“The Giants are 2010 World Series Champions.”

Say that phrase to yourself, let it roll around in your mouth. Savor it.

What a thing to say.

It took the slightly imperfect team to do it, but San Francisco has its first title in 53 years with a Major League team.

This was a team that straddled convention. On one hand they proved the mantra true: “pitching wins you goddamn championships!” The monster rotation was headed by Lincecum, Cain, young aces throwing fire, and rounded out by the realized potential of Jonathan Sanchez and Madison Bumgarner. The bullpen came together on the fly, growing into one of the league’s best and anchored by the black-bearded bundle of insanity known as Brian Wilson. He didn’t give up a run in nearly 12 postseason innings, striking out 16 on the way.

The lineup on the other hand hardly looked like a vintage Series winning crew. It was littered with overpaid veterans (Rowand, Uribe), waiver wire guys (Ross, Burrell), reclamation projects (Huff, Torres) and one monster rookie (Buster Posey). Freddy Sanchez and Edgar Renteria were maligned all season for their salaries and production. Sanchez was everywhere defensively in the postseason and Renteria had the iconic homer of this run.

This wasn’t a team with Yankee-like home run power, but they played like they did. The offensive game plan was simple: sometimes get a guy on base, mash a bomb out of the park, repeat as necessary until the pitchers have enough runs.

For a team with only two 20-plus home run hitters this didn’t make much sense. Not much of this run did.

Last night was a cathartic moment, really a release of years of painful memories. From the ’02 series, blown by Dusty Baker in game six and ending with a terrible Livan Hernandez performance in game seven, to J.T. Snow getting thrown out at home to end the 2003 NLDS, wasting a 100-win campaign, to the Dodgers dropping them from the playoff race on the second to last day of the 2004 regular season and the team falling from contention for years after that.

Before last night all of those were living, agonizing memories. Now they are harmless footnotes, reminding us that going through trials makes times like these all the sweeter.

Even this season had moments where things seemed bleak. Time and again during the summer the Giants were pushed to the far edge of playoff contention, a few games from falling out of it. Then the Padres fell apart, the Giants bats found their home run power and they made it in on the last day of the season.

Against Atlanta Brooks Conrad’s booted balls pushed them ahead. They got past Philly with three one-run wins. Finally they knocked the Rangers around, taking out one of the best postseason pitchers ever (Cliff Lee) as almost every one of Bruce Bochy’s moves worked to perfection. Renteria’s three-run blast and Wilson’s final strikeout capped it all.

And what’s more than just winning the historical title, the team was likable. They had character, had spunk. It seemed like new slogans and memes were born every week. The Machine, Ross the Boss, Let Timmy Smoke, Giants Baseball: Torture, OOO-RIBE, outcasts and misfits, Fear the Beard and 25 guys, 25 different stories.

But in the end there was only one story.

One story with a very happy ending.

Savor it.

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A great game 1

Invincibility, what’s that?

It’s what Cliff Lee had when he walked into AT&T Park Thursday night.

He sure didn’t leave with it.

Yes the best pitcher in EVERY SINGLE PLANE OF EXISTENCE gave it up to the Giants’ lineup that is cobbled-together from other team’s refuse. Six earned runs in 4.2 innings is pretty ugly, especially when old guys like Freddy Sanchez and Juan Uribe are doing most of the damage.

It wasn’t supposed to be like this. The Giants were not supposed to touch Lee, let alone rough him up. They weren’t supposed to survive a mediocre performance from Tim Lincecum (5.2 innings, four runs, three Ks). San Francisco couldn’t possibly survive against a powerful team like Texas when 18 runs crossed the plate.

But it happened.

The pitching-heavy team won the shoot-out. It doesn’t make much sense, but much of the Giants’ season hasn’t.

The only thing to say, “three more to go.”

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Warriors season preview

2009-10 record: 26-56

There was a lot of off-season change in Oakland, and frankly, it was necessary. Twenty-six wins is pretty damn pathetic. The team was never healthy and truly adrift under Don Nelson’s stewardship.

Now, however, Nellieball is gone and Keith Smart suddenly holds the reins. What do we know about Smart? Well he coached under Nelson (not good), went 9-31 in an interim stint as head coach of Cleveland (since Ricky Davis was the team’s top scorer he gets a mulligan) and now, according to reports, plans to install some sort of motion offense (progress!).

