Kings of the West

Yep, that was pretty fantastic.

Just when the Giants dropped down to the brink of pathetic humiliation they find a way to pull themselves back. It really was a perfect way to end the sheer insanity that has been San Francisco’s resurgence.

3-0, Giants over Padres, division title, that’s a wrap.

On August 25 the Giants trailed in the West by 6.5 games. They were chasing the team that did everything right, scored when it needed to and seemed to be nothing if not constant. Then the Padres did everything wrong and the Giants made it work for them.

The hero for the day easily was Jonathan Sanchez. Sure the five shutout innings were nice, but his biggest play came at the plate. His unreal third-inning triple led to the only run the Giants would need and the bullpen added four of the dominant innings we’ve come to expect from them.

Padres starter Matt Latos should be content that every Giant who played a role in scoring on him was part of the organization on opening day. No added players here. Hopefully he can be content with that while he’s not playing baseball for the rest of October.

Looking over Sanchez’s season it was really, really excellent. Perhaps underratedly excellent. He led the NL in hits per nine innings and ranked in the top 20 in WHIP despite the most walks allowed in the majors.

There were a number of spots when it was rumored that the team was considering offering him up as trade bait. In the end he finished with a better ERA than Cain or Lincecum and had the second best mark in the rotation. That says a lot.

There was some tension in the late innings, when there were two Padres on base in both the 6th and 7th. The final out came as a relief that the Giants didn’t blow it and that the celebration, which had uncomfortably put on hold for two days, could finally commence.

In its first postseason trip since 2003 San Francisco draws the Braves. Not exactly an ideal matchup, but at least it’s not the Phillies. Their lineup has been weakened by injuries, including season-enders for Chipper Jones, Martin Prado, but the top four guys are still quite formidable (Derrek Lee is their third hitter via a midseason trade, a fact that would probably send Matt Latos into a crying fit. As he said, his Padres were the same team all year… the same team that couldn’t hit to save their lives all year).

What’s really scary is the Braves rotation anchored by Tim Hudson and his absurd sub-3.00 ERA. Some combination of Derek Lowe, Tommy Hanson and Jair Jurrjens will come after Hudson and pave the way for an excellent bullpen.

For now San Francisco fans should rejoice in this moment. Their team, with its suchered together lineup and dominant collection of arms, delivered on its promise and delivered shot at baseball’s highest prize.

Not much else a fanbase can ask for.

49ers analysis to come tomorrow. No need to mar a great day like this with mention of a performance that sad.

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The realization of our fears

Coming into the weekend series against San Diego most Giants fans should have been feeling pretty good. To go to the playoffs all they needed was one win. Doesn’t seem that hard.

In the back of the mind lingered one massive worry: wow, if they blow this it will not only be depressing, but also humiliating and crushing.

In fact, the Giants at that point could only have blown it by losing four straight (a series sweep and the one game playoff) or five straight if the Braves happened to win one of their three games.

The team even switched up the rotation, moving the dominant workhorse, Matt Cain, ahead a game and dropping the overpaid black sheep, Barry Zito, back a day.*

*Seriously, how much must it suck to be the highest paid guy on the team and get bumped back in the hopes that your start will have no meaning for your playoff hopes?

But really, it shouldn’t have been that hard to take one of the first two games and make it easy? Right?

Right?

Not for these Giants. Matt Cain came out and threw his second worst start of the season (by game score at least). Six runs in four innings. He was abysmal. Big Daddy Cain was a dud.

Then came this stupid romantic idea. What if Zito came in and got his redemption? What if he performed in his biggest start as a Giant and used his anger at getting pushed back to power a sterling performance? That would be a wonderful story.

Why this made sense I’m not sure. It ignored everything we knew about Zito during his San Francisco career. He’s almost never good, frequently loses his control and this year carried an ERA of 5.40 against the Padres.

But people wanted to believe. That faith was rewarded with two runs walked in during the first inning and a sterling nine-out, nine-baserunner performance. The lesson here is to not believe in anything.

Now we finally arrive to this one moment that could make it all better or push this final weekend to a new level of pathetic.

Jonathan Sanchez, who has a 2.59 ERA against San Diego, gets the last call. It should be noted that he guaranteed a mid-August sweep of those same Padres, only to turn in a mediocre start in the opener (the Giants lost that game and the series).

He faces Matt Latos who for some peculiar reason chose to run his mouth about how the Giants were constantly adding players during the season.*

*Can Mr. Latos tell us why this is bad exactly? Teams that don’t have good hitters or relievers should generally correct the problem. If the Padres were all one cohesive unit, not constructed from other teams’ refuse, why did they suddenly forget how to win for a stretch? If they even played decent ball in late August/early September this series wouldn’t matter.

We could see Sanchez fill the role of the next Salomon Torres (who imploded on the final day of the 1993 season, costing SF a chance at the playoffs) while the bats the bats go cold. Maybe he’ll keep his control and finally deliver what nervous Giants fans have been anxiously waiting for.

Then again, perhaps it won’t matter. If the Brave lose to Philadelphia in the early game the Giants are in, no sweat.

