ST. PETERSBURG – Before Joe Maddon became the Tampa Bay Rays’ accomplished manager, baseball’s coolest oenologist, maker of wise sayings and architect of themed dress parties on team flights, he was the bench coach for the Anaheim Angels.
He had the clipboard and the spray charts ready every day for Mike Scioscia, and he never turned down a question – baseball-related or not -- from a rookie beat reporter who had a billion of them in 2000 and ’01.
I hadn’t been to Tropicana Field since I was on the Angels beat 12 years ago. I’d only seen Maddon for quick hellos at the winter meetings over the years. But when he spotted me on the field Friday, he rushed over like we were college frat buddies. That's Joe.
He asked me a question: “Do those guys think they’re out of it?”
Well, the Giants are 10 games back, I responded. They're in last place. Nobody was saying the words, and the effort doesn’t seem to lack in games. They aren’t giving up. But they know the odds.
“Well, good,” he said. “Because they shouldn’t think they’re out of it.”
Maddon reminded me that in 2011, his Rays were nine games out of the wild card as late as Sept. 4. They clinched it on the final day of the regular season.
I reminded him that he only needed to catch and pass one team. The Giants have to catch and pass four. (The wild card ain’t coming out of the NL West, either.) And the Dodgers probably won’t crater the way the Red Sox did when they stuck a chicken bucket over their heads while losing 18 of their final 24 games.
(The Dodgers rotation has a 2.79 ERA over their past 52 games, as Bill Plunkett of the Orange County Register pointed out. No wonder they’re 35-17 over that span. And for all the attention Yasiel Puig has gotten, Hanley Ramirez has reestablished himself as the best player in the National League. He might end up the MVP, even with all the time he missed.)
But Maddon has a point. Strange things can happen in baseball if you just keep the faith. And while the Giants would have to finish 32-21 just to end the season at .500, they do have two months, not one, to try to make a run.
Right now, the Giants are playing some of their best baseball of the season. They came within 3 feet (the distance Joaquin Arias’ double came from clearing the fence) of clinching their third consecutive road series. They ended up losing 2-1 in the 10th inning thanks to a whole lot of David Price and Fernando Rodney, but they still could clinch this series -- interleague, on the road, against one of the AL’s best teams -- with a victory Sunday.
As fulfilling as two of three here might be, it’s going to take more than that for the Giants to get back in this thing. They need a few sweeps, and they haven’t pulled off one of those since the Dodgers visited AT&T Park May 3-5.
The reality is, very soon, we’ll probably be writing a lot about six-man rotations and Francisco Peguero and maybe giving Gary Brown a look in September, and Ryan Vogelsong’s contract option (which will be picked up, if he’s competitive beginning Friday), and coming to the end of Barry Zito’s seemingly interminable $126 million deal. (Zito’s option won’t be picked up, but don’t expect the Giants to release him before the end comes this season.)
No, the Giants don’t deserve to believe in miracles at this point. They played too poorly for too long. But they can hope to play good baseball, to post quality starts, to defend cleanly, and occasionally make terrific plays that won’t be forgotten (like Buster Posey’s throw from the Rays dugout to nail Wil Myers at second base). They can hope to enjoy each others' company, for happy flights, and for some spirited ribbing after a game goes their way.
And they can hope to make a matchup of two Cy Young winners as tense and thrilling in practice as it is on paper.
That’s what the Giants did Saturday night. It was a 2-1 loss, and there are no good losses this time of year. But you can tell that they believe they are a quality team again, and they take the field expecting to win. You couldn’t say that for long stretches in June and July.
“I really do expect they’re going to make a nice little run,” Maddon said after Friday’s game, when Madison Bumgarner beat the Rays. “I know they’ve been struggling to this point, but I would not count them out based on their veteran personnel and the kind of team they have and the fact they’ve been there two of the last three years.”
And after Saturday’s win?
“I know the Giants’ record is not that good right now, but they’re a very proud champion and so they’re going to come out and play this kind of game against us. And (Tim) Lincecum was outstanding. Up and down the lineup, they played really well against us.”
The Giants’ trouble began May 14 in Toronto, as you know. They were 23-15 when they had their passports stamped. Since then, they have the worst record in baseball (26-45).
Against the Blue Jays, they played two of the worst games I’ve ever seen a major league team play. The artificial turf absolutely baffled them.
Tropicana Field is the only other turf ballpark in the big leagues. But it hasn’t been a horror show here. Far from it, in fact. The Giants played very solid defense, and it should be noted that the surface plays much better here. You don’t get the Happy Fun Ball bounces like you do in Toronto. There are going to be a few more infield choppers, but for the most part, the surface simulates grass much better here.
By the way, DO NOT LOOK AT HAPPY FUN BALL.
Managerial wit-matching doesn’t get much better than the ninth inning, when Maddon used all five of his bench players and Bruce Bochy used three relievers.