So this won’t exactly be a continuation of the old regime, especially when it comes to the way that Nelson sort of checked out for most of the year. Smart’s biggest challenge will come on defense, where the Warriors ranked second-worst in efficiency last season. The question is where Nelson’s notorious disinterest in demanding his players to defend ended and their own deficiencies in that department began.

The last time Nelson left a team, Dallas, its defense actually got worse. Why that happened is a mystery but it probably had something to do with Shawn Bradley’s giant, gawky, pale departure.

On the court the Warriors’ slim playoff hopes rest with the guard duo of Monta Ellis and Stephan Curry. The two represent rival forces as Ellis was perfectly in tune with the iso-heavy scheme Nelson ran and Curry sought to subvert it, forcing the art of passing back into the fold. There were times last year when it seemed ball movement sprung to life only because Curry willed it.

Ellis may be limited to his usual role of driving, running, finishing with flair and hitting mid-range jumpers, mostly as a result of his own creation outside the framework of an offense.

With that backcourt opposing guards should be putting up big nights with regularity. Ellis and Curry are both small, frail, poorly schooled in defensive technique and, once again, very small.

Those issues will put a fair amount of pressure on the new look frontcourt the Warriors will deploy. The productive (read: only good at things appearing in boxscores) $80 million man David Lee arrives from New York to partner with Andris Biedrins.

Ok, so Biedrins is not really part of a new look since he’s been a Warriors forever. His role does change, however, because this will be the first time in a while when he is actually paired with a real second big man. Nelson delighted in playing 3-point shooters or guards at the four and leaving the garbage work/defense to Biedrins.

Both guys can rebound, so perhaps Golden State will not be pathetically abused in that area (it was so bad that the Dubs collected the fewest combined rebounds per game despite playing at one of the highest paces). Lee should add some threat with his jumpers and nice scoring touch around the rim. Biedrins will probably continue his role of finishing pick-and-rolls and finding open spaces for easy looks.

Neither is the kind of strong team defender who can control the paint and clean up breakdowns on the perimeter. There is some hope in the man defense of Biedrins, but Lee’s effectiveness on that end would have fit well in the former regime’s No-D gameplan.

Rounding out the starters is Dorell Wright, a large wing who may be (gasp!) a  defensively oriented player getting decent minutes. He played on some terrible Heat teams, was not particularly productive, but it seems a lot of NBA GMs wanted him. Perhaps he finds a home as the Warrior’s fifth most important starter.

Unlike past seasons when there was something to spark hope deep in the Warrior bench, this season’s rendition is decidedly disinteresting. Reggie Williams should be a gunner, Rodney Carney was once well regarded for his jumping ability, Ekpe Udoh and Louis Amundson are hurt.

As of now it’s unclear if Jeremy Lin is a real prospect or just an interesting conversation piece. Brandan Wright, the never was who perhaps is hoping to be (does that even make sense?), will make one more go of it. That collection looks as motley as the San Francisco Giants’ lineup, so there may be a ton of minutes thrust onto the starters.

Following the Warriors is, by nature, suffering and this season likely will fit the pattern. The bench and defense are as of yet unanswered problems. It just seems as though none of the pieces really fit together, like a glue model assembled by a four-year-old. The two small scoring guards are like the plastic surfaces, not quite aligned correctly and looking ajar with dry glue encrusted on the edges.

Vegas places the Dub’s win total at 30.5. Although the change at the top is a step in the right direction, I’ll take the under.

Prediction: 30-52

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The fallout of slaying No.1

What just one day can do to expectations.

Yes the Badgers executed pretty much the most quintessentially Wisconsin gameplan imaginable. Ground game rolling, winning the battle for “hidden yards,” making Terrelle Pryor look unbelievably terrible. The awesome post-game insanity commenced and Badger fans did what they’re most known for: drink heavily and cause mayhem across Madison.

Now the question is what comes next?

Well aside from a trip to Iowa, that part is obvious.

Suddenly the whole flow of the season has been redirected. At the start of the year there were questions. Can the Badgers live up to expectations? Can they get those surprising wins? The No.11 ranking loomed, as a reminder that this team, in some sense, should do more.

