Sunday, August 30, 2015

Dodgers take a Double Scoop of No

For the second time in nine days, the Los Angeles Dodgers have been no-hit. After having a no-hitter thrown against them in a 3-0 loss to the Houston Astros on August 21, Dodgers manager Don Mattingly watched from the dugout on Sunday as his club logged the shortest span for a team being no-hit in 92 years when the Cubs repeated the feat. 

The first pitcher to victimize the first-place Dodgers was Mike Fiers who was dealt by the Milwaukee Brewers at the non-waiver trade deadline and acquired by the Houston Astros. Having entered the game seeking his first career complete game, in his third start with his new club, the 30-year old Fiers would achieve so much more by the end of the night. Needing 134-pitches, Fiers got his first complete game and then some, striking out 10 batters and walking 3 while becoming the first pitcher to throw a no-no after being traded that season since Jim Bibby in 1973. It would be the Astros' first no-hitter since a combined no-no in 2003 against the Yankees in New York and first individual no-hitter since the late Darryl Kile stymied the Mets in the old Astrodome in 1993. The masterful outing which earned Fiers AL Player of the Week honors, was the 11th no-hitter in franchise history and first in the 16-year history of Houston's Minute Maid Park.
In what's been a remarkable season for the Astros who virtually opened the season in first place in the AL West and haven't looked back, Fiers' performance added to the excitement as Houston tries to hang onto its playoff spot with baseball entering its last full calendar month of the regular season. 

On Sunday, however, the Dodgers fell victim to a whole different animal in Cubs righty Jake Arrieta. Unlike Fiers who's had an up and down season spent between two clubs, Arrieta has been one of the best pitchers in all of baseball since the All-Star break having logged 14 consecutive quality starts. And in Tinsletown, Arrieta took to the mound and delivered a performance fit for the Oscars. Having dominated the entire month of August, Arrieta showcased his best stuff yet on Sunday, striking out 12 Dodger hitters while allowing only two base runners all evening in the 2-0 victory. A walk and an error by Cubbies shortstop Starlin Castro would be the only blemish on an otherwise perfect night for the Chicago right-hander. For what it's worth, Arrieta, who boasts an ERA of 2.11 on the season, has held the opposition hit-less thru the first five innings in seven of his 18 starts in 2015. But on Sunday, he would go the distance by twirling the sixth no-hitter of the 2015 season and becoming the first Cubs pitcher to toss a no-hitter since Carlos Zambrano who made history by blanking the Astros in a game played at Milwaukee's Miller Park on September 14, 2008.
Heading into the ninth inning needing only three outs, Arrieta went out in style by striking out the side to put the finishing touches on his historic night as he improved to a perfect record of 6-0 in the month of August, while tallying his Major League-leading 17th win of the season which seems like a far cry from the forgetful seasons Arrieta spent with the Baltimore Orioles. And for the first time since 2008 the Chicago Cubs (74-55) are on the cusp of a playoff berth, currently holding the second NL Wild Card spot with a 5.5-game cushion on top of the defending-champion San Francisco Giants. A lot of that has to do with the impressive second half to the season Arrieta has been able to put together. If he can keep it up, don't be surprised if his name's in the final running for the NL Cy Young Award. 

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Wednesday, August 12, 2015

M's Iwakuma carves up O's with No-No

While Seattle Mariners fans haven't had a whole lot to cheer about this season after heading into 2015 with high hopes following the signing of free agent slugger Nelson Cruz, on Wednesday, 34-year old Hisashi Iwakuma gave them something to celebrate. With the Baltimore Orioles in town, Iwakuma entered the afternoon seeking his first career complete game in the states after recording 48 of them in Japan's Nippon Professional League. He would end up walking off the mound with an even greater accomplishment by pitching his team to victory and tossing a no-hitter in the process.