With the way the last two days have gone, don’t hold your breath.

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What We Learned: Wisconsin vs. Michigan State

Final Score: MSU 34 UW 24

-Early in the season Bret Bielema mentioned how his team needed to learn resiliency (Copyright: Coach’s Cliché Buzzword Inc.). Michigan State was more resilient. The Badgers had something going early but the Spartans snapped back to pull ahead and held the Badgers off, meeting every push to get back in the game with equal and opposite force.

-Wisconsin’s defense is sorta ok. So they seem to give up a lot of rushing yards, secondary coverage can be a problem and their blitz packages just got abused (ASPCA will be starting a campaign in defense of said blitz packages). The pass rush got some timely sacks, a nice goal line stop and was good at catching turnovers it didn’t exactly force. Some nice moments wrapped in a thick blanked of ugly play.

-Problem area… special teams. STOP LETTING PEOPLE RUN 70+ YARDS STRAIGHT THROUGH COVERAGE TEAMS!

-Linebackers and tackling are an issue. How many times can D-Linemen get right into the play or get two hands on the quarterback and still let the play get past them? The answer, it turns out, is many, many times. When linebackers got penetration they also had issues finishing the plays but play-action was their main concern. Michigan State was excellent when they faked the run as the Badger ‘backers constantly got caught up in traffic. MSU made a number of big gains on play-action, including its last two TDs (though the second was more the result of a great throw from Cousins).

-Nick Toon not ready for the prime time that is a 3:30 game. Dropped two early passes. Got a penalty blocking. Didn’t catch a pass until the game was all but out of reach. He, along with Isaac Anderson’s early drop and good MSU pressure, earn a lot of credit for Scott Tolzien’s turrible game (10-24 for 113 yards, 1TD).

-Meet the next big thing in the Wisconsin backfield. Last year the fifth game saw Zach Brown fall out of favor with a five carry, one fumble that was scooped for a touchdown day. It set the tone for Brown’s near disappearance from the offense. This fifth game saw James White come just short of 100 yards on 10 carries with a pair outside runs for touchdowns. Beating up on Austin Peay was one thing; doing against a Big Ten defense is another altogether. Look for him to get even more carries after outperforming John Clay (17 carries 80 yards). Note: this game was also reminiscent of the fourth game of 2008 against Michigan, when Clay flashed what he could become with 51 yards and a score on three carries. After that game many fans furiously wondered why he didn’t get the ball more. In the coming week that same question will be asked about White.

-Anyone who watched the first four games knew there was a chance Wisconsin might be though of too highly as a top-11 team (that chance should have been around, oh, 100 percent, but some loonies always keep it from perfection). The Badgers probably played better in many senses than they did against Arizona State or even San Jose State, but MSU was still the best team on the field. The question now quickly turns to bouncing back. It has been four straight seasons that the Badgers’ first defeat was immediately followed by a second one. Recovering against a team like Minnesota shouldn’t be too much of an issue, but if it is, the call for Bielema’s head will grow louder.

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The Power of Three and the Pennant Race

Three… this irksome little number.

As of this morning that’s the Giants’ magic number with four games left. All I can do is stare blankly at the standings, projecting different results and pondering pitching matchups until my eyes hurt.

Writers always use little kids as the barometer for the emotional highs and lows of sports, especially baseball. They cry when the team loses a big game. They get absurdly ecstatic after a single win. But in the end they are subject to the moment and that is why they are not a barometer for anything.

As an adult, experience forces me to take the long view. I’m stuck understanding how every single moment could toss me and everyone else following the Giants into a chasm of disappointment. Those standings are always in the back of my head, brain churning though permutations of wins and loses. Whenever they go down early (like they did Wednesday and Tuesday), the mind inevitably hones in on the worst case scenario.

“If the Padres win what’s next? How well do they need to do in the final series? Why can’t the best pitcher on the team just go out and PUT OUR MINDS AT EASE?”

And that’s just after two innings when Lincecum labored and the Giant bats looked cold.

This is real pennant race baseball; getting mad at every turn, fretting over bloop hits or long fly outs and sweating the small things.

And when the game ends and the Giants win, there’s so little emotional payoff. Each night the only thing coming is the relief of an opponent kept at bay, and the fear that it will all come apart tomorrow.

I don’t recall feeling this way back in the early 2000s when the A’s and Giants were actually relevant in late September. Maybe I was too young to know better. Maybe years of watching sports have jaded me or made me a realist, two near-identical terms that only differ in one’s perspective.

For now, however, that magic number of three still looms large, a big feat for such a small numeral.

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An Intro

An intro

Welcome to The Odd Man Rush, a place to find thoughts on Bay Area sports, the Wisconsin Badgers or whatever topic captures my interest at the moment. I’m Ben Breiner, a recent college graduate and aspiring sports writer. The last five years were spent in Wisconsin, learning the ways of the Midwest, but home will always be Berkeley (that is until I move, I guess). Anyway, hopefully anyone who finds this enjoys the forthcoming rants and “insights.”

… Yes we’ll miscast them as insights for now.

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