Then the Michigan State loss reset everything. The Badgers were back to the team that was always good but never had the spark of greatness. A team whose success was capped. Fans wailed of a purgatory of 9-3 and 8-4 seasons, a team that won only the games it should and predictably bowed out against the best. In truth it doesn’t seem like a horrible predicament, but to many who pour their emotions into the team each week it is the acceptance of such a fate they find so disheartening.

But now that whole perspective is wiped off the table.

The Badgers got their big win, and beyond the quality of opponent was the quality of dominance. Yes OSU clawed back into the game, but as soon as they did Wisconsin answered with back-to-back perfect offensive and defensive series.  It now delivers us to a delicate point, a moment that will in no way be reflected in the way we think about this year when it’s over.

I have this odd interest in the perspective of a particular instant that gets lost when looking back. This isn’t like looking back at a talented player and wondering why they fell short of what we expected. It’s looking back at the sense of optimism or despair in a given instant and seeing the irony that everyone at that point couldn’t. The example I use is the 1994 Golden State Warriors, who at the end of their final playoff loss were called one of the best up and coming teams in the NBA by whichever TV announcer was calling the game. They had the players and the youth to be that. Instead they missed the playoffs for 14 years, playing horrendous basketball season after season. There’s something tragic yet mystical about that quote from some TV guy, an imagined world where the Warriors really did inherit the league, frozen in some ESPN Classic game.

In a sense the sky is the limit because, well, Wisconsin just knocked off the No. 1 team in the land and the biggest bully of the Big Ten. But Iowa coming so fast sort of grounds expectations, fostering a wait-and-see attitude.

Right now there are four likely ways the regular season goes down (have to ignore bowls because they too complicated and people tend to remember the feelings of pre-bowl season).

UW wins out – with trips to Ann Arbor and Iowa City this isn’t particularly likely, but as of now it’s still possible. This is the dream. It almost guarantees the first BCS game of this decade and the first of Bret Bielema’s career.

The year would rank up with the best since 1993 and the OSU win would take on the role of turning point. It was then that a one-loss team found itself. Meeting and slaying the top team kicked off its end of season run.

UW loses to Iowa but wins out after – not quite as impressive, but it would mean the Badgers took care of business and finished a respectable 1-2 against the best of the conference (assuming the MSU bubble doesn’t burst). This probably won’t bring much more than a Florida Bowl, but ten wins isn’t something to scoff at.

Oddly as the team’s overall success diminishes the importance of Saturday’s win would grow. In this case the OSU win really is the high point of the season, something UW fans would still beat their chests about.

UW beats Iowa but then loses somewhere else down the line, probably at Michigan – A pretty good year because it shows any doubters that Bielema can in fact win the big game. This most likely ends with one of the New Year’s day Florida bowls. It won’t please everyone, but most will look at it fondly.

In this case the OSU game would sort of fuse with the Iowa game into a two-weekend stretch of dominance. Going into the new 12-team Big Ten, Wisconsin would be viewed as more of a threat, bloodying the noses of two powers back-to-back

UW loses to Iowa and adds one or more losses after that – Badger fans will find a new way to complain about Bielema “not getting it done.” Wisconsin keeps the bowl streak alive and we get one of those ok but not special seasons.

The season will be remembered in a large sense for Saturday’s win. Think back to 2003, the last time Wisconsin scored a win of this magnitude (against of all teams OSU). After that win they were looking great, but they fell apart down the stretch. A 7-6 season was closed with a depressing Music City Bowl loss. The only real memories for that year are Lee Evans beastliness and that majestic 17-10 win over OSU. Should UW falter badly in the last five games, 2010 will be remembered as “the year we beat the No. 1 Buckeyes” and not much else.

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The myth of Chris Bosh

No one would do something as stupid as equating Chris Bosh to either Magic Johnson or Larry Bird in any sense, right? I mean two are among the ten best players ever… and one is Chris Bosh.

Oh. Michael Jordan did? Comparing Miami’s big three and the midsummer circus NBA fans witnessed to a Jordan-Bird-Magic unholy triumvirate? Well the guy did take Kwame Brown first overall.

This moment of old timer-y cantankerousness was just that, but it highlighted the assumption that Bosh was amongst the current pantheon of top players. That supposition was then shouted into the echo chamber of the Blogosphere and Mainstream Media to be amplified until this whole big three thing seemed like a combination of semi-equal players.

But it’s not.

