves from one clubhouse to another next weekend.15) Homeward bound: The Giants play better at home. Most teams do. But being at home for the final three series of this stretch is huge. The trade deadline will have passed, and the club will have a pretty good idea of what they're working with going forward.16) Killing them off: The Stephen Drew-less Diamondbacks are first up on the homestand, and if the Giants have, say, a six-game lead over the Snakes by then, a sweep would effectively behead the serpent.17) You again: No matter what happens in Philly next week, the Phils' series in San Francisco is going to be a doozy. If the Phils win at home next week, winning at AT&T becomes paramount for the Giants. It's not a statement series. It's a matter of respect.18) Yes, the Pirates: It's been a generation since the Bucs were relevant, but they're right there in the thick of the NL Central race, so you have to take them seriously. Imagine if the Giants are 10-6 going into the last series of the stretch. Huge difference between 13-6 and 10-9. It's gotta be at least 12-7 when it ends with Pittsburgh.19) And if it's not: Duck. Sabean will be throwing stuff.20) There is no 20. It's just a nice, round number to end on. Enjoy.

Giants Notes: Blach shows resiliency; Another option in center?


Giants Notes: Blach shows resiliency; Another option in center?

CHICAGO — John Lackey's night started with a leadoff homer. Ty Blach's night started with a 13-pitch battle. Neither one is a positive for a pitcher, but Blach didn't view it that way. He actually appreciated Ben Zobrist stretching him out.

"It's good to have a battle like that and get you locked in," Blach said. "It gets you focused and you'll be like, I can execute and get guys out. It's good. It's a good battle."

There, in a nutshell, is so much of what Bruce Bochy loves about his young left-hander. The Giants have found Blach's arm and resolve to be remarkably resilient. He wasn't bothered when they moved him to the bullpen and he didn't get too high when they moved him back to the rotation. He is the same after seven shutout innings or three poor ones. Bochy smiled when asked about the Zobrist at-bat, which ended in a strikeout looking. 

"How 'bout that?" the manager said. "He won that at-bat. It seems like the advantage goes to the hitter, seeing all those pitches. He kept his focus and got a called strikeout and here he is pitching in the eighth inning."

After needing 13 pitches for one out, Blach got the next 23 on 81 pitches. Bochy thought Blach tired a bit in the eighth, but the deep effort allowed Bochy to mix and match in the bullpen, and ultimately he found the right mix. Hunter Strickland and Mark Melancon closed it out and got Blach his second win.

--- From last night, Joe Panik's huge night helped give Blach an early lead. With the help of Ron Wotus and his shift charts, he also put on a show defensively.

--- We're trying something new right after the final pitch: Here are five quick takeaways from the 6-4 win.

--- The options game sent Kelby Tomlinson back to Triple-A on Wednesday when the Giants activated Melancon, but his latest stint in Sacramento comes with a twist. Tomlinson started his third consecutive game in center field on Monday. The Giants are getting a bit more serious about their longtime plan to make Tomlinson a super-utility player. 

“Tommy is a valuable guy in the majors and if we can give him some experience in the outfield, it gives you more flexibility and versatility,” manager Bruce Bochy said. 

This is not Tomlinson’s first foray into the outfield. He did work there in the offseason after the 2015 season and he has played 25 big league innings in left field the last two seasons. This is Tomlinson’s first real experience with center field, and while in the past he has said that the transition isn’t as easy as some might think, Bochy is confident Tomlinson can figure it out. He certainly has the speed to be a semi-regular in the outfield, and the Giants aren’t exactly brimming with quality center field options behind Denard Span, who is dealing with his second injury of the season. 

“It’s a little different now,” Bochy said when asked about Tomlinson’s past experiences in the outfield. “He’s in Sacramento doing it, and knowing there’s a possibility we could need help in the outfield.”

If the switch doesn’t come in handy this season, it could in 2018. Bochy compared Tomlinson’s infield-outfield ability to Eduardo Nuñez, who has found regular playing time in left but is a free agent after the year. 

--- Hunter Pence did some light running in the outfield before Monday’s game. Bochy said Pence is still about a week away from being an option.

--- Bochy has said it a few times now when asked about the standings, so it’s officially a new motto for a team that got off to a brutal start: “We’ve put ourselves in a great situation for a great story.”

--- They're starting to get a little grumpy around here with their team hovering around .500. Perhaps the Cubs thought they could fool a few on the way out of Wrigley.

