Bob Melvin, Bartolo Colon, Josh Donaldson; Brandon Belt/Brett Pill; Colin Kaepernick/Jim Harbaugh; Terrelle Pryor/Dennis Allen; Jared Roth
THE AíS picked the right time to get back on track and theyíve now just about clinched the AL West after beating the Rangers three straight in Arlington in the weekend series to go 6 Ĺ games up. This is the second consecutive year that the Aís have swept a September series from Texas, which has to have the Rangers doubting themselves.
One of the elements of that series was manager Bob Melvinís handling of his pitching staff. He let Sean Doolittle stay in for the final four outs, one in the eighth and all three in the ninth, in the tense one-run win on Saturday. He said it was because the Rangers had four straight lefthanded hitters, all of whom Doolittle retired, but he also wanted to give closer Grant Balfour a rest, so he could pitch the next day.
The opening game was a classic pitcherís duel, a rarity in the Rangersí hitter-friendly park, and Bartolo Colon outdueled Yu Darvish, 1-0.
The 15 days he spent on the disabled list were obviously well-timed for Colon, who had been showing signs of fatigue. He has come back strong, going as high as 95 mph in that Friday night game.
At the start of the year, some people were questioning why the Aís would bring back Colon, after he had been suspended for testing positive in a drug test and sat out the remainder of the 2012 season.
But, there was no reason not to. Colon had willingly accepted his punishment, he is popular with his teammates and he could still fill a role as the veteran in an otherwise young pitching staff. He has been even better than expected, especially for a 40-year-old, and good for him.
The Aís continue to win with an unheralded group. Third baseman Josh Donaldson, a converted catcher, has been their most valuable player, but he didnít even make the All-Star team. Nor will he even win a Gold Glove, though he has made some remarkable plays, because Manny Machado has that locked up. But Donaldson continues to make big plays, with his bat and with his glove, and the Aís continue to win.
Itís that way up and down the lineup, as Melvin juggles players with a sure touch to get his best lineup for the day on the field. When the Aís recalled Daric Barton, I thought, ďOh, no,Ē because Iíd seen enough of the patient Barton who always seemed to be looking for a walk more than a hit. But Barton has been a different hitter, with an aggressive approach at the plate that has made him a run-producer for the first time.
Significantly, you never hear complaints from players about their playing time, or lack of. They know that, if they produce, Melvin will get them in the lineup.
Throughout the Oakland history, the best Aís teams have won with pitching and power, and this team is no exception. Brandon Moss has a career high 25 homers, Donaldson has 23, Yoenis Cespedes, in an otherwise disappointing year, has 22. Coco Crisp, never thought of as any kind of power hitter, has a career high of 18. And, for all these hitters, their home runs almost always have come at critical times.
Last year, the Aís also had a great second half run that won the AL West, but they seemed overwhelmed by that when they got to the AL championship series, when Justin Verlander stopped them cold. I think that experience will be a warning to this yearís team: The real season doesnít begin until October.
MEANWHILE, IíM hearing from some readers that the Giants should be playing Brett Pill; one even thought they should move Brandon Belt to left field to make room for Pill.
That makes no sense at all because Belt is only a shade behind J. T. Snow defensively, and Snow is the best defensive first baseman Iíve ever seen. (Leonard Koppett, whose baseball experience went back to the Ď30s in New York, told me that Snow was the best heíd ever seen, which is more important than my opinion.)
There has been talk that, if the Giants could pick up a strong-hitting first baseman in free agency (there are no such outfielders available), Belt might be moved to left field. Heís OK with that, for a relatively short time.
But, for Pill? Thatís crazy.
When a player first shows that he belongs in the majors is vitally important because the prime age for hitters is 27-32 Ė and by 30, hitters who arenít extraordinary athletes or on PEDs are already starting to decline.
Belt became a starter at 23 and is now 25 and having a breakout year. Heís never going to be a 40-homer guy but heís quite capable of hitting 25-30 home runs with a .300 average. This year, he has 16 homers, 34 doubles and three triples, and the biggest part of that production has come in the last two months, which is why heís now hitting in the No. 3 slot.
Pillís first real shot was last year, when he was 28, and he hit .220 with four homers in 104 at-bats. Now, he turned 29 on Sept. 9, so heís as good as heíll ever get and will soon be in decline. Thatís why manager Bruce Bochy has been giving starts to other outfielders up from the minors while Pill has been used primarily as a pinch-hitter. Bochy knows Pill has no major league future. Giants fans who think so need to get a grip on reality.