With the last 12 no-hitters being thrown by pitchers in the National League prior to Wednesday, Iwakuma put an end to that streak by becoming the first American Leaguer to toss a no-no since his Seattle teammate Felix Hernandez who twirled a perfect game back in 2012. Having endured a rough 2015 which saw the Japanese right-hander struggle before serving time on the disabled-list with a strained lat muscle as well as time on the trading block, Iwakuma put all that behind him on this day by returning to form in front of a Safeco Field crowd of more than 25,000 in attendance. Those who were there got to witness not only the fifth no-hitter in Mariners franchise history but only the second Japanese born hurler in Major League history to complete a no-no, joining Hideo Nomo who accomplished the feat twice as both a member of the Los Angeles Dodgers and later on with the Boston Red Sox. Iwakuma, who was named to the AL All-Star team in 2013, needed 116-pitches to etch his name into the history books while striking out 7 Oriole hitters and walking 3. 
Iwakuma's masterful performance was the fourth no-hitter this season following no-no's by Chris Heston of the Giants, Max Scherzer of the Nationals and Cole Hamels who threw his as a member of the Phillies before being traded less than a week later to the Rangers. Currently in a contract year and able to hit the free-agent market in the offseason, Iwakuma dug deep into his bag of tricks to remind us of the dominant pitcher who logged an impressive 2.66 ERA over 33 starts in 2013. Whether or not he'll be back on the mound in a Mariners uniform next season as the Seattle ball club remains in fourth place in the AL West at 54-61 overall following the 3-0 victory on Wednesday, Iwakuma definitely helped his stock a bit going forward. 

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Monday, August 10, 2015

49ers' Smith Released following latest Arrest

Just when you thought the 49ers' tumultuous offseason couldn't get any worse following the retirements of multiple payers and a handful of key cogs lost to free agency which practically gutted the franchise, the team was dealt yet another crushing blow over the weekend. With preseason football on the horizon for the San Francisco 49ers, the team was left with no other option but to release one of their brightest young talents following the arrest of Pro Bowl linebacker Aldon Smith. Smith, a player with tremendous talent but a knack for running into trouble, had his fifth run in with the law since being drafted in 2011 when he was taken into custody by Santa Clara police on alleged DUI, hit and run and vandalism charges.

The incident which stemmed from a woman reportedly parking in Smith's parking space, fueled Smith's actions which resulted in his third DUI and fifth incident overall. Though Smith was interviewed after being released the following day from county jail where he claims he was not intoxicated during the incident, 49ers GM Trent Baalke and team owner Jed York had seen enough as the team decided to part ways with the troubled 25 year old. Neither Baalke nor York would speak in front of the media, however, as first year head coach Jim Tomsula would be the one called upon to speak at the podium and in front of a live press-conference where he announced the team's decision. Given the circumstances, the organization handled the incident as well as they could have, lending a helping hand as Tomsula let it be known that although he's no longer a member of the team, Smith will be helped and supported by the franchise along his journey to recovery, stating that Aldon, "will not have to walk this path alone," while encouraging others with similar issues to seek help.

For Smith, the incident comes several months after both parties agreed to restructure the former first round pick's contract in a way that he'd be paid on a game by game basis, betting on himself as a supposed changed man who would stay out of trouble. On Friday, those promises came crashing down on Smith and the Niners like a ton of bricks. Since 1982 when sacks became an official stat, Smith, who was drafted 7th overall out of Missouri, had accumulated the most sacks through the first two seasons to start a career with 33.5 sacks from 2011-12, 2.5 more than Hall of Famer Reggie White. As for Niners defensive coordinator Eric Mangini, his first year at the helm just got that much harder as he'll now be given the challenge of having to find a replacement for one of the game's best pass rushers. With everyone wondering who's the next guy in line to fill the void of Smith at outside linebacker, several potential candidates include rookie Eli Harold who was dubbed a steal in April's Draft with the 79th pick, third-year player Corey Lemonier and Aaron Lynch who dazzled in his rookie campaign last season.
Just when we thought it couldn't get any dumber than the airport incident which landed Aldon some jail time for allegedly stating to a TSA agent that he had a bomb, Smith goes berserk and loses it over a parking space. As much as his absence sets the team back, the truth remains -- he needed to be let go. 

Alongside the recently retired Justin Smith, Aldon shined in the Niners pass-rush as the two became one of the most formidable tandems in the league and were appropriately nicknamed the "Smith Brothers." With both Smith's now gone, the pass rush is one of the biggest areas of concern heading into the new season. Simply put, the 49ers franchise has been gutted and put on 'reset mode' since the end of the 2014 season which ended in disappointment following a third place finish in the NFC West at 8-8 and missing out on the playoffs for the first time since 2010. With many expecting the Niners to take an even bigger step back in 2015 even before the release of Aldon Smith, coach Tomsula and company has a tall order ahead of them as they look to quiet the critics and prove that the team is in reload mode rather than rebuild mode.

