Good News, Bad News for Giants
Chief among the good news was the hitting of Lance Niekro, not just because he hit a game-tying home run in the ninth but because he appears to be a much improved hitter. Heís hanging in much better against tough right-handed pitchers; he had an RBI single off John Smoltz earlier in the game.
Niekro had been a top prospect for the Giants since he started in their minor league system in 2000. He hit well wherever he went, averaging .310 in his minor league career, but couldnít stay healthy; in five minor league seasons, he played only 351 games. He started at third base but, knowing there was already a logjam at that position on the major league level, the Giants had him playing first base for about 40 per cent of the time in the minors.
Last year, he started the season at Fresno but was quickly elevated when Moises Alou went on the disabled list. He started the season strong but there were some disturbing factors in his resume.
One was the fact that, the longer the season went, the worse he hit. Thatís usually the sign of pitchers figuring out how to get a young hitter out.
Another was his lack of plate discipline. When talk show host Larry Krueger referred to ďbrain dead Caribbean hittersĒ, those around the Giants noted that Niekro was as guilty of just hacking as, say, Pedro Feliz. He walked only 17 times in nearly 300 plate appearances, and that followed a minor league career in which he had just 57 walks in more than 1400 plate appearances.
It was also clear that the Giants werenít confident that he could hit good righthanded pitching. A couple of times, manager Felipe Alou announced that he would play Niekro full-time, but he quickly recanted and platooned Niekro with J. T. Snow.
In that decision, Alou was consistent with the Giantsí philosophy of the recent past. Since theyíve been at PacBell, theyíve relied on veterans and made it very difficult for their young players to break into the lineup. Itís only this year, when he was less than a month from his 31st birthday, that Feliz had a regular position to start the year. At 27, Niekro is a relative youngster.
That policy was understandable when they were in contention for the postseason. Last year, when they were 37-50 at the All-Star break and eventually finished 12 games under .500, it made no sense, and it hindered Niekroís progress.
This offseason, the Giants finally bit the bullet and cut their ties to Snow, giving Niekro a chance to play regularly. So far, it appears that was the right decision. Niekro looks like a different hitter this year, much more confident, with better plate discipline.
NIEKROíS IMPROVEMENT, though, is balanced by disturbing news about the teamís primary players, Jason Schmidt and Barry Bonds.
In his two starts, Schmidt has looked like a Brett Tomko type of pitcher, dominant for most of the game but with costly blowups.
Yesterday, he was cruising through the first five innings, but then allowed a three-run sixth that enabled the Braves to tie the game. He yielded another run in the seventh that put the Braves ahead. His final line read five earned runs in seven innings. Not good.
He also fell back into the pattern that kept him from fully realizing his potential earlier in his career, relying too much on his fast ball. Schmidt has a very good fast ball, and he was registering as high as 96 on the parkís radar gun yesterday as he recorded 10 strikeouts, but his best games have come when he has mixed in his changeup to throw off the timing of hitters. Thatís what he was doing so effectively through the first five innings yesterday.
Then, in the sixth, he changed his pattern. He said after the game that he lost his command of the changeup, but it didnít seem that he was throwing it very often. He was challenging hitters more with his fast ball. The key at-bat came against Andruw Jones, with two runners on base. He threw fast ball after fast ball and I thought, ďItís either going to be a strikeout or a home run.Ē It was the latter, of course.
Schmidt is vital to the Giants success because heís supposed to be the staff leader. The Giants rotation has already been weakened by the oblique muscle strain suffered by Noah Lowry. (Parenthetically, I never heard of this kind of injury before Tim Hudson started heaving it with the Aís, but now it seems like an epidemic throughout MLB.) They canít afford for Schmidt to falter.
BONDS HASNíT looked good, either, and the question is whether itís just a slow start or the fact that, after three knee surgeries last year, his legs donít give him the support he needs. He said after the game yesterday that he had felt sharp pain in his knee when he went down to get a low pitch from Smoltz in the second, though he later made a fine running catch of a blooper just beyond the reach of shortstop Omar Vizquel.
Sometimes, good hitters start slowly because theyíre hitting balls right at fielders. That hasnít been the problem with Bonds. Heís just not getting good swings. Atlanta reliever Ken Ray struck him out on three changeups on Thursday. Heís been jammed on inside fast balls, the same kind of pitch heís hit 450 feet before. There were many times in the 2000-2004 period when heíd get only one pitch to hit in an at-bat, but heíd hit that pitch for extra bases, often a home run. Thatís not happening now. Heís either swinging and missing or hitting a weak grounder.
Even when heís been walked, Bonds has been important to the Giants offense because heís often scored when those behind him have gotten hits. That happened in the second inning yesterday, when Smoltz lost his command and got hammered for three runs; even Schmidt got a hit, a double to deep left center, in the inning.
But it will be interesting to see how long pitchers continue to walk Bonds if he doesnít show more at the plate. Smoltz challenged him yesterday, and successfully.
The Giants have been able to compensate for Bondsí ineffectiveness so far, as other hitters have come through with big hits, including Niekro and Randy Winn yesterday. But for them to make a serious run for the postseason, Bonds must be the centerpiece in their offense. Right now, itís reasonable to question whether he can do that.
THESE ARE just first week impressions, of course. The reason baseball has such a long season is that the game is so unpredicable from day to day Ė you have only to look at the fact that the Aís were routed in their season opener but then took the next two games from the Yankees Ė that it takes many games to sort everything out.
But, itís still true that, for the whole season, the Giants need big contributions from Schmidt and Bonds. A good season from Niekro would also be fine, but that should only be the frosting on the cake, not the cake itself.
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