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Giants Roundup

No more spilt milk, Part 3

It's tough rooting for bad baseball teams.

If there's one point I've tried to communicate through this space week after week, it's that the Giants are not a playoff team. Forget the games-back column. Making up even a small number of games is something bad teams don't do.

Yet despite the mantra, I found myself doing what only masochists should do: believe in the Giants. With the call up of young fireballer Matt Cain and the news of Barry Bonds' imminent return, even those who wouldn't call a full glass of water half-full had to see a flicker of light somewhere in their field of vision. So like any good fan, I made sure that the hours between 7:15 and 10:15 on Tuesday evening were set aside to see the team take the next step forward.

Three hours later, I was cursing myself out for my unfounded optimism. The Giants took the lead in the top of the 8th frame, only to bring in LaTroy Hawkins in the bottom of the 8th. And as a Cubs fan who sat through a year and a half of Hawkins coughing up leads every time he showed his face in a meaningful game, I saw the writing on the wall. As expected, Hawkins surrendered the lead.

The Giants had a chance to right the ship in the 10th though, when they put men on first and third with just one out. But J.T. Snow choked and Moises Alou couldn't do any better.

So Jeff Kent decided enough was enough and ended things with a walk-off homer a few minutes later. Such is life for baseball fans unlucky enough to have grown up in our city on the bay -- at least for the last 50-odd years….

Mr. Cain gives everyone something to be excited about, but it's still only been two starts, so a bit more time is needed before we can really know if the Giants have something. So we'll take this time to look at the bullpen, and save the rotation for a week from now.

For a change, I'll actually have some nice things to say.

Closer: Armando Benitez
He started the year by posting a 5.79 ERA with two blown saves in his first nine appearances. Then he followed that up by ripping every muscle on the back of his right thigh while making the strenuous journey from the pitchers mound to first base. And there you have it: the Giants bullpen ace for 2006.

In all seriousness though, Benitez seems to have regained the form that characterized his last five years. Since returning from the DL, he's recorded eight saves in eight opportunities and has dropped his ERA a full two runs. Just as important, he has 11 strikeouts during this stretch, meaning that Benitez is once again overpowering hitters. This should be a position of strength for the ballclub next season.

Setup Man: LaTroy Hawkins
Admittedly, this is a hunch and it may actually be Tyler Walker in this spot. But Felipe Alou continued to use Hawkins in crucial situations even when he's was getting pounded from one foul pole to another. Most have probably repressed the memories of that first week after Hawkins arrived from Chicago, so let me refresh: four appearances, three innings pitched, seven earned runs and a whole lot of laughter at Wrigley Field.

Since then, Hawkins has actually pitched well. And while his 1.90 ERA in the months of July and August are nothing to scoff at, I'd still take my chances letting the other team hit off a tee than give this guy the ball with a one-run lead in a pennant race. Tyler Walker isn't exactly Goose Gossage, well that is unless you're comparing him to Hawkins.

Rest of the Best: Scott Munter, Scott Eyre, Jack Taschner, Tyler Walker, Jeremy Accardo
Compliments are not my specialty, so for me to hand one out to Munter, a guy with 11 strikeouts and 12 walks, is strange indeed. On the other hand, it's not so surprising when you consider he induces 3.5 times as many ground balls as fly balls and that he's only allowed one home run in more than 39 innings. The walk rate isn't excessive but when you basically throw one pitch, your control of it should be pretty good. If he can just cut back a little on the free passes, the Giants could have something here.

Fans who have followed the Giants for the entire year have to be wondering why Eyre has not been given the chance to close games. And unless every other fan is brain dead, you are not alone. Eyre has been the most dominant pitcher in the bullpen from the first day of the season. In all honesty, I think managers are reluctant to make a southpaw a closer. Perhaps, in the backs of their minds, they don't think they can get right-handed batters out in crucial situations. Well Eyre can. Lefties hit .181 against him; righties hit .179. And just like Munter, Eyre does not give up the long ball -- nearly 60 innings of work and just two home runs. The one question I do have for Eyre is this: How can a guy diagnosed with ADD have fishing as his favorite sport?

Whether Taschner will be with the big club next year probably depends on how well he performs in spring training. It's silly for managers to award roster spots for a couple of good weeks in Arizona over an entire season of minor league baseball, but that's the reality. Taschner's been absolutely dominant between Fresno and the big club and probably should have been called up a few months ago. His combined line for 2005 is 75 strikeouts in 62 innings with an ERA under 2.00. He's a guy you should root for too since he's been stricken with every arm problem known to modern medical science since being drafted in 1999.

While his 22 saves in 26 save opportunities gives the appearance that Walker filled in admirably for Benitez in the closer role, it's actually an indication of how easy closing games can be. Of his 22 saves, only seven of them came in situations where he needed to preserve a one-run lead. And when you look at his other stats, it points to the same conclusion. Batters reached base 36% of the time when facing Walker, posted a robust .465 slugging percentage against him, and batted .291. For reference, the league averages are .331, .415 and .263 respectively.

Besides Walker, Accardo is the player whose outlook is shakiest for the following season. But even though he's been shaky with the big club, he had a nice year in the minors. In 42 innings split between Norwich and Fresno, Accardo's ERA was a sterling 1.73. Couple that with a 45/11 strikeout-walk ration and you have the makings of a major league hurler. While he hasn't maintained that level of performance in San Francisco, his control has remained good and his home run rate has not ballooned. And most importantly, he's only 23 which means he should continue to improve.

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