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Sunday, August 2, 2015

San Francisco Giants Month in Review - July

Following a roller coaster ride in June which featured plenty of ups and downs for the San Francisco Giants, the G-Men opened up the month of July like a team asleep at the wheel, losing their first seven games after being swept on the road by the Miami Marlins and Washington Nationals before dropping two of three at home to the Mets. Having endured their second 7-game losing streak of the season, Giants manager Bruce Bochy called upon Matt Cain who pitched his team to victory in his second start of the season and first at home since August of last year as the former Giants ace hurled six shutout frames in a 3-0 win.

With a series against the visiting Phillies prior to baseball's Midsummer Classic, the Giants headed into the All-Star break with a bit of confidence and a three-game winning-streak following a three-game sweep of struggling Philadelphia. With a few days of rest and the return of Hunter Pence to the lineup, Bruce Bochy's ball club would begin playing their best ball of the season with a stretch of 13 wins in 15 games as the Giants turned up the heat in the NL Western Division standings and pulled within a 1/2 game of the rival Dodgers. Series wins against the D-Backs, Padres and Brewers as well as the first three-game sweep of their bay area rival Oakland A's for the first time at AT&T Park since 2011, would catapult the G-Men 11-games over .500 with a record of 56-45. In the series finale against the Athletics, Giants starter Tim Hudson joined an elite group of players by becoming only the 15th pitcher in MLB history to beat all 30 current teams following the 4-3 win, besting the team he broke onto the big league scene with in 1999 where he played six seasons.
Entering a weekend series against the Texas Rangers to close out the month of July and spring forward the month of August, the Giants headed into the lone star state as the hottest team in baseball before cooling down after splitting the first two games and eventually dropping the rubber match in the team's first visit to Arlington since the clinching Game 5 of the 2010 World Series. After allowing just 4 runs in his last three starts combined entering the weekend, Giants ace Madison Bumgarner was roughed up on the road in Texas. The Texas heat coupled with the power-driven offense of the Rangers made for a disastrous night on the mound as MadBum was touched for 6 earned runs in the contest. With the health of Tim Lincecum up in the air and the team unsure whether or not they'll see the 2-time Cy Young Award winner pitch again this season as he recovers from a degenerative condition in his hip which he was recently diagnosed with and has kept him on the shelf since June 27, Giants GM Brian Sabean was forced to dig into his bag of tricks.

Seeking some depth in the Giants rotation, the pitching staff got some much needed help from the front-office with the acquisition of right-handed pitcher Mike Leake from the Cincinnati Reds before Friday's trade deadline in exchange for Minor Leaguers Adam Duvall and Keury Mella. Making his Giants debut in the series finale against Texas, Leake, who becomes a free-agent following the season, pitched an impressive 6.1 innings while striking out 5 and yielding 8 hits, 2 walks and allowing only 2-runs on a home run by Josh Hamilton. However, Leake would suffer the loss as the Giants fell, 2-1. Leake came over in the trade owning a record of 9-5 on the year and an ERA of 3.56 in 21 starts as Cincy's no.2 man in the rotation, not bad for a guy pitching in Cincinnati's hitter-friendly Great American Ballpark. 

Overall, San Francisco finished 14-10 in the month of July and currently stand 2.5 games back of the Dodgers with a record of 57-47 as they get set to pay the Atlanta Braves a visit for a three-game set before closing their current road trip with four meetings at the friendly confines of Wrigley Field versus the Cubs. August will serve as a major test for the orange and black as 8 of the 9 remaining series' this month will be against contending teams (@ Cubs, vs Astros, vs Nationals, @ Cardinals, @ Pirates, vs Cubs, vs Cardinals and @ Dodgers) with the lone exception of the Braves. Let's just hope the Giants' emotional leader in Hunter Pence can stay healthy as the team sports a record of 27-11 with him in the line-up this season opposed to 30-36 without him.