Bosh is not that good.

He’s much better at basketball than the average person. Much better than the average NBA player (not really a logical term, but screw it). But he’s not at that top level and there seems to be a misguided sense that he belongs there.

In fact he may have earned a place as the NBA’s most overrated player, not an easy task in a league where Vince Carter is making $17,300,000.

What exactly has this guy done?

His individual game is relatively devoid of excellent defense or passing. His rebounding numbers (pretty good) are a result of being as quick since he’s on a team without anyone else to take the boards away from him.

As a scorer he’s mostly a face-up guy which is great if you combine it with the aforementioned skills like defense or passing. Superstars do many things at a high level. Chris Bosh doesn’t.

Looking at his career records it gets even more confusing why anyone could put this guy on such a pedestal (other than the “three of the NBA’s top young players uniting” narrative being an easy out).

The whole “power forward on a crappy team” path is a well-trodden. Charles Barkley did it, Kevin Garnett (who Bosh is often compared to) did it and, most recently, Pau Gasol escaped the shackles of a terrible squad to find a second life.

Bosh lacks the unstoppable-force aura of a Barkley (who dragged some fairly ugly Sixers teams to the postseason). He doesn’t have a track record of even getting to the playoffs life Garnett did, plus KG was, oh just one of the best defenders in existence.

The most apt comparison would be Pau, who made the playoffs three times in his first six seasons. Like Bosh he liked facing up and wasn’t working with a brilliant cast. Shane Battier was the second best player on two of those teams, possibly James Posey on the third. From that he drew 50, 45 and 49 wins in the West, all foreshadowing how good he could be on a real team.

Bosh has teamed with a first overall pick (the admittedly not stellar Andrea Bargnani) and some nice role players (Anthony Parker, T.J. Ford, Jose Calderon, Jamario Moon, Jarrett Jack). He had a dead-eye shooter in Jason Kapono and some washed up, once-talented refuse like Hedo Turkoglu, Jermaine O’Neal and Shawn Marion.

That’s not great, but enough for a top NBA player to do something, anything with (because even though “teams win games” one guy can totally pull one up to mediocrity in basketball).

Instead the Raptors have been 254-320 in the seven year Bosh Era. They’ve made the playoffs twice and only three times met the 40-win mark.

Even this terrible resume would be understandable for a western team. But it’s in an Eastern Conference that is notoriously weak at the bottom of the playoff bracket. Sixteen Eastern teams have made the playoffs in those seven years with a .500 record or worse.

A squad led by a bona fide top-level player can only make it twice? Wade and James are proof positive that’s crap.

Even a stat like PER, which is not particularly useful but would favor him since it can’t highlight his defensive failings, only has him in the top-10 twice in seven years.

He’s also in some way responsible for this, a crime so heinous he should be forced to play in some Siberian city in the Russian league (basketball truly is a global game).

Bosh should be seen for what he is, a good second banana or, in his current spot, a possibly great third guy on a potential title team. He could have been a lower-tier Pippin or McHale. Now he can settle for being, should the Heat actually get a title, around the level of late-80s Kareem or Robert Parish.

Not much love for a “great” player, but it’s where he belongs.

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The return of Big Red

Note: I’m not a Nebraska fan. In fact, I really didn’t like the team when I first started following college football. It was only around 2004 that I fell in love with the option as a play and all the mayhem it could unleash. Sadly at that point the ‘Huskers, the team most associated with option football, was phasing it out. Now the pendulum is swinging back.

Taylor Martinez’ 241 rushing yards against Kansas State mean something.

Well, something besides the Wildcats’ defense being woeful.

It means a return to something primordial, something natural for Nebraska. It is a rebirth and evolution of the style of football that made this team one of the best in the country annually and is now making it a power again.

Last year may be seen by many as the ‘Huskers return to the upper echelon. The defense was on the level of the Blackshirts of old and only a few ticks on the clock separated them from their conference title since 1999. But something was missing.

The ground game.

Nebraska football, throughout its four decade run of dominance, started with a power-oriented option attack. This is a school that refers to its halfbacks simply as I-backs, because they always ran the option out of the I-formation.

Eight ‘Husker quarterbacks have topped 800 rushing yards in a season with three cracking the 1000-yard mark.  Entering this season 33 different times a Cornhusker player has topped 200 rushing yards in a game (as compared to only 38 games where a quarterback threw for 250 or more yards).

