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Giants 2013: Brandon Belt, Sandoval And The Final Days Of Barry Zito

(originally written 8/13/13)

All season long, through the early good times and the recent bad-to-terrible times, I've implored San Francisco Giants fans—loyal and capricious alike—to stay on the ship. There is no worse non-criminal life form than the bandwagon fan—but the raging, pessimistic fan ranks a close second. (I call them "Quaids." If you've seen the old Charlie Sheen movie Major League, you get the reference. But I'm not here to talk about the past.)

Even ardent fans will eventually reach a point of attrition, given enough exposure to shoddy, uninspired play unworthy of fan support. I reached mine when the Giants blew three winnable home games against a lousy Chicago Cubs team two weeks ago. Not because the Giants were losing—I'd never turn my back on my teams strictly based on losses. 

It was how they were losing. Walks, baserunning blunders, repeated failures to bring home men from second base with zero out—I wasn't watching what I felt was major league baseball. I think most fans can tolerate (not accept) losing to a degree if the team is focused, playing hard, playing smart and aware of the situations they're presented with. For a while, the Giants came up way short in all but the effort categories.

Since that Cubs debacle, San Francisco has played better—though far from superlative—baseball (not that it could have gotten much worse, but still). 

They kicked off a six-game trip taking two-of-three from the Philadelphia Phillies. Granted, it was a Phillies team minus Domonic Brown, Ryan Howard, Roy Halladay and Cliff Lee (with Lee rumored to be held out of action as a 7/31 trade candidate, though he was officially resting a "stiff neck" as reported by CBS Sports' Mike Axisa). One could argue the latter trio's absence as addition by subtraction when you recall how SF schooled them in the 2010 playoffs, however.

On that trip, Brandon Belt got his swing back. All it took was a minor grip adjustment and some pressure by a rejuvenated Brett Pill to unleash the player who tore through the Pacific Coast and Arizona Fall Leagues, as well as the 2013 Cactus League.
After being benched in Philly, Belt went a hard 3-for-4 with a homer at Tampa in his return to the starting lineup. He next lit up the Brewers and Orioles in San Francisco to the tune of 11-for-25—many to the long-ignored opposite field—with two home runs, three doubles (all smoked) and five RBI. In fact, Belt has driven in five of the Giants' past 11 runs and (excluding the two homers) scored three others.

Matt Cain and Tim Lincecum both re-discovered their ace stuff; in fact, as a whole, the entire starting staff has been dealing as of late. Since July 30 (Barry Zito's final start to date), The Freak and friends have thrown six or more innings in 10 of 12 starts and allowed a composite 20 runs in those 12 starts.

For their efforts, Giants starters own only a 4-2 record over that period—while they're not being saddled with an excess of undeserved losses, they're not being rewarded with enough wins (although the G'Men did a great job salvaging Cain's eight strong innings with a late comeback off Philadelphia's Jon Papelbon August 1.)

Though he's fallen into a slump, Panda Sandoval continues to exercise better selectivity at the plate ever since his embarrassing flail at a pitch that went through his legs on July 3 at Cincy. Sandoval is never going to be Ted Williams or Barry Bonds in terms of condensing the strike zone, and no one is asking him to be. The guy can beat a "bad" ball with the best of 'em—Pablo's productivity would suffer if his approach turned passive.

That said, not even he can do anything with a pitch headed straight for him—or a pitch thrown 58 feet. Or a pitch closer to a pitchout than a strike. Sandoval's cold right now, but for the most part, he's getting off good swings and not getting himself out—unlike his June cold snap coming off the injured list.

Some of Sandoval's more impressive "takes" of late include:                

  • a nasty 0-2 changeup from Phillie Antonio Bastardo on July 30 

  • a tempting Wily Peralta (Brewers) 2-2 curve on August 6

  • two back-foot breaking balls (from Milwaukee's Jon Hand August 8 and Baltimore's Bud Norris August 11, respectively) nearly identical to the July 3 leg-splitter

  • ...among others he would usually pounce on.

Those unfamiliar with Sandoval won't be impressed at a sixth-year major league hitter exercising dish discipline on its face, but what you must understand: Panda laying off dirt-dusters and third-eye heaters is no different than a crook returning a dropped wallet to the police station fully intact—it goes against everything that comes naturally to him. This is what makes Pablo's batting slump so mystifying, but I'm confident he'll wrap 2013 strong.

Zito predictably lost his rotation spot after the aforementioned loss in Philadelphia that left him with the following home/road splits (as a starter): 4-1. 2.45 ERA/0-7, 9.50 ERA (with a WHIP approaching 2.4, twice that of his home WHIP). And that doesn't even include the eight road unearned runs.

This is the final year of Zito's infamous seven-year contract; even with up to three rotation holes to fill at season's end, there's just no way a 36-year-old Zito with his 83-mph-and-dipping "fastball" returns in '14 even on a Triple-A deal. I've defended and supported Zito for years, but even I have to admit that at this point...I'm not sure he's a MLB pitcher anymore.

His curve is still filthy. His slider and changeup can be effective. But his command has never been worse, which is saying something since even in his outstanding Oakland years, Zito routinely finished among league leaders in walks and ran up high pitch counts. When going well, Zito can often escape jams and hitter's counts with one of his off-speed pitches. When he can't command're left with June-August 2013.

True, he's had effective starts this year. So did Jamie Moyer in 2012. So did David Wells in 2007. So did Kirk Rueter in 2005.
Given the contempt in which Giants fans held the under-performing Zito in the first half of his tenure and how he earned their respect (if not admiration) with two clutch playoff starts in 2012, it's fair to say Giants fans—at least the more astute ones—pulled for Barry to turn in a decent year on his way out of town, and for a while he obliged.

Unfortunately, it doesn't appear he will go out strong, but Zito's contribution to the 2012 champs along with his work ethic, stand-up attitude and exemplary representation of the Orange and Black inside and outside the lines over these last seven years should be loudly acknowledged at any future reunions.
After a much-needed off-day, the Giants take on a Nationals team that's arguably the only one more disappointing than they in 2013. Though a combined 16 games under .500 and 29.5 games out of first place, these franchises do have something to play for. The star-studded series should be entertaining if nothing else. Thanks for reading and go, Giants!

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