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Sunday, July 26, 2015

Hamels hammers Cubs, Twirls No-Hitter

Prior to Saturday, you'd have to go back some 7,920 games to witness the last no-hitter tossed at Chicago's historic Wrigley Field when Cubs pitcher Milt Pappas twirled one on September 2, 1972. With the Philadelphia Phillies in town, sporting the worst record in all of baseball, the Fightin's threw their best pitcher on the mound in lefty ace Cole Hamels. Granted Hamels was seeking his first win since May 23 and the Cubbies had gone a span of 49 years without being no-hit, the odds of the Philadelphia southpaw delivering a no-no were incredibly stacked against him, as if they aren't to begin with for any pitcher on any given day. And with a nine-game win-less streak under his belt entering Saturday's game, the 3-time All-Star and former World Series MVP made sure that mark would fall short of reaching double-digits.

With trade rumors all we've heard of regarding the Phillies ace over the past few months and even dating back to last season's trade deadline, Hamels' name was finally mentioned in a positive light as he made history by tossing the 13th no-hitter in franchise history and first since a combined no-hitter last season, which coincidentally, Hamels started. But instead of throwing six hit-less innings like he did in last season's combined no-no before handing it off to relievers Jake Diekman, Ken Giles and Jonathan Papelbon to finish it off, Hamels was a one-man-show on Saturday. Hamels finished with 13 strikeouts on the afternoon and saw his only blemish come in the form of a pair of walks allowed in Philadelphia's 5-0 win. Though Hamels' gem was the third no-hitter thrown this season behind the Giants' Chris Heston and Washington's Max Scherzer, it's without a doubt the most impressive out of the bunch. For what it's worth, Hamels even out-hit the opposition on Saturday when he laced an 8th inning double, becoming just the fifth pitcher in Major League history with both a solo no-hitter and combined no-no on his resume.
Two individuals who are no stranger to witnessing the no-hitter is Cubs skipper Joe Maddon who has now been on the receiving end of five no-hitters while watching one of his own pitchers throw one, and Phillies catcher Carlos Ruiz who has caught a few. For Ruiz, Saturday's feat was his fourth no-hitter while behind the plate (all with the Phillies) which sets a new National League record and ties Boston's Jason Varitek for the most no-hitters caught in Major League history. Before Hamels took to the mound on Saturday, the you'd have to turn the calendar all the way back to August 19, 1965 when the Cubbies were last held hit-less, a 49 year drought which is the longest in MLB history for any ball club. And with the MLB trade deadline looming and multiple teams looking to make a move to bolster their pitching staff, the question of whether or not we've seen Hamels' last outing in a Phillies uniform comes into play. If he is dealt, he would become just the third pitcher to ever be traded in the same season in which he notched a no-hitter, and what a farewell it would be to the city of Brotherly Love. 

With the Rangers and Dodgers currently leading the pack in those looking to acquire Hamels' services, the Giants, Yankees and Cubs are also rumored to be in the Cole Hamels sweepstakes. Three years removed from signing what was the second-largest contract ever by a pitcher, $144 Million over six-years, a trade involving Hamels could be the start of a Philadelphia fire sale.

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Sunday, July 19, 2015

The Price of Winning

As we learned on Friday, for some people, money isn't everything. At least not to 13-year NBA veteran David West who elected to ditch a hefty payday for a better chance at hoisting a Larry O'Brien trophy. With a $12 Million dollar player-option to re-sign with the Indiana Pacers, West instead chose to sign with the San Antonio Spurs for the veteran minimum of $1.4 Million, leaving more than $10 Million on the table to head west. West, a former AP Player of the Year while attending Xavier University and 2-time All-Star while a member of the New Orleans Hornets where he spent the first 8 years of his career before signing with Indiana in 2011, averaged 11.7 points and 6.8 rebounds with the Pacers a season ago.