The Rays didn’t score, but they did get two right-handed matchups against lefty Javier Lopez. It’s a testament to Lopez that Bochy came out on the right end of that battle.
The Rays, of course, won the war. Because Bochy used so much of his bullpen, including Sandy Rosario in essence to get an out on a sacrifice bunt, he had to go to Jean Machi in the 10th. And Machi didn’t retire a batter.
What would you rather have? A full bench or a full bullpen? Well, I’d bet most managers would take the bullpen – especially in an AL park.
Who says AL managers operate on autopilot?
Maddon and Ron Wotus are similar in a lot of ways: ultra-prepared, friendly, even tempered and always thinking three moves ahead. That’s a big reason that I’m confident Wotus would be a very good big league manager, if and when he gets the opportunity.
Posey’s play in the fourth inning might have been the best I’ve ever seen him make. Myers reached on an infield single and took off for second base when Joaquin Arias’ throw soared past first baseman Brett Pill.
But Posey backed up the play. I'd guess he had to run at least 110 feet from his position behind the plate to where he collected the ball at the end of the Rays dugout. Posey unleashed a perfect throw to second base from a spot where he's never practiced it. Brandon Crawford barely needed to move his glove while tagging out a stunned Myers.
“I think I’m anticipating that happening,” said Posey, knowing it would be a close play and Arias would have to rush.
As for the throw itself: "You don't think. It happens so quick. You just grab it and let it go."
Derek Jeter was known for being at the right place at the right time. I asked Crawford if he expected Posey to be there, and in framing the question, I described the play as Jeteresque.
Maybe this is a shortstop thing. But Crawford didn’t agree with that adjective.
“Jeteresque is a little strong,” said Crawford, as Posey dressed two lockers down from him. “No offense, Buster. It’s not like he jump-threw or anything. But he backed up and made a good throw. That’s a head’s up play. Way to go, Buster.”
“Thank you,” Posey said.
“You didn’t jump-throw, did you?” Crawford said. “No. OK. Didn’t think so.”
Posey had a strong game in other ways, too. He blocked several Lincecum pitches in the dirt, and he even had Ben Zobrist hosed at second base in the third inning. It didn’t count, because the pitch was strike three to Evan Longoria for the third out.
It would’ve been the first time anyone caught a runner trying to steal against Lincecum all season. Opponents are 17 for 17 against him – the most thefts against any pitcher in the majors without a caught stealing.
David Price won’t get credit for a complete game, even though he pitched nine innings. But if the Rays had won it in the bottom of the ninth, it would have been his fourth complete game in his last six starts.
The Giants have gotten one complete game all season – Lincecum’s no-hitter.
Jeff Francoeur had as many hits against Price – three – as he had in 31 at-bats entering the game.
Like Brandon Belt, who changed his grip and position in the box, Francoeur said he’s been working to make a physical and mental adjustment. He’s opening up his hips more. And thinking less.
“Two years ago, I hit 47 doubles and 20 home runs,” Francoeur said. “I wasn’t getting my bat started. I wasn’t hitting pitches. It was just a little step thing I needed, and to get the hell out of my own way.”
On that last point, Francoeur said he spent two full innings of Friday’s game talking to Matt Cain about the pitfalls of overanalysis – especially when you’re a veteran player and you’ve experienced so many things in the game. You’re exposed to a lot of ideas and ways of doing things. It’s almost like picking a jar of peanut butter when there’s eight dozen different kinds on the supermarket shelf. It’s a simple choice that suddenly seems so much more complicated than it is.
“When you’ve been around awhile, you can overthink it,” Francoeur said. “It’s, `Get a pitch in your wheelhouse and swing.’”
Francoeur, by the way, had been 0 for 3 off Price in the regular season but saw him six times in the postseason, hitting a double off him as a member of the Texas Rangers in Game 1 of a 2010 NLDS.
An idea: Josh Johnson to the Giants on a cheap, one-year make-good contract this winter. If he passes a physical, of course. Discuss.
Yes, reporters also have to be alert for foul balls. One came screaming at my head in the ninth inning, but it didn’t reach me in the second row. Instead, it was a direct hit on the phone that Giants PR man Matt Chisholm was using to communicate with the dugout.
I mean, shards of plastic were blown off this phone. But Chisholm had a Rays PR official make a test call. And it still worked.
If you’re shopping for new phone hardware for your office, and your employees are a little rough with the equipment, might I recommend the Cisco IP phone, 7900 series.
So Jon Miller is on “special assignment” for this series. That’s code for a well deserved break, of course.
But I like to imagine that he’s laying down audio for Ken Burns’ 26-part series on basket weaving.
“...and they collect the reeds and rushes by the lakeside after the monsoon, just as their forefathers and their forefathers did..."