Between 1980 and 2001 Nebraska led the nation in rushing yards per game 13 times, led its conference 18 times and never finished below sixth in the NCAA. It was all I-form with power runners and athletic running quarterbacks.

That all changed in 2004.

After a 7-7 2002 and 10-3 2003, Bill Callahan was installed as head coach, partially with the goal of doing away with the option attack and “modernizing” the offense. He brought in a complex West Coast scheme that was the antithesis of the old attack.

Early on there were problems. The roster was not in any way built Callahan’s offense and struggled early. Quarterback Joe Dailey’s throwing motion was uncomfortable and unsightly to behold (awkward like your drunk friend trying to pick someone up at the bar purely fueled by liquid courage).

Needless to say Nebraska fell from college football’s top echelon, going a meek 27-22 under Callahan. The passing game did eventually get going, finishing No. 7 nationally in 2007, but the new “modern” Cornuskers were unbearably average.

The world got to see the 17 best passing days in school history between 2004 and 2008. The four best passing seasons also came in that span. Without team success it wasn’t worth much.

Elsewhere in college football, however, the real “modern” prolific rushing attack was coming into fashion.

At West Virginia Rich Rodriguez had put together a run-heavy spread option attack that piled up the rushing yards. It ran out of the shotgun formation and spread the field with multiple receivers, but relied on zone-read and option plays.

Athletic quarterbacks produced big plays on the ground and each year the Mountaineers had more than, often far more than, 3000 yards rushing. In Rodriguez’s final six years there his teams ran on at least 69 percent of their plays.

Other spreads also came up, but one columnist mused that the West Virginia brand of football was the logical successor to old Nebraska offense. He was right.

After Callahan was fired in 2007 the ‘Huskers began moving toward some sort of spread offense (though they oddly kept Shawn Watson, the offensive coordinator Callahan brought in). The first year saw Joe Gantz throw for 3500 yards, the second saw the offense bottom out under the direction of Zac Lee. The run emphasis was returning, but the yards per game ranking sat at 99th in the country.

Then came the addition of Martinez, who last year was a scout team signal caller. An offense that last year was slightly unsure of its identity now has one. This year the ‘Huskers are running on 73 percent of their plays and gaining just under 500 yards a game.

The production is coming from a pair of halfbacks, Roy Helu Jr. and Rex Burkhead, and Martinez. All are averaging better than 6.9 yards per carry and Martinez is at an absurd 10.8.

The old school game plan is back. Cornhusker football in turn has returned to national title contention. It only makes sense that a school with the tradition of Nebraska should return to its traditional sensibilities.

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Umm… so that happened

The Los Angeles Lakers, champions of the NBA and probably still the best team in the world, lost to F.C. Barcelona? Really?

I guess it did happen, if this is to be believed:

Yeah, Nuts.

Now this game doesn’t exactly mean anything because it’s the preseason (cue the 49ers’ undefeated preseason parade down Market Street) but it can’t be a good thing. Some will point out that Kobe only played 25 minutes, but that just means that the Lakers lost to what is in essence a minor league team (albeit a very good one) with their best player out there for 25 minutes. Pau played 36 minutes, Odom played over 40. It wasn’t even like they emptied the bench. The minute distribution looked much closer to a regular game than a preseason one.

Had Barcelona unleashed a great shooting game, this might not stand out as much. But the visitors shot under 40 percent with top scorer Juan Carlos Navarro going 7-for-21 (Ricky Rubio was terrible by the way). The Lakers responded with a dreadful shooting night from the bench or Kobe going a tidy 2-for-15 in those 25 minutes. Even with that LA lead by 11 at one point in the third and even then they somehow lost.

I admittedly turned the game off because, really, what Euroleague team of mounting a comeback against the best non-national basketball team on the planet? It might be an understatement to say that the Lakers only had the four best players in the game.

Credit goes to Barcelona for an absurd level of quality depth. Their bench is full of players that would be on the fringes of NBA rosters and rotations. That shouldn’t mean beating the NBA champs, but it’s impressive nonetheless.

Good day for Laker haters all around.

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Not so tiny Tim

Giants:1 Braves:0

In the offseason Tim Lincecum may need to look into some kind of employment with FedEx… because in his first playoff start the kid delivered.