Facing the twilight of his career and having earned over $50 Million dollars in contracts, West can ill-afford another unsuccessful season at the age of 34 and has reached the point in his career where the cost of winning far outweighs the amount of dollar signs. Just two years removed from an appearance in the Eastern Conference Finals with the Indiana Pacers who nearly took the defending NBA Champion Miami Heat to the brink of elimination in a deciding Game 7 which Indiana went on to lose, the Pacers figured to be the next up and coming team in the east. But over the course of the next few months, the state of Indiana basketball would be altered when the team's star player Paul George suffered a freak injury in a U.S.A. Men's Basketball scrimmage which left George with a compound fracture in his right leg and the Pacers on the outside looking in on the 2014-15 playoff picture. What was once touted to be a true title contender for many years to come, was instead put on hold with George's playing career in question.
With the uncertainty regarding the future of the Pacers franchise depending on the health of its star player and a question mark hovering over whether or not the team would ever be as good as they were in 2013-14, West's decision was made a bit easier. What may come off as a head-scratcher for many, just might end up being a good decision that pays dividends given the Spurs also landed the most coveted piece in all of free-agency when 4-time All-Star LaMarcus Aldridge agreed to a four-year, $80 Million dollar deal with the Spurs. With San Antonio's roster aging but still very much a threat in the west prior to Aldridge's signing, the acquisition of the big man and Texas alum automatically catapults the Spurs back to the top of the Western Conference alongside the reigning NBA Champion Golden State Warriors. While money is certainly something that West left on the table, it isn't the only thing as him signing with the Spurs also means he'll have to accept a lesser role by coming off the bench and no longer starting like he's grown accustomed to throughout his NBA career. Another decision that may come off as questionable to some but could be one that benefits West and prolongs his career in the long run.

Whatever role it is that coach Greg Popovich chooses for his newest acquisition, it'll be one that best compliments his talents as West provides a much needed toughness that the Spurs have lacked.

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Wednesday, July 1, 2015

San Francisco Giants Month in Review - June

After a historic month of May for the San Francisco Giants which briefly saw the team make the jump from worst to first, the reigning World Series champions got off to a sluggish start in the month of June by getting swept at the hands of the Pittsburgh Pirates at AT&T Park. With the three game sweep, the Giants would endure their second five-game losing-streak of the season before hitting the road and winning four of six versus the Philadelphia Phillies and New York Mets respectively, failing to complete the sweep both times in the series finale. But just as their impressive mark while on the road continued which ranked tops in the NL, their woes at home also showed no signs of slowing.

Following a three-game series versus the Arizona Diamondbacks which ended in a sweep, the Giants saw their first 8-game skid at home sine September of 1993. With a loss the following day to the visiting Seattle Mariners, the Giants' home losing skid hit nine games. It would be the franchise's first losing streak of its kind since 1940, long before they began calling San Francisco home. Thankfully, they would put an end to the dry spell the following day with a win over the Mariners to split the two-game set. The win also halted their third five-game losing streak of 2015. After splitting another pair of games on the road in Seattle, the Giants would claim three straight series victories against division rivals with the first coming in L.A. against the Dodgers and the latter two at home versus the Padres and Rockies, taking two of three in each series. 
With rookie pitcher Chris Heston hurling a no-hitter on the road against the Mets and the team paying a visit to the White House where they were congratulated for a third time during President Obama's presidency, June was without a doubt a busy month for the ball club. It wasn't all parties and celebrations in the month, however, as both Hunter Pence (wrist) and Nori Aoki (ankle) hit the disabled list with injuries, sapping the team's offensive production. While the outfield duo isn't expected to be on the shelf for much longer, they'll likely be joined on the DL by pitcher Tim Lincecum who was hit hard both figuratively and literally in his last outing against Colorado after allowing 3 earned runs in 1.2 innings and taking a line drive to the forearm which caused him to exit the game. Lincecum missing a period of time does however open the window for Matt Cain and Jake Peavy who will both be called up from Triple-A before the weekend.

Cain, who hasn't pitched since last August while dealing with a flexor tendon injury, will make his season debut Thursday on the road in Miami against Marlins ace Jose Fernandez who will also be making his 2015 debut. As for Peavy, he'll be making his first start since April 17 when he takes the mound in Washington against the red-hot Nationals who have won 9 of their last 10 games. Giants skipper Bruce Bochy is hoping the duo of Cain and Peavy can both be effective enough to the point where the team can approach July's trade deadline without needing another starting pitcher. With a record of 12-14 in June, the G-Men currently stand 1.5 games behind the archrival Dodgers in the NL West at 42-36 overall, thanks in large part to the sizzling numbers put up by catcher Buster Posey as of late. The All-Star hopeful who currently leads all NL catchers in All-Star voting, tallied 28 RBI's in the month of June alone, giving him 54 on the year. He also clubbed five Home Runs in the month, including a pair of Grand Slams. With Posey swinging a hot stick at the perfect time and the team less than two weeks away from the All-Star break, the Giants could very well find themselves atop the division at the midway point.

