Urban: USF Baseball -- A proud program


Urban: USF Baseball -- A proud program

June 2, 2011
They aren't exactly household, with one star-crossed exception, but the University of San Francisco baseball program has been producing some notable names for a while now.Head coach, Nino Giarratano, who was named 2011 WCC Coach of the Year, has built up tremendous respect in the college ball ranks over his 13 years at the helm on the Hilltop.Star third baseman, Stephen Yarrow, who recently helped the Dons to both their second West Coast Conference title and NCAA Tournament appearance in the last six years, was recently named the WCC Defensive Player of the Year. He and five teammates represented a school-record six first-team all-conference selections.Former Giants pitcher Jesse Foppert, former Athletic Jermaine Clark, Joe Nelson, Justin Speier and Jeff Harris are among the former Dons who have reached the Majors in the past decade or so. Several others are at various levels of the minor leagues, and yes, Scott Cousins of the Marlins is a former Don.Now consider some names familiar only to family, friends and a handful of former fellow students.Al Smoot. Mike Mooney. Kevin Cronin. Joe Williams. Buddy Holm. Paulo Della Bordella. Chris Gaggero. Eric Enos. Arnie Sambel. Mike Terry. Bob Freschi. Rob Hanke. Greg Wieser, Duffy Aceret. Buzz Lawson.A certain 6-foot-7, soft-tossing lefty, who eventually traded his spikes in for the tools of a less rigorous life in sports media, was among them, too.All of them played baseball at the USF when the program was a losing program.Good players, all. Good enough to play at the NCAA's Division I level, which is the highest level of amateur ball in the country that doesn't feature "USA" across the chest of your jersey. Some of them good enough to earn selections in the MLB draft.While playing for the Dons, virtually all of them lost more games than they won. But don't you dare call them losers.The losers were the members of an apathetic administration that regarded the baseball program as something of a necessary evil.Minimal scholarship money. Ridiculously outdated facilities. Absolutely zero effort to drum up even cursory support from the student body -- even when national powerhouses such as Stanford were rolling into the bandbox that was Benedetti Diamond, named after the program's patriarch.The head coach drew a passable salary, but the assistants could have qualified for food stamps. So bad was it that for two consecutive seasons, in 1990 and 1991, the new pitching coach was the same pitcher who led the previous year's team in losses.The results of the athletic department's gross institutional neglect -- losses, and lots of them -- were predictable. A self-fulfilling prophecy if ever there was one.So how did the Dons get from there to here, as the No. 4 seed facing the top-seeded UCLA Bruins on Friday evening in the first round of the double-elimination Los Angeles Regional of the NCAA Tournament?With a committed and loyal head coach, a collection of talented players, a dedicated core of enthusiastic alumni, and an administration that eventually stepped up and started providing the type of support any major collegiate sports program deserves.The turnaround actually started with the hiring of Rich Hill, who preceded Giarratano. But Hill, taking advantage of the fact that any improvement in the wake of the prolonged success drought would make him look like a champ, used the job as a stepping stone and was gone shortly after he arrived.Giarratano was different. He not only built on the momentum Hill started to establish, but he was in it for the long haul. Recruits look for stability in a program, and Giarrantano provided it.A modest man clearly beloved by his players, Giarratano isn't interested in taking much credit, though. After appearing with Yarrows on Chronicle Live on Tuesday, he went out of his way to gush about the increased support -- in the form of scholarship money and major improvements at Benedetti Diamond -- that helped him land the players he needed to compete with the big boys.He mentioned the alumni support, too, and Cronin has been front-and-center in terms of getting former Dons excited and involved, sending a relentless stream of e-mail touting both the program's rise, and the Dante Benedetti Foundation, the mission of which is "helping children through the game of baseball." The combination of these efforts, along with the steady rise of the program's standing in Division I, generated unprecedented interest and pride.These days, many of those aforementioned players who went through the lean years keep in touch via Facebook, swapping war stories and lauding the latest feats of the current club. Gone are the days of 25 parents, sisters, brothers and girlfriends being the only people in the stands. "We'll get 400 on a good day," Giarratano said. It doesn't sound like much, but in context, it's huge.So is Friday's game against the Bruins, where guys such as Wieser, one of the former Dons pitcher-turned-pitching coach, will again be frantically looking for updates however they can. This was was the case Sunday when USF had to beat host Gonzaga in a do-or-die WCC finale.And while UCLA is the favorite in the L.A. Regional, in a way it won't matter whether the Dons win or lose. Not to guys such as Lawson, Mooney, Smoot, and yes, that big lefty whose best fastball looked like a big-league changeup.To those guys, here's the bottom line: By putting the program on the national map, the Dons already have pulled off an upset of epic proportions.

A's rookie Olson stays humble during record-breaking power surge


A's rookie Olson stays humble during record-breaking power surge

OAKLAND — Matt Olson is aware of the company he’s keeping in the A’s record books.

His reaction is a mix of reverence and a shrug-of-the-shoulders type humbleness.

That’s the personality of the A’s rookie first baseman. Even as the conversation about him and his awe-inspiring home run pace grows louder, he remains the same steady, grounded presence.

“I’m happy for him,” A’s hitting coach Darren Bush said. “The guy’s worked his butt off. He’s the same today as was when he first got called up.”