Agony still present, Kerr uncertain if he can coach Warriors in NBA Finals

Agony still present, Kerr uncertain if he can coach Warriors in NBA Finals

SAN ANTONIO -- Those following the Warriors and their effort to rage through the playoffs should put away those thoughts and hopes that Steve Kerr will return to full-time coaching later this week or sometime before the NBA Finals.

Forget about it, unless you know something he doesn’t.

And if you do, he wants to hear what you have to say.

Don’t get it wrong: Kerr wants to coach, would love to coach. That’s why, even as he feels like hell, he’s hanging around the team like a languid groupie. He wants to be with the Warriors in the heat of battle because they’re his team, within the culture he instilled, and he would like nothing more to get another chance to win The Finals.

But because the procedure he underwent more than two weeks ago at Duke Spine Center did not deliver the relief he’d hoped for, Kerr knows he’s not up to the task and, therefore, continues to operate as sort of a associate head coach to acting head coach Mike Brown.

“Mike is doing great,” Kerr told NBCSportsBayArea.com late Monday night, after the Warriors clinched a third consecutive trip to the NBA Finals with a 129-115 Game 4 win over the Spurs. “He’s such a wonderful human being. He’s so unselfish and team-oriented. I’m proud of him and the job he’s doing, along with the rest of the staff. I wish I could be out there with them. And maybe I will. I don’t know. We’ll see.

“He’s a great partner. And we’re in this together, obviously, but he’s got to make decisions with the staff without me. He’s done a great job of navigating the games. We’re undefeated, so he’s doing something right.”

Kerr can only help from the perimeter. The demands of the job require the coach be able to function at near-peak levels, particularly before and during a game, and he simply can’t. He knows there will be times, all too often, when the discomfort becomes unbearable to such a degree he hardly can think straight.

The agony is visible. The players see it. The staff sees it. Brown sees it, feels it and hears it. Spurs coach Gregg Popovich is one of Kerr’s best friends -- as well as a good friend of Brown -- was able to see it during the Western Conference Finals.

“I've spoken with Steve and Mike; we're friends,” Popovich said two hours before Game 4. “We've known each other a long time. But as far as Steve's concerned, it's just a crap situation.

“You know, he's done a phenomenal job. And when you're going through that pain every day and that frustration of not being able to do what you want to do, it's hard to enjoy it at the fullest level. So I feel badly for him all the time but hopeful that stuff will get figured out.”

Nobody wants that more than Kerr, who has tried nearly everything any respectable specialist has recommended. So far, there has been no miracle.

So Kerr forges ahead, getting his Warriors fix by being around the group. By meeting with coaches and players. By meeting with general manager Bob Myers. Kerr was with the Warriors throughout their stay in San Antonio. He was at practices and shootarounds, sometimes on the floor and sometimes sitting in the stands observing from afar.

“I need to be around the guys,” he said. “I don’t want to miss this. Just being in the locker room, being able to talk to the guys means a lot to me. I’m thrilled for them. It’s fun to see how happy they are with three straight trips to The Finals. It’s pretty incredible.”

Kerr has been with the team for at least a few hours every day since May 10, less than a week after his procedure at Duke.

Kerr’s presence has been invaluable, both physically and psychologically, according to staff and players.

“Coach just empowers everybody,” Kevin Durant said. “His message is still the same. Even when he wasn't there in the Utah series, you could still feel his presence. That's what great leaders do.”

Participation, making himself feel useful, is one form of therapy that gives Kerr a semi-satisfying break from the misery.

“He watches film, and he watches the game,” Brown said. “So he gives his perspective from where he is. He gives insight on what we should be doing going forward, what he felt we could have done better, what we did that was good. So he just gives his input, mainly. He addresses the team every once in a while. He doesn't always do that, but he'll address the team from time to time.”

There was some belief that Kerr could return to full-time coaching within a week or so after the procedure, for which he declined to provide details. Warriors CEO Joe Lacob expressed hope Kerr might return “sooner rather than later.” Had it been as successful as Kerr and the doctors hoped, he would have.

That was May 5. Kerr announced he was stepping aside on April 23. As of Wednesday, he was been on leave for a full month.

Asked if he plans to travel during the NBA Finals, Kerr said he hopes so: “It’s like a month away,” he said, exaggerating the nine-day layoff.

He’d rather say with certainty that, yes, he will be accompanying the team because, after all, he’s the head coach.

And he will say that, the moment his body tells him it’s OK to do so.