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Tuesday, June 9, 2015

Historical night for Giants Rookie

They don't call him Hesto Presto for nothing - So far in 2015, Giants rookie pitcher Chris Heston has been hit or miss. Tonight, he was all miss for the opposition. In only his 13th career start, the 27-year old would pitch his way into the history books with a dominant performance against the New York Mets. With injuries to pitchers Matt Cain and Jake Peavy prior to the start of the 2015 season, the Giants were left with a hole in their pitching rotation and question marks as to who would fill the void. With only 5.1 career innings pitched under his belt entering the season, the Giants went with Heston to solve their pitching woes for the time being. Heston was given the opportunity and has simply ran with it ever since.  

After a stellar month of April, Bruce Bochy and company appeared to have made the perfect decision. But an up and down month of May caused many to wonder if Heston's star had begun to fade. Prior to Tuesday's game, Heston had allowed 16 earned runs in his last 18 innings pitched as his ERA on the year spiked to 4.29. With all that in his rear-view, Heston came out guns blazing at Citi Field as the Giants looked to improve to their NL-best 17th win on the road this season. Though they would end up winning the game, 5-0, it was Heston who stole the show as he twirled the 17th no-hitter in Giants franchise history. One way to describe Heston's feat -- pure dominance. Just how on was Heston you ask? Of the 27 outs recorded, only two came through he air and left the infield as Heston threw first-pitch strikes to 16 of the batters he faced and surrendered only four three-ball counts as he tallied 11 strikeouts and didn't allow a single walk. Heston's only blemish would come in the hit batsman department as he allowed only three men to reach base, all of which were hit by a pitch including back-to-back batters in the fourth inning. The last of which to leadoff the ninth.
He would follow that up by striking out the side in the ninth as all three batters were caught looking, the first time a no-hitter had ended in three consecutive strikeouts since Hall of Famer Sandy Koufax of the Dodgers did it back in the 1960's, only Koufax's were of the swinging variety. After recording the final out, catcher Buster Posey met Heston halfway and had a big hug waiting for his pitcher. Heston needed only 110-pitches in the feat and became the first rookie to toss a no-hitter since Boston's Clay Buccholtz in 2007. Of the 17 no-no's in Giants franchise history, only two others were thrown by rookies as Christy Mathewson (1901) and Jeff Tesreau (1912) accomplished the others. Heston's bid for history made it four consecutive seasons in which a Giants pitcher has threw a no-hitter with Tim Lincecum accomplishing the feat in each of the past two seasons and Matt Cain doing so back in 2012 when he completed a perfect game. The Giants join only the archrival Dodgers to have accomplished four consecutive seasons with a no-hitter as Koufax repeated the feat from 1962 to 1965. Something Heston can say he did that Koufax can't, however, is that he became the first pitcher since 1914 to have two of his first 15 career starts be complete games with at least 10 K's and no more than two hits allowed. 

Just how good of a day was it for Heston? He also helped his own cause in the batters box, collecting two hits and driving in the first two runs of his career. With the win, Heston improved to 6-4 on the year and saw his ERA dip under four as it currently sits at a respectable 3.77. While Heston's improbable journey continues, here's to hoping those ugly outings that usually follow up the good ones are a thing of the past. Congratulations, Heston & Go Giants! 

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Monday, June 1, 2015

Giants Month in Review: May

With the San Francisco Giants off to a slow start in the opening month of April, the G-Men finally resembled a reigning World Series champion team in the month of May. Baseball's second calendar month saw the Giants win the first five games of the month, including a 3-game sweep of the Angels before taking 2 of 3 versus the San Diego Padres as San Francisco finally returned to and eventually surpassed the .500 mark for the first time since the team got off to their 3-1 start to the season. With the Miami Marlins in town for a four-game set at AT&T Park where they've fared well as the visiting team, boasting a record of 14-4 on the road vs SF since 2010 entering the series, the two teams would split by taking two games apiece.