Yeah the numbers are pretty great, but there was something more about the way he was pitching (screw that, the numbers were freaking awesome, two hits, one walk, 14 strikeouts, a game score of 96 which would rank as the third-best individual game of the year).

There was a sense from the first three innings on that Lincecum simply would not give up a run. Sure he gave up a double to the first batter he faced. Sure Brian McCann got as far as third in the seventh before Matt Diaz flied out for the final inning. It didn’t matter.

Just as the game ended the television commentators pointed out that just one hanging pitch could have put the Braves into the game and the game into extra innings. But that really wasn’t the point.

The point is that in a game where any pitch could have been the difference Lincecum was the ace, stopper or whatever cliché term you want to throw in. He never threw the pitch that could have been the difference, mowing down the Braves inning after inning.

Based on the game score metric this was the best start in Timmy’s career and what a moment to have it.

He looked very good throughout September, just a shade below vintage dominant Lincecum. In august he was one of the worst pitchers in the league (7.82 ERA… Ouch), but damn what a game.

At the end of the eighth it seemed like they might be ready to pull him. Tim was 105 pitches in and Bochy is always fond of going to the bullpen. Instead we saw a shot of the forlorn empty pen and Lincecum tearing off the jacket to go for the complete game.

All he did was drop the last two hitters via strikeout… no big deal.

It was a truly epic performance and now it’s up to Matt Cain to match it (or come close to it, that would be good too) Friday night.

I’d be remiss if I did not mention the iffy 4th inning call that kept Buster Posey safe and allowed him to be the Giant’s only run. Aright it wasn’t so much iffy as completely incorrect.

Posey even admitted that he was happy on this night that there was no instant replay in baseball.

It’s strange to be on the right side of a bad call that absolutely played a role in deciding the game (especially in baseball as compared to the whined about bad calls of basketball/football). There is a tinge of illegitimacy to the win and to my own enjoyment of the game.

And in the end I don’t care.

Maybe it’s petty and selfish and perhaps if that went against the Giants I’d be going ballistic right now (probably not but you never know). Right now, however, basking in the glow of an amazing pitching performance and a game that the team I follow surviving it’s postseason opener.

There could come a time in the offseason when I have to reference this as a reason why baseball NEEDS replay, throwing a team I grew up rooting for on the sacrificial alter for the greater good of the sport. A time where I intentionally sully this memory with reason or logic.

That time may come, but based on how I’m enjoying today, I doubt it will for a while.

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Giants playoff pre-game thoughts

-Postseason roster includes Aaron Rowand but not Zito. I disagree with this Rowand thing. He was terrible this year. He’s been a below average hitter as a Giant. Maybe he’s there for his defense, though that’s also pretty overrated (wait, he runs really hard into walls? Look at all that hustle and grit, he must be a good defensive player blah, blah blah). The point that someone is going to throw out there, a point that makes them deserve a slap across the face with a frying pan, is that Rowand brings “playoff experience.” This magical intangible supposedly transfers from mediocre vets to young players with, you know, actual talent. Nevermind that Rowand has exactly ONE postseason series with and OPS over .721. The numbers don’t say a lot of good things about Jose Guillen either, but his power and more competent bat make him mildly more appealing (avoiding his outfield work is a bit of a relief, I’ll admit). Keeping Zito away form this team was brilliant. He clearly won’t start and struggles out of the pen. Bochy goes 1 for 2 in this spot.


-Meeting an old friend. So Derek Lowe starts Game 1 against SF and this isn’t exactly a good thing (for the Giants anyway). He pitched in the NL West for four seasons as a Dodger and in the last four years, two with Atlanta and two in LA, has been a real mystery for the Giants. Lowe has owned them to the extent that in the worst of those four years Lowe still has a 2.57 ERA against the Orange and Black (that number fell to 2.38 in 2010 for what it’s worth). Throw in the whole super aggressive hitters against a sinkerballer and the SF bats may be pretty quiet tonight.

-Is this your first day? Coming down the stretch we’ve seen Tim Lincecum at times struggle to be his truly dominant self. He’d give up a couple runs in the opening innings, laboring early before finally locking down. And today that could be a problem. Look at yesterday’s slate of games. David Price gets jumped early, Edinson Volquez (often hurt but sill pretty solid) can’t get out of the second, Francisco Liriano cruses through five and chokes out in the sixth. That’s 3-for-3 in asskickings handed to young talented pitchers making their first postseason starts. With Timmy’s habitual early struggles, the opening innings will be a strong indicator of where his mind is at in dealing with the postseason.