Olson cleared the fences once again Friday night, his two-run homer off Nick Martinez in the second inning helping the A’s to a 4-1 victory over the Texas Rangers. At this point, it’s much more newsworthy when Olson doesn’t homer than when he does.

He’s crammed 24 homers into just 57 games this season. Taking into account his first call-up last September, and Olson’s 24 homers over the first 68 games of his career are the second-most in the history of major league baseball over that span to open a career. The Dodgers’ Cody Bellinger also hit 24 and only the White Sox’s Jose Abreu, with 25, hit more over his first 68.

Olson’s 13 homers in September are the most by any rookie in major league history for the month, and there’s still eight games left in it. But Olson’s hot streak dates back to Aug. 27. He’s hit a major league-best 16 homers in 23 games since then.

Among rookies in A’s history, only Mark McGwire (49) in 1987 and Jose Canseco (33) in 1986 have hit more than Olson’s 24. But neither Bash Brother, nor any other player in Oakland history, ever hit 15 homers in a 21-game span as Olson recently did.

“It’s definitely an honor,” Olson said before Friday’s game. “I grew up with a Mark McGwire poster on my wall. It’s a little surreal.”

Who saw this coming?

Olson went 2-for-21 without a single RBI in his first taste of the bigs last September. Then he shuttled five times between Triple-A and the majors this season before getting called up once again Aug. 8 and being told he’d get a shot as the A’s regular first baseman with Yonder Alonso having been traded. The constant shuttling took its toll, though Olson never let on about that publicly to reporters.

“You could see (the frustration),” said Ryan Christenson, his manager at Triple-A. “When he walks in and you tell him ‘You’re getting sent up,’ and he’s like, ‘Well, how many days is it for this time?’ He wouldn’t voice it necessarily, but you could sense it.”

Olson, with help from Bush and others, made an adjustment coming into this season. He began holding his hands out farther away from his body to begin his swing. With his 6-foot-5 frame, Olson had found himself getting jammed inside. Then in trying to adjust to that, he couldn’t square up pitches on the outer half.

“Now, his hands are firing from where he wants them to,” Bush said. “He doesn’t have to fight. You want your hands to have a clean path. Now he can stay in there, stay behind the ball, let his hands work for him.”

Olson, a 23-year-old from Lilburn, Ga., takes this sudden burst of success — and attention — in stride.

“I’ve been hit with so many stats here in the past week, I can’t even keep track of who’s done what, and honestly what I’ve done,” he said. “I kind of try to ignore all that.”

That’s OK. Others are taking plenty of notice.


As Dodgers celebrate, Bochy turns eyes to franchise-altering talent


As Dodgers celebrate, Bochy turns eyes to franchise-altering talent

LOS ANGELES — The Giants left their dugout quickly after Friday’s loss, escaping a celebration on the mound and a fireworks show in the sky. As Dodger Stadium shook with cheers, Bruce Bochy sat in the visiting clubhouse and smiled. He nodded at his laptop, which earlier had been used to pull up highlights of Japanese two-way star Shohei Otani. 

“He’s good,” Bochy said, laughing. “I absolutely would play him every day.”

Earlier in the week, when it became known that Bobby Evans and Jeremy Shelley were headed to Japan to scout Otani, Bochy said he couldn’t imagine a player pitching and then moving to the outfield between starts. What changed? 

Perhaps it was the tape Bochy saw. Otani throws 100 mph and hits homers with ease. Or perhaps it was the game he watched Friday. The Giants lost for the 94th time, with the big blow coming from a 22-year-old Dodgers star. Cody Bellinger’s blast was the difference in a 4-2 win, and the Giants don’t have a Bellinger, or anything close. Otani, 23, is a long shot for a team that very well could finish with the worst record in baseball. Still, he’s the kind of talent that could help pull the Giants closer in a hurry. He’s the  kind of talent they haven’t developed in years, and Bochy certainly sounded a bit wistful as he talked of the power Bellinger has put on display. 

“You call up a guy and he does that — that just doesn’t happen,” he said. “It’s a rare deal.”

The ninth inning of the Dodgers’ clincher reinforced that point for the Giants. They got a homer from Pablo Sandoval, but he’s playing only because Christian Arroyo — the Giants’ best prospect bet this year — is hurt. Ryder Jones, their 23-year-old prospect, struck out to end the night, dropping his average to .180. 

That set off a celebration for Bellinger and the Dodgers. They have won five straight NL West titles, with three of the last four clinched against the Giants. 

“Congrats to them,” Bochy said. “They’ve had a tremendous year across the board, and they’ve played great baseball. They brought some guys up that really did a great job for them. It’s well deserved.”

Bochy said it was not difficult to watch this one. The division has been wrapped up for months, with only a September slide keeping the Dodgers from clinching earlier. 

“We knew what we were facing here,” Bochy said. 

The Giants have two more against the Dodgers and then six more before a long winter. The Dodgers, on the other hand, will host an NLDS series here at Dodger Stadium. Both Bochy and starter Jeff Samardzija made the same observation, that the Dodgers will have a hard time cutting their deep roster down to 25 postseason players. 

That’s a nice problem to have. It’s a foreign one right now for the Giants, who have a serious talent gap and no clear solutions internally. It’s no wonder, then, that Bochy has all of a sudden become so intrigued by a wondrous talent overseas.