Following a successful 10-game home stand in which the Giants went 7-3, Bruce Bochy's ball club took to the road where they met with the hottest team in the American League -- the Houston Astros. In town for only two games, the Giants and 'Stros would split the series as San Francisco took the series opener by a Final of 8-1 behind rookie hurler Chris Heston. Heston, who was without a doubt the highlight of April for the orange and black, had a more pedestrian month of May, but still performed well in a number of starts, including a gem versus Houston in which he allowed only 1 run on 2 hits and no walks while going the distance. Heston became just one of two Giants rookies since 1900 to pitch a complete-game while striking out 10 and allowing two or fewer base runners. Though Heston's ERA ballooned from 2.77 in the month of April to 4.58 in May, translating to a respectable 3.82 ERA overall, he did improve his record to 5-3 after logging 3 wins and 1 loss. For the month of May, it was pitcher Ryan Vogelsong who shined brightest as he compiled 4 wins in the month while logging a minuscule 1.14 ERA. 
The road trip would conclude with a 4-game stop in Cincinnati where the bats would awaken just in time for the arrival of Hunter Pence. After dropping the series-opener, the Giants would account for their first double-digit performance of the season with a 10-2 shellacking in Game 2. The Giants would then put up double-digit runs in consecutive games for the first time since 2012 with an 11-run outburst the following day, tagging Reds starter Mike Leake for a career-high 9 earned runs in route to an 11-2 victory. The series finale would be a much closer ballgame but still ended with a familiar result as the Giants came away with the 9-8 win to take 3 of 4 at the site of this year's MLB All-Star Game. It would be a memorable series for two Giants in particular as both Brandon Belt and Hunter Pence were most likely sad to leave the hitter-friendly Great American Ballpark when it was time to head home. With Hunter Pence making his season debut in Game 3 of the series, recording a single, double and a walk while scoring three runs, he fared just as well at the plate in the series finale by going 2-for-5 with a pair of RBIs and logging his first home run of the season. As for Brandon Belt, the Giants first baseman saw his batting average jump from .271 to .321 by collecting 9 hits, 8 runs, 7 RBI and homering in three consecutive games after entering the series without a single homer on the year.

With San Francisco returning Home for a brief three-game series with the Dodgers, the Giants were given an opportunity to chip away at their archrivals grasp on the division lead. And with a three-game sweep for the second time in as many series' at Home this season vs. L.A., the Giants were able to do just that, with all three wins coming in shutout fashion. Despite the many meetings between both clubs throughout their storied history, it would mark only the second time in franchise history that the G-Men swept a series versus their bitter rivals without allowing a single run. The other occurrence was in June 25-27 of 2012. The series finale would feature a match up between two of the game's best pitchers as Madison Bumgarner squared off against Clayton Kershaw for a second time this season with Kershaw being outdueled both times. The second time around, however, Bumgarner would help his own cause, launching a solo homer to left. It would be the first home run allowed by Kershaw to an opposing pitcher in his career.
After hitting the road to play four games in Colorado which included a makeup game that was rained out on April 26, the Giants took Games 1 and 2 to improve their season-best winning-streak to 8 games. They would go on to lose the next two games, however, splitting the series and snapping their win streak before paying the Milwaukee Brewers a visit whom they swept in a three-game set to cap off their road trip. With a chance to finish the month strong at Home, the G-Men welcomed the visiting Atlanta Braves for a four game set. With a 7-0 victory in the series opener, the Giants pitched their fourth straight shutout at AT&T Park and improved their consecutive Home scoreless innings streak to 37 innings. Though the streak would come to an end in the 3rd inning of Game 2, the Giants were able to tally 39 consecutive scoreless innings at Home which matched a franchise record. And though they would go on to take the first two games against the Braves before falling in Game 3, they would head into the 9th inning of the series finale with a 5-3 lead and a chance to take three of four from visiting Atlanta. Prior to Sunday, in the 25 games the Giants entered the 9th inning while holding a lead, they came out victorious in all 25 meetings. But on this day, they wouldn't be so lucky.