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A sad state

In each on the Niners’ four losses, one play or moment stood out as emblematic of the sad sack affair the season has become. In the first it was a short touchdown pass, better placed by the aging, balding Matt Hasselbeck than any toss Alex Smith had on the day. The second saw Smith lead a game-tying drive that had “he’s finally getting this whole quarterback thing” written all over it, only to have Drew Brees make the event seem mundane with a game-winning march to answer. The enduring image against Kansas City was Mike Singletary franticly calling timeouts, urging his team to a meaningless touchdown in the waning seconds. It was an absurd spectacle while it was happening and every time you think back to it there is a sense that if you keep thinking hard enough perhaps the Singletary’s reasons for it can shine through. They never will.

But Saturday’s gaffe, Saturday’s sad little moment pushes the season to a whole new level.

Nate Clements fumbled interception return was simply ridiculous and embarrassing. He should have secured the ball, probably should have simply gotten down or stepped out of bounds. The score would do less than simply having possession (the Falcons would have got the ball back with all three timeouts in a one-score game). Instead Clements becomes a symbol for this team that can’t get out of its own way and alternates humiliating blowouts to average opponents and gallant performances undone in the waning moments.

It all leads back to the main lesson of this first month of the NFL: we were tricked by this 49er team. Every mechanism of their expected ascendance to the playoffs only made sense if you ignored reality and softened the edges so the picture looked rosy.

To start, the main argument that the Niners would take their division rested on them staying mediocre or slightly improving and the other three teams simply falling apart from age and general terribleness (see last year’s Rams for that second part).

Every year there are surprises in the NFL and in this case the surprises did not have to show much. St. Louis looked decent, the Cardinals managed to win games and even cobbled together Seahawks have shown life.

The Niners on the other hand are struggling defensively (falling from fourth to 27 in points allowed) and the offense is looking as bad as ever.

It starts, as it always does, with one Alex Smith. Many arguments have been thrown out defending the man, pointing out that quarterbacks always get more than their share of blame for losses and that Smith needs help from everyone around him. But this points to the real problem.

Smith needs a lot of help from strong receivers, runners and defenses all so his team can be mediocre.

Sure he looked solid at the end of last year, but the kid has always been a top pick with limited skills. His play still reflects the Urban Meyer spread offense he ran in college, with its rollouts, improvised throws and simplified decisions (at times he weirdly resembles Tim Tebow freelancing outside the pocket). In the NFL that won’t work and it really won’t work when Smith is inaccurate.

In four games he has seven picks, and four of those picks were tipped balls. Some would blame receivers, bit it ain’t easy to catch passes that are too high or rocketed at the shoulder of a target. Throw in Smith’s odd penchant for rolling into open space and trying to hit receivers who haven’t turned back to the ball and he is what he’s always been; a passer with a 68.9 rating who throws check downs too quickly and has little hope of ever leading a successful team.

We sort of ignored this in the offseason. Imagining that a second year under Jimmy Raye would make him something he wasn’t: good.

Instead Raye was tinkering with an absurdly simplistic offense that suffered from a split personality due to the presence of Smith and Frank Gore.

Singletary wanted Gore as a workhorse and encouraged a gameplan that featured plenty of runs from the power-I formation aimed between the Niner offensive tackles. Gore is averaging 2.7 yards per carry out of the I-formation. He is averaging 3.3 ypc on runs up the middle with a long of eight (and those runs have accounted for nearly half his carries).

This would be a surprise if the 49er ground game had been constantly prolific in past years with Gore, but it wasn’t. Since 2007 it has not ranked better than 25th in yards or 11th in average per run.

This was all ignored. The fact that Smith is only comfortable in a spread and Gore needs to run out of a conventional set was put out of mind. The fanbase let itself believe the problems would just disappear and the head coach’s boisterous confidence just fed it.

Even today Singletary told the KNBR morning show his team was “Excited” and “Ready to roll.”

But the reality of 0-4 and all those crushing moment has come down pretty hard. That’s the problem with letting yourself get tricked, you feel pretty stupid afterwards.

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