IT DID not surprise me that the 49ers lost in Seattle on Sunday night. In fact, I had expected that. But the manner in which they lost raises some serious questions, particularly about their quarterback.
There is no denying Colin Kaepernickís physical ability, but Iíve wondered both about his emotional stability and intelligence. While others were marveling at his 412-yard effort against Green Bay (which had two starters from the defensive backfield out with injuries), I noted that much of that was because of circus catches by Anquan Boldin. I also saw that Kaepernick was often confused by defensive schemes used by the Packers.
He was more than confused against Seattle. Between the incredible noise in that stadium, which has become the worst place for a visiting team to play, and the Seattle defense, Kaepernick seemed to have a panic attack. Richard Sherman covered Boldin so tightly he couldnít make a catch until the fourth quarter. The rattled Kaepernick threw three interceptions and never got untracked.
He had games last year where he struggled, but that was his first season. He had problems in the Super Bowl, too. Forty-Niner fans like to think of that as a game they nearly won but in fact, the Ravens were en route to a lopsided victory when the power went out. The veteran Baltimore players obviously stiffened up during the wait and weren't the same. Nonetheless, they still outsmarted Kaepernick when the 49ers had a shot at the winning touchdown in the final minute. Knowing heíd go to Michael Crabtree, they double covered him on every pass and Kaepernick couldnít complete any of the three.
That same inability to adjust was his biggest problem as the Seahawks shut down his primary target. That happens in the NFL because they examine the videos of their opponentís previous game (or three, if theyíve played that many) and determine ways to attack their opponent, offensively and defensively. If there are any weak spots, they exploit them relentlessly.
The 49ers defense remains very strong, and the Seahawks didnít do much offensively, either, but they didnít have to. With the 49ers unable to either run or pass effectively, it required only a minimum of offense for the Seahawks to win.
Though the NFC West is strengthened from top to bottom, it still seems as if it will be a battle because the Niners and Seahawks for the top position. Even before Sunday nightís game, I thought Seattle had an edge. Thereís certainly no reason to think otherwise now.
MEANWHILE, the Raiders found somebody they can beat, with a win over the hapless Jacksonville Jaguars. Itís still going to be a long year for the Raiders and their fans but they are making progress. The evaluations off the pretend games were unrealistic, as always. It amazes me that writers and broadcasters, who should certainly know better, continue to make this mistake.
The Raiders have gone back to a power running attack, which is certainly more suited to Darren McFadden because it gives him a chance to get into the secondary and use his elusiveness and speed in the open field.
At quarterback, Tyrelle Pryor is still a work in progress, but heís cut down on the stupid throws. As Iíve said before, Pryor needs to discard his mindset from his college days and work within a pro system. At Ohio State, Pryor could improvise because he was a much better athlete than those he was playing against. The level of play is so much higher in the NFL that he has to learn to play within himself.
He needs to get more help from his receivers, though. Demarius Moore canít seem to grasp the notion that a receiver is supposed to catch the ball, not just run as fast as he can. Heís an unfortunate reminder of the horrible last decade of the Al Davis Raiders.
Defensively, the Raiders played very well against the Jaguars, who are admittedly a very poor offensive team, and they also played well in almost upsetting the Colts in Indianapolis in the season opener. Dennis Allen was regarded as a top defensive coach, which is why he was hired to be head coach in Oakland, and thatís starting to show. Allenís confidence as a head coach is growing, too. He seems to be ignoring the criticism by local media, which is smart.
Meanwhile, the Raiders are still looking for a stadium. Mark Davis met with Oakland officials last week but there is no way the city would ever pay for a new stadium, especially since city and Alameda county taxpayers are still paying for improvements to the current stadium.
There have been media claims that the Raiders will return to Los Angeles but theyíre baseless. One of the things that most upsets me about the media today is the constant airing of opinions without any basis in fact.
Think about this for a moment and ask yourself, why would the Raiders go back to Los Angeles? Their fan base there has a large percentage of hoodlums. When the Raiders played at the L.A. Coliseum, players Ė even 350-pound linemen Ė had to be escorted by armed policeman to their cars in the parking lot. The fans in Oakland are joked about because of the outlandish costumes worn by some but players do not require an armed escort after the games. I park in that lot, too, and have no trouble now. In fact, fans often stop me to talk (politely) with me and sometimes even ask me to be in pictures with them and their families.