And had it not been for an error by Brandon Crawford with 1-out in the 9th on a routine play that we've seen him make a thousand times with a chance to seal the win with an inning-ending double play ball, the Giants would be sitting atop the division in first place at the start of June. Instead, the Braves tagged closer Santiago Casilla for four runs in the frame (3 earned), taking a 7-5 lead which they would go on to win by. But that's nothing to scoff at considering Crawford leads the team in RBI's with 37, seven more than the next closest player in Buster Posey and is a key reason in the Giants' resurgence. He also has 7 home runs which only trails Posey's 8. Despite the disappointing loss, the Giants finished the month of May by going 21-9 to improve their overall record to 30-22 as they currently sit a 1/2 game behind the Dodgers. The Giants' 21-9 record in May marks the franchise's best month since a 21-10 finish in August of 1968. With Hunter Pence healthy once again and Brandon Belt contributing at the plate, things have finally begun to click for a Giants team that hopes to continue their winning ways into the month of June. The reigning World Series champs will be tested early on in the new month as they get set to host the hottest team in the National League when the (26-24) Pittsburgh Pirates, winners of 8 of their last 10 games, stop in for a three game series. 

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Monday, May 18, 2015

Niners' Cowboy rides off into Retirement

If there's one thing we've learned about 49er players retiring, it's that they do so in droves. At least this year they have. After the sudden retirement of linebackers Patrick Willis and Chris Borland, it was learned on Monday afternoon that the team would be without 5-time Pro Bowl defensive end Justin Smith who informed the team of his decision to retire as the Niners prepare for the 2015 season without yet another key cog on defense. Unlike the retirements of Willis and Borland which caught many by surprise considering Willis just recently celebrated his 30th birthday and Borland had only one season under his belt coming off his rookie campaign, there has been speculation regarding Smith possibly stepping away from the game of football since the start of the offseason. Smith, a former first round pick selected fourth overall out of the University of Missouri in 2001, even gave the team a date which he would announce his decision by. The front-office allowed the 35-year old Smith to take as much time as he needed and while it wasn't the answer they were hoping to hear, it was one they had anticipated. 

That proof lies in the team's draft habits which saw the 49ers select 10 defensive linemen in the draft since 2011, including 2015 first round pick Arik Armstead out of Oregon. Not to mention the signing of free-agent Darnell Dockett this offseason. Though it was an injury which ultimately led to Smith's decision to hang 'em up, describing his left shoulder as unresponsive, Smith brought his lunch pail and tools to the yard every day and came ready to play while missing only three games throughout a 14 year career split between the 49ers and Cincinnati Bengals. Like Willis, Smith was a defensive leader for the 49er defense which has ranked among the top defenses in the league over the past several seasons. First year head coach Jim Tomsula who built quite the relationship with Smith while serving as the team's defensive line coach for all of Smith's seven seasons with the team, hopes the rebuilding process will be a swift one now that a number of the team's key contributors on defense from the past few years are gone. Something that may be worth keeping an eye on with Smith now out the door, is how his absence will effect Aldon Smith. 
When on the field playing side by side, the tandem of Aldon and Justin who were often referred to as "the Smith brothers" were a dominant force in San Francisco's D-Line. Their productivity often depended on one another and with the elder Smith no longer in the picture, it'll be interesting to see if there's any drop off in Aldon's numbers. Defensive coordinator Eric Mangini who's in his first year at the helm of the defense, surely hopes that won't be the case. Smith joins the ever-expanding list of players from last year's 49er defense which won't be back with the team in 2015. Among those players are -- Perrish Cox, Ray McDonald, Chris Culliver, Dan Skuta, the aforementioned Chris Borland and Patrick Willis and now the one they call "Cowboy." And like any cowboy, this one will ride off into the sunset, bidding a farewell to the game he loved and the game we all enjoyed watching him play, even if his helmet and pads were two sizes too small.

Smith was a 5-time Pro Bowler who totaled 880 tackles and 87 career sacks while being named an All-Pro three times over an impressive 14-year career. Whether or not he'll garner enough votes to be enshrined into the Football Hall of Fame is a crapshoot at this point, but I won't be surprised in the least bit if the 49ers honor him this upcoming season, albeit a banner or plaque with his name and number on it to hang at the team's shiny new home of Levi's Stadium.

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