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Saturday, July 30, 2011
Dueling retreads highlight Giants' need

By Charlie Saponara


It did not take long for the newly acquired Carlos Beltran to help the San Francisco Giants -- it started on Friday night, in his second game. Beltran's first-inning single put the Giants on the board right out of the gates, but surprise story Ryan Vogelsong struggled in the bottom half. Vogelsong gave up a leadoff single to Drew Stubbs, then a double by Fred Lewis. Then Vogelsong fell behind 3-0 to Joey Votto, who was intentionally walked on the fourth pitch. A Brandon Phillips sacrifice fly and Jay Bruce single later gave the Reds 2-1 lead after one inning. Vogelsong settled down after that, but was clearly not as sharp as he had been in his previous outing.

While Vogelsong has certainly been a fantastic storyline so far this season, his recent performances are a cause for some concern. Control and command had been a staple of his early-season success, but in his past 36 1/3 innings pitched, he has allowed 18 walks to 22 strikeouts. Coming into Friday's game, Vogelsong was a pitcher sporting a sparkling 2.10 ERA, but a significant amount of his peripheral numbers suggest that a regression was or is forthcoming. His 2.2 K/BB rate on the year is pretty much league average, and both his BABIP (.269) and strand rate (85.5 percent) are far more favorable than the league average. It's not as if Vogelsong excels at missing bats (84 percent contact rate) or limits free passes (giving three per nine). In other words, there is a good chance that his numbers down the stretch begin to fade a bit. That being said, even if regression does indeed catch up to Vogelsong, what he has done to this point has been a huge lift for the offensively challenged Giants.

Alternating turns on the mound with Vogelsong was Dontrelle Willis, who is quickly becoming his own captivating storyline for the Reds. Willis' rise to glory and fade to almost complete obscurity have been well documented. He has faced challenges both with his skills and within his own mind. The Reds continued the trend of teams willing to give him another chance and, so far, he's paying them back. The Giants actually had Willis at Triple-A for five games last season. Willis went six innings on Friday, allowing two earned runs on six hits while striking out three and walking two, lowering his ERA to 3.52. Like Vogelsong, Willis' performance was underwhelming, but generally positive. In his 23 innings with the big club, Willis has 15 strikeout to 10 unintentional walks, not exactly numbers one would want to embrace. However, it is an encouraging sign that he's not just walking batters left and right, as he has done over the past few years. While it would be a reach to expect Willis to hold an ERA below four for the rest of the season, his comeback is a story that should probably garner more attention. He could have easily given up on his career a long time ago, but he continues to exhibit a burning passion for the game. You have to love that.

The Reds' chances of contention seem to be on their last leg. Six and a half games behind the first-place Brewers heading into Friday's action, it may be time for the Reds to try and swing a few last-minute trade deadline deals. One of those possible trade pieces, Ramon Hernandez, would fit tremendously well in San Francisco. Since the loss of Buster Posey, the Giants have received very little offensive production from the combination of Eli Whiteside and Chris Stewart behind the plate. For a season and a half now, Hernandez has hit above .300 and sports an OBP above .360. His .371 wOBA is the third best of any catcher in baseball this season (minimum 200 plate appearances). Given that the Giants refuse to let Brandon Belt play, they should probably look into adding at least one more bat to go along with Beltran. Defensively, Hernandez has thrown out 38 percent of would-be base stealers this season, which is better than Whiteside's 23 percent caught stealing rate.

As Friday night’s game continued to grind on into the 13th inning, the Giants' strengths and weaknesses were once again on display. The bullpen -- up until closer Brian Wilson imploded in the 13th -- was lights-out, allowing only three hits and two walks in six innings of combined work. Meanwhile, the offense struggled to break though. Beltran led off in the top of the 10th, but struck out swinging on his way to a 1-for-5 night with three Ks. Pablo Sandoval followed with a single, which was followed by a Cody Ross popout and an Aubrey Huff single, but that only brought Whiteside to the plate. Even after Francisco Cordero unleashed a wild pitch that sent Sandoval to third, even after Cordero walked Whiteside to load the bases, Mike Fontenot couldn't capitalize. The Giants would not come across a better opportunity the rest of the way.

Sooner or later, Beltran will start cranking out hits in bunches for the Giants, but clearly the addition of at least one more bat in that lineup would go a long way. In the case of Belt, that bat might very well be on the bench right now, but until he gets to play everyday, we'll never know whether he can be to the 2011 Giants what Posey was to the 2010 team. Fortunately for the Giants, the top half of their rotation remains top-notch, which might still be enough to fend off the pushing Arizona Diamondbacks and put them back into the postseason.

PHOTO OF THE DAY
Juan Pierre
Juan Pierre kicks up some dirt to score, just the way Chicago likes its offense.
Charlie Saponara writes for Red Sox SweetSpot network blog, "Fire Brand of the AL." You can find all of his writing adventures by following on Twitter.