Mark Davis has said repeatedly that he wants to keep the team in Oakland but what he really should do is to move the games to the 49ers new stadium in Santa Clara next season (the Raiders lease in Oakland expires with this season.) The 49ers are building their stadium with room for another team, just as the Giants and Jets share a stadium in New Jersey. Because a high percentage of fans for Raiders games live south or east of the Coliseum, it wouldnít be much further to Santa Clara.
If the Raiders moved out, the Coliseum could be changed into a baseball-only facility, much as Anaheim did for the Angels when the Rams moved to St. Louis. The Aís fan base has remained loyal, despite the best/worst efforts of Lew Wolff to discourage them, and they deserve this.
WHEN THE Philadelphia Eagles got off to a fast start in their first game with Chip Kellyís go-go offense, some in the media started wondering whether this would change the NFL.
Whoa! Letís wait a few weeks. There are a lot of fads in the NFL which work for awhile before teams catch up. Red Hickey learned that the hard way when he went to the Shotgun with the 49ers in 1961 and won big in the first two games Ė but then got beat badly in the third game and had to go back to the regular T. But by that time, he had traded away Y. A. Tittle.
Recently, the Wildcat was the hottest thing in the NFL, but now, itís only used occasionally; the Raiders got a big gain from Darren McFadden running out of that formation in their Sunday win. No team uses that as its basic offense.
In the NFL, coaches study videos all the time on other teams. That doesnít happen in the college game, so some formations and offenses are successful for a considerable time before other teams catch up with them. In the pros, the new offensive twists are studied and studied and they usually find a way to stop an offense thatís just gimmicky.
Kellyís Eagles lost their second game but Michael Vick still had a big game, but weíll have to wait a few weeks to see if his offense is the newest success story in the NFL or just a fad. Iím betting on fad.
LAST SATURDAY, I got my first in-person look at the Cal Bears against Ohio State and it was quite a day.
As I walked to a tailgate hosted by Cal classmate Don Kosovac, I saw a sea of red around me, and so many people, from Cal students and alumni to Ohio State boosters that it was very difficult just to walk.
In the stadium, The Buckeyesí rooters showed a solid front of red in the south end zone, and there were many of their rooters throughout the stadium. It seemed like, at best, a game on a neutral site.
Itís never a surprise to see fans from the Midwest at games involving their teams. They love to visit the Bay Area, for obvious reasons, and they love to leave their home areas, for equally obvious reasons.
Still, this was the biggest group of visiting fans I think Iíve ever seen at Memorial Stadium, bigger than Stanford fans for the Big Game or USC when the Trojans play here. Even Nebraska didnít have as many fans at Berkeley when the Cornhuskers played here and, as another team with red, itís easy to notice them. Tennessee also had a lot of fans who followed them west but again, not in such numbers.
My conclusion is that many Cal fans sold their tickets to Buckeye fans, but that also raises the question of whatís going to happen for games against opponents who do not have many of their fans here.
Jeff Tedford was fired and Sonny Dykes hired because athletic director Sandy Barbour wanted more excitement to fill the stadium. But, as I wrote last week, how long will Cal alums be excited as the losses pile up? There was little doubt about this game after Ohio State took a 21-0 lead with just six minutes gone and the story line will be similar against other good teams. The Bears canít stop anybody on defense.
Their freshman quarterback, Jared Goff, continues to impress. Goff hung in there against a hard pass rush and threw accurately for the most part. His interception came on a long pass that could have been viewed as the equivalent of a punt. Meanwhile, he threaded the needle and completed passes when his receivers hardly seemed open.
Goff has looked so good that Iím already hearing from alums who wonder how soon heíll leave for the pros. The answer: He canít leave until after his junior year, as Aaron Rodgers did. So, enjoy him for three years.
AS EXPECTED, I got a mixed reaction to last weekís discussion on the future of football. One of the most interesting was that from a father whose son had played and said that boys love playing football.
I wonder, though, whether they really enjoy the game as much as they enjoy bonding with their fathers. Thatís been a traditional way that fathers and sons have bonded, over sports. I was determined that my son would not play football and our bond was in discussions about politics. Scott is now a partner in a San Francisco law firm and we visit with Scott and his wife, Sarah, frequently. Sports are very seldom a topic.
What do YOU think